The Scene of the crime

After weeks of flawless sunshine, it resumed bucketing (biblical winds, surfers hanging ten in bird baths, etc.) the night before the repeated last day of my Open Water Course. The first course was aborted after my instructor, a man who made Hannibal Lecter look like Mike Brady, left me alone in scaly grey chop for twenty or so minutes which is when I happily finned my way straight into headland surf, found myself smashed against rocks, lost my reg, started choking, and almost drowned.

My new instructor, Vladimir Zoloft, was the most charming man in the known universe, and skillfully dealt with my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Worried that said PTSD would cause me to chew through air in a medium tank, he decided I should wear a man-sized affair. I stared at the thing and gulped. The return of Rocket Man? Once geared, I felt as if I had Godzilla's suppository strapped to my back. The DIN valve was so high it clacked against the crown of my head; the instrument weighed close to thirteen tons; the base was so low that I could suspend myself in mid-air by placing it on the ground and lifting my spatchcock legs.

It would, in fact, be more accurate to say that I had been strapped to the tank.

In the interests of good sportsmanship, I told Vlad that the tank was a tad large but that I B marine jock to the core! die, bespectacled wimp literary nerds! - could handle it. I continued telling similarly desperate lies until the end of the second dive when, breathing like a mule with advanced emphysema, I slowly crawled out of the water on all fours and then simply stopped. Tide in, tide out. My plaits dripped plink! into rockpools. I wanted to stay in that position forever, a human missile mount. My mind was marmalade.

"What's wrong?" The Divemaster asked.

I slowly turned and stared at his fins. "If I move another inch my back will snap like a freshly baked pretzel and I'll be rendered quadriplegic", I wanted to scream, but instead replied with the requisite manly grunt.

"Oh, stop making such a meal of it!" The Divemaster amiably bellowed.

Unable to properly turn my head because the tank's weight had given me crick-neck, I again stared at his fins, this time with very slitty eyes. I was tempted to yank one of his Navy Seal Stealth-Bomber wonderflippers so that he would slip, fall backwards, and crack his head against the barnacled rock but instead, I inhaled and resumed crawling, feeling not unlike the first amphibian. Admittedly, The Divemaster had good reason to be peeved: Vlad had assigned him the dud project of me. (Yes, The Divemaster later said about my near-phobic reaction to descent, "I've always loved going for a swim with my tank on.")

Added to my Land-of-the-Giants tank was the Colossus-of-Rhodes BCD: within its shadowed harbour, I helplessly bobbed. "Your BC's too big", The Divemaster remarked. I would have acknowledged the veracity of his statement but by this stage, my head had slipped down into the BC's neck like a garlic clove into a gutted chicken.

We began to descend. It was like diving through peanut butter. Whilst my fellow students landed, wildly kicking, on each other's heads and then lost their buddies in the peanut butter gloaming, I remained suspended mid-way, heart thudding, battling incipient claustrophobia. The Divemaster grasped my hand. Comforted by this gesture, I managed to descend. We slowly landed on the bottom, whereupon the current suddenly knocked me into his arms and we found ourselves mask-to-mask, my legs wrapped around his waist. The incongruity of this situation was not lost on either of us. I struggled to detach my groin from his and then crashed twice into the student to my left, who ruefully rubbed the side of his head. The expression in The Divemaster's eyes was agonized.

Determined to succeed, I breathed as slowly as I could without succumbing to the usual lung-expansion-injury paranoia and followed The Divemaster into a universe of kelp. Extremely slimy kelp. The Divemaster seemed quite happy to plunge into this gloomy gelatinous underworld, but it can be said that I was less so. As my legs dangled in the weeds, I could not help fearing I was finning fissures in rotting corpses. A squelching bed of human mulch: images of bloated blue faces with eel-like tongues assailed me.

It then occurred to me that there was no hand signal for panic. The Divemaster did not understand when I pointed to the kelp, showed him the whites of my eyes, pointed to my stomach and then put my thumbs together, side-by-side, as I made fluttering movements with my fingers. I vigorously repeated the gesture. He still did not understand. I grabbed his slate. "I have butterflies in my stomach because I'm scared of the kelp. It's very slimy and there might be rotting corpses in it", I scrawled. He slowly read my words. I wiggled my eyebrows, indicating that I was a perfectly normal person and that this was a perfectly normal fear, which is why we should ascend. NOW.

We ascended. I inflated my BCD and pulled the reg from my mouth. "Okay", I authoritatively said, "we really should get all our gestures worked out". Visibly pained, the Divemaster nodded. We then ran through a few of the gestures. "What's the hand signal for panic?" I suddenly asked. He replied that there was no signal for panic. "Well," I suggested, "how about this?" And began wildly rolling my eyes, waggling my head like a metronome, and turning an invisible circle beside my temple.

He somehow made it through the dive without losing his mind.

Later in the day, Vlad asked us to skin dive, forage, and bring him an item of interest. My fellow students emerged with:

And I rose from the depths, triumphantly brandishing an extremely small piece of kelp.

During the second dive, I refrained from any attempt at aptitude and simply held onto The Divemaster's BCD with a grip so strong only a dive knife could have prised my fingers from the rings. It was in this fashion that I began to enjoy drifting through the peanut butter gloaming, skull-shriveling thermocline and all. He patiently dragged me around the ocean floor. I felt weightless, protected, and free to concentrate upon my main task - that is to say, not dying. As he regularly referred to his compass, I assumed he knew where we were going and even if he didn't, figured that it had to be better than my panicked grappling for and reading of my alternate second stage (The compass! It's gone bright yellow! I can't see the arrow pointing North! We're going to DIE!)

After what seemed like light years, we ascended. "Where are you going?" I cried when I saw him surface a number of feet away. He tearfully whispered that I should just hold onto the dive flag. I frantically finned my way towards said flag and clung to it as ardently as an octopus. (Instructed to find the flag underwater, two of my fellow students later reported finding it only to have it start magically hopping all over the sea bed as I further wrapped myself around it on the surface.) Another student appeared beside me. Almost as inept as I was, she inflated her BCD, removed her reg, and wailed: "I can't feel my legs!" Earlier on, she had been unable to feel her face, so I assumed that she simply had some bizarre problem that prevented her brain from registering the presence of other parts of her body. "Maybe you were an amputee in a former life", I helpfully suggested.

Vlad surfaced and, once the rest of the class had crawled onto land, helped me through underwater mask removal. I descended a metre, lifted the skirt, allowed the peanut butter to flood my mask, and coughed into my reg as salt water entered my nasal passage and scalded my throat. Snorting like a horse, I opened my eyes only to discover that the mask was still half-full. My nostrils flared with outrage. I madly blew the remaining water out of my mask, by which point Vlad was laughing so hard he almost choked. "Congratulations, diver!" he shouted, extending a pruny white hand. I looked around. "Me?" I asked, genuinely amazed. Vlad nodded. "You mean I passed?" I wailed.

And burst into rapturous tears.

Antonella Gambotto's latest book is The Eclipse. She can be reached through

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Underwater Card 2