As part of the application process for every volunteering project I chose, I had to write a short piece on why I should be considered for that project. Why a Surrey interior designer could add value to a turtle conservation project was a tough one to answer, so I hurriedly flicked through some David Attenborough documentaries on YouTube before replying. I also had to state that I was a competent swimmer (which I am) and a competent snorkeler (which I am not). Truth is, I had never actually been snorkeling until I arrived here.
When I was staying in the luxury resort a few weeks ago, I hung around the watersports centre until a very attractive and tanned Australian instructor walked in. ‘Yippee’ I thought, and immediately signed up for a one hour private lesson. I have to say that when Mr Fit glided into the water and start swishing around, I mastered de-fogging my mask and breathing through a snorkel very quickly. And Wow! As soon as I put my head down I could have been on the set of ‘Finding Nemo.’ Clownfish joked around, iridescent parrotfish flickered past and angelfish hovered. The instructor was amazing. He kept diving and picking up creatures from the coral reef, including sea cucumbers and giant sea slugs, for me to inspect and touch. At one point he picked up a puffer fish. I had it in the back of my head that this was exceptionally poisonous, but I stroked its rubber hedgehog-like spines anyway. I then saw a spectacular multicoloured fish with a large black dorsal fin. I pointed at it, excitedly, and started swimming towards it, and was yanked to the surface most unceremoniously by Aussie Flippers. ‘Sorry,’ he said ‘but that’s a triggerfish, one of the few aggressive species around here, and it could take a big chunk out of your leg if it wanted to.’ Trust me…
When I came to work at the Atoll Marine Centre the team went for a snorkel after my first shift. ‘Done much snorkeling before then Jayne?’ I was asked. To which I replied ‘Well, I have done a bit.’ I didn’t elucidate that it was a microscopic bit… Everyone nimbly skipped over the slimy boulders on the jetty and slipped into the water, whilst I was still trying to clamber over the rocks on my hands and knees, and keep my flip flops on, at the same time. Sean, the lovely Australian marine biologist, politely waited for me and kindly said ‘that was a very graceful entry’ as I belly-flopped into the harbour. I negotiated snorkel and mask and was doing some pretty speedy breast stroke to catch up with the group when someone shouted ‘SHARK!’ My first reaction, which I don’t think was an unnatural one, was to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, and was aghast when all the others started swimming towards it. I decided to pretend to swim, whilst treading water, with the theme tune from ‘Jaws’ resonating in my head. Fortunately the shark scooted off pretty quickly, and we all had limbs intact as we headed back to shore. The gang sprung out of the water and onto the rocks with such ease, whilst I kept losing my footing and sliding around like a beached whale. Then came the words I did not want to hear ‘Jayne, it might help if you took your flippers OFF before you try and get out…’ At that point I considered drowning myself to avoid any further embarrassment. Instead I de-flippered and a kind young man hauled me out. This unfortunate episode has not been mentioned again, as the group are such polite and tactful individuals. If my kids had seen this, I would have been reminded of it constantly for the next 25 years.
As they say, practice makes perfect… I can now put my mask and fins (correct term for flippers) on, and join in the group snorkeling trips, without looking like a complete amateur. Whilst the others are mesmerized by the underwater beauty of the Indian Ocean I am looking out for triggerfish, sharks, lionfish, sting rays and anything else that could kill me. If I manage to avoid all of these, then it has been a good trip.