Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Getting Carried Away

Pulau Weh’s diving is famous for its raging currents, which can change direction quicker than most girls change their handbags. Arus Paleh is one of the more renowned dives here, its name in Sumatran translating as Bastard Current; not being averse to the odd expletive, I liked the sound of this one.

Yudi gave us a sagely dive briefing, his earnest warnings countered by toothy grins and pulled cheeky faces. It’s hard to take him seriously, it really is. We had a plan, and knew what to do in the case of us getting dragged away from the dive site by the flow of water from the West. And in we went. The currents were moderate, and Iain shrugged at me…a bit of a disappointment. But you can’t rely on Nature to do what you want, and it always makes me laugh when divers complain of things like shitty visibility underwater. What do you want, Sonny Jim…your money back? Hilarious.

So we didn’t complain (a first for me), and it was two more dives on this site before we got what we bargained for…and then some. Arus Paleh is a spot between two tiny islands off the coast of Weh, and is set around a small, spiky pinnacle of rock. At certain times of day, the water rushes through this point at incredible speeds. When we arrived for this dive, it was raging: excellent. We jumped in, and quickly made our way to the bottom. Sheltering as close to the bottom as possible, we moved from rock to rock in the face of a strong current. Kicking hard against it as we fought for the next objective, it was hard work, and I was going through my air like cold beer. We tried several times to get over the ridge and down into the next valley, and it was absolutely impossible. Iain and I were laughing into our regs as we hung onto rocks for dear life; let go here, and by the time you surface, you could be a few miles away. This happened a few years ago at the shop, when they lost two divers; as night fell, the boatmen simply gave up and went home. After a bollocking by the boss, they went out at dawn, and found them alive but shaken up, drifting at sea. A bit dodgy, but I suppose the money they saved on accommodation for the evening could have gone towards another dive? I shouldn’t laugh. But I do.

I managed to make the top of another smaller ridge, and was cowering behind a huge boulder, getting my breath back and marvelling at the schools of fish nonchalantly swimming against these currents in search of food. A plateau streched out below me, sea fans waving in the face of this ocean might, the rocks sloping up to the next island; the cause of this liquid bottleneck. I popped my head over the top of the boulder. The current rushed past my ears like the fierce wind on a hilltop, those that fill your head and cut out all other sound, the warm water buffeting my face. It’s a rush to feel that kind of power, and actually feel the roar of the sea envelop you. As I turned, coming back to the present after being lost in my own thoughts, I saw my companions signalling we were making a move. I stayed a moment or two longer, enjoying the feeling of solitude, clenching my teeth on the mouthpiece of my regulator to prevent the sea ripping it from my mouth…one hand holding my mask as I felt the water tugging it from my face like some aquatic poltergeist.

Diving is meditation. Even in the face of hazardous nature, you feel free. It’s something to do with the feeling of weightlessness, the lack of man-made sound, the immediacy of the moment. People take to diving to escape. Whatever problems you may have on the surface, these are rearely dwelt upon below it; you forget all else. My mentor, Gerd Schulte, loves wrecks for this reason. We’ve both dived them alone. As contemplation goes, nothing beats drifting slowly through a submerged hulk and imagining its last moments, and those who perished as it did so. they don't call it The Cruel Sea for nothing.

We had another dive nearby a few days later. This time, the current was even worse. I’d jumped in too soon, and the boat had to come round and pick me up. The guide said he hadn’t said to go just yet. I’d just heard “We’ll enter the water here” and that was good enough for me. You have to make a pillock of yourself now and again, though.

Myself and Iain were diving with Carine, a French woman my age, who was taking a leisurely Divemaster course for the inclusive diving. A bit too leisurely for my liking, but more on that later. We jumped in and, as we made our way to the bottom, it became apparent that this was going to be somewhat of a challenge. Iain became separated from us, out of sight within seconds; and as myself and Carine tried to move behind some boulders for shelter, the current had us. Torn from our grip on the rocks, we were ushered out to see rapidly, the slope of the island disappearing deeper and deeper below us as we fought to stay together. Quickly, the sight of the bottom was gone, and we were out in blue water. Ascending to the surface, Carine began panicking about Iain. I told her not to worry, Grumpy is a good instructor, has lots of experience, and can look after himself. The boat picked us up, and minutes later Iain was safely back on board, too. We shared a laugh at the impossible dive we’d just attempted: I reckoned we needed a drink after that. A few days later, we were to make a dive that would make these two days pale into insignificance.

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