Thursday, 22 September 2011

Brainfreeze

DESPITE BEING FOREWARNED by our dive guide, the temperature of the water on our check dive was a shock to the system after the last three years of warm-water diving; what the old hands at my BSAC diving club in England refer to as Holiday Diving. Those divers don't tend to give much respect to the likes of me who have yet to sink into the UK's more bracing depths. I hope to command a modicum more when I brave the wrecks of Scapa Flow in September 2012; for now I accept the good-natured ribbing.

The Galápagos Islands are subject to three major currents: the Cromwell from the West, the Humboldt current which delivers the coldest water up from southernmost Peru, and El Niño which brings warmer waters down from Panamá. Of these three, the Humboldt is the richest in nutrients, and therefore attracts more wildlife to the area. Fifteen minutes into this dive and it was the Humboldt Current which was on my mind; quite literally, as it seemed to be penetrating the bone of my skull and affecting my concentration.

We'd spent a bizarre few minutes at the beginning of the dive demonstrating to our guide for the week, El Camarron, that we were all able to retrieve a lost regulator 2nd stage (the mouthpiece a diver breathes from) with a sweep of the arm, locating the hose and therefore continuing breathing...and also that we knew how to clear a partially-flooded mask by exhaling through the nose. These are the basic skills first learned on the PADI Open Water course; as we were all Divemasters and Instructors, it was strange that he needed the reassurance that we could perform these basic skills. It appeared everyone was thinking the same thing, as the divers exchanged puzzled glances.

Camarron appeared satisfied with our performance, thankfully; we swam off across a rocky site and descended a little deeper. There are no reef systems on these islands, but divers come here for the large pelagic (ocean-going) creatures, not pretty fauna. The group moved slowly, and the visibilty was barely 10 metres. Stefano and myself drifted a short distance ahead of the guide, and we hovered in mid-water while we waited for the stragglers to catch up. These initial dives are known as Check or Shakedown dives where divers re-familiarise themselves with kit they may not have used in a while, or even just get comfortable with diving again after being out of the water for a period of time. For Stefano, Maxy and myself it felt like it was going to be a long dive for nothing: we'd been underwater daily for two months in Honduras.

The majority of the group were very well-off Brasilians, with top-level gear including drysuits; it was unlikely they'd feel the cold. Two young American students made up the numbers along with our trio. The latinos were messing around with what was obviously new gear, and taking their time. I was in a 5mm wetsuit but, not wearing a hood, I was losing 50% of my bodyheat. My Italian friend, lacking my body fat percentage and wearing a looser-fitting 3mm suit, was suffering more. My head was beginning to ache, and I estimated it'd be a mere 20 minutes before I'd have to head for the surface and the warmth of fading sunlight. I caught his eye, and rubbed my hands on my upper arms to ask him Are you cold, too? He rubbed his arms vigourously, hunching his shoulders into himself and giving me a pained look, eyes closed: I'm bloody freezing. I nodded and turned away, regarding the green water to my left and scanning the rocks for signs of life; I was bored.

Loud, rapid, metallic clanging woke me from my torpor: Camarron wanted our attention. We all turned, and I saw the stocky guide pointing directly at me. For a split-second I assumed he was annoyed I'd drifted too far ahead of the group, and away from the rocks to our left? But I turned away as he continued pointing frantically, looking to the depths. I exhaled forcefully in shock, my head flinching back away from the sea lion's face that was a foot or two away from mine. As my bubbles shot upward, he wheeled away in a backwards somersault...but not before he'd looked me straight in the eye, close enough for me to count his whiskers and admire his dimpled, black Labrador's nose: challenging me. Quickly over coming my fright, I looked back at the group, bubbles of laughter escaping my regulator. Camarron pointed again. The sea lion had doubled back from the gloom and raced right up to me, flippers effortlessly guiding him through the water with a grace unconnected to their flabby clumsiness on land. This time he came closer, baring his dirty brown teeth right in my face and mockingly blowing bubbles of air through his nostrils before skimming away and buzzing another diver. He was having the time of his life with these mysterious, clumsy black-clad creatures. I was astounded as I watched Camarron perform barrel-rolls, the mammal copying him before repeating the somersaults of another diver. A further sealion joined the fun; he later estimated them to be juvenile males.

For a further twenty minutes they toyed with us; performed maneuvers we had no chance of copying, and appeared to be grinning in delight when they swam up for a face-to-face before flitting away to the outer reaches of our visibilty, balletic shadows in the murk. I can't satisfactorily describe just how special it felt to share space with these creatures underwater; imagine the fun you've had with the daftest, most playful puppies you've ever come across: now multiply it by a hundred. And you're still not quite close. Time flew by. The animals escorted us to the surface, teasing us, as if they didn't want playtime to be over. Come on...just a couple more somersaults? The boat cruised over to pick us up as we floated in the gentle waves, looking below for a last glimpse of our new friends.

"Jesus, I was feezing down there" Stefano groaned.
"I'd completely forgotten about that" I laughed as we climbed out of the water and onto the boat.

If this was only the check dive, then I couldn't wait for what the morning would bring.