diving dos ojos

It was eleven years ago almost to the day that I first discovered the limestone caves of Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”). On an organised Trek America trip with a dozen or so others, we visited Dos Ojos for a snorkelling trip on our way to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. Since its discovery in the mid-eighties, this 68 kilometre long cave system is one of the most accessible in the world for divers and snorkelers. One of my strongest memories of this first Mexico trip was snorkelling along the surface of the crystal-clear water of the entrance cavern, watching three of my travelling companions diving ten or so metres beneath me, knowing I was not getting to see the best part of this amazing location. It was at that moment I knew I was going to learn how to scuba dive, and one day I would come back to Dos Ojos and explore it properly. Today I delivered on that eleven-year-old promise to myself.

We parked the van and wandered down to “Eye One” – one of the two limestone sinkholes or cenotes that give the cavern system its name. The mosquitoes in this patch of Yucatán jungle were enormous: I could swear we could see the whites of their eyes as they came hunting us down. At the entrance to the cenote were a dozen or so divers getting ready to enter the water. Plenty of serious dive equipment here: nitrox tanks, full dry suits, customised octopuses, full body gear, space age torches. With our rented half-suits and kit, we could not compete with this mob.

Back at the van we geared up and made our way slowly down the long stairs, being careful not to lose our balance with the full weight of the tanks on our backs. It is amazing to me every time how ungainly I feel outside the water, compared to how freely and smoothly I can move along underwater.

One giant leap and the cool fresh water of the cenote hit me. A familiar feeling of serenity enveloped me as I turned amphibian for the second time in four days. People who know me well will find it hard to believe that I am at my happiest under water where I cannot speak. I let the silence become my world, eyeballed Orlando my dive buddy, then descended effortlessly a few metres and slipped noiselessly through the cool fresh water of the lake.

Quetzal our divemaster got us into line – Raquel the novice up front with him, Orlando and me towards the back. We followed a guide line through a wide flooded tunnel where the air from previous divers glistened like mercury on the roof above us.

This was not the warm, rich tropical waters of Barbados, our previous dive of the holiday. Around us was not the usual richly-colour marine life of other dive trips, rather the other-worldly forms of limestone eroded by thousands of years of flowing water, then re-formed drip by drip into majestic stalactites, stalagmites and limestone columns.

Now and again a mystical blue glow above indicated a smaller entrance to the cave system. Occasionally another diver would appear silhouetted dramatically against this glowing backdrop, like the entrance to Diver Heaven.

We followed the dive master further and further in, as far as a clumsily-rigged diorama of a Barbie Doll being eaten by a plastic crocodile. This dubious marker is what gives the Barbie Cave its name. Divers have a weird sense of humour sometimes.

Retracing our steps using the guide line, we headed back through the eerie paleness of the tunnel system until a larger blue light and lots of legs with fins attached materialised in the distance above us. We were back at our entrance point. The first part of the dive was complete.

Half an hour on the surface to relax and change air tanks while another couple were taken by our dive master on the same adventure. Another giant leap into the same cenote, then Quetzal led us into a different cavern system towards the Bat Cave. I wondered if there would be plastic bats at the far reaches of this trip, or real ones.

We followed the guide line again through the gloom, Quetzal’s strong torchlight cutting through the dark water to spotlight a particular point of interest, or making slow circles and waiting for each of us to reply in kind: yes, we’re still OK. Victor from Scuba Cancun followed with his underwater video camera – our dive paparazzo – buzzing around the edge of the group like an insect.

In time we surfaced in a small cave, and there were indeed real bats to be seen, nesting in little micro-caves in the roof. Definitely a better end-point than a plastic Barbie-Croc combination.

At some point in the previous few minutes my ear had started to hurt, and I had tried repeatedly to equalise the pressure in my ears and sinuses to no avail. Once back underwater in the bat cave, the pain really began to build. The deeper I got, the worse it became. Worried, I signalled at Quetzal, moving my own torch rapidly back and forth in a horizontal movement. Using impressive sign language, he signalled to me that it was likely a tooth and not a pressure equalisation problem. He instructed me not to descend any further, then took my arm and brought me to the head of the group near him. My face still throbbed dangerously but as long as I stayed high enough at ten metres or less, I could manage.

And then it was over – two dives in the location that gave me the scuba bug all those years ago. Back at the van we took out the log books to record the dive stats from Quetzal. As I wrote the location in my book, “Dos Ojos”, I stopped and savoured the moment of another life’s ambition realised. I agreed a price with Victor the Paparazzo for his DVD of the trip – not only did I get to dive Dos Ojos, but somebody had filmed it for me!

Back in downtown Cancun we did some supermarket shopping, ready for our long bus ride in the morning: bananas, muesli bars and crisps (“fuego” flavoured of course, chosen by Orlando). The fruit and vegetables area was fantastic: bananas of all sizes, tiny, regular and enormous; oranges and tanjelos (a hybrid between a tangerine and a grapefruit); piles of dark red dried hibiscus flowers for making agua jamaica or imparting a delicate flavour and colour to cooked food; about seven or eight types of dried chilli.

The butcher counter had fresh “chorizo verde”, a bright-green spicy pork sausage coloured and flavoured with fresh herbs such as oregano or coriander. The deli counter had three types of mole, a local sauce often using chocolate and chilli in generous quantities.

Later, wandering down the street near the hotel on the way back from the internet place, I heard my (Mexican) name being hollered behind us: “Margarita! MARGARITA!!”. It was Victor who had just dropped off my dive DVD. We joined himself and Quetzal in a little local place called Pescaditos for a bite to eat. I happily received my first – enormous – frozen margarita of the Mexico trip, and then a second. How lovely to have a cocktail named after me. Quetzal recommended the pescadillas as a house speciality and he was right. Sort of like a fish empanada or a quesadilla using fish instead of cheese, it was served with an excellent habanero sauce that we couldn’t get enough of. We put the world to rights with Victor and Quetzal, before heading back to the hotel to pack our bags ready for our trip to Tulum early the next morning. An excellent end to an excellent day.

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fiji time

I wake up to the sounds of waves lapping against the sand. The water’s edge is less than fifty paces from me: Orlando has moved our bed to the doors of our bure so that I can be lulled to sleep and then awakened by the sea.

I put the kettle on, slip on a swimsuit. Outside on our little verandah all is peaceful at seven in the morning. I stare out to sea and marvel yet again at the vivid blues of the water and the sky. The tide is out: our little strand is there again. I will go for a beachcombing stroll later.

The workers arrive by boat from the other islands round about. The dive hut guy paddles out to the tin boat with the fuel tank. I hear the sound of children in the distance. The resort is finally stirring.

At breakfast, we read the day’s newsletter and wonder if we will have the energy to try sulu (sarong) wearing or maybe a bushwalk to the top of our volcanic island home. Probably not.

Just before ten, at some unseen signal John goes to the drum on the terrace, beats out a rhythm and shouts “Boat has come!” I peer at the horizon but I cannot see anything. Moments later, the tourist boat comes into view at the edge of our island. We wait to see who is new and who is departing. The staff line up on the steps, playing guitars and singing farewell to some and welcome to others. It seems like weeks ago that we were the new arrivals.

It is almost time for a dip. I take my snorkel and mask, pick up some fins at the dive hut. The water is a warm twenty-six degrees and the sand is sparkling white. As soon as I dip my face in the water I am surrounded by damsel fish. Some of them nibble at my arms because I have not brought bread for them.

Further out, the reef drops at a fifteen-metre cliff. The coral is spectacular and the fish plentiful. Far beneath me I can see the outlandish crown of thorns starfish that have infested these waters. The day before, I dived this reef and came face to face with a turtle. I wish I was equipped with a tank and regulator instead of my simple snorkel.

Later, after a lazy massage in the spa, it is time for a cocktail. We wander over to the bar. I have a Mai Tai and “Mister Orlando” has his usual Orlando Iced Tea – a Long Island Iced Tea with cranberry juice instead of Coke. The guys play their guitars and sing the songs heard all over the world in resort lounges. Hotel California, predictably, is translated to Hotel Amunuca. I wonder why a beautiful Fijian traditional song sounds so familiar until I realise it is the Stevie Wonder song “Lately” sung in island style. The clock on the wall has no arms, just a blank face of numbers. We are on Fiji time.

Dinner is a relaxed affair. John has our usual “front row” table for us, overlooking the water and our neighbouring islands in the distance. All this fresh air is killing me: I can hardly keep my eyes open past ten at night. We stroll back to our bure, arm in arm. I fall asleep to the sound of the waves again. Another day in paradise.

 

scuba diving in dingle bay

Next morning I had a date with the local scuba diving shop, so I was up and out by nine. Eric runs a friendly dive shop, helped by two English girls. I kitted myself out and chatted to the other divers. Padraig was a young local lad who had just qualified as a teacher, and was off bungee jumping the following week.

6-diving-family

May (second from right) was a Cork woman about my own age, who had learned to dive with her three children the previous year, and they were all there for the dive: Matthew who was working as an intern in the shop, Caoimhe, a chatty young teenage girl, and Ruairi, the youngest at twelve. What a great thing to do as a family. Two of Eric’s friends from Belgium made up the boatload.

We hopped in the rubber dinghy and set off at alarming speed out of the harbour and into the bay. I was sat up the bow, hanging on for dear life like it was an episode of Miami Vice. It was sensational. We sped along the rugged coastline as if on a roller-coaster for what seems like ages until we stopped at a small headland called Parkmore Point. We broke up into smaller groups and backflipped into the water.

Sadly, visibility was not great, but I had an enjoyable dive with Padraig and Sophie our dive master. No great marine life to speak of, but a good wall and lots of sea grasses. And after all my worry about the cold, I was a lot warmer in my double wetsuit than I had been in the dry suit in Melbourne!

The second dive was back in Dingle Harbour itself, an incredibly shallow dive but worth it nonetheless. We anchored up and the first person to backflip in simply stood up to talk to us – we were in about five feet of water. Then almost immediately, Fungie, the local dolphin, arched up out of the water not twenty feet away. We all squealed with delight, and those in the water tried snorkelling to catch a better glimpse.

I don’t think I could have done a better dive in such shallow waters. The official name for the area was the Gravelly, but it was better known locally as Thornback Alley. I soon found out why. I must have seen over fifty thornback ray on that dive. They were simply everywhere – floating past one minute, rising suddenly out of the sand below you the next. They were all sizes, up to about a metre wingspan, with the long, thorny tail that gives them their name. Between that and the forest of seagrass we found ourselves in, it was one of the most fun dives I have ever done.

Turns out that despite the overcast day, I got seriously sunburnt on my face! So much for Australian education on the dangers of the sun.

Back at shore I was so uplifted and excited by my dives. The rest of the family was at the harbour to welcome us home, and as soon as the paperwork and chores were done we headed off to explore the rest of the peninsula. By this time the sun was out and it was a really lovely day.

dry suit diving

So, having decided to go to Ireland in July to coincide with Ariane and Igor’s wedding, I got it into my head that I would dive in the Atlantic. However being a fair-weather diver I got paranoid about the cold water, and decided to get certified for dry suit diving so I could stay toasty warm.

A not-so-local dive shop (they were the only ones who returned my inquiries) did the honours.  Sara, a wonderful woman from Preston, who moved to Aus about eighteen years ago but you wouldn’t know it from the strong accent, signed me up and I did the theory and pool dive on a chilly June Saturday afternoon. It really works – you actually stay dry underwater! Very odd but great when you get out and you are all dry and warm.
 
The following weekend it was all systems go for an open water dive off Mornington Pier. It was a seriously early start – getting up at 5.30am to get organised and drive the two hours or so to Mornington on the far east side of the bay. I was exhausted before I got there.
 
Straight down to business, we changed in the car park and did a giant leap off the pier with plenty of onlookers. Water temperature was 11C and you could really feel it, but the initial shock wore off and it really was not that bad. Sadly then we had to hang around for about half an hour in said cold water, waiting until the instructor had done a buoyancy check with each person. With all that inactivity I was really beginning to feel chilly, even with four layers of thermal clothes on under the dry suit.
 
Finally we were on our way, and paddled under the pier before descending. I was buddied with Charles, a lovely guy with a bit more dive experience than me, but we were all new to dry suits. My rented mask kept leaking water, and I could not get my buoyancy right. Normally I float along like a little fishy, but not today. It really is a different experience in a dry suit.
 
Then, a hundred things happened at once. Already agitated from the lack of buoyancy control and leaking mask, I somehow knocked the regulator from my mouth. Eight metres underwater is no place to lose your air supply. There was no real danger: I had two air supplies of my own and my buddy was inches away with a spare too. I was without air for less than ten seconds. 
 
However once I got my regulator back, I naturally started gulping air gratefully. This triggered off an uncontrolled ascent, and I was rescued from my upwards spiral by Buddy Charles grabbing at my leg, pulling me down and trying to calm me by pointing at some interesting fish passing by. Too late. I was spooked. Seconds later my mask completely filled up so then I was blind and spooked. Thrashing in the water, I had to trust that my buddy could sort me out. I gripped him with both hands, leaving no chance for me to fix my mask. I could feel the instructor coming to help, and thought they might be bringing me to the surface. But in a few moments they calmed me, enabled to me to clear my mask, and got me back on track.
 
I finished the dive no problem, but it was on the surface that I think it all hit home. We had to do some more assessments before getting out of the water, and by then I was tired, my hands were so cold I literally could not feel them, and I was supposed to get my breathing control device and tank off and back on again. I thought I was sinking: the instructor could not calm me down this time and I left the water.
 
Dejected, I decided that I could not do the second dive. I had failed my open water assessment. Hours later back at the shop, Sara convinced me that I could pass another day, and promised to take me out on a solo dive with her if that was what it took. So two weeks later early on a cold Wednesday morning, I found myself with a small band of people at Rye Pier, waiting to try again.
 
This time I was really nervous getting into the water. There was a serious swell, and again we had to hang around for about half an hour so that everyone did their buoyancy check. I was hyperventilating and in a panic by the time we were ready to descend. Wide-eyed, I told Sara I couldn’t do it. She disagreed. She promised to hold my hand for the whole dive if that was what it took. I looked down into the water with my snorkel on, and she asked me what was worrying me. “Everything”, I answered. Suddenly all the dangers of diving hit me at once and it seemed like a ludicrous thing to attempt. Somehow she talked me into descending. Within moments of going under, all my fears vanished and I swam away like the little fishy I usually am.

We saw great marine life on the dive: the usual five-legged starfish and the indigenous eleven-legged ones, plus another “biscuit” starfish that looked like a pentagonal tile or biscuit in the water. We saw a funky octopus who was swimming quite peculiarly (I still think he was blind or something),  lots of nudibranches and sea cucumbers (yes they look like pieces of poo).

The eleven-legged starfish are the native ones, and their habitat is being encroached upon by the foreign five-legged starfish. We are encouraged to throw the five-legged ones in the bins if we see one.

This time around I had NASA-specification neoprene gloves, and every part of me stayed fairly warm. My buoyancy was perfect, especially on the second dive, and my confidence soared. I even got over the sea swell and did my assessments with aplomb, taking off and replacing my buoyancy control device and then my weight belt without breaking a sweat. I was back!
 
I came out of the water after the second dive elated. I had done it! I learned a new skill and faced my fears to return to my favourite place – underwater.