By Gary Pearson
“Take deep breaths and whatever you do, don’t panic.” Scuba diving instructor Sinan Halaçoğlu conveyed the imperative message prior to my first plunge into the deep blue.
“If you panic you are done,” the veteran diver reiterated, his formidable, uncompromising shark-like gaze penetrating my defences.
Though powerful, direct and of the utmost importance, Halaçoğlu’s message was of little comfort. In theory staying calm should be easy enough, I thought, still trying to absorb other tidbits of information necessary for a successful maiden dive.
Set in front of the lavish backdrop of the Iberostar Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Dressel Divers provided the opportunity for my maiden scuba dive. The area is renowned for its serene, picturesque landscape.
After a quick, informative classroom session, my two fellow Canadians – Shira Hutton and Mike Perrin – and one Englishman – Danny Kelleher – and I yanked, stretched and pulled our wetsuits snug.
The sun, although blanketed by dense cloud cover, quickly heated the foamed neoprene suits, rendering any movement exhausting and slow. Like an overheated penguin, I waddled to the pool and toppled in, finding instantaneous relief.
A crash course followed. Equipped with flippers, a regulator (breathing piece), a compressed air tank, a mask, and a weight belt to ensure stable buoyancy was maintained, Halaçoğlu imparted some practical underwater knowledge.
After learning skills ranging from how to inform fellow divers all is well – by forming a circle with your index finger and thumb – to alerting others of a depleted air supply – by slicing your finger across your throat in a decisive, deliberate manner – I exited the pool gleaming with confidence. Halaçoğlu, who recognized my unwarranted hubris, smiled cheekily, recollecting his first dive when he, too, brimmed with undeserved confidence.
“When I first start I think I was the best,” said the 30-year-old, whose career started with building garish underwater hotels for Turkish soccer clubs. “I think I know everything, when I realize that underwater everything can happen in a second and you can die. I had a couple close calls, not knowing where up, where down is. That changed everything.
“She,” he continued, pointing at Hutton, “is only one ready for dive.”
My confidence, along with my air-filled jacket, deflated. Prepared or not, the dive fast approached. Hutton pulled me aside.
“I don’t feel ready,” the 24-year-old Canadian said. “I feel claustrophobic when I am underwater.”
Overcast skies and slightly blustery conditions made for a challenging first dive. Halaçoğlu said good underwater visibility is all weather dependent, which favours – due to water’s amenability to refraction – crystal-clear blue skies.
After double and triple checking the equipment and air supply – 250 bars for a full tank on the metric system – we shuffled across the silky, cushioned sand, bypassing numerous least grebes, whose chatter paused briefly, as if our presence interrupted an important parlay. The waves, gentle and uniform, caressed the beach, creating a serene sound that I often use to combat temporary insomnia.
As we jumped aboard the six-metre boat, my anxiety and excitement, and the prospect of encountering sea life, ensured I would remain wide-eyed. Our mercurial diving instructor’s expression mirrored my own.
Halaçoğlu, whose vast experience has seen him sojourn to nine countries in as many years – including Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Indonesia, Mexico and, currently, Jamaica – still retained a youthful glow. Over 3000 dives and 7000 hours submerged, he still exuded a boyish exuberance. Looks, however, can be deceiving. Life as a nomad has forced the impassioned diver to make innumerable personal sacrifices. Relationships are constructed, but implode when Halaçoğlu inevitably relocates.
“My life is like being in prison,” he said, staring vacantly into the distance. “No relationships, no friends, no PlayStation – just diving.”
Scuba diving continually restores his faith. While underwater he clears his mind and longs for nothing but an endless supply of oxygen. He lives for diving. Below the surface nothing else matters; he achieves tranquility and inner peace.
“I will play with the animals. This I do for free,” he quipped. “How you know if they don’t like to be touched until you try. Some love being touched. Some not so much.”
I suppose it’s a fairly logical thing to say, in a convoluted sort of way.
“They call me the shark diver,” he continued, raking his hands through his scraggly, wispy beard.
Sharks posing no threat to humans, he explained, are easily – albeit fleetingly – wrangled when sleeping. Typically blacknose, Caribbean reef and lemon sharks are most commonly spotted in the Caribbean Sea. Halaçoğlu, who embodies a mixture of fearlessness and foolhardiness, enjoys most the company of blacknose sharks – a species stretching to over a metre in length.
“I’ll come over. A couple of my friends seen it before. I hug and he (the shark) cannot go anywhere,” he said, frantically embracing the air. “He shakes me but I have all the control – for a second anyway. You cannot do it with a bull shark or tiger shark. They are going to kick you ass.”
Halaçoğlu, dubbed “Turkish” by his colleagues, as his nationality reflects, was not always so blasé about shark encounters. While diving the notorious Andaman Sea off Thailand’s coast, he was forced to draw from maneuvres in his then-inexperienced repertoire to evade a fully matured nurse shark. Halaçoğlu’s sightline was blocked by a school of barracudas. The shark speared through, appearing only metres from the startled diver.
“The shark came within a whisker,” he said, animated as ever. “It was the first time I saw a shark. I don’t remember. I just react. I just swim away. People was laughing at me.”
Reassuringly, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the University of Florida has recorded only six shark attacks in the Caribbean since 1997, 17-fold less than in North America. However comforting the numbers, I had every intention, if the situation arose, of letting sleeping sharks lie. With my fears heightened and curiosity piqued, the boat – with two more experienced groups aboard – propelled forth to the dive site, which is known as the Canyon.
Packed on like sardines, the three instructors went about their daily routine, robotically cleaning the masks. Passing beach-goers wading in tepid, 29°C water while sipping Dirty Bananas – consisting of rum cream, Crème de Cacao, milk and aged bananas – and parasailers dangling precariously above the ocean, the weathered boat bobbed up and down, darting through shallow cyan- and azure-hued water. The further we travelled from shore, a darker shade of blue the ocean turned. The captain reversed the throttle. We had reached the Canyon. Noticing her apprehensiveness, our wily instructor asked Hutton what the matter was.
“I don’t feel comfortable,” she retorted without hesitation. “It feels unnatural.”
Hutton, a university student, was in the same boat as the rest of the group, both physically and mentally. She, however, was the only one with enough guile to be heard. It, too, was her first dive. The tension could have been sliced with a shark’s fin.
“Just remember to equalize,” Halaçoğlu enforced sternly.
Somehow amidst the frenetic scene, I almost forgot what it meant to equalize. “Pinch your nose and blow as you descend,” I remember Halaçoğlu saying during our brief stint in class. “Your ears will pop, neutralizing the effect of increasing pressure.” Pressure injuries, referred to as barotrauma, can be painful and potentially fatal but are uncommon as long as proper procedures are adhered to. Just as Hutton and the others appeared at ease, our forthright and candid instructor imparted some last-second words of wisdom.
“Stay calm; if you panic you are done,” he said, snapping his mask into place as he disappeared over the boat’s hull.
Easier said than done. As I waddled to the boat’s edge, his parting words circled my mind like a shoal of sharpfins. Richard Hooker’s famous proverb, “He who hesitates is lost,” hit me like a bag of bricks, compelling me to leap. The first of the group to reach the rope connected to the buoy, I watched the others jump cumbersomely overboard. In unison, we started our descent. The need for constant equalization became immediately evident. Pressure accumulated rapidly, compressing my head like an excavator crushing a Toyota Corolla.
After descending cautiously and meticulously, we reached a depth of 10 metres – industry standard for a first dive – and kneeled on the seabed awaiting our leader’s instruction. Perrin kneeled across from me, our eyes locking. He gestured, giving me the universal OK sign. I reciprocated. Finally, I was awarded a chance to scan the unfamiliar surroundings. The coral reef was teeming with plant life, resembling an underwater rainforest.
Conscious of maintaining a composed breathing manner, I inflated my vest a touch to reach a suitable equilibrium. Again, I tapped the inflation device. This time, however, I overcompensated and ascended like a helium balloon. Like a missile, Halaçoğlu darted to my aid. After deflating my jacket a tad he motioned to his flippers, demonstrating how to ascend. It dawned on me. I must simply kick my flippers. Slightly embarrassed, I faulted the Halaçoğlu’s classroom lesson for neglecting to teach common sense.
Hiding behind my mask, I quickly forgot about the slight blip and followed the others through a labyrinth of narrow passages. Arms stretched out, I could touch the reef on both sides. Some parts were mossy and soft, while others, like a porcupine’s quills, were hard and unforgiving. French grunts, yellowtail snappers and ocean surgeonfish seamlessly scoured the reef, popping in and out of the coral’s porous foundation.
Swimming free of the confined passage, Halaçoğlu motioned to the sandy seabed. I thrust forward, attempting to gain a better vantage point. Its beady eyes barely visible, a stingray blended into the clayish canvas exhibiting its aptness to camouflage. As promised, the shark diver cradled the resting stingray. It lay motionless, appearing to be in the midst of a mid-afternoon siesta. This was my chance.
In his element, Halaçoğlu delicately handed over the stingray, like a newborn being passed from mother to father for the first time. Praying the pacifier pass didn’t set off its venomous defense mechanism, I carefully held on to the tropical dweller. Slippery and rubbery, its skin was comforting to the touch. The stingray suddenly stirred and wiggled free, fleeing into the murky abyss. The moment, however brief, will be perpetually inscribed to memory.
This is how Halaçoğlu must have felt when he swam with whale sharks and manta rays. Well, maybe not, but I was still on Cloud 9. Nothing was going to burst my bubble, except maybe the depleting oxygen supply. My air supply stayed steady at 50 bars, the minimum air level permitted underwater. It was time to swim to the surface. As we hopped aboard the bobbing vessel, the experienced diving groups boasted of their encounter with a blacknose shark.
“We must have just missed it,” Halaçoğlu despairingly pronounced. “But we touched a stingray and there is always a next time.”
For the first time I understood why the conflicted Turk is drawn to a world so mysterious, unusual and perplexing. It offers an unparalleled escape from reality; nothing else matters while exploring the deep blue.