Taking the plunge into the deep blue: Scuba diving in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Travel

“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 vulnerable 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.

bird's eye view

A crash course about how to scuba dive

After a quick, informative classroom session, 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 unwarranted 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 is 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.”

Who is Halaçoğlu?

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.

Beach blues

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 passionate 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, though. 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.”

The unlikeliness of a shark attack

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.

The dive

Packed on like sardines, the three instructors went about their daily routine, robotically cleaning each mask. 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 para-sailers 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 was wrong.

“I don’t feel comfortable,” she retorted without hesitation. “It feels unnatural.”

Hutton, a University of Calgary 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 admit it. It, too, was her first dive. The tension could have been sliced with a shark’s fin.

“Just remember to equalize,” Halaçoğlu enforced sternly.

Remember to equalize

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 is 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.

Mike 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.

Life under the sea

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.

A bamboozling travel blunder

Travel

I sat rigid, still and upright aboard a behemoth 747 United Airlines jetliner which had just landed at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport. Awaiting a chance to flee the beast’s innards, I nonchalantly turned on my iPhone. Messages filtered through with fury, the phone rumbling like a city besieged by aftershocks.

“I think you took my passport mate,”one of the text messages read. “In fact, I know you did.”

Profusely sweating, I peeled my moistened carcass from the worn seat to gain access to my carry-on luggage, which rested securely in the overhead bin. Believing it was a blunder too bizarre to commit, I frantically reached into the navy blue Swiss Army bag for any clue to the missing passport’s whereabouts.

Two days beforehand – factoring in time zones – I awoke from a comatose state at the break of dawn, still having to pack for the prospective journey back to Brisbane, Australia. After six luxurious days in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where I saw my brother blissfully wed, a cruel collision with reality loomed. Fragile and hung over, I wondered how I would conquer the Mount Everest of journeys. Chucking clothes indiscriminately into my barren suitcase, I inadvertently – to his bemusement – disturbed my roommate. Steve Cavanagh stirred slowly, like a black bear rustled from hibernation.

bird's eye view

“Enjoy your flights mate,”said a chuckling Cavanagh, his tone fraught with sarcasm. “I leave a day after you and get home before you.”

His sentiment reinforced my disenchantment. I was off to the airport to embark on an excruciatingly elongated voyage, encompassing pit stops in Charlotte, North Carolina and Los Angeles prior to the penultimate flight, a painstaking 14-hour transpacific journey to Sydney, Australia. Once in the Harbour City, a snappy one-hour flight to Brisbane remained.

Sleep deprived, I struggled to keep my eyes ajar as I arrived well before my first of four flights was scheduled to depart. Like a transient living it rough, I sprawled out on the cold tiled floor and slipped seamlessly out of consciousness. Sangster International Airport’s public address system interrupted my deep sleep.

“US Airways flight 1228 destined for Charlotte, North Carolina is delayed for one hour and 30 minutes. Sorry for the delay and any inconvenience it may cause.”

Oh well, I thought, reckoning I had ample time upon arriving in North Carolina to catch the Los Angeles connection. I floated back into dreamland. Wiping the rheum – eye gunk – from my sore, bloodshot eyes after spending hours in what seemed like an unending drug-induced coma, I boarded the jetliner. The flight landed in North Carolina “without incident,”two words travellers never outgrow. Tailwinds slashed 30 minutes off the commute, which I considered insignificant at the time. As the plane inched closer to the gate I overheard fellow passengers conversing, all of whom were concerned with their connecting flights.

We entered the terminal building like a herd of sheep. Droves of disconcerted travellers, all awaiting interrogation from a customs agent, stood in a winding queue you’d more likely see at Disneyland. Ambivalence soon morphed into uneasiness. Our feet shuffled forward inch by inch, as if bounded by shackles. Finally I understood the need for concern. Was one hour enough to navigate through customs? I had serious doubts.

“We cannot expedite the process in any way,”pronounced the stoic, robotic customs agent whom I pleaded with. “Other people are going to miss their connections as well.”

I was unable to move, unable to express my displeasure. The diagnosis was grim. Was I condemned to make camp in an airport full of unhappy, anxious, impolite, and even more worryingly, zombie-like people? Directly to my left – and about 20 minutes better off in line – stood four belligerent women. They jived, pranced about and spread their festive spirit like an airborne contagion. Visibly unkempt, they appeared to be on the last leg of an epic binge, further exasperating my antipathy. Whooping and hollering like a bunch of drunken teens, the unruly lot drew death stares from hundreds of onlookers too preoccupied to voice their discontent. I, too, had bigger fish to fry.

About to break free from the confines of this abhorrent airport, I flung myself towards the customs agent – whom I would have approached with caution under any other circumstance – with disregard. Like a tweaked drug addict I propelled my passport to the agent, whose conduct was akin to that of a prison guard, someone unlikely tolerant of petulance or disorder.

“Is something wrong?”Agent John probed in his North Carolinian drawn-out drawl.

With a constricted throat, tremulous voice and twitching eyes, my mannerisms accentuated the fact I was on the verge of full-blown panic. Having ascertained my poker face is among the world’s worst, John repeated his question, this time more derisively.

“Is something wrong?”he bellowed.

Haphazardly I explained the dilemma with which I was confronted. It was 4:22 p.m. and the flight to Los Angeles was scheduled to depart at 4:35 p.m., leaving 13 minutes to clear security and collect my bag before having to recheck it minutes later,.

“Well relax,”John replied. “You’ll never make that flight, so forget about it.”

His words struck a chord. I had to make the flight or jeopardize missing the Sydney connection. As the plane tickets were purchased from airlines independent of one another, a swift $1,500 would be forever lost. Knowing no good would come from panicking, I kept calm – even after hearing John speak of further delays due to a ”computer blip,” an event the man next in line failed to grasp. He was discernibly irate, shifting nervously back and forth like a pendulum perpetually swaying.

“I’m going to miss my flight,”the perturbed person pronounced.

“You’re not the only one,”I murmured.

After being starkly scolded by John, the individual decompressed, visibly concealing his fury. Attempt after attempt to jumpstart the flat-lining computer faltered, until John, with one last calculated touch, miraculously made the device respond. It was as if his index finger brought the system back from the dead, like a defibrillator reviving a cardiac-arrest patient. I snatched my passport from his unyielding grip and took off like a jetliner on speed. Nine measly minutes before US Airways Flight 1437 was set to vacate the gate.

Somebody must have removed my massive antiquated suitcase from the conveyor belt, as it stood upright awaiting collection. Without breaking stride, I rolled the 23-kilogram beast 20 metres on its ragged, weathered wheels to the next baggage drop. Clambering up a flight of stairs, I arrived at the security checkpoint. Yet another line blocked the path. Surely this was the final nail in the coffin. I begged one security agent to let me skip the line. Unsympathetic to my plight, she brushed the request aside. Her eyes were dark and cold, seemingly devoid of empathy. I scanned the terrain, looking for any alternative. Through a maze of people, I spotted a short, rotund security agent. Compassion personified, he immediately identified with my quandary.

“Come on then,”he blurted out, his level of urgency matching my own.

I stripped off my shoes and belt and made it through security with two minutes to spare. Barefoot, I sprinted like a lunatic who’d recently escaped from a nearby insane asylum. Where was Gate 30? It had to be close. And then I saw it. The gate was within reach. Forebodingly, the departure board above the gate had changed. A flight to Indianapolis, Indiana flashed in bright, crimson lights. A representative at the gate piped up.

“You have 30 seconds to board this flight or it is pulling away from the gate,”he said.

I couldn’t believe it. For once, the slow-moving, pedantic pace at which planes depart worked in my favour. Gasping for air, I boarded the jetliner and breathed a boisterous sigh of relief, one that could be heard over the roaring Rolls-Royce engines.

The plane, its wheels screeching on impact with the tarmac, touched down four hours and a bag of M&M’s later. Los Angeles International Airport – LAX for those unfamiliar with airport acronyms – is an airport whose temporary inhabitants resemble a horde of rats you’d find deep below the London Underground. It is overcrowded, overwhelming and offers no reprieve. It is reminiscent of most major hubs – a necessary evil you can’t wait to be rid of.

Waiting to collect my bag, I took solace in the last-on-first-off rule. My suitcase would surely appear from the abyss as one of the frontrunners, like a gold-medal hopeful rounding the final bend. A plethora of luggage, however, rounded the conveyor belt in quick succession with no coffin-like, grey Atlantic suitcase in sight. The waiting crowd dwindled as relieved travellers left with bags in hand. I stood solemnly waiting. The conveyor belt had stopped spewing bags. While I managed to catch the flight to LA with a last-ditch sprint, my laggard luggage was not afforded the same preferential fate. After a US Airways baggage claim attendant begrudgingly guaranteed my lost bag would be delivered a day after I arrived in Brisbane, I jumped aboard a bus transferring passengers from the domestic to international terminal.

I lost my balance and, as the bus streaked away, fortuitously landed ass first on a vacant seat. A noticeably distraught woman – in her mid-20s – sat across from me. Tears poured uncontrollably from her swollen eyes, like a bursting nimbus during an Indian monsoon. Maybe she had recently parted ways from her soul mate; maybe she missed her mom with whom she was profoundly connected; maybe, like me, she had endured a journey too taxing to ignore. I pondered further the reason for her distress in flight as the Boeing 747 ascended over the vast, luminous Los Angeles skyline. Other than my having to fight for every centimetre of real estate, the lengthy and uncomfortable flight glided smoothly over the Pacific Ocean.

“Welcome to Sydney,”said the energetic flight attendant, unaffected by the 14-hour, 12,000-kilometre voyage. I had come – barring a few unavoidable incidents – through the ordeal intact. How quickly circumstances can change.

Phone incessantly abuzz, I dug through my carry-on bag and retrieved what I thought to be a package containing travel insurance. I ripped open the Velcro strap and found a Canadian passport belonging to Cavanagh staring me in the face. Reality, like Sydney’s serene, sundrenched day, had dawned. I had inadvertently nabbed his passport.

Numerous attempts to contact the 30-year-old restaurant manager failed. My world, now defined by a medley of emotions – embarrassment, horror, anger and shock – was in disarray. That paled in comparison to what my friend of 15 years had to endure. Cavanaugh, prohibited from boarding his flight to Calgary, was stranded in Jamaica. Running around incognito – as his checkout date had since expired – Cavanagh lived like a stowaway, making camp at the Iberostar Rose Hall Beach Resort with my cousin, aunt and uncle.

“I had to wear a disguise,”said Cavanagh during our first telephone conversation after he’d been prohibited from leaving the Caribbean island. He had avoided hotel staff for days by sneaking around the resort on tiptoes like a cat burglar. “I felt like a criminal on the run.”

At least he saw the humour in the comedy of my egregious error. Six days later – and after many meetings at the Canadian Embassy in Montego Bay – Cavanagh was issued emergency travel documents and permitted to board a flight back to the Great White North. A manager at the Vintage Steakhouse in Calgary, Cavanagh was unable to fulfill innumerable duties while stranded in the land of rum and reggae. Sounding like a chapter from a fiction novel, his truthful version of events fell on deaf ears.

“My general manager sacked me, mate,”he yelled down the phone. “They didn’t believe me. I’ve lost my job.”

I suppose the tale does sound farfetched. It was almost as difficult a sell as sand to a nomad of the Sahara, and Cavanagh was forced to provide indisputable proof of his recent predicament. Upon doing so, he was rightfully reinstated to his former position. Minus the sunk cost of a replacement flight, he emerged from the monumental debacle relatively unscathed, with a prolonged Caribbean holiday, a rosy-red face and yet another tale to tell.

I arrived in Brisbane a broken man, but I took consolation in the fact that I was 12,500 kilometres from anyone who knew the details of my bamboozling blunder. Time away and space apart, I hope, has an effect akin to the mind erasers’ flashing red light in the blockbuster hit Men in Black.

Now, if it’s not too much to ask, please stare into the flashing red light.