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“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.
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.
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.
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.
Driving past Heathrow every day, as a travel addict, has its perks and pitfalls.
Looking up to see the immense body of an Emirates A380 gliding majestically through the sky, my mind wanders to a place far flung. I’m unable to pinpoint the location my mind has travelled, but my thoughts have certainly escaped the confines of my Audi A1, leaving high and dry the parking lot that is the M4.
My eyes naturally follow the beast’s movement as it descends gradually. Its fuselage, like the torso of a steroid junkie, bulges eminently in the London skyline. Odds are this flight has come from Dubai, but what about all the other innumerable flights that descend upon London on a daily basis?
From where do all these passengers come, and why, I ask myself as my car crawls forward like a tortoise in quicksand.
Getting carried away with the limitless possibilities, my imagination sparks like an artist’s on LSD. I feel free, liberated and unrestrained as my mind boards a flight, the destination of which matters little.
As the A380 slips behind the tree line and out of sight, so too does the state of reverie with which I was immersed. Just like that, the perk of driving past Heathrow had come to a crashing end.
One of countless places I’d rather be, Canada’s Banff National Park offers up an unparalleled winter wonderland.
I have an inkling – taking into account the state of England’s overcrowded motorways – that subsequent traffic jams aren’t far away, offering more chances for my mind to stray.
I do, however, have to cope with driving on the M4 while going to work so I’ll presume you’re already well aware of the numerous pitfalls.
I had this preconceived notion, having just spent a week in Bangkok, of what awaited as I made my final descent into Vietnam, Thailand’s more regimented and orderly neighbour.
My presumptions, I thought as we queued for hours to get our pre-approved visas checked and re-checked, were right on the money.
Initially it felt like my every move was being monitored by numerous guards, whose stoic, uncompromising demeanours matched their stiff, over-starched uniforms.
After escaping the restrictive confines of Tan Son Nhat Airport and subsequently haggled with numerous taxi drivers, most of whom resembled ravenous lions in search of their next unwitting prey, Vietnam served up an enriching cultural and unrivalled spiritual journey, dispelling all preconceptions.
From Ho Chi Minh – formerly Saigon – to Hanoi, Vietnam is home to cities abuzz with life, metropolitans that never sleep and, at times, are unnervingly chaotic. But that’s precisely what makes them so enigmatically charming. Locals, even with a lack of material goods westerners hold to such high acclaim, are genuinely happy and welcoming.
And unlike Thailand, its loud, obnoxious neighbour whose incessant house parties cater to every tourist whim, Vietnam extracts you from your comfort zone, challenging you to adapt and break completely free of routine. While at times frustrating – especially when attempting to communicate with locals who don’t know a word of English or very nearly being run over by countless scooters moving at breakneck speeds – you’ll be hard pressed to rival the enhanced sense of reward and accomplishment you feel at the end of every day.
And if you’re not a fan of the hustle and bustle, have no fear because Vietnam has some of the most majestic and picturesque rural and island retreats across the globe. Whether it’s Con Dao, a pristine, tranquil island 45 miles off the coast of Ho Chi Minh barely touched by the tourist foot, or the central highlands – the capital of which is Buon Ma Thuot – you’ll be able see a side of life intrinsically connected with nature’s raw beauty, enabling precious time to reflect, decompress and unwind.
I’d be remiss not to mention Vietnamese cuisine. I’d suggest, if you’re an adventurous sort, to try anything locals eat as if you venture off the beaten track – which I highly recommend – menus will be as foreign a concept as you are.
Pho – pronounced fuh – is far and away the most popular dish. Eaten at all conceivable times, this filling, aromatic and nutritious soup-like concoction consists of herbs, chilli paste and fish sauce. It brims with lean meats and fresh ingredients, the infused spice perfect for sweating out a hangover and, like pretty much everything else on offer, costs less than a smile on a rainy day.
So if you fancy an incessant house party similar to the one’s Zac Efron hosts in the film Bad Neighbours, dance to Thailand and join the throngs of other party-goers, but if your keen on an unworldly and culturally superior sojourn venture to Vietnam.
They’re, however, neighbours – and not of the bad variety – so if both destinations tickle your fancy then jump to and fro and experience the best of both worlds.
Pigeons, the dirty vermin that they are, have unquestionably and irrefutably become too comfortable in their surroundings, or more to the point, our surroundings.
I express my escalating discord not purely because, regrettably, I once was open-wing slapped in the face by one of the rats with wings, but more because of their nonchalant, flippant, inconsiderate and blasé attitudes.
Living in London, the unofficial pigeon capital of the world, only exacerbates my disillusionment.
Scavenging on our scraps, defecating anywhere and everywhere they please and incessantly bobbing their heads as they saunter obliviously along, like a resident DJ is implanted in their tiny bird brains, pigeons have become all-too accustomed to shitting on our parade.
Here the dirty freeloaders fight each other for a piece of bread, which was obviously provided to them by a pigeon enabler.
And apparently children are the only ones that have switched on to pigeon’s nefarious intentions. They are, without a doubt, the only ones doing anything about it.
Children across the world seem to be on the same strategic wavelength and, like battalions of old, charge toward lingering flocks, making them scamper, scurry and flee. It’s not their playful curiosity coming to the fore, but, in my opinion, their unbridled desire to banish pigeons to an uninhabited swathe of land far, far away.
I lionize children for coming up with such a simple, yet effective plan and carrying it through. At least they are taking a stand.
While somewhat impractical and slightly radical, I assert that all humans should form a unified front and, at least once a week, dash towards an unsuspecting flock with reckless abandon. It wouldn’t take long, if war was waged, for pigeons to think twice before showing up uninvited, lingering and congregating by the masses.
And don’t even get me started on those who opt to feed the repugnant creatures. Thriving on benevolence and weakness, pigeons, like seagulls and vultures, are freeloaders of the bird species.
So join me in scaring a flock a week and there will be no more pigeons of which to speak.
Ambling slowly to the bank of London’s Thames at dusk, I become evermore appreciative of my surroundings, cognoscente of the fact that it’s not necessary to gallivant across the globe to enjoy a rewarding travel experience.
I used to think an escape was needed to spearhead inspiration and break free from the restrictive confines of home. But it’s the state of mind that counts and not the destination. And while I realise this isn’t exactly earth-shattering news or an epiphany of monumental proportions, it does bear great importance. Fulfilment comes from an internal satisfaction, which, in my opinion, correlates directly to accomplished work.
I’m continually fascinated by the innumerable ways to capture sunsets. Whether evincing its powerful and piercing fiery gaze, eminent majesty, or poignant subtlety, the sun’s colourful beauty effortlessly brings to light a photographer’s creative flare.