I Ended Up Snorkelling on a Dive Liveaboard, and It Wasn’t That Bad
I finally went to the Great Barrier Reef, on my 40th birthday. It was a conscious choice, the UNESCO-recognised ecosystem being a bucket list destination for any marine-loving traveller. Oceans2Earth, with whom I planned to volunteer on the same trip, suggested I book a liveaboard trip if I wanted to dive in the Great Barrier Reef. Since it was a milestone birthday, I decided to splurge.
“Your thyroid levels are really high.” The doctor remarked in concern. I was in her office for a follow up consult after being treated for gastroenteritis upon my return from Kashmir. She had noticed my unusually high heart rate then, and ordered additional testing. I had noticed it for a while too, but thought I was just out of shape. “We need to get this down ASAP.” She wouldn’t clear me to dive, as the condition can cause heart palpitations, and no one knows how being at depth would affect it.
She put me on medications to bring it back down, and I asked her how long it usually takes to get it back in range. Would it be back to normal before my Great Barrier Reef trip? It was too late to cancel the liveaboard. I wouldn’t be able to get a refund.
No. Apparently it usually takes many months. “What about snorkelling? Can I snorkel?”
“Well, let’s see how you respond to the medication. If it comes down quickly, and keeps going, maybe you can snorkel.” All was not lost, however. Against the opinion of her peers, she decided that I wasn’t like other patients who usually had the condition. I was often in the water, and in much better physical condition. Sure enough, the medication quickly brought my levels down – but not enough to be cleared for diving.
And that’s how I ended up as a snorkeller on a liveaboard full of divers.
Getting used to liveaboard life
Dive liveaboards are intense. The Spirit of Freedom, in particular, somehow managed to pack up to five dives in a day in the itinerary. I’d only ever done three in a day, and it made me too ravenous to choose to do it on purpose.
I was almost glad I wasn’t diving, thinking of how much heat I’d be losing – almost.
But I was on a full service liveaboard, where divers hardly have to do anything but show up, suit up, have fun, shovel down food to keep going, and sleep. It was extremely well run.
I didn’t know what to expect on my first liveaboard trip, and that was another reason I was almost – only almost – glad I wasn’t diving and learning how to live on a liveaboard. It didn’t help that I almost got left behind, since apparently nobody who books a full service liveaboard has ever needed to be picked up from a budget youth hostel before.
Would it be weird to share a quad with a random selection of divers, some of whom were male? Might my condition also make me seasick, and would it be bad?
But, right from the induction delivered by the master dive lead, I began to relax. Mish strode about the ship like a pirate queen, but everything became efficient in her wake. I grew to anticipate her calling divers to the dive deck, like a friendly harpy. The hostess was the opposite, warm and comforting. A young Dutch woman, she must have learned English from English people, frequently punctuating her sentences with ‘love’ like a matronly Englishwoman.
I learned that male divers were not weird to bunk with, even with the cramped space to shower and change in, since all they care about is diving. And as I have come to assume from my navy reservist days, a ship’s chef is beyond excellent. I learned to just take the seasickness pills, if only so that I would have the appetite to enjoy his culinary efforts.
Meeting the other divers
On the way to our first dive location the sea was cobalt blue. It was a rest period, which I worried about before the trip, because I didn’t know what kind of people the other divers would be.
My relatively limited diving experience has been mostly confined to the friendly dive centres of Malaysia. Whenever I’ve gone diving abroad, especially in – shall we say – ‘non-budget’ locations, other divers are those hardcore types who seem unable to relate to others without judging their diving coolness or possession of a yacht. But I lucked out with my first liveaboard. The other divers were mostly boomers and Gen X, obviously, but they were normal and well-adjusted, and nice to everyone. There was an American who once taught aviation meteorology to Malaysian Airlines. His wife, also a diver, coincidentally had the same condition as I was suffering, hyperthyroidism. She had it for real, though, and had to have her thyroids removed, and now had to take the hormones artificially. I felt better, since she obviously still could dive.
There was an old hippie who had married thrice, and had come up from a hard life; he had picked cotton at 6 years old. And there was the French-Korean yuppie couple from New York. Amusingly, the Frenchman can’t stand cheese, and his Korean wife – whose traditional cuisine has no cheese at all – loves it. Their Manhattan kitchen was so small you didn’t need to move to get anything while cooking – but it’s ok, as they save all their money for wonderful dive trips.
There was the imperturbable Australian, who has done thousands of dives. He no longer logs them even electronically, never mind a dive log book. And then there was the German couple who confidently asserted that they were not new divers during their pre-dive interview, because they had done four dives! And there I was, fretting that at 35 dives, I was still far too novice to be on a dive liveaboard!
Snorkelling while everyone else was diving
But no amount of friendliness overrides the fact that I was a snorkeller on a dive liveaboard. The anomaly became obvious immediately, and I was forced to explain why I was not suiting up to go down with them. Oh the looks of pity!
It didn’t help that the photographs the onboard dive masters took were amazing. They were played on a roll on the mess hall TV screen, gorgeous close ups of corals and fish. Nudibranchs and cuttlefish and leafy scorpionfish. Photos of the divers against dramatic sea fans and surprisingly docile groupers.
But I had my own worries, even with just snorkelling. Enough that I was never tempted to disobey my doctor, and try even one dive. For the hyperthyroidism really did affect my athletic ability.
The first dive location was a bommie in the middle of nowhere. The ship moored to a buoy, and the sea was calm. All I needed to do was follow the rope to it, and I would be above the bommie.
But the tide was high and the bommie felt far below. I was reluctant to let go of the rope, and then reluctant to stray away from it. The ocean felt vast, and suddenly deep, its bottom lost in the dark, dark blue with the weight of unending water upon it. And all of a sudden, my heart began to beat faster, and I began having trouble breathing through my snorkel mask. Grasping the rope, I pushed the mask up over my head, taking deep lungfuls of air. And I came back aboard, pulling myself up along the rope.
It was devastating. Me, who could usually snorkel without concern far from the boat indefinitely, never fearing to sink, who had followed mantas and whale sharks into the gloom in the open sea.
But at the third dive site, the skipper intervened.
Scotty (why is that such a skipper name?) noticed how badly I was doing at simply snorkelling, an inexplicable performance for a certified diver. He sat me down on the pleasant upper deck, counselled me about life and confidence, and empathised with the tragedy of being unable to snorkel for those who love the sea. He somehow persuaded me that it was more my anxiety than the hyperthyroidism that was making me hyperventilate. Then he came into the water with me, and literally held my hand until I felt more my snorkelling self.
And you know what? It kind of worked. I guess the diagnosis itself affected me more than I realised.
My subsequent snorkels were much better – though not as good as the diving, judging from my fellow divers’ tales. Still, I managed to see some huge sweet lips, turtles and a sea snake, giant clams that more than deserved their name, the biggest pufferfish and groupers I’d ever seen, and sharks in the gloom. At night, I watched the others suit up to witness the sharks’ feeding frenzy on the jacks, which had in turn come en masse to feed on a recent spawn.
I was supposed to disembark at the halfway point at Lizard Island, and fly back alone to Cairns, since there would be no point for a snorkeller to remain on board for the second segment in the Coral Sea, where there would be no more reef dives. But unexpectedly, the air conditioning failed after we finished the shallow sites, and could not be repaired without returning to port.
So the boat took everyone back, and we all got a partial refund.
And that’s how my dive liveaboard ended up only going to snorkelling-friendly dive sites, when I could only snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef.
Much more by this author on her own website, Teja on the Horizon. Check it out.