Scuba diving is one adventure I've always been denied. Between a dozen surgeries, failed reconstructions and inner-ear prosthetics, my chronic ear problems simply ruled it out. Travelling to places such as Malaysia, the Philippines and the Maldives, I'd listen enviously to divers talk about their experience at the world's best reefs. On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea, all that finally changed.
My breakthrough came in the form of two tiny pieces of Kraton, a type of polymer plastic, called Doc's Proplugs. Searching online, I found out that Doc's vented plugs have a tiny hole allowing for pressure equalization and hearing, while keeping out water to avoid ear infections and ruptured eardrums. What's more, they cost just $20, far cheaper than the silicon plugs I'd been using for years. I picked them up from a kayaking instructor in Vancouver who handed over the plugs as if they were gold. How much would you pay to realize a dream, and explore beneath the seas?
I had joined a group of diving journalists at the Tufi Dive Resort in Papua New Guinea for the naming of a new dive site. They were all experienced dive masters, and all female, including San Diego's Scuba Diver Girls. The girls knew my entire world was about to open up, and couldn't wait for me to get certified. The resort itself, overlooking a gorgeous fjord, had ample character. Roaming the grounds was a large hornbill named Coco, a wallaby, and two bizarre native kus-kus, a scary kind of possum-like creature. It was the only place in the entire region with electricity, and owned the only two cars on the dirt roads.
Above water, Papua New Guinea is the world's most ethnically diverse country, with more than 700 ethnic groups speaking nearly 800 languages. The dense jungles and highlands attract scientists, botanists and biologists continually discovering new species. Below water, the reefs are considered among the best in the world, populated with hard and soft coral, sharks, tropical fish and all manner of marine life. As the girls headed out with their flippers and tanks, I hit the books. Most dive resorts offer PADI or NAUI qualification courses and instruction, and Tufi was an ideal classroom. Back home, I'd have to learn my skills in a swimming pool. Here I could practise in the resort's house reef among giant lionfish, parrotfish and luminous coral. The water offers 30 metres of visibility and hovers between 26 and 29 C year-round. In the world of diving, that's about as good as it gets.
Glen, my local instructor, had been teaching for nearly 20 years. He patiently explained equalization and pressure groups, buoyancy and hand signals. It was mostly common sense, with some surprising facts: I learned that divers don't consider any marine animals to be dangerous, so long as you keep your distance and don't threaten them. Modern dive computers calculate how much air you have, how deep you are and how long you have to recover between multiple dives. So long as I checked my gauges, there was really nothing to fear at all. I passed my written exam and practical skills with flying colours, and finally, after all these years, was ready to submerge myself into another world.
I had brought antibiotics in case the Proplugs didn't work, but I needn't have bothered. They performed exactly as advertised, allowing me to equalize and descend to the reef below. I effortlessly defied gravity, floating among more colour and life than I'd ever imagined. Dishing out underwater high-fives with the girls, my grin was so wide that water almost gushed into my regulator (I was well trained on how to clear it). The new reef was named the Undertow, for its massive reef ledge. I swam around its perimeter, an alien in an alien world, completely hooked.
On the island of New Britain, we explored the reefs of Kimbe Bay, staying at another Australian-owned resort, Walindi. More than half the world's coral species could be found in this one bay, as well as 900 species of fish. Surrounded by active volcanoes, I dove my first deepwater swim-through, a reef tunnel teeming with life that was 34 metres beneath the surface. I encountered my first big animals: grey reef sharks gliding like ghosts. We explored a Japanese Second World War Zero fighter plane that had sunk 17 metres below the water. Despite coral latching onto its wings, it was in remarkable condition. I hovered among giant barrel sponges, red whip gorgonians, moray eels, nudibranches, schools of barracuda and countless neon tropical fish. Clownfish comically guarded their anemones. I had found Nemo at last (had to say it).
Scuba diving, from tropical islands to the cold water off British Columbia, is an adventure that doesn't care about your weight, age, physical ability or even aquatic experience. Within a week, I had transformed from someone who had barely swum underwater to a scuba diver exploring shipwrecks and sharks - even by night. Just when I thought I'd seen the world, it turns out I've hardly seen anything at all. Next trip, I'm packing flippers.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels . His website is robinesrock.com.