Breathless in Paradise

Snorkeling is just about the best idea anybody ever had. The world underwater is singularly enchanting, whether you’re drifting over white sands, coal stacks or the open blue. If it weren’t for my breathing issues, and a nasty little demon called fire coral, I’d rank it right up at the top of my favourite things in life.

With school out for the end of summer – just like last year, I’ve been working all the way through it to the point where it feels like it never came at all – we’ve nothing but time on our hands until our Saturday morning flight. At Eloise’s suggestion, Andrew and I find ourselves back in Aqaba, two weeks after we popped by for a visit on our way back from Wadi Rum. By some curious stroke of luck, our hotel, the Bedouin Garden Village, happened to be the very same place we’d got our snorkeling gear from last time, so the manager, a carefree local who makes his living lounging about on the beach, smoking shisha and leading diving groups out into the reefs, already knew us and was pleased to see us again. It’s still intolerably hot – the midday sun peaks at a regular 42 degrees – but it’s cooler than it was, if you ask the locals. 

 

 The last time I wrote about snorkeling, I gave myself a paragraph. Looking back, that’s more than a little silly. It’s criminal. So this time I’ll put you inside my head, so you can see what I see:

I squeeze my feet into two giant flippers and waddle down to the water like a particularly incapable penguin, adjusting and readjusting my snorkel; there’ll be none of last time’s mistakes, or I’ll just have o March straight back to the hotel and ask – God forbid – for a demonstration. Walking forwards in the water isn’t easy in footwear more than three times the size of your feet, so I turn and start walking backwards, for all the good it will do. And what do you know? It’s a little easier. There’s a neat little life hack for you. Alternatively, you could just belly out and swim. And so I do.

For the first few metres it’s a long stretch of silver sand, dotted here and there with a buried cola bottle or lens cap. The first few fish are tiddlers, with the exception of a familiar school of silvery mullet that gawp their way along the shore. Up ahead, the reef looms. One more kick of the flippers and we’re over.

There’s only a small space between the reef and the surface, hardly enough for a man to swim over untouched, but temptation is a dangerous lady, and I can’t stop myself. Up on the reef it’s a sudden explosion of colour, and the coral has very little to do with that. It’s the fish that light up the place. There are canary yellow butterflyfish in twos and threes, flanked by dusky Arabian angelfish and solitary sergeant majors; the mottled form of a greasy grouper hugging the rocks while a triggerfish, resplendent in robes of blue and green, watches from the sand; dragonfish staring up in a stargazing torpor from the seabed whilst speckled white gobies dig their nests all about; clownfish weaving in and out of the multicoloured anemones they crave. Stranger denizens still, like the angular boxfish, the pipefish-through-photoshop cornetfish and the bizarre unicornfish, with what can only be described as a horn protruding an inch and more between its eyes, haunt the nooks of the reef, like the shady underbelly of this grand fashion show.

I’d like to say those are the thoughts going through my head right now, but it’s actually more of a constant stream of ‘ohh’, ‘wow’ and ‘ohmyGodthisissobeautiful’. Poetic to the last. And this time, my mask isn’t leaking and my snorkel is watertight, and I can enjoy this whole spectacle without hyperventilating. Further out, there’s a shipwreck that’s supposedly crawling with moray eels, and even a sunken tank. I’d love to swim out to see them for myself, but I don’t put much trust by the strength of my reserves. I may be a mean (if explosive) sprinter, but I’m not the strongest of swimmers, having been much too obstinate to ever learn to breathe properly. I’ll leave that adventure to Andrew and Mac. They already have a taste for exploring creepy wrecks from the abandoned hospital off Rainbow Street. I might try again this afternoon, but right now I’d rather continue to explore the reef.

Oh bummer, some seawater got into my snorkel. I have to surface to spit it out, but in the action a great wave pushes me under and I get an eyeful of Red Sea salt. By the time I’ve got my mask back on, it’s steamed up and I have to take it off again to clear it up. The vicious waves are making this little task impossible. I make a beeline for the buoy line that marks the edge of the reef and try holding on to that, but of course, it goes under the water, and it’s prickly to the touch from all the little reef creatures growing on it. So I make for a stack of brain coral and haul myself as gently as I can to sit on it and readjust my mask in peace. The wind’s really picking up; you can see the sand blowing across the beach back on the shore. The waves are equally relentless, but I’m holding my own here. I can see Andrew and Mac a fair way out. They’ve gone beyond the buoy that marks where the sunken tank is supposed to be, but they’ve drifted quite a way off course. If we’re not careful we’ll have a fair walk on our hands when we get back to the beach – or a harder swim, flippers or no.

Fwoosh! The giant wave comes out of nowhere and throws me back against the coral. No, not the coral, against the rock, and a stack of fire coral, which isn’t really coral at all, but a jellyfish-like creature with a nasty sting. I don’t have much time to think about that, because I’m back underwater without my mask. Pulling myself angrily back onto the brain coral and securing my mask back onto my head, I examine my arm. There’s an ugly red weal running up the length of it, scored with white. It could just as easily be leprosy. Not only that, there’s also a similarly nasty scar on my lower back and cut across my right hand from where I grabbed the reef as the wave took me under. Oh yeah, and the covered in salt water, too. Time, I think, to beat a hasty retreat.

  
The beach is no friend of mine today. Two seconds on my front in the sand and there’s a stinging sensation all along my right-hand side. It’s not even my reef scars; it’s the sand, whipped up by the wind to scour my skin. Talk about a full-body workout! We’re going to have to retreat further than just the shore. I’m heading back to the pool. I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful for such a thing.

  

All the same, I don’t regret it for a second, even though the fire coral rash along my arm continues to pester me, some three days later. For another hour with the colorful denizens of the Red Sea, I’d do it all again. Tell me, though; is diving supposed to be such an ordeal every time, or is Butterfingers over here just as naive as ever? BB x

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