By Kim Westerskov
Image by Pete Mesley
Cellphones don’t work underwater.
We might see dolphins.
There’s no junk mail, gst, traffic jams, TV ads, motorways, mission statements, nappies, fast food outlets, EFTPOS queues, tele-marketers, road rage, whingeing kids, foreign exchange rates, flow charts, politicians, or ‘real TV’.
We might get to swim with the dolphins.
You’ll come home feeling great – and deliciously tired. Dog tired, whacked, exhausted. Not brain-tired and stressed like after a bad day at the office, but an every-part-of-your-body tired. A good feeling.
It’s remarkably safe. A USA government study found that diving had fewer injuries than swimming, tennis, volleyball, basketball, soccer, or even ten-pin bowling. The ‘danger-sharks-deep-hero’ image is largely a macho myth developed by males because… well, we’re like that I suppose. I feel safer underwater than I do driving on the motorway.
On a good day, there’s nothing better than being out at sea.
You’ll never be bored. Ive made countless dives nearly every year since 1970, and Ive only ever had one boring dive.
Probably the best reason of all is very hard to put into words that make any kind of sense. It’s something to do with the experience of being suspended, weightless in the water. There is little – if any – sound. Just a feeling of soaring, free and weightless. Of flying – without wings or parachute. Of an enveloping blue universe that is both nothingness and yet everything at the same time. A blueness that is the source of life as we know it and the home of most of our planet’s life forms. Both the environment and the nourishment. Perhaps the feeling of being in the womb.
Where on land can you get really close to wild animals, free and unafraid? Underwater, true wildlife experiences are easily yours: fish and other animals so close you can touch them, fish schools sometimes so dense they block out the light. Such experiences are much more common in marine reserves where animals have not learnt to be wary of humans. Marine reserves are wonderful – many of my very best dives have been in marine reserves. Visit them and support them.
acques Cousteau rated our Poor Knights Islands (off New Zealand’s Northland east coast) as one of the world’s top 10 dive sites. And that was back before the area became a full marine reserve. It’s even better now.
Going diving beats jogging, aerobics, pumping weights, dieting, weeding, supermarket shopping, mowing lawns, sanding windowsills, vacuum cleaning (I’ve never liked vacuum cleaning!) … and most other pastimes I’ve tried.
The whole family can join in. Children of any age (up to 90) can put on a mask and explore beneath the sea’s surface. Children as young as 10 are now being taught SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diving in New Zealand. Old age is no great barrier either. Renowned German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl (whose film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games is still regarded as a classic) learnt to dive at the age of 70. A few years later she produced a handsome coffee table book of underwater photographs called ‘Coral Gardens’.
Nowhere in New Zealand is more than 130 km from the sea, and nearly everybody lives within an hour or two’s drive of some good diving spot.
It’s not competitive. You do it at your own pace.
If you like it enough, you can make a career out of it. There wasnt a career path called ‘Underwater and Sea Photographer’ when I was growing up – so I made one up. So have many others. Career possibilities include those of dive instructor, dive guide, charter boat skipper or crew, scientist, dive shop owner/staff, serious ‘commercial’ diver, film maker, specialty dive operations owner… and a whole lot more.
It’s socially acceptable.
It’s also social. The social life of many Kiwi divers revolves around their dive club. There are well-established, flourishing dive clubs right around New Zealand, typically complete with clubroom, bar, and programme of regular dive trips and social nights.
Diving can take you to wonderful places you might not see otherwise: volcanic White Island and the many other small islands scattered around our coastline, Fiordland, Stewart Island… and maybe (when you’ve paid off your dive gear) the tropics.
You can do it anywhere around the world that you can find water. Since over 70% of our planet’s surface is ocean, that leaves you a lot of scope. There’s also lakes, rivers, freshwater springs, flooded quarries, submerged cave systems…
You never know what you’re going to see – which is why you’ll never be bored. If you go for a walk anywhere on land, you know pretty much what you’re likely to see. Underwater you will keep on being surprised for as long as you keep diving. New species are being discovered all the time in New Zealand seas (a new species of fish every fortnight, on average), many by divers. Some of these have been named after their discoverer eg. the exquisite long-spined sea urchin Diadema palmeri was named after Bill Palmer, a keen Whangarei diver.
Days spent at sea are not taken off a man’s – or woman’s – allotted lifespan. I think it was a fisherman that first said that about fishing, but it must be equally true of diving, or just being out at sea. Which brings me to another point: I think I’ve finally figured out why people go fishing. Yes I know we males have a deeply embedded hunter instinct, but there’s more to it than that. It’s simply that being out at sea (or anywhere out in nature) is good for us – that we need time to unwind, to let the wind ruffle our hair, to let sea and sky soothe our soul. Deep down most of us know this, but we let ‘urgent’ things get in the way, day after day.
So I head off with a bag or two of cameras and dive gear – and call it work. It’s a shame we feel the need to justify unwinding and ‘re-creating’ ourselves with such lame excuses as ‘I’m off fishing for the day’ or ‘I’m off photographing’, but we do. Carefully making our way past the vacuum cleaner and unmown lawns.