Couchfish Week 7: On learning to dive

Couchfish Week 7: On learning to dive


People say they remember where they were when they heard that Lady Di died, or the 9/11 attacks. Me? Yes, I have those, but I also remember when I first watched Jaws. I didn’t get in the ocean for about a year after that.

Years later, friends would roll their eyes—kind of like how a Great White does just before it delivers an underwater appendectomy—whenever I trotted out the Jaws excuse.

Not a bad spot to learn to dive. Video: Samantha Brown.

I’d always reply “one day”.

That day came on the Togean Islands in Sulawesi. As with many first–timers to the islands, we went for a week, but stayed for three. Decamped at Island Retreat, time went slow. Swim, eat, jump off the pier, rinse and repeat.

At the time, the resort had an English Dive Instructor and we became friends. We’d chat about all sorts of stuff—everything except diving. Day by day, we edged closer to the question:

“Stuart, you’ve been living in Southeast Asia for 20+ years—why don’t you dive?”

Seems as good a morning as any. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Then the morning came. I’d read the books and checked the gear. The two of us got on one of the resort’s wooden boats and motored off the beach maybe thirty metres. My kids sat in the prow and cheered as I back-rolled into the crystal water—not a Great White in sight.

We floated. I fitted my mask, checked my weight belt and all the other gizmos. Then I made the OK sign, waved to the kids and sunk below.

There are few things like taking that first breath underwater. As many Australians, I learned to swim young, but they never teach you to breath underwater. Sitting crosslegged on the sand, light dancing through, sound distorted. There is just nothing like it.

The Togeans. No photoshopping required. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I looked up and could make out the fractured outlines of the kids peering over the wooden prow. Watching us two humans sitting on the bottom of the sea. How weird is that?

We were living rubber time on the island so it took me a week to get my certification. Then all I wanted to do was dive.

Once qualified we’d boat each day out to an atoll to dive. There wasn’t a diver other than my instructor and I for miles. For the nervous learner, the conditions couldn’t have been more perfect.

Jump in here? Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The closest atoll started at maybe three metres down and the wall dropped to the centre of the earth. Sheer. Off to the other side, the Big Blue.

One time an eagle ray drifted in from The Blue. I’ve never seen something so close to magnificent levitation in my life. So graceful and elegant. I was a metre off the wall, perhaps twenty metres down, watching it drift past like a hallucination.

Other days, a German family would join us. The son was as cocky as they come—painful. An Italian free-diver also joined us. I loved watching the snorkellers above us. I’d think of them through the eyes of a Great White eyeing throw downs. 

The colours are prettier underwater. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We were at about 25 metres when the German kid found a huge lobster in a crevice of the wall. Its luminescent white antennae swaying in the current. I say luminescent, because once you are at depth the colours all change. The reds glow, hints of purple pulsate—green and lime fusions you could never paint without chemicals.

The kid signalled to the Italian he had found something interesting. The Italian free-dived down. He put his hand on the kid’s shoulder enjoying the lobster then signalled he needed to go up. After all he still needed to breath.

“No I don’t want to take that German kid out on the boat again!” Photo Stuart McDonald.

Ignorant or unthinking (most likely both), the kid offered his mouthpiece to the Italian. The Italian took it. Later he said he just wasn’t thinking. Anyone who dives knows how dangerous what he did was. Even I did.

Realising his error, the Italian left us, trying to vacate his lungs on the way up. Like a martini, he was lifted, but shaken, by the experience. Back in the boat, my instructor tore strips off both the kid and the Italian. “You could have killed him” I remember him yelling.

Diving is amazing and serious in equal measure.

Seemed a slightly inappropriate celebrationary dinner, but it was delish. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Days later, just my instructor and I did a night dive off a small island out of the bay. While the colours of the atoll wall were amazing, nature’s light show in the dark took it to a whole new level. 

I can only describe them as fairies. They’d float past us, and we’d highlight them with a torch. Their beauty magical. I felt like I was on the set for Avatar. Everything glowed against a satin backdrop. I could have sat there for hours.


Years later I had my “Italian moment” in the water off an island near Kota Kinabalu and never dove again. By good fortune, my only “wound” was losing the feeling in half my face for six months. Glass half full and all that.

Diving is amazing and serious, but the amazing bit is right up there and I’ll forever be glad that I gave it a go.

The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.