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Type 2 fun: my first snorkel in the Indian Ocean

· Travel,Expeditions,Conservation

My personality means that I never shy away from trips and experiences that I’m unsure about. I regularly travel and take part in activities without having any previous reference points of whether I’ll enjoy it, let alone whether I’ll be good at it. I dive in head first and to hell with the consequences. This has led to a mix of great, middling and downright awful experiences.

Some adventures are type 2 fun, and I think we need to talk about that a bit more. I’m concerned that some experiences can seem inaccessible, because individuals feel like they aren’t physically or mentally fit enough, or experienced enough, to nail it first time. Or perhaps because they try one experience and discover it’s not the immediately life-affirming experience that it has been portrayed to be by other people..

I’m here to tell you, we are not all immediately comfortable in every scenario. Sometimes it’s a perfect fit, other times it takes a bit of work. Sometimes it ends up never being fun while you are taking part and is great as an experience when you reflect on it afterwards. In some cases, your main takeaway is that you never want to do it again. All of these are valid and may be in stark contrast to the experience of your neighbour. We are all different and need to share the whole spectrum of stories, so we can all learn and grow. It might even help us weed out some of the awful-for-us experiences early.

Below is a write up from an experience I had in 2019 that pushed my boundaries, experience and stress levels. It’s not the only time that I’ve felt ‘out of my depth’, but it is probably one of the most extreme examples.

The context

I visited Mafia Island in January 2019 to take part in a whale shark and coral reef conservation trip organised by Love Her Wild. The island lies off the coast of Tanzania, south of Zanzibar, and is far less visited than it’s bigger, more developed cousin. Because of its location, historically Mafia has been a strategic stop for trade boats between East Asia and East Africa. It was also 'bought' by Germany in the late 1800s (buildings from this period can be seen on Chole Island) and then it was used by British troops in 1915. With support from the WWF, Mafia introduced the first marine park in Tanzania. The archipelago is currently governed by the Tanzania mainland.

Prior to this trip I had snorkelled a few times – the most memorable occasion being in a very calm area of the Arabian sea, where I spent several happy hours as a teenager chasing bright fish from one side of a bay to the other. This meant that in my mind ocean snorkelling was a calm, flat, warm experience. On all my snorkelling experiences, I'd entered on foot from the beach, rather than jumping from a boat, and there was no agenda. I'd never seen a whale shark before either. I'd heard they were quite big.

My trip to Mafia Island was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve ever had, but it didn’t start out that way...

Adrenaline is pumping through my body – I’m perched on the edge of the traditional wooden boat, feeling around for the snorkel and flippers I know are right by my feet. Directions are coming thick and fast – I’m repeating the order of actions I need to take in my head.

Fins on.

Mask dipped to prevent misting.

Wait for the call to gracefully pop finned feet over the side.

Get ready to jump.

Anticipation has been building for this moment for the whole of our whole journey out to this point. We are somewhere off the coast of Mafia Island – a small island south of Zanzibar. The Indian Ocean stretches out around us as far as we can see – a soft, almost clear, blue, but rough. The waves are bigger than I expected for a snorkelling trip, raising several feet above the bow of the boat and then falling away again.

I have only ever snorkelled in calm water and I’m feeling jittery. However, I’m surrounded by strangers who are laughing and joking like they haven’t noticed, confident and calm in the face of the swells. I regulate my breathing and perfect my poker face. It works to some extent. At least it works while we are just travelling, searching out the whale sharks, scanning the surrounding sea.

(Too) soon the expert local team have spotted our first whale shark. It’s time for action and I’m fumbling to put on my fins. It’s the first time, I tell myself. It will get easier. It better get easier – the plan is to do several swims per day for the next two weeks. This is a conservation trip to collect data on whale sharks in the area. I remember that I don’t just have to complete all the steps to getting in the water safely and smoothly, and then keep up with a whale shark. We also have a job to do. Estimate length, note any identifying features like damaged fins, take a photograph above the left pectoral fin so it can be identified from the unique spot pattern, notice any relevant behaviour and check if male or female (if possible). These details will be recorded online with Wildbook for Whale Sharks.

"While my brain is struggling to keep up,

everyone around me seems to know the drill"

"While my brain is struggling to keep up, everyone around me seems to know the drill – fluid movements allow them to prepare themselves to launch into the water while still continuing with excited background chatter. One, two, three, four. They are ready and throw their legs effortlessly over the side of the boat, dangling just above the surface of the water, prepared to jump in on cue in just the way we were taught. But this feels very different to being back at the local B&B, on the edge of the swimming pool.

"I am clumsy, slow, but somehow I’ve made it to the edge of the boat too. I sit, expectantly, alongside my comrades waiting for the call. “JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!” And with that the pillars sitting beside me disappear in perfect sync into the water below. I am panicked by the rapidness, the lack of preparation time, the urgency. I jump, awkwardly, and hit the water with force. It’s tepid, comfortable. Like jumping into a just-warm-enough bath. If baths were full of plankton and tiny jelly fish. As I force my mask into the water, I can only hear my own rapid breath.

We are trying to catch sight of a whale shark and, for all we know, this might be our only opportunity.

"But as quickly as I’m in, there are more directions… “BEHIND YOU! SWIM! SWIM! SWIM!” I take off after one of the strongest swimmers in our group and immediately regret it, how will I keep up? We are trying to catch sight of a whale shark and, for all we know, this might be our only opportunity.

"The fears catch up with me. What if I miss it because I can’t swim fast enough? What if I shouldn’t be here at all? All of a sudden I realise I am swallowing sea water. I clear my snorkel like I’ve been taught. Head out. Sharp breath outward. Still I just swallow water. Everyone is getting further and further away – the waves seem to be getting bigger and bigger. I’m not even sure how to shout out for help… I already can’t breathe, what will happen without my snorkel in.

I’m not experienced enough for this.

I shouldn’t be here.

They’ve all left me.

I shouldn’t be here.

I can’t breathe.

I shouldn’t be here.

My breathing is getting more and more shallow, and I’m experiencing that cold dread feeling. I try to swim towards what I can see of the group, head down into the water, as fast as my legs will go. There is so much sea water in my mouth. I’m sucking it into my lungs with every breath in. I pull my head up and realise that if anything they are further away, chasing an elusive whale shark. I might drown here, in the beautiful Indian Ocean. On my first day in the water. I’m scared…. And I’m embarrassed. Everyone seems to be able to do this except me.

My now rapidly processing brain decides that I have no pride left to protect. I am not getting out of this situation myself. I decide that if I’m going to drown anyway, I may as well try to shout for help. I pry the snorkel tube from my mouth and shout out for the group leader before shoving it uncomfortably back in my mouth. I only manage her name in the gap, and she turns in the water and looks at me quizzically. I realise that she can’t tell that I’m floundering, drowning, hopelessly out of my depth in more ways than just the literal sense. I’m going to have to be more specific… Out: “I need help!” Mouthpiece back in. This time she understands and a flicker of concern crosses her face. She waves for the boat and one of the local guides is next to me in the water almost immediately. Within seconds I am being towed by my wrist through the water to the safety of the boat.

Even once I’ve dragged myself back on board, up the handmade wooden ladder, I discover breathing is still not easy. My throat burns from the saltwater. Later I throw up most of breakfast with a large quantity of the sea, my system clearing itself of the unwanted loads of salt.

The choppy conditions contain unusually high levels of plankton and shrimp, which means there are four or five sharks in quick succession very near the surface.

I sit on the boat and watch others on the trip swim happily around with whale sharks in all directions. The choppy conditions contain unusually high levels of plankton and shrimp, which means there are four or five sharks in quick succession very near the surface. The experience from the boat is arguably as good as the experience in the water on this particular day. I don’t know at this point, but it is not normal. For the rest of the trip, the water is far calmer, the whale sharks less frequent, deeper, harder to spot.

Safe on the boat, my heart rate has returned to almost normal. My body might have been quite easy to cleanse, my mind is not. On the journey back, with held-back tears pulsating behind my eyes, I reflect on how foolish I was to join a trip with such limited experience and how stupid I am to not be able to use a snorkel properly. This is not how I imagined my trip starting and I wonder if this adventure is really for me. It might already be time to go home or at least return to the safety of the side of the pool."

Getting back in the water

It took me several days to get back in the water after that experience, but I joined the team on the traditional dhow every day. (It's well established that I love being on a boat). When I did jump back in (literally and figuratively), it turned out that my borrowed snorkel had a hole in it – a fact that only came to light when it was used by someone far more experienced than me. I was literally breathing sea water in through the side of it. Weirdly I found this comforting. Probably because it meant that I wasn’t just hopeless and unable to follow direction – there was a perfectly logical reason why I couldn’t use my kit effectively like everyone else.

Of course, my experiences and feelings at the time of my 'incident' were not necessarily matched by the reality. A truly drowning person would not be able to call for help. There were also a number of people on the boat keeping an eye on everyone in the water. Plus others also found the conditions challenging that day, so my internal vision of everyone happily swimming around while I vomited up my fruit breakfast was not accurate either.

This didn't change the fact that I experienced real fear that day. My expectations were not met by the reality. To turn my trip around, I was forced to face my fears and build my skills, and slowly it paid off.

Once I was back in the water with functioning kit, each jump it got easier. About a week in, I was rushing like the others to get ready to jump. I like to think I was slightly more graceful as time went on. In between jumps I stood with Yusef, one of our guides, on the bow of the boat riding the waves and looking for the whale sharks. (Turns out I was only good at finding sea grass, which he assured me was unfortunately not a job.) One day, I jumped in completely alone to attempt to swim with the wild dolphins (they saw me coming, rolled their eyes and took off).

By the end of the trip, I didn’t want to leave. Always at home on the local boat, even in the roughest weather, I sat on the side of the dhow staring out to sea and wondering how I could spend more time doing these projects and helping protect more of our natural world.

Other experiences on Mafia

I plan to write more blogs about my time on Mafia Island, including the (eventual) wonderful experience of swimming with whale sharks. I have pages and pages of journal notes – I wrote up my experiences every day.

In the meantime, there are two locally-owned and run businesses that deserve a shout out – especially during such difficult times for everyone working in travel and tourism.

Afro's Whale Shark Safari, Kilindoni, Mafia Island

While searching for whale sharks off of Mafia, the amazing team at Afro’s Whale Shark Safari kept us happy and safe. After I lost my confidence, one of the team jumped with me for a whole day, holding my hand and making sure that I had the best experience possible. The operation is locally owned and run, and is struggling at the moment due to the impact of coronavirus. You can support their crowdfunder here.

Bustani B&B, Kilindoni, Mafia Island

I also stayed in Bustani B&B, which was a real treat. It's run by a friendly local team, with pretty gardens, great food and even a swimming pool (an absolute luxury on the island). I stayed extra days on either side of the whale shark project to unwind and I was so glad I did.

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