It is a glorious afternoon.
It has the sort of light that deserves to have a few moments taken to stop, breathe it in, and absorb the possibility it brings; to make a memory of the way the sun dances across the rippling water, its golden light warped in the twisted glass waves, sprinkling it with flashes of white; to relish the cool breeze that sweeps across your skin, providing a moments relief from the suns unyielding rays.
Sitting on the dive boat that’s floating above the Snuba Reef in Riviera Maya, Cancun, I am precisely doing all of these things, drinking in the sight and searing it to memory. My boyfriend, Gerry, however, is not – he’s too distracted with what we’re about to do.
Today we are scheduled for a deep scuba dive, and this is Gerry’s first time wearing the scuba kit. We only arrived in Mexico at the start of the week, and one of our first excursions has brought us here to Xcaret eco-archaeological Park – a charming tour of traditions and nature to discover the Mayan jungle and culture of Mexico.
It’s located on the seashore of Riviera Maya and takes us out to the Snuba Reef – a Barracuda Reef in the Caribbean Sea. We got to pick the activities we wanted to do when we got here, but as soon as we realised scuba diving was an option, nothing else could compete. So we chose that along with a fast boat ride called the Adrenalina and the sharks interactive adventure.
Swimming with sharks – now that’s another story for another time.
I can’t wait to go under, but as I look at Gerry I can see he’s already practising breathing through his mouthpiece. We’ve just put our gear on, and I’m slapping my flippers off the floor in the boat, getting used to the feel of them on my feet.
I’m not scared – I’m excited. I mean, what can actually go wrong at 30 meters underwater?
Yeah… Maybe it’s best I don’t voice that thought to Gerry.
But still, the water here is a clear blue – I can see fish swimming aimlessly below just looking over the side of the boat – and famous for their reefs, abundance of turtles and variety of species of fish. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect spot to “go deep”.
There are about 10 of us on the boat and we’re swimming in pairs with a guide. As they attach our cords and air tanks, I can see we are each attached to a floating raft by a cord so those on the boat can spot us in the water, so it’s not like we can get lost. We’re safe.
Almost too safe for me, I thought. Against all reason (not to mention the fact I was an inexperienced diver myself), I wanted the freedom to roam the ocean bottom without a cord pulling me back up. But I knew better than to suggest that.
We stand and walk over the edge of the boat. The kit weighs a ton so it’s almost a relief to jump in the sea. As always in Mexico, the water is practically lukewarm, so Gerry and I relax until our instructor comes over.
A little Mexican woman swims up beside us and grabs on to our raft (I say little but she’s probably around my height of five foot three, give or take an inch or two, but most people call me small, so it’s nice to be around someone of similar height).
She tells us her name is Andrea, and she lives up to my imagination of the dive instructor aesthetic: cheery, happy, laid back, yet stressing the importance that we understand everything, how it all works, and explaining the universal underwater hand signals.
As Andrea was reminding us of the importance in staying calm and going over the hand signals for a third time (thumbs up for everything is fine, shaking hand for I have a slight problem, remembering not to panic and splash about, pointing up meaning I need to go back up and the universal “ok” sign to ask if we’re alright) I decided we were in good hands.
After a few false starts and needing time to adjust to the mouthpiece and air tank, down we went.
10 meters… 12 meters… I looked at the reefs below through the mask, watching as they became clearer the further we kicked into the blue.
This was now the deepest Gerry and I had ever been (officially) and Andrea checks back to see if we are still up for going further. We definitely are.
We drop further still.
And then I do the one thing that anyone in my position would have done, the equivalent of looking down when scaling a cliff; I look up, tilting my head to peer through the thermocline to the world above. It doesn’t feel as though we’ve swam very far, but the raft looks miles away above us, and our cords are pulled tight as we drag it along with us.
If I was expecting any sort of panic, it doesn’t come. I could not have felt more happy and relaxed, elated by the serenity and calm.
Reaching maximum depth, Andrea flashes us an “ok?” sign, and I nod, ginning – I imagine – somewhat maniacally. I look over at Gerry it’s like looking at a mirror, the same expression reflecting back at me.
We swim a little further, and the ocean floor that we seem so close to drops, giving way to much deeper and wider reef underneath, it’s phenomenal, and the amount of fish in all colours and sizes we can see is remarkable.
Now, even 30 meters deep, I wish again we could ditch the cord and go deeper.
When I look at Gerry, he draws me a love heart in the underwater ripples, and I blow him a kiss from over my mouthpiece. Because why not say “I love you” underwater in the Caribbean Sea when you get the chance?
I can’t actually see if he’s smiling, but I don’t have to – it shows all over his face.
Suddenly I see Andrea waving at us to get our attention, and when I look at her she’s pointing down to the ocean floor. I struggle to see what she’s looking at, but Gerry’s clearly excited. I soon find that we’re swimming with huge barracuda.
When I look further down, I see a small fish, a tiny twinkling speck, like a star, but then it grows larger. It turns into a radiant sun of purple and orange and comes rushing at us only to swerve at the last moment.
Other fish are like sinuous ribbons of fire that coiled into bright patterns, and there are schools of tiny fish that flash by us like sparks. Down below, the colours are paler, and soon I can see an enormous shape blundering past down there, like the sea-bottom itself moving heavily.
But perhaps the most remarkable, is when a school of fish dart towards us, surrounding us to the point where I can’t even see Gerry or Andrea beside me. I’m too fascinated to even move (and slightly afraid that one of my flippers will kick a fish) but as I reach my hand out, they swim around it, as if it’s their way of saying hello. The way a dog would sniff a person’s hand.
All too soon, Andrea is signalling to us that it is time to come up. I’m not sure how long we were actually down for, but it only felt like minutes.
Right arm extended, my hand is the first to break back through the looking glass, the surface of the water a mirror below which an alternative universe conceals itself; a place full of fractured light and colour.
If it hadn’t been for the feel of the water gliding by against my skin, I might have imagined that we were up in the sky, with meteors and comets blazing past. But these were sea creatures, shining in the underwater light, the luminous life that blazes beneath the Caribbean Sea.
Back on board, we strip off our kit as we wait for the other pairs to be called up. Laughing as I take the mouthpiece out and remove my mask, I can hear Gerry laugh beside me. The genuine amazement and elation of pure joy is all over his face.
“That’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” he tells me.
I couldn’t agree more.