Following my arrival at the dive center, I was led away and told that my group that week was to be a group of HSA divers. This was to be my first time disability diving and although I was to be on board, it was mainly as a supervisor and less of a guide. How do you make someone with a physical disability feel disabled? Make it really hard for them to be able to get on and off a boat with a wheelchair, or even move around on the boat. As a representative of the dive center, it was fairly embarrassing from my side to be put on a tiny boat with 8 people in wheelchairs, needless to say not all could actually sit in their wheelchairs and some had to sit on the floor. I spent most of the morning apologising. The dive center should have given us a bigger boat, but this was 11 years ago now and things were different then and I seriously don’t think anyone had even considered wheel chair access.
I helped as best I could and once we got everyone on the boat, off we went to a local, but pretty dive site. The divers on the boat mainly consisted of young men, all between the ages of 18-25 and all were paralysed from the waist down largely due to motorbike accidents and one from a climbing accident. There was only one lady diver, she was tetraplegic. This meant she was paralysed from the 3rd vertebrae down. This was the result of a car accident. She could talk and that was it. She had no sensation in the rest of her body. As she could only ‘talk’ and this is one thing that you can’t do under water, it had taken a year for the HSA Instructor to convince her to do her open water course; but finally he had.
Before her HSA Instructor prepared her for the dive, (in which she was to perform the mask removal skill and the equivalent of the fin pivot), he took me aside and asked if I could help out by supervising the dive underwater, and be on call if he needed my help. Not fully understanding the fundamental nature of this task, I agreed. Next came the long list of reactions that I had to watch out for if she paniced, or if her body reacted negatively to the experience. To be honest I was so numb with fear, I don’t think I heard much of the list, never mind remembered it. All I really remember is the HSA Instructor telling me to watch for his signal if he needed me. I also had a clear idea of what panic looked like, so at least I would see that if nothing else.
Once she was prepared, I descended first. The water was warm and we were close to the reef,so close that the water was crystal clear and everything glittered from the reflection of the sun rays above. The light bouncing off the reef and the boat gave the surroundings an ethereal quality. There was silence, apart from the regulation of my breathing that in turn regulated my buoyancy. I floated, still, surrounded by speechless beauty. Above, I watched the two descend until they were level with me and we remained in no more than 5-6 meters of water; I stayed approximately 5 meters away. I didn’t want to be too close, just in case I put this incredibly courageous woman off.
I didn’t know what to expect, but after the long list of things that could go wrong, I was definitely expecting the worst. I truly couldn’t have been more gob-smacked by her dive. Once they were down, the HSA Instructor adjusted her buoyancy using her BCD and there she remained, in an upright position, controlling her own buoyancy, using her own breath. She did the equivalent of a fin pivot and held her buoyancy much better than most of my able-bodied guests. But what totally blew me away was what came next.
It was time for the mask removal.
I prepared myself again, for the worst. I watched the Instructor confirm the skill with her and then proceeded to remove her mask. She remained without her mask for a short time, before the Instructor began to replace it and…I wept. Until that point, I didn’t think it was possible to cry under water. It was a truly moving moment, one that I have carried with me for the rest of my life. Without her mask she controlled her buoyancy beautifully and looked serene. Her hair flowed around her face, the sun reflecting all around her; she looked like an angel and no one except me and her Instructor would have known that she was disabled. She had such perfect control over her buoyancy, she never moved from her spot, half a meter above the reef; even without her mask on. On land she was unable to move her body and under water she was in total control of it.
Mask removal is one of the hardest and most uncomfortable skills a student learning how to scuba dive has to do, and water in a new diver’s mask is the quickest route to panic them. The odds were stacked so highly against my diving angel, diving with a disability and it didn’t faze her at all. I was astounded by her courage, so much so it moved me to tears. This became the story that I would tell to all my able-bodied students in the future, if she could do it, they had absolutely NO excuse!