Voyaging cat doubles as a dive school

We were anchored in Nungwe, Zanzibar, on Africa’s east coast, when my husband, Michael, announced, “We’re taking diving lessons!”

Several dive companies service the holiday bungalows and hotels in this village on Zanzibar’s northern tip, where we’d been anchored a few weeks on Andromeda, our 44-foot catamaran. I assumed we’d be taking lessons in one of these company’s onshore facilities and going offshore in its dive boats.

Michael’s answer surprised me. “Lessons will be on Andromeda.” He’d met Pete Midgen, instructor and owner of Dive Sensation, a Nungwe dive operation, at the bar the night before.

Michael had arranged for Pete and his girlfriend, Marisa, a dive master, to conduct the Professional Association of Diving Instructors open-water course on our boat. We would anchor at a reef and learn to dive. We’d be gone three nights and four days. If time permitted, we would do the PADI advanced open-water course, too.

Pete agreed to give a substantial discount on the course fee, because we were providing the vessel and the food. Pete would provide the equipment (supplementing our own wetsuits) and the learning materials.

Before departing, there were instructional videos and DVDs to watch, and manuals to read. Pete explained the test for both PADI open-water and advanced open-water certificates includes a written part on dive theory and a practical part conducted under water.

In addition, we had to provision the boat with enough food and drink for six people for four days. Along with Pete and Marisa, two friends joined us. When not diving or relaxing, they were charged with keeping watch and retrieving us in the dinghy if we surfaced far from the mother ship.

The morning we sailed, Pete’s dive boat delivered tanks; a trunkload of BCDs (inflatable life vests with breathing paraphernalia), extra snorkels, dive tables, dive computers, dive compasses, spare parts, and finally, a portable gasoline-driven dive compressor that sat, like a large Buddha, on the stern of our boat. Luckily, our catamaran has a wide transom platform, ideal for this kind of activity.

Pete decided we’d anchor near Mnemba, an island off the northeast of Zanzibar. It has a number of good beginner and advanced dive sites that include differing terrain and depths, plus walls, plate coral and a large colony of sea turtles.

I was excited but nervous about trying this new sport. I had never dived. Michael had done some diving 30 years ago. I was a veteran snorkeler and was, frankly, happy skimming the surface, looking down on the fishy aquarium below.

After an hour’s brisk sail, we approached Mnemba. It’s a private island with a swank hotel. Luckily, it’s the unobtrusive eco-friendly kind for the super-rich, with indigenous-looking grass huts hidden among the palm trees. Bill Gates and family apparently stayed there, to give you an idea of its exclusivity and cost. We felt lucky to be dipping in the same waters, at a fraction of the price.

We anchored in sand a short distance from the reef. Luckily it was calm. This was the ocean-facing side of Zanzibar, so the sea can kick up with the prevailing wind.

We weren’t alone. Other dive boats came with snorkelers and divers from the local hotels and dive operations; dhowloads of local fishermen arrived to harvest the waters adjacent the marine park; park rangers visited daily to collect their fees. Because we anchored overnight on our own boat, we could be the first in and the last out of the water each day. Unlike those who came for a brief visit, we often had the reef to ourselves; except, of course, for the schools of tropical fish.

The first task of diving I learned is getting dressed. Suiting up in the ridiculously undersized wetsuit &mdash that’s supposed to stretch and does, but with excruciating reluctance &mdash is a trial. Think of stretching an extra-small latex glove over your body. It’s a tight squeeze, and I wondered whether it would affect my brain function under water. After what I’d read about possible underwater mishaps resulting from bad air, bad equipment, the bends or nitrogen narcosis, I wanted none of my faculties compromised by ill-fitting equipment. The tanks, BCD vest and regulator are heavy and unwieldy when not in the water.

To get the PADI open-water certification, I had to descend underwater and complete a number of exercises to ensure I could cope with a crisis, should one arise.

First, Pete made sure I could take my regulator out of my mouth, clear it and put it back in again. Next I had to remove my regulator and breathe on Pete’s extra on his air tank.

The difficulties started with the mask drills. I needed to flood my mask and clear it; all underwater and all without gagging or losing my contacts and getting blinded by stinging salt water. If that weren’t enough, I had to take off my mask underwater, leave it off for one minute and put it back on.

There were lots of other little doggie-through-the-hoop tricks I had to perform, but I got stuck on the mask part. I felt suddenly very claustrophobic and started to panic. The breathing piece in my mouth felt like it had swollen to twice its size. It was getting hard to breath. I could have sworn this was what suffocating felt like. With these thoughts rushing through my mind, I became convinced I would be much happier on the surface, not 15 feet below, but what was that about ascending too quickly and my lungs blowing up?

Marisa and Pete said my eyes just got bigger and bigger, and I started signaling with my thumb that I was going up. But Pete wasn’t having any of this wimpy bailout business.

In response to my “I’m surfacing” signal, he gave me the “no go” sign.

I was peeved, understandably. I’m not breathing, and this guy won’t let me go up for air. Pete is a wise man and knew better than I that if I went up, that would be the end of my diving for good.

With his dive student rebelling, Pete ditched the mask drills, took me by the hand and swam to the reef. It was the right approach. Distract me with some pretty fish.

Pete and I sailed past turtles and triggerfish. We hovered above thick formations of plate coral and sea anemones waving in the current. We checked out moray eels hiding in holes and saw stingrays shadowing along the bottom. We swam among angel, damsel, and unicorn and parrot fish in all their brilliant glory. We saw the serious-looking groupers skulking for grub. We swam with snappers and goat fish. We spied a lion fish fluttering past in an outfit resembling a Dior creation in striped silk organza: definitely from this year’s spring collection. It was a beautiful introductory dive and I was hooked.

I didn’t want to swim back to the boat.

Mary Bradley and her husband, Michael Dull, are voyaging on the African coast aboard their catamaran Andromeda.

By Ocean Navigator