Saturday, 14 July 2012


The literal sense of 'overwhelm' is to submerge or sink.  'Save me, O God, for . . .I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me!'  The past week I've been overwhelmed both literally and in the more common metaphorical sense of experiencing more things than I can process at once, as I have just learned to scuba dive.

It is something I'd wanted to do for a long time, but the reality was vastly greater than my imaginings.  To begin with, I hadn't anticipated the exhiliration of descent: one sinks slowly beneath the waves and keeps breathing!  It defies millions of years of evolutionary history, and the shock is glorious.  Then there's the weightlessness: one hovers mid-water, rising and falling with a breath, flying in a way otherwise experienced only in dreams.  Finally there's the world undersea--and here I was particularly lucky, because I was diving in the Red Sea, where the coral gardens form one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.

This is where the metaphorical overwhelming comes in.  Normally arrival in a new place is exhausting and enlivening at the same time.  The ordinary is replaced by the unfamiliar, and the mind races, tracking everything--landscape, buildings, plants and animals, smells--comparing them to the familiar ones at home.  Time seems to pass more slowly as attention speeds up.  Descending underwater for the first time, however, there is so much that is new and strange that the mind can't process it.  The landscape is stranger than anything in Star Wars: pinnacles which bulge out overhead, covered in multi-coloured fans and corals like exposed brains, swarming with jewel-like fish, so many of them that at first it seems impossible to sort them.  Everywhere one looks is something extraordinary, and the mind is overpowered, unable to distinguish between the commonplace and the exotic, the significant and the trivial, released into a child-like wonder at everything.

By the end of the week I was beginning to make distinctions again: those fish are common, but that one is unusual; look under that ledge, there might be lionfish! I suspect that with experience I'd start to feel as expert as some of the other divers I met--but I very much doubt I could ever feel jaded.  They certainly didn't: the woman with 656 dives in her log seemed just as enthusiastic as me with my 7 or 8.

Diving in the Red Sea is popular--probably too much so, for the safety of the reefs.  I was told that there used to be corals close to the beaches, but that they were all killed by the process of building all the tourist hotels which now make Hurghada and its environs a 60 km long building site.  Now divers go out to the reefs by boat, and six or seven dive boats frequently moored at the same spot--even in these days when tourism in Egypt is suffering.  All along the coast are hotels with swimming pools, shops selling souvenirs, restaurants and bars.  Most of the guests at these hotels don't dive, but for those who do diving is readily available, and not all the operators are as responsible and careful as those who introduced me to the world underwater. (For the record--since one of the pleasures of blogging is being able to acknowledge debts--I am very grateful to Regaldive, to the Divers' Lodge at Hurghada, and to my able instructor Reda Elshishtawy, who took the photographs.) One does worry about how well these marvels can survive, between the pressures of climate change and the careless minority of sightseers.  Their loss would be inestimable, like the destruction of a great museum or superlative cathedral--worse, because we would have records of the art works lost, but the reefs are living things which could never be restored.