healing powers of scuba diving

healing powers of scuba diving

by Janice Nigro

Chocolate. Friends. Work. All valid motivators for travel. There was no Godiva in Norway except at the airport, although I have to wonder what my choices would have been if I had been living in Ulaanbaatar. My friends live in or are from places I want to visit. Scientific meetings have taken me to Maui, Madrid, and Roma where there are also chocolate and friends. And the big one-work took me to Norway for seven years. But those are easy travel choices to make-safe ones. When I was a child, I did not make the choices, but we did travel. In summers, we were let loose in the back of a station wagon (not sure this word exists any longer) with a pile of pillows, and we would drive west for two weeks. Or fly and then drive. And Christmas in Florida was always a 10- to 12-day intermezzo from the brutal Midwest winter.

It gets harder when you have to choose where to go as an adult for leisure, especially as a single female. I am not sure why, but even though I have traveled extensively and love it, I still have a serious problem with actually doing it. It is not for a lack of places that I want to see; it is having the courage to be somewhere completely different than where I am. Where I am living at the moment, Los Angeles, is quite a bit different than where I just was, Bergen, Norway, however.


I find myself saving money more for travel and not as much for “things”, stable things like cars and houses. This approach to life limits potential travel partners, mostly due to the time factor, so the reason I find it difficult to execute my travel plans is generally because I will be traveling alone. There are some terrific advantages to solo travel as a female, though.

I am often just absorbed into a larger group of people. I met two Italians on a coastal hike way above the sea many years ago. I suddenly felt very alone when they approached me though. I thought they might have bad intentions and then conveniently throw me over the cliff into the glorious sea far below. Or maybe they were just together. It was neither of these scenarios, and it turned into a spectacular day of trying to communicate in some English and some of my very poor Italian high above the Mediterranean Sea, just the three of us alone.

But the reason I was even there, though, was because of “delusione di amore” as my malady was translated into Italian. A broken heart. I felt that no matter how many times I had proven that I could travel on my own successfully, and have fun, I required some kind of shock therapy to get me to go. Somehow delusioni di amore (plural for broken heart) or frankly di vita (of life) was what finally activated me to plan a trip. Well, and sometimes it was just the winter weather in summer in Norway.

Having a list of the “generic” dive destinations, made it somewhat easier to choose places to travel to. Maybe it is silly to admit at all that romantic disappointments motivated me to travel around the world, to New Zealand and Australia, Fiji, French Polynesia, St. Croix, and well a very long tour in Europe that eventually led me to the Seychelles (I guess this is the positive thing I got out of a great dinner that suddenly went perfectly badly after an odd declaration about hair color-I guess I have to say thank-you).

When you look at that list though, my broken heart ironically inspired me to travel to some of the most romantic places on Earth, like it was driving me to couple with someone anyway. In French Polynesia, I felt that I had bought myself a honeymoon, a very expensive one, one where I should not close my eyes for one instant because of the price, and while I vacillated on how great or not so great it was to have a beautiful bungalow to myself, I got there and the diving was spectacular. Diving makes you immune to the trauma of a broken heart (in fact a lot of things), even when the restaurant on your motu announces that you are the one woman there without a husband. Yes, I thought, that is funny, because I am also a female who did not need a husband to get me to this motu.

Eventually though, dive travel becomes a self perpetuating situation because everywhere you go, you either want to return there, you have gained enough confidence in your skills to try another liveaboard in a different place, or you meet a lot of people who have been to more places than you have ever read about. In essence, diving becomes the driver of your travels, and the cultural experience that accompanies it, is a gigantic bonus.

This broken heart syndrome ended once I guess…I fell instead for scuba diving. The caveat though is it seems just as easy to get yourself into romantic trouble again while on the dive holiday. It is usually an exotic, romantic place, which requires strenuous physical activity to be undertaken with a guide who is often a man with an accent (or not necessarily an accent). Certain instances, like surviving a challenging dive, will make you want to cling to your dive guide like some kind of starlet in a corny Hollywood film of adventure. The male guides must know this.

Once I ended up on an island in the midst of reconstruction after a devastating hurricane. It never occurred to me before the trip that an island population could be so gender biased, as men, most of whom were construction workers, were absolutely everywhere. For a long time after that trip, my friends teasingly tracked natural disasters around the world for me.

There are also many unguarded moments due to the nature of the sport. For example, a guide might politely take your hand underwater in order to help you maintain depth for your safety stop or to keep you from blowing away in a blasting current.

I did not quite realize when I started, the impact that diving would have on so many aspects of my life. Add to this an art form, underwater photography, and there is an endless list of places and reasons to travel for scuba diving alone. I no longer needed inspiration to travel; I just needed time and money.

In a funny twist of fate then, I decided to move to Norway, which could not possibly be farther from a tropical paradise. The country has annexed an island in the south, but so far south it is in fact nearly in the Antarctic. I always wondered how it could be so, that Norwegians claimed for their own, another island that is glacier covered, when the French, Dutch, and Portuguese all managed to include beautiful islands near the equator as part of their governing territory. I mean it is possible for a French citizen to just go work in Tahiti and to speak French. I do not even think humans inhabit Bouvet Island.

My salary however was reasonable, and I frugally made my lunches, so in theory I could pay to travel far enough to dive in warm oceans. Holiday time was not a consideration before I moved to Europe, but one that I whole-heartedly embraced once I got there. There is always holiday time in Norway; it is even illegal not to take your holiday time (five weeks!). I am probably the only person Norwegian administrators might have ever had potentially to turn in. So on the second point, time, I now had a legal issue if I did not actually leave work for the number of days allotted.

Moving to Norway from San Francisco pretty much launched me way out of my comfort zone in probably every aspect of my life, including diving because I no longer had a clear travel route in mind for how to reach the dive destinations I typically had thought about. No more go to Los Angeles and the South Pacific somewhere anywhere. No more last minute go to Hawaii next week specials…I was on the other side of the world.

So I tried to adopt a European travel perspective. The first issue that I had to get over, was that I was not trapped in Norway. A short, just over an hour flight, would land me in the Amsterdam airport (Schiphol and Leonidas chocolate) from where I could fly anywhere in the world. I loved being in that airport every time, because it signified going to or returning from somewhere I might not have traveled to had I not lived in Norway.

I started to do my research, sort of unknowingly. I picked up the Norwegian diving magazine Dykking to help me learn Norwegian, although admittedly there were not many times I would use the word octopus in Norwegian. But I once innocently wrote to one of the professional Norwegian underwater photographer writers at the magazine and asked for information about where Europeans went for diving. Actually I think I asked where were his favorite places to dive. He was a man, yes, but nothing to do with delusione di amore. It was an easy answer for him, Indonesia (after Norway). He told me exactly where to go for my first trip there, and whatever he wrote, made me feel brave enough to dive in reefs that I only thought I would ever sit back and read about. Funny how a short email can influence your life.

This first trip to Indonesia put me on a sort of mini-divers’ circuit within Indonesia alone. Every time I go, a new suggestion comes up for a new island/resort/boat, but Indonesia has around 17,000 islands to explore, and it is located within the most biodiverse area of the planet. Nothing is ever the same when you go underwater. Sure marine animals are territorial but there is at least seasonal variation in behavior and anyway, you have to find them. So there is almost no reason to go anywhere else for diving.

It is not exactly true. It becomes obvious whenever you are traveling just to arrive at your dive destination. Even though it takes a long time maybe to reach somewhere, unless you are living in the Coral Triangle or near it already (lucky friends in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia), the trip over may entail stopovers in places that you might love to dive and perhaps had never even thought of.

On my way to Palau, I stopped in Los Angeles (although I was living in San Francisco at the time which never felt like the vacation was over even when the vacation was over), Honolulu, Guam, Yap, and then Koror. The trip went backwards the same way as if to remind you, and on top of it, the flight picked up passengers (such as Asian honeymooners from Korsae) who would have been on one of the other even smaller islands that feed into the bigger airports.

On a several hour flight delay in the Puerto Rico airport, I looked at the departure board and thought, I will take a plane to any one of these other Caribbean islands if my plane to Bonaire never makes it. Somehow you are never a loser in this situation.

At the same time, it is exhausting to contemplate. It is one thought that always enters my mind at the end of a dive trip-how am I going to dive everywhere there is to dive? I am never going reach the end of any list because the list simply never ends.

Edward Scissorhands giving a hug…

©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com


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