Born into a family of seafarers, author Catherine Doyle was afraid of water. One doomed romance and a tropical island later, she made a sink or swim decision...
I was a sandcastle kid. On summer days, I sat way up on the beach with my bucket and spade, while my brothers ploughed recklessly into the waves, laughing at the top of their lungs.
I was terrified of the sea, without having any idea why. It didn’t make sense. My mother’s family hails from Arranmore Island, just off the north-west coast of Ireland. Mine is an ancestry of mariners; life-boat workers, fishermen and seafarers. My grandfather worked as a boat captain for over 60 years. He brought my brothers and me on countless fishing expeditions, where I would hover green-faced on the rocks as he yanked mackerel from the sea with a flick of his wrist. On family trips, I curled up below deck vomiting into a bucket, while my cousins whooped every time they caught something. I was the only sea-fearing child from a huge sea-faring family.
"I flailed blindly, twisting underneath the water as it rushed down my throat. Just as I broke the surface, the tide flung me back onto the strand."
On a girls’ Leaving Cert holiday to Tenerife, I decided it was time to overcome my fear. Hot-skinned and bleary-eyed, I waded into the sea. Up to my waist, then my chest, then my neck. The tide turned and suddenly I was swept away by a rogue wave. I flailed blindly, twisting underneath the water as it rushed down my throat. Just as I broke the surface, the tide flung me back onto the strand.
I landed in a heap, with my mouth full of sand and a beachful of laughter ringing in my head.
Never again, I decided. The sea was not for me.
Eight years later, through an unexpected chain of events, I found myself on a tiny island off the coast of Bali. At five square miles of untouched beaches and friendly locals, Gili Meno is a popular honeymoon destination. I was not on a honeymoon. In fact, I was looking for distraction from a doomed romance.
Every morning, I would walk past the little scuba-diving hut in the middle of the island. Their boat moored every couple of hours, releasing wet-suited couples with salted skin and sea-tangled hair. As the days wore on, I started to wonder if scuba-diving might be the solution to my lifelong problem. If I could finally conquer my fear of the ocean by swimming into its belly.
Seized by an unexpected jolt of bravery, I spent the last of my money on a three-day scuba-diving course. Now, there was no turning back. The morning I donned the wetsuit for the first time, my hands were slick with sweat. There was a lot more to it than I’d realised – a buoyancy vest, a weighted-belt and a giant oxygen tank. Flippers, a mask and snorkel, a pressure gauge, a regulator, a secondary air source, and a giant dose of anxiety to go with it all.
The first session was a practice one. We stayed close to the island and only descended two metres. Still, the dive off the boat shaved a few years off my life. As I tipped backwards into the ocean, with my flippers stuck out in front of me, I could hear my pulse rattling in my ears.
I was surprised by the stillness underneath the ocean. The surface looked as smooth as glass, the world above distant and distorted. The fish moved about in a blaze of Technicolor, splintering around me as they went about their business. The coral swayed lazily, as if in slow motion. The only sound was my long, bubbling exhales. Everything else was quiet and tranquil. The ocean, as it happened, was the most peaceful place I had ever been in my life.
"I was surprised by the stillness underneath the ocean. The surface looked as smooth as glass, the world above distant and distorted. The coral swayed lazily, as if in slow motion."
Day two began at a depth of 12 metres. This time, there were six of us diving. One was a seven-year-old French boy, who took to the ocean like a fish and put us all to shame. The backwards dive was still the worst of it, but when I dropped into the open water, I was delighted to find the cast of Finding Nemo waiting for me. I squealed when Dory swum past me, the sound sending a garbled trail of bubbles to the surface. Another 45 minutes under water, tracking clown fish, trigger fish, butterfly fish and parrotfish, and I found I was no longer afraid of the sea. I was enthralled by it.
On day three, I was itching to dive back in. One last scary tip over the edge of the boat, and then we were descending 18 metres feet-first to the bottom of the ocean. I ventured a little further from the group this time. I found a baby shark asleep in a rocky alcove, and looked nervously around for its mother. When I drew back, I was surrounded by three giant sea turtles. The biggest one was swimming directly at me.
A swerve is not so easy when you’re 18 metres under water and frantically flailing your flippers in slow motion, but I just about managed to avoid a concussion. I was close enough to feel the water rippling as she lumbered by me, her mammoth shell a mass of ink-blot stains. And then she was gone, leaving me staring after her in wonder.
The following morning, I received my PADI Open Water certification. My six-year-old self would never have believed it. My own family barely did.
That night was my last on the island. While walking home after dinner, I noticed a crowd gathered on the beach. Someone was playing the ukulele. When I wandered down to investigate, I found a giant sea turtle wedged in the sand. She was giving birth under the full moon, and the locals were celebrating. That night was the most magical ending to a life-changing week.
The tug-of-war between the sea and me was over.
Now, in the evenings, I go down to Salthill and walk along the prom. I relish the scent of seaweed on the wind and the taste of sea salt in the air. I look out at the waves, and find inspiration there. I go home then, and I write.
Portrait by Julia Dunin
This article was originally published in the July/August issue of IMAGE Magazine.