By Eamonn Keyes
It wasn’t all music and rock and roll stars in my world of Brief Encounters, though. Occasionally there was something unusual in a totally different vein.
Human history can be divided into two distinct eras, the world pre-Jaws and the world post-Jaws. That movie changed a simple pleasure like having a dip in the sea into a dangerous adventure. Anything could be under that half metre of wading water, waiting to pull you in and devour you, leaving only your head to bob up to the surface. My own way of dealing with a day out at the seaside was to listen out for that ominous two-note tune, and if all was quiet I reckoned there was unlikely to be a shark in the vicinity.This stood me in good stead, until I went to Greece for the first time in 1982. I discovered the utter joy of being in water that for once didn’t shock you with the low temperature, leaving you emitting a wailing noise whilst being totally unaware of making the source of the racket.
It was glorious.
I discovered snorkelling and did it every day, off the shore of a quiet little village called Kavos, soon to be twinned with Sodom and Gomorrah in the Top Ten Sinful Holiday Destinations list.
One day I went right out, and discovered a reef about 400 yards offshore. The reef came within about 4 feet of the surface, which meant I could stand on it and be above the surface, Lovely. I was finding little bits of broken pink coral occasionally and enjoying seeing the shoals of Sea Bream and Cuckoo Wrasse. I ventured over the reef and saw much deeper water, perhaps 20 metres. I went out anyway, and then I saw the shape hurtling towards me. I estimated it as perhaps 8 feet long, with that big dorsal fin, and speeding on like a torpedo towards me. I’m sure I trashed several longstanding world records on my swim back towards the reef before realising I’d never beat a creature that nature had equipped superbly to catch clueless Irish snorkellers. I went back under to try to punch it on the nose as a last resort, which I’d read is the way to deal with a shark intent on dinner, but saw it veer off to my right-hand side, the eye glaring at me as it sped past, cutting through the water with its long sharp nose. It had been a swordfish, thankfully. Relief washed over me and my bowel functions returned to normal.
From then on, I realised that I’d like to ensure I wasn’t caught out again, and so I started to do something that had previously terrified me. I learned to scuba dive. I should have known that diving lay in my future, as I’d had two very relevant experiences as a child.
The first was getting an Action Man Frogman figure for Christmas one year, which was exciting until the tubing fell off his air cylinders and wouldn’t stay back on. His wetsuit also took forever to put on – which is a truism in real life.
The second experience was getting some swimming goggles, which meant that I could go underwater in the bath, and I spent many bath-times exploring the underwater world beside the bath plug and chain. A somewhat limited perspective.
But somewhere around my early forties I learned to dive, starting with the Open Water Diver qualification, which gives you just enough knowledge to ensure your body is found after you discover that you don’t know very much about diving, actually. Then I did the Advanced Open Water, then the Deep Diving course, which gave me a 45 metre depth rating, then Navigation, Nitrox Diving and then a very useful Stress and Rescue Diver qualification, ending at the Master Diver rating.
I loved diving, and still do. Each year I’d clock up more dives, learning to deal better with the hostile environment and becoming very comfortable coping with it.
One day in July 2008 I went diving off the coast of Corfu at Nissaki. Remarkably, Nissaki had previously loomed large in Irish History as the place where footballing legend George Best fell off the wagon for the last time at the Nissaki Beach Hotel, apparently aided by a pretty blonde lady-not unusual for our George – and starting the final spiral that lead to his eventual death.
Unlike George, I was well-equipped to deal with copious quantities of liquid, and even at a depth of 20 metres I was having a good time. That was, right up to the point that I saw something in a hole that was surrounded by sea shells and sparkling stones and went closer to look at what was in there.
I felt a thump on my chest and then I could see nothing. I was surrounded by darkness but managed to keep my regulator in my mouth and I kept breathing. Then the darkness slowly cleared to reveal an octopus strapped to my chest. A big octopus. I’d seen them many times. They were usually small, timid creatures, otherworldly in their appearance and movement. But this guy was very big, and I realised his tentacles were wrapped right round my left arm and chest. I could feel a little squeeze as they tightened another notch, and more ink, the reason for the darkness, was squirted around my face.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do to resolve the situation. I could try to drag it off, but I’d eventually injure the creature and I’d no intention of doing so, but I still wanted him to know that he wasn’t my type, and that I’d never dated a cephalopod and didn’t want to start now. I started to stroke the octopus’s head gently, feeling an initial flinch and a tightening of tentacles. However, I persisted, staying gentle and hoping that this would overcome fear and the creature’s defensive reaction, as ink was still being squirted at regular intervals. The head felt very strange indeed, almost like a water-filled balloon, but occasionally pulsing as it moved. And very soon I felt it relax, the pressure of tentacles on my arms easing bit by bit. I started to unpick them from my arm, where it felt like Velcro on my wetsuit and skin, unwinding the arms spiralled around me. As I got to the end the octopus suddenly flew off, and propelled itself through the water, vanishing into the hazy water, but not before one of my companions managed to get the shot above, showing that it was a very respectably sized creature indeed.
I believe that for one short moment we had an understanding, and the creature realised that my gestures were an indication that I had no hostile intent towards him, and accepted our truce, despite the yawning gap between us as two species separated by our environments and some 300 million years. They have been shown to be extremely intelligent, and I felt that during our encounter, which, although initially scary, was a very lucky encounter for me.
I subsequently discovered that the items around the hole where he had been, all those shells and sparkly stones, are good evidence that an octopus lives in that hole. They are called Octopus Gardens – hence the Beatles song – and it’s unsure if they’re used by the octopus for decoration or if they have just been cleared out of the hole. Having seen them a few times, I prefer the magic of the former. Why wouldn’t such a sentient creature add a little colour to its life whilst waiting to fight an Irishman?
Hi Eamonn – what an experience to have – and, I agree with you that the bits and pieces might be for adornment – some birds do that, too. “We be of one blood, thee and I” – The Jungle Book.
Here’s a tale, or two, as told to a friend, at the time – I’ll now send her the link to your article, as she’ll like that.
“Yesterday evening, Mike and I went to the Orkney Fisheries Association annual ‘do’. Mike was talking with a man who skippers a local scallop boat, and one of the scallop divers, from that boat. They had the following experience on a dive last October……………
Stuart was coming up from his dive. They have to come up a bit, then hang on the line, to adapt to the pressure, then come up a bit more. Stuart was waiting, when he saw, right in front of him, two Killer Whales. A mother and her calf. They were maybe 5 feet in front of him, and the mother was simply looking at him, scrutinizing him, steadily. This was worrying, as a diver can look very like a seal to a hungry whale! Apparently, it’s reasonably safe to dive where the whales are busy eating schools of fish, but, in these waters, where they eat seals – that is an intimidating encounter to have. Stuart made himslef look as little like a seal as possible, by stretching out his arms and legs, looking as spiky and un-seal-like as he could! Otherwise, he hung there on his line, while the mother whale……looked at him.
The two whales then moved off. Stuart had hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that he had to stay put until the air presure was right, when the two returned. Again, the mother just hung there in the water, feet from him, looking at him. Then they moved off, together.
Meanwhile, Emlyn was on the sea-bed. He saw the whales approaching, and hid behind a boulder! trying hard not be seen by them.
This will have been a frightening experience, for both of the men – particularly for Stuart. But, I wonder how much the wonder and awe of it, drove out the fear? Imagine it – a mother Orca and calf, a few feet in front of you, just looking at you, assessing you. A truly wild experience, and in the waters off Orkney.
The other story involves Stuart again. He was hanging on the line again, waiting patiently, when he felt as though someone was hugging him! Then he saw a big tail curve round below him, and realised it was a big Skate. For reasons best know to itself, this Skate had wrapped itself round Stuart, and was ‘ hugging’ him. He shrugged it off, and it swam away, but then returned and butted him with it’s head, as if to say, “Well, so much for you.”
We live here among them, but have so little to do with them, then, some folk are fortunate enough to have these encounters. And I do think they’re fortunate, even if it was dangerous, and frightening, still……………………….
PS – Re-reading this – that’s where your healing ability comes in again – you stayed calm, followed your instinct, stroked it’s head, it calmed down – all’s well. Whether the girl friend of a rock star, or an octopus – ‘We be of one blood, thee and I.”