Why Scouring the Oceans is a Spiritual Experience

And why I am like a fish under water.  
Sipadan, Malaysia
Mankind got an exceptionally raw deal being born on land, says Sarvesh Talreja. But the thrill of swimming beside turtles and sharks, like here in Malaysia’s only oceanic island of Sipadan, helps him reclaim his end of the deal. Photo courtesy: Shivam Talreja

There is at least one similarity between a diver and a pilgrim. Both categories of traveller either go to places that others consider obscure, failing which we may go to a popular destination and simply spend all our time focused on something few others would understand or appreciate.

While for the pilgrim it may be a shrine, for the diver it’s usually a revered and hallowed dive site. The patience and ridiculous amount of time it takes to reach such spots, and the sheer economics of it, would make someone more objective think we are devoid of reason.

And yet, how else can I explain what a dive trip is like?

In search of two to three hours of stunning visual beauty each day, we fly to entirely new countries, take a connecting flight and then have a car whisk us away to a base, from which we take boats for up to six hours a day.

Even so, there isn’t a better way for me to spend time while on vacation. I’ve travelled to Thailand and spent just two nights in Bangkok, using the vibrant city like a hostel—to only get a night of rest on my way in and out of the country. I’ve visited Malaysia and disregarded Kuala Lumpur the way one dodges an ex-girlfriend with a new partner. Funnily, I’m sure my first trip to Egypt may not involve a single sighting of the pyramids outside of a postcard. Instead, I hope to be in the Red Sea, chasing the sight of sharks from a liveaboard.

Not only do we find spiritual pleasure in places barely known to the rest of mankind, scuba divers also pack, eat, and drink differently.

Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

Egypt’s popular snorkelling and diving destination Sharm El Sheikh. Photo by Konoplytska/iStock.

An average suitcase to a beach town contains swimwear, sunglasses, and a lot of T-shirts. A quick peek into a diver’s suitcase will reveal some contraptions we consider essential to our survival—a mask that we’re more comfortable in than our mother’s lap, a dive computer to let us know how we’re doing underwater and how much time later we can jump back in, and fins that are often just two feet in length and yet propel us by miles.

While most vacation diets consist of heavy and indulgent local fare, a diver is essentially missing out on up to two meals every day. A diver’s diet emphasises portability and not flavour. Though such food can be good, it’s often functional. Alcohol intake is limited. So while the rest of an island may be on its own planet, hosting parties with generous servings of alcohol, a responsible diver will drink little more than a beer or a glass of wine. We know that each drink reduces about 30 seconds on our dive, which can instead be spent gazing at a Manta ray twice as broad as we are tall.

Sleep is strangely rationed on a dive trip. Often, we wake up at 6.30 a.m. for an early breakfast and a dive briefing. The laid-back ones are known to show up at 7 a.m. instead, forgoing breakfast for some vacation shut-eye.

We’re also found in two stages on the way to and from a dive site. In one, we are in a reverie that involves gazing into the horizon, still ecstatic from looking at a leopard shark or a school of yellow travelli, as large as a house and as lively as a heartbeat. The second scenario is when we wake up from a sudden bump from a speedboat, amused, embarrassed, and willing to swear that we were underwater playing stalker to a stingray for five seconds before it sped into the aquatic abyss.

Manta Rays

Talreja would rather see some Manta rays than the Great Sphinx of Giza or the pyramids. Photo by Goodolga/iStock.

Other adventure sports take up a certain amount of time. A trekker, for example, treks for about eight to 10 hours a day. Someone paragliding may be up in the air for a couple of hours each day, if not more. Diving, however, can vary wildly. Though it is rare to dive more than twice a day, sometimes divers may spend up to four hours a day underwater, spending the remaining time napping, eating, or aching to jump back in. Based on the distance to and from the dive site, one could leave at 8 a.m. and come back past 2 p.m., tanned, slightly sleepy, half-hungry, and deliriously thrilled to have seen more purple coral than imaginable.

Divers typically come back to home cities inspired, wistful, humbled and tired. Our journeys often leave us in simultaneous states of satisfaction from the sights, exhaustion from the demands of the sport, relaxation if we can stay put in our resort for enough time, and with a lot of friends—many of whom are too pretty to be on land.

My first thought after every last dive on each vacation has stayed consistent. From my trips to Havelock in Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2013 to Koh Lanta in Thailand in 2017—I always come back believing that mankind got an exceptionally raw deal being born on land.

  • Sarvesh Talreja edits a food website. He travels to be underwater, unless he’s already travelling or is underwater.

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