After six months of being dry I was eager to get back into warm waters and experience the calm and serenity of being surrounded by the deep, clear ocean. This eagerness was tainted by my usual pre-dive nerves though and I spent the night prior to my day of diving off Rarontonga, The Cook Islands in a fretful sleep. I wasn’t helped by the oppressive heat and humidity of our room at the Rarotonga Backpackers, which is to be expected in the wet season.
My partner Nicholas and I were visiting Rarotonga as part of our charitable World Tour for Sharks with our marine conservation cause Friends for Sharks. We had spent the past week dodging falling coconuts and heavy rain as we gave shark conservation lectures to local children. We had an incredibly inspiring time with the students and a day of scuba diving was our reward and opportunity to reconnect with the oceans. We had decided to dive with Pacific Divers, as they had been instrumental in helping set up the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative. I noticed as we waited for the early morning bus to take us to the dive centre that Nicholas was unusually stressed but I thought nothing of it – perhaps the storms were finally getting to him? As fate would have it we missed the bus and the friendly dive centre staff collected us en route to the jetty. I was still none the wiser as to why Nicholas was so on edge whilst I watched the stunning island scenery pass us by. Rarotonga is a beautiful island with golden beaches, palm trees and a heavily forested interior that never ceased to amaze me. The islanders are very welcoming, there is abundant tropical fruit everywhere and the island itself is surrounded by coral reefs – with inlets that are best avoided for their ferocious rip currents.
It was all of a five minute drive to the jetty and the tiny dive boat that contained our dive equipment. It was just a two minute drive to our dive site….now that is my kind of diving. It was easily accessible, there were no other dive boats and the stunning island scenery was as our backdrop. There was a little swell on the water that day and the sun was well hidden by the clouds but the ocean was crystal clear with 20 metres visibility. I could see the coral reef below us before we even began our descent. My nerves disappeared as we rolled into the water and admired the scenery below us. It felt so good to be in warm water once again and we slowly descended to the reef. I hadn’t any expectations of the dive site itself and was pleasantly surprised by the enormous hard corals of various shapes and sizes. I was exploring a giant, underwater forest and the corals were interspersed with shoals of small fish of all shapes and sizes. We spotted moray eels hiding inside and underneath the corals, five nudibranchs and a very friendly trigger fish. Whilst the fish life was abundant, the corals were the highlight of the dive for us. I am used to the Red Sea, where the corals are a multitude of colours whereas the hard corals at Rarotonga were mostly the same colour. However, the different shapes and sizes of those corals were impressive and would have made a perfect backdrop for a children’s book illustration; they were that unusual and fun to admire.
In time we swam away from the coral gardens and descended to the drop off. I can still recall that feeling of excitement and also intimidation at seeing the sandy bottom suddenly drop away into darkness. What exactly would be down there? We hovered for a while as we searched for passing sharks in the deep blue but there were none to be seen and we soon returned to the corals. We could monitor our depth more easily than in the deep, blue nothing of the open ocean.
Our dive came to an end all too quickly once we had returned to the mooring line and we ascended for our 5m safety stop. I was a little sea sick by that point and Nicholas began doing underwater charades, which seemed a great way to pass the time of our safety stop and distract me. I quickly understood his mime for Jaws and his second mime for a bouquet of flowers. I nodded silently at him whilst wondering why on earth he would be miming flowers….and then he produced a ring from his rash vest sleeve.
The world seemed to slow down as I realised Nicholas had ‘got down on one knee’ by bending and wrapping one leg around the mooring line. He was in fact proposing and what was my response? Shocked laughter and a smile so big that my mask flooded and I nearly spat my regulator out. I just couldn’t believe it was happening and, as I laughed heartily and happily, my mask kept on flooding and poor Nicholas was suspended there holding a ring and wondering if I would ever regain enough control of myself to say yes. Thankfully I managed some furious nodding whilst I held my mask and regulator in place and Nicholas placed a beautiful ring with an engraved shark upon it on my finger. I immediately signalled to ascend (there was only so long I could be quiet when being proposed to) and, the moment we surfaced, I opened my mouth to speak and swallowed a giant lungful of water. It was a truly magical proposal and we ended our dive as fiancés.
We celebrated on the boat with a hot cup of Milo during our surface interval and then went for a second dive. I would like to say I recall that dive but I don’t. I was so preoccupied with staring at my ring and holding my fiancé’s hand that I seemed to miss the wreck next to us, paid no attention to the fish life and flooded my mask frequently whilst smiling. I was in my own world of diver bliss, having found my dive buddy for life, and it was wonderful. I had also figured out why Nicholas had been nervous that morning when we missed the bus.
Needless to say, I would highly recommend diving in the Cook Islands (engagement aside) and it was a very special day for us. We celebrated our engagement with champagne, a stunning sunset over the ocean and some star gazing from the beach. It was a perfect end to our time in the Cook Islands and I hope to return there as husband and wife in the not too distant future. For now though, it is onwards we go to six months in New Zealand and approximately 40 – 50 shark conservation events with Friends for Sharks.
Learn more about the Friends for Sharks World Tour at: http://www.friendsforsharks.com