In An Octopus’s Garden

The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age Traveller

30 April 2016


Tatyana Leonov walks with tropical fish in a mysterious undersea realm in Mauritius.

My instructor pulls my weight belt tight and points me towards the ladder. I grab the metal bars and step backwards, slowly lowering myself into the water. Just before I go under, another team member places what looks like a giant fish bowl over
my head.

I step off the ladder and begin to descend to the bottom of the sea. Someone grabs me and I begin flailing around, then quickly remember they’re helping me get to the sea floor in a vertical position.

A few seconds later I’m standing upright three metres below sea level – and I’m still breathing. A few of the others who went down before me are scattered around, grinning and gesturing to each other. After checking I’m OK, the guy who helped me jumps back up towards the platform to help the next person down. It’s just another day in Mauritius.

The mysterious underwater realm has always excited me, and for many years I went on and on to my husband about wanting to swim among colourful darting fish.

Being the good husband that he is, one year for Christmas I received a PADI diving course. The idea was we’d hang out together underwater and I’d finally do my time with the pretty fish.

But then I freaked out. I found the actual experience unnerving and didn’t complete the course. When we honeymooned in the Maldives he ventured out on a dive while I stuck to snorkelling.

Walking under the sea was invented for people just like me. You can stay under for an extended period (thanks to oxygenated helmets fuelled by solar-powered pumps), so there’s no stress about having to manage your own air supply – something I did not feel comfortable doing when learning to scuba dive.

The weighted belt keeps you grounded and scuba diving guides are always nearby ensuring you’re OK.

If you do find yourself feeling anxious there are manned surface monitors, so you simply indicate that you’re done and someone will help you get back up.

Several companies offer undersea walks around the world, but Solar Under Sea Walk – the company I’m sightseeing with today – is the first and only company in the world to harness solar power for the activity.

The company was founded in 1989 and went solar 10 years later. Essentially what this means is that the floating platforms and all of the diving units are powered by solar energy.

Mauritius is renowned for the plethora of activities on offer. Sure, it’s an island paradise (according to TripAdvisor it makes the top 10 list in the world) and lounging around not doing much is very alluring. But then you can also walk alongside lions, sample an array of rum, explore historic homesteads, venture off on a hiking jaunt… the list goes on. Walking underwater should absolutely be added to that list.

Before the undersea walk, I meet a few members of the team at Grand Bay, and together with about 10 others, am escorted to a boat that whisks us to the floating platform.

Then things got serious. We are educated about the gear, taken through safety procedures and briefed on marine life.

The marine life is, of course, the highlight and why most people book the tour. Snorkelling offers an aerial view of the sea life, but here you can meander with the fish.

I watch a red-striped grouper poking about in a rocky nook, admire the coral (carefully avoiding stepping on any), and shoo away oodles of little grey zippy fish that congregate around me like flies.

Walking around the sandy sea floor is pretty entertaining too. Everything feels heavier and slower, but then some actions – like jumping – come so easily.

I muck around with a few twirls and a leap or two, compelling those tiny grey fish nudging my helmet to scurry away.

The 25 minutes underwater pass quickly. Although the marine life could keep me entertained for hours, the Solar Under Sea Walk guys obviously have a few games they like to get through.

We execute synchronised jumps, pose for group photos, and watch as two honeymooners briefly take off their masks for a smooch. The guides then encourage us to do the same (take off the mask that is, not smooch) and most people manage after watching the demonstration.

I don’t even try, recognising that I’m happy to keep my continual stream of fresh air flowing.

 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION: tourism-mauritis.mu

GETTING THERE: Air Mauritius flies direct from Perth to Mauritius two times a week with easy connections from Australian cities with codeshare partner airline Virgin Australia. See airmauritius.com.

SEE+DO: The pioneer of undersea walks in Mauritius, Solar Under Sea Walk comes with 27 years’ experience. Guided undersea walks are operated six days a week, with booking advisable. See solarunderseawalk.com.

STAYING THERE: Royal Palm Hotel is located on the north-west coast of Mauritius, close to Grand Bay (it’s a short cab ride to the Solar Under Sea Walk starting point). It’s one of the ritziest properties on the island, comprising 69 beach-view suites. See royalpalm-hotels.com.

Tatyana Leonov was a guest of the Mauritius Tourism Authority and Air Mauritius.