The Beatles’ Rocky Racoon is the soundtrack to my childhood. Sitting around the kitchen table on a Friday night with my parents and younger sister (once we had discovered, around the ages of five or six, that life went on after 7pm), we would play music and I’d sing along to every track with my dad, his face lighting up to see me sharing in one of his greatest joys.
But by the time my teenage years rolled around – close though we still were – he and I had grown short on shared hobbies. True, he tried his best to make me a football fan, and I would dutifully do my best to fake enthusiasm, never wanting to let him down (though never entirely sure which end of the pitch Spurs were supposed to be aiming for). But I think deep down he knew I was only ever in it for the boys and the bagel-stand meet-up at halftime.
So when I turned 12 in 1998 and dad discovered I could qualify as a scuba diver, he wasted no time getting me trained and certified so we could share one of his favourite hobbies on a family trip to Thailand that Christmas. I soon found myself quite literally thrown in at the deep end (of a bone-achingly-cold training pool in Essex), trying hard to keep a smile on my face. I was apprehensive, but I got it: I was growing up quickly, and my dad wanted something we could enjoy together as the years went by – as did I. I had always been a daddy’s girl (I still am), and treasured any time we spent just the two of us.
Fast-forward from chilly Romford to sweltering Phuket, more than 20 years ago, before the “gap-yah” and Full Moon party crowd discovered it and it was still a true island paradise. We were on our way to my first dive, on a shipwreck, with some family friends whose daughter was my age and also learning to dive.
I still vividly remember the rocking boat, my fried-egg breakfast sitting uncomfortably on my chest, the salty sea air and smothering heat blending with the boat’s petrol fumes: the sounds and senses of childhood holiday adventure. I was nervously perched at the edge of the boat, trying to remember which way to turn the valve on my air tank to ensure my air supply was working, trying to picture what it said in the textbook I’d left back at the hotel room.
I struggled to pull on my wetsuit over my bikini, already worrying about the inevitable ordeal of getting it off again (I had yet to extract myself from one without a punch to the lip and a full-frontal flash, now particularly unappealing in front of a boat full of other divers). I was especially nervous about the dreaded backwards roll into the water, which I had never actually done in practice. I was sure I would smack my head, my mask would fill with water, and that would be the end of me before our great bonding experience had even begun.
But my dad just grinned at me, his eyes glistening with pride, and held my hand the whole way there. For years to come, on all our dives, he would reach for my hand under the water – he probably still would tomorrow – and I’d feel calm. He somehow always knew, throughout my teenage years and well into my late 20s, that this simple gesture was still socially acceptable among the leopard sharks and rippling corals, even if it wasn’t so in the shopping halls of Brent Cross.
Eventually the boat came to a sputtering halt, and together we rolled backwards into the water and started our descent. I fiddled with my buoyancy control to get it just right, so that simply by exhaling I could descend slowly to the bottom like my dad – an experienced diver who had it down to a fine art. There is always an immediate feeling of calm as the surface drifts further and further away, then all you can hear is the sound of your own breathing. We glided silently past imposing cliff faces dappled with jungle greenery and the quivering orange sun gradually gave way to the stillness of the deep blue.
The wreck was magnificent: teeming with fish in Skittles-coloured hues and reef sharks dancing through abandoned portholes. I felt just like the Little Mermaid, exploring her watery home in search of treasures untold.
My dad began dutifully to point things out to me in case I missed them: gliding stingray, eels slithering between rocks, spindly lobsters burrowing through the sand, a sharp little starfish which he jokingly placed on my head, unaware of my sunburnt scalp – a casualty of the cornrows I had insisted on having put in at the beach, complete with tinfoil and beads. At the time I was aghast when my mum suggested that the look was less than flattering, though in hindsight I am stunned that she let me walk around like that for the entire fortnight.
But it wasn’t long before things started to go awry. Only a few minutes into the dive, our instructor suddenly started to clutch at his chest and, failing to display any of the hand signals I had diligently studied back in Essex, he made a hasty direct ascent to the surface (a major diving no-no), leaving us and our holiday friends alone in the depths of the wreck. If this happened to me now, I would immediately panic. But when you are 12 and with your dad, nothing seems scary if he isn’t fazed.
Grinning at me still, despite having a regulator in his mouth (Covid cringe: is it bring-your-own these days?), he calmly took charge and we carried on with the dive. Clownfish and triggerfish darted about below our feet as we hovered above the deserted deck; harlequin shrimp peeked out from behind built-up barnacles; and we even managed to spot a majestic manta ray, its wide wingspan momentarily blocking the sun as it glided overhead like a great prehistoric cloud. A manta is one of the most exquisite animals you can spot underwater, your heart remaining in your mouth until the ray’s tail is just a speck in the distance.
My dad somehow navigated us back to the boat without alarm, but not before we had completed the full half-hour dive. In hindsight, and with two 12-year-olds in tow, it might have been more responsible to head back to the boat straight away – but he had wanted our first underwater adventure to be dazzling, not tinged with disappointment. And dazzling it certainly was.
Our instructor was fine, it was later revealed (he’d just gone too hard on the curry the night before), and our debut shipwreck dive paved the way for nearly 20 years’ worth of wonderful shared underwater moments. I have kept up my training in the years since, and we’ve travelled the world as a growing family, choosing our destinations according to the dives they offered.
Of all the dives, there is one other we most often recount to friends and family. It was 2011, off Cancun in Mexico, and though we were expecting – and hoping – to encounter bull sharks (which can grow up to 11ft long and are considered the most aggressive towards humans), we were far from prepared for the dozen or so fully grown monsters that came blithely meandering our way.
We spotted one, then another, slowly approaching – my dad, as always, tapping me on the shoulder and pointing with vigour, though for the first time with what I sensed was some mild discomfort. Each shark fell into formation with the others, circling our small group menacingly. A particularly large one loomed up close to one of the other divers, headbutting him in warning. We huddled together tighter to appear as one giant mass, lying as flat as we could against the seabed for what seemed like an eternity, moving as little as possible before – eventually – they scattered one by one, wending away to terrify some other inferior creatures. We headed back to the surface and eased ourselves out of the water, carefully, to avoid any attention-grabbing ripples – the only time I can recall my dad not beaming from ear to ear about what a wonderful time we’d had.
It has been a few years now since my dad and I have dived together, and motherhood has made me more wary of throwing caution to the wind (and myself into the path of man-eating predators), not to mention making it harder to find the time.
But writing this has re-lit the match, and we are now planning a dive or two when we can next get away on a – now much larger – extended family holiday. This is much to my husband’s dismay, as it’s apparently going to cut into their daily afternoons of golf.
Well dear, you may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one.
Overseas holidays are currently subject to restrictions.