Imagine a tranquil world that is quiet and calm. Senses are heightened, the things around you have a surreal and light quality to them, and the only sounds you hear are the steady breaths that you take.
Scuba diving envelops you in this Zen-like tranquillity, and offers the beauty of untouched nature at your fingertips. Experiencing the fragility of the marine ecosystem first-hand is sure to leave a lasting effect on how you view marine life.
SMU Snapshots had a chat with SMUXtremists (SMUX) Diving Team president, Choy Ming Fai, to gain some insight on how life underwater influences his experience of the world above.
Learning about conservation
It was an inconspicuous school newsletter that started Ming Fai on his underwater adventures. The newsletter detailed an upcoming OCSP in Malapascua, Philippines, that involved the study of sharks. A lover of water and its refreshing yet calming properties, Ming Fai immediately signed up to get his open-water diving certification – one of the first steps to qualifying for the trip.
His first trip to Malapascua was in December 2016, after completing his advanced certification. Because this dive is in the open sea, there is no shelter, currents are stronger, and the depths are upwards of 22 metres. Survival skills are essential.
Ming Fai enjoys himself thoroughly on every trip, but it’s not just all fun and relaxation. There is an objective each time.
For Malapascua, the SMUX Diving Team is trying to push for the conservation of Thresher sharks. During the annual 14-day trip, the team makes two dives every morning to track and record data of the Thresher sharks. When a shark is spotted, the divers look up to gauge information such as size and gender, and note these down on a waterproof slate.
“We have a professor here, Dr. Simon P Oliver, who is a lecturer in Conservation Biology and founded the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project (TSRCP). Our results go back to him and he uses the data to write a paper on the conservation of endangered animal species. Our goal is to educate people and discourage fisherman from fishing in these parts.”
Besides working with the TSRCP community, SMUX Diving Team also supports the Blue Water Volunteers with data of local marine habitats. The ultimate aim is to promote the conservation, awareness and education of marine life.
“I definitely feel more passionate for conservation now. These projects are great. They’ve taught me so much about marine conservation and things like how fisheries collapse from over-fishing. I’m currently working with our alumni to plan for an extension of the Malapascua project. We want to engage more divers and spread the word about the importance of conservation.”
Learning to have fun
Besides the calm and serenity that diving offers, Ming Fai also enjoys the adrenaline rush. “It’s very much like free-falling,” he describes the descent, “it’s not as fast, but you get the same feeling of excitement.” Chasing marine creatures, like the sea turtles at Tioman, is another perk that excites him.
“One of the biggest takeaways is that I know how to relax and have fun better now. To always learn to have fun in what I’m doing.”
Ming Fai elaborates that despite the dangers, risks, and the need to focus underwater, the joy of diving makes the entire experience worthwhile. If this same joy could be carried over to everything else that is done on land, including the difficult times, life would be much better for it.
Learning how to be present and aware
The second takeaway is that diving increases situational awareness. A trait that is evident in every diver, is deep respect for marine life. In the water, especially during the descent, while every diver wants to be close to the awe-inspiring sea plants and animals, it is important to keep a distance from these lifeforms.
“Think about it like you’re a foreigner in someone else’s home. You don’t want to destroy and trample on their habitat. At most, sometimes when there’s a strong current, I’ll put one finger in the sand to stop myself from flowing along. Be aware of your surroundings and minimise the damage. Good diving etiquette comes with practice.”
In the water, this awareness also carries over to looking out for yourself and your dive buddy – alerting each other to potential dangers – and being observant enough to notice any unusual activities that might contribute to conservation studies.
“The Blue Water Volunteers look at how the change in the environment affects marine life such as coral reefs. For instance, if they are bleaching, a phenomenon where the corals lose their colour, that’s not a good sign. We will have to observe if things like water temperature might be the cause behind it.”
Learning to communicate better
The inability to talk to your buddy underwater, which might seem like an obstacle at first, is in fact a useful tool for sharpening communication skills. On how he talks to his buddy in the water, Ming Fai explains that they have to rely on other means of communication. For him, he prefers to knock his metal carabiner on his tank to attract attention.
“It brings communication to a whole new level. I have to be very precise with what I want to communicate. Hand signals have to be simple enough to be understood and succinct enough to drive the point across. I definitely communicate what I want and think much clearer verbally now. I also have to pay close attention to people’s behaviour to pick up cues on what they are thinking.”
Saving the ocean
After every trip, Ming Fai feels grateful to SMU for the opportunities to take small steps towards saving the ocean – whether it is diving to supplement marine research, spreading the message of conservation, or educating divers on the importance of respect for marine life.
“Together with my predecessors, we are thankful for the autonomy and freedom to do things that we want to accomplish as presidents of the club. This year, we want to expand to get more people and increase exposure of the projects. It is a constant effort to reach out to the greater community, and is something that I hope will be passed down over the coming years. It is important to realise that there is a larger objective behind the dives, and also to remember to have fun while at it.”