Sixty-five feet beneath the ocean’s surface, just off Martinique’s south-west coast, the water was a deep emerald green. Kaleidoscopic wildlife flitted here and darted there, offering many distractions. And, in a welcome twist, all parties present – myself included – spoke the same language. Thumbs down meant ‘descend’, thumbs up meant ‘ascend’ and forming a ring with my thumb and index finger, meant I was ‘OK’. A fitting sign because, for the 52 minutes I spent scuba diving at Piscine de Salon with a small group of French divers, I really was OK.
Diving has always been my happy place – it’s my great escape from all the stressful realities of ‘adulting’. Under the waves, you get to be a humble guest, a silent observer of another world and there’s nothing more required of you than to hang back and respectfully take it all in. I’ll happily slip into my wetsuit, strap on a tank, and descend a few meters any day. But during my very first 100% solo trip it became a lifeline that made at least one of my three days incredibly amazing.
I should clarify that while I’ve always wanted to do a solo trip, Martinique was not the intended destination for that particular adventure. Tropical Storm-turned-Hurricane Matthew thwarted the departure of my travel buddy leaving me with two choices: (1) lose the money I spent on my flight, or (2) go it alone. I opted for the latter, but with little time to prepare (and learn French) I ended up in a foreign country where I knew no one and could not communicate effectively.
Martinique is without a doubt a beautiful island, but I didn’t see much of it beyond the glimpses I caught during (quite pricey) taxi rides. It might be that solo travel isn’t for me, period. Or just that this last minute journey-for-one was doomed because I wasn’t prepared. Either way, my time on the island wasn’t full of exploration and adventure as I had intended and I probably would have had to count it as a complete failure if it wasn’t for my time spent underwater with Alpha Plongee in Grand Anse d’Arlet.
Here’s how scuba diving salvaged my first solo trip.
It gave me something definite to do
Beyond reserving my room at La Pagerie in Trois Ilets and scheduling this dive, there was nothing on my agenda. I was unable to find a guide to take me around, so I aimlessly roaming the area around my hotel. I frequently wander alone in big cities, but navigating solo it’s trickier with a language barrier and limited public transportation options. Neither of those things were an issue on Dive Day however. I woke up with a purpose and felt grounded as I rode the taxi to the dive shop. I knew where I was going and what I was going to do. Upon arrival I was greeted with a hearty, ‘Ah! You must be Aisha?’ and I felt like I had come home.
It gave me a (temporary) crew
Maybe it’s me, but I think it applies to all divers: we click almost immediately with any dive group. When I say ‘click’ I don’t mean in the chat-it-up, lifelong-buddies kind of way (although that’s possible). I mean ‘click’ in the sense that we quickly get to a stage where we feel confident that we’ll all be looking out out for each other down there. Even though I spoke not a word of French, it was no different with this group. I exchanged a few (English) words of excitement with Jean Baptiste as we geared up, and shared wary laughter with Philippe when I discovered we would be swimming out to the boat. Bonus: I got company for lunch. A treat I truly appreciated because I discovered I’m not a fan of eating alone several meals in a row.
It allowed me to learn something new
Every boat dive I’ve ever done, we’ve boarded while standing in shallow water. This was the first dive where I had to don my gear and swim out (admittedly not very far) to the boat while holding my fins, gloves, and GoPro. Clearly, it wasn’t the most trying of tasks but it was something new, and a little unnerving. Philippe was amused but it initiated our first verbal exchange as he helped me board. He patiently showed me where to set up my tank and chuckled as I breathed heavily, till I finally admitted that it was the very first time I’d ever done that. This then launched us into a stilted conversation about how far we were from the dive site (5 – 8 minutes), how deep the dive was (20 meters) and what I could expect to see (lots of turtles – that turned out to be false).
It allowed me to communicate
Once we entered the water all talking ceased. Bruno, our guide, gave us the signal to descend and down we went. Every time I paused he would show me the ‘OK’ signal to make sure I was alright and I’d respond in the affirmative. Throughout the dive, Bruno signaled whenever he spotted an interesting animal – a giant lobster, a massive crab, dozens of barracuda and too many lion fish. I was just as excited by my ability to understand him, as I was to see these animals up close. He checked in regarding my mask that would occasionally allow water in, and I kept him updated on the status of my air supply. As we fooled around taking selfies during our safety stop, I felt less like the awkward, apologetic English-speaker, and more like a confident traveler, for the first time since arriving in Martinique.
It relaxed me
Diving is the closest I’ve come to experiencing true peace. The only sounds you hear are your own breathing and the motors of boats in the distance. There are no phone calls, no messages, no conversations. It’s just you, other divers seeking a similar escape, and animals that steer clear of you. As soon as we got to the bottom and I looked around, my breathing slowed considerably. Pretty blueheaded wrasse and chromis fish dipped in and out of colorful coral and I smiled to myself. They were on their own beat and so was I. I didn’t think about what I’d be doing later or where I’d be having lunch. It was enough to just existed in the moment. I kept an eye on our little group but set my own pace, grateful to be in excellent company (both human and animal) but appreciative of the voluntary solitude.
It gave me something to talk about
Without diving this trip would have been a waste of time and money. I would have spent three mundane days split between the beach, the hotel and restaurants, with nothing special to report. This dive, my first in Martinique, allowed me to discover a new site and add a new destination to my ‘Been There, Dived That’ list. It provided me with a list of several interesting firsts – first swim-out, first time using an aluminum tank, first time on a dive with people who didn’t speak my language – and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
My accidental solo trip wasn’t all I had hoped it would be, but there will be a do-over. It will be to an English-speaking destination and I will be much better prepared. Then I’ll really know if solo travel is my cup of tea or not. Even if it turns out that it isn’t though, at least I know I’ll have diving to break up the monotony of solitary beach days and lonely meals.
Have you ever traveled solo? What was that like? Would love to hear about it in the comments!