Back-to-back diving stories from Lizzie Tench, this one yet again proving that barriers are there just to be overcome. Straight from diving out of an aeroplane to diving off a boat, this is a story about self-belief and life outside the comfort zone. Lizzie is one of our regular contributors and probably deserves a section of her own: “What Lizzie Did Next…” seems like a good working title! (Warning - there might be a spoiler at the end of the article…)
My first post-injury scuba diving liveaboard trip
I broke my back and sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury at T12/L1 in 2012 when I was hit by a car whilst cycling. Prior to this, I’d been a keen scuba diver. By the time I was injured, I had 312 logged dives and was a PADI Divemaster; a certified assistant to the instructor. I’d been very involved in the teaching side of diving, having first qualified as an Open Water Diver in 2008 and, subsequently, I had become completely obsessed with diving and worked my way up to Divemaster two years later.
I’d dived in Borneo, Egypt, North Sulawesi, Maldives, Cuba and all over the UK. Then, two months before I became paralysed, I was diving around Cocos Island, a National Park 342 miles off the Costa Rican mainland, on a ‘liveaboard’ or safari boat. This is where you live on the boat and dive 3 to 4 times a day, including a night dive. Renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau visited the island many times and in 1994 called it “the most beautiful island in the world”. Cocos is famous for its aggregations of hammerhead sharks, where it is sometimes possible to see hundreds of these majestic creatures on one dive. Little did I know the day we got off the boat to walk on the island that it was the last time I’d ever walk on a beach. I look back on that holiday with great fondness for the amazing people we met, the spectacular marine life, the fun we had on the boat and the travels around the mainland of Costa Rica where we went zip wiring and on forest treks. I feel a mixture of sadness and joy with the memory of it being my last ever trip abroad as an able-bodied person.
A year after my injury, I was diving again. It was a whole new world. I went from being a graceful and confident diver to feeling like a total novice. I did a couple of test dives at a local quarry and then went off to Tenerife; not known for its scuba diving sites, but an easy way to get back on the proverbial horse. It took a while to master descending without the use of my legs; they now took on a life of their own in the water, but I discovered I could descend upside down in a ‘bombing’ position whilst holding my knees to my chest. My buddy was keen for me to try fins, which I duly did, but they were of no use and just got in the way. Instead I used webbed gloves, which are only marginally more useful than a chocolate fireguard, but also better than nothing! A year later, I was in Mexico, snorkelling with whale sharks in the summer and again, diving with bull sharks in the winter. I experienced a few emotional wobbles where I grieved what I’d lost, but I was regaining good control of my buoyancy.
After my Mexican trips, I didn’t dive again for four years as I got heavily involved in parasport. However, when I retired from international sport last year, I decided another dive trip was exactly what I needed. I simply needed a holiday where I didn't have to take my bike! I’d not had one for four years as all my trips abroad had involved training or racing.
I’m a great believer that life happens outside of the comfort zone so, in November 2018, I decided to put myself right outside my comfort zone and try out my first post-injury liveaboard boat. I went on the Blue Horizon with Blue O Two on the Deep South itinerary with some friends from Black Country Divers. I flew to Marsa Alam and my buddy Dan and I were taxied in our own so-called ‘limousine’, which was actually more like a rally car, to Port Ghalib, where we were greeted by Ahmed, our dive guide for the week. Dan, who is virtually a ‘man mountain’, piggy-backed me up the steps to the saloon and we were briefed about the boat and the week ahead. I asked Dan to find me a good spot on the dive deck where I would have space to manoeuvre in my chair and ‘kit up’ for my dives.
My cabin for the week was a King Cabin. It’s pricier than the other cabins, but it is really the only option for a wheelchair user as it’s on the same floor as the dining room and dive deck, and has the only toilet on the boat that I was able to access. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call wheelchair accessible, but it was ok for a week if you’re willing to rough it and if you have good wheelchair skills. I had to sit on the floor to shower, there were no grab rails, and there was a small step and threshold into the bathroom. I pulled myself into the bathroom using the doorframe easily, but getting out involved a leap of faith where I slammed my wheels backwards over a threshold and down a small step; not always as easy as it sounds when the floor is wet (i.e. 99% of the time!) and you can’t get any traction. The proximity of the bed prevented me from throwing myself out of my chair, so the tightness of the cabin worked in my favour. The boat had a rather steep ramp and a threshold to get through the dining room door, I ‘bummed’ up and down the three steps from the dive deck on to the dive entry area, my newfound friend Aimée made me cups of tea and my long-suffering friend Dan piggy-backed me up and down the steps to the ‘poop’ deck all week where we socialised and sat in the sun. As a wheelchair user it was challenging at times when the boat was rocking with the waves, but it wasn’t really much easier for anyone else. After all, I’m as experienced on my wheels as a 7-year-old child is on their legs!
I got into a kitting up routine with my own personal helper, Mohammed, who was absolutely amazing. I became quite fond of him and he was able to anticipate my every kitting up need! I didn’t have to bother rinsing my own equipment after diving as he did it for me and put everything back where I could find it. There are perks to being paralysed you know!
The challenges I overcame were all worth it. We saw an Oceanic Whitetip Shark on our second dive of the week; a sight to behold! We dived deep walls, stunning pinnacles, caves and wrecks. On the fourth day, I came face-to-face with an Oceanic Whitetip Shark, who inspected me closely, a breath-taking experience in more ways than one. It probably wondered what was this strange creature with no fins. I was hoping it wouldn’t decide to pick me off as the weakest link! By the fifth day, my arms were feeling it. Our first dive of the day was rather ‘currenty’, so we floated off the reef into the blue and got picked up by the zodiac (rib boat). As Dan and I watched Aimée and Dave get picked up, unbeknown to them, an Oceanic Whitetip appeared around their dangling legs!
Dan and I dropped down from the surface to watch it until it had moved on. Exciting and dramatic! During the week, I attempted a negative entry dive off the boat. This is where you enter the water upside down with no air in your BCD (buoyancy control device) and kick downwards towards the sea bed. I failed miserably because I couldn’t kick. The second time I tried it I got stuck under the boat and had a mini panic whilst I righted myself, for fear of getting caught in the boat’s propellor. I managed to escape by pushing off the bottom of the boat using my arms. However, this day I also mastered my first ‘feet down’ descent. This was also my 24th post-SCI dive and my 350th open water dive; a true cause for celebration. On our final day, we dived with turtles and a really cool leopard ray, which was large and stunningly beautiful; quite awe-inspiring. We marked our final night with drinks and a live band in Port Ghalib.
I’ve recently returned from a week in Tuscany learning Italian and a week in Sicily doing Pilates. My next planned adventure will be kite surfing in Greece later this year with Access Adventures. I’ve started kayaking again and I’m looking forward to a summer of open water swimming and water-skiing. I’ve got wind of a guy who is building the world’s first wheelchair accessible liveaboard boat. It’s fair to say I’m enjoying my retirement from parasport. I’ll never be as fit as I was, but I’ll never stop being an adventurer.