It will be weightless underwater I am told as I stare at the eighty-pound helmet that will encapsulate my head. And a stingray had accidentally killed the Australian diver and conservationist Steve Irwin. Our guide tries to reassure us about this shark-related fish, “If a stingray comes near you, it’s because it wants to, just let it and don’t scare it!” There is no time to mull over this, I am first in line for my maiden helmet dive.

Our Regent’s Seven Seas “Tahiti cruise” had begun, and would end, in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. Today, we experience Moorea, one of the Society Islands—further divided between the Windward and Leeward Islands based on their position within the trade winds—and one of the five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia. 

The m/s Paul Gauguin had anchored early that morning under the watchful peak of Mount Tohivea, its mountains akin to the jagged teeth of a shark’s mouth. At its feet, the green and blue waters of a lagoon teem with the most diverse collection of plants and animals thanks to the protection of a barrier reef—consisting of motus (atolls) created by the accumulation of coral skeletons.

Six of us transfer by van to the Intercontinental Moorea Resort & Spa where we meet the Aquablue Helmet Dive crew. During the ten-minute boat ride to the diving spot on the lagoon, owner-guide Vincent briefs us on safety, assisted by Jeff, a professional cameraman-diver. As they answer our questions, two participants discover that the helmet-dive is not a walk in an underwater viewing glass tunnel. They relax at the thought that the activity doesn’t require swimming and is safe for children six-year-old and to anyone without health issues. The couple will do the helmet dive, albeit in their touring clothes.

Descending the Shallow Depth

I step down the ladder affixed to the side of the pontoon until I am chest-deep in the water and Vincent gently places the helmet onto my shoulders. He assists me for the 16-foot descent while I cringe at the thought that water might somehow seep under the helmet. I remember my attempt at clearing my mask during my one-and-only scuba diving initiation. I tend to be claustrophobic in some situations.

It helps that I am not strapped to a bunch of equipment, not even a respirator or an oxygen tank. Instead, a flexible tube—connected to the tank on the boat—feeds compressed air inside my ‘breathing bubble’ (to replenish my oxygen supply and purge CO2 buildup).

As soon as I immerse, other than a bit of pressure on my shoulders, the helmet is no longer worth its real weight. And my face is dry (the pressure of the water has trapped air inside the helmet). Vincent—in scuba gear—secures my footing onto the sandy lagoon floor, then I follow his instructions: Go to the side, kneel, and wait for the group.

Underwater Walking

Vincent signals that we all move forward. Easier said than done. The now ‘weightless’ helmet nevertheless keeps me grounded but walking feels encumbered, my foot slowly rising, and my arms barely propelling me.

I look at my diving companions, who have turned into a whimsical scene of ambling creatures reminiscent of Tintin in Hergé’s book Explorers on the Moon. When Vincent started Aquablue, in 1998, he wanted to take only certified divers back to history with authentic Russian helmets—the brass and copper kind. But when non-initiated divers kept asking about “the underwater walk,” he got the modern yellow helmets we are wearing. Still, they work like the diving bells of the past.

We all have surrendered to slow motion, and I feel like I am inside the tropical fish tank at an aquarium. Various shapes with perfect markings in vibrant colors glide by, some checking out my faceplate. Then a colorful flurry takes me by surprise, the feeding tube held by Vincent spawning the frenzy. When it’s my turn to hold the tube, the fish knows where to go.

Sizing Up Stingrays

At first, my hand on the tube disappears as if I was holding a big bunch of flowers until some grey ‘flying saucer’ makes its way through the fishy crowd: a stingray. I can’t check my husband’s reaction, the helmet only allowing frontal vision, so I turn my whole body around and come face to face with two more rays. I am captivated when their undulating and baby-soft pectoral fins gently brush my arm. But when the ray begins to meander around my legs in a cat-style way, I freeze at the thought of the long tail with the serrated—and poisonous—barb (unlike manta rays that don’t have any). And I don’t dare move when one ray takes a liking for my neoprene bootie. Vincent signals that it’s okay, and eventually engages into a playful choreography with the animal, rewarding it with a treat, thus also allowing us to see its mouth under its white belly.

Precious Polynesia

I am now totally relaxed. I even get close to the mounds of coral heads, scaring a moray eel back into its home in a rocky hole. A spotted boxfish speckled like dice, a cubically colored Picasso fish, a camouflaged rockfish, and fluttering anemones make me ponder the future of this pristine underwater ecosystem, the natural asset not only of the Society Islands but of all Polynesian waters. I ponder the aquatic web, from phytoplankton to large predators such as whales, all depending on one another for food in a fragile ecosystem, its balance now threatened by human activity and climate change.

After 30 minutes underwater, we regroup for a photo souvenir. Is the same stingray lounging on my foot again? I can’t tell, but the feeding tube lures it to lift off, and I am the last underwater walker back up the ladder.

First published 2012 Buckettriper.com