Excerpt from The Coconut Wireless: A Travel Adventure in Search of the Queen of Tonga by Simon Michael Prior
The dive boat puttered gently away from the wharf, Jan at the wheel staring dead ahead, his mouth in a straight line. I had set myself a private challenge to make him laugh today, but his mood was as serious as an undertaker in an epidemic.
“This place drives me mad,” he said. “I give a Tongan man a job as my gardener, and he steals my coconuts.”
“Maybe he really needs them?” I said, “I think some people here have hardly any food.”
“The problem is,” said Jan, “the Tongans don’t have a concept of ownership. Historically, all possessions are communal. An excellent theory, in that everyone gets looked after by their families and nobody goes without essentials, not so great if people help themselves to stuff you consider to be yours.”
“It must have been hard adjusting to life here as a European.”
“I’m not a rich man. I have my boat, and my car, and little else. I don’t even own the house we live in. But my wife’s family believe I’m an incredibly wealthy palangi (white man), and I should support all of them. I mean, I’m happy to help with money they need for essential medical care. But the other day, my mother-in-law wanted me to pay to have her legs waxed. She’s never had them waxed before in her life; it was something she’d seen in a magazine. Because I’m a ‘rich westerner’, she thinks I can give her unlimited funds for that sort of thing.”
I understood why Jan’s mood was morose.
I needed to change the subject.
“Jan, where are we diving today?”
“Today, Simon, we’re going to do four dives. I’ll give you free diving today, because I’ve seen you’re competent, and I need a bit of help.”
Wow, free diving.
“Of course, Jan. What do you need me to do?”
“Yesterday, I had a phone call from Fafa Island Resort, a short distance off the coast here. They want us to collect two of their guests who are going to dive with us. I think they’re not experienced, so we’ll all dive together. I’ll lead the dives, and you can follow at the rear to make sure nobody gets left behind. Afterwards we’ll drop them back and have some lunch. I brought some fruit to eat. This afternoon we’ve a similar job. I’ll tell you about it later.”
I loved that he referred to it as a job. I was going to be working as a dive professional on a tropical island.
“It’s about three kilometres to Fafa Island. While I’m steering, could you please assemble our guests’ dive gear? I think you know how to do that.”
I gathered the various components we’d need.
Jan increased speed as we left the wharf, while I balanced on the rear deck, shifting from one bare foot to the other with the motion of the boat, gazing at the tropical sea, sun on my back, assembling tanks and buoyancy devices. If a competition for ‘most content marine employee’ existed, I would be on the podium.
After a few minutes, the tone of the engine changed. We couldn’t be there already. What was wrong? I looked forward through the wheelhouse. An open boat was approaching us, with three people in it. The man standing at the wheel was waving at us with his entire arm.
“What’s up with them, Jan? Do they need help?”
“It’s the boat from Fafa Island. Let’s see what they want.”
We motored slowly over to them until we were alongside.
Jan greeted the driver. “Hi Alan, everything okay?”
It’s so cool how all the people working in the tourist industry here know each other.
“Hi, Jan. I’ve brought your customers to you. I was heading into town, so I thought we’d meet halfway.”
Two men sat in the boat’s bow. One had a closely cropped beard, and they both had Mediterranean sunburnt skin. Jan invited them to step over into our boat. I helped them board.
“Hi guys, I’m Jan, your instructor, and this is Simon, who’s working with me today.”
I felt proud to be introduced as his assistant.
I can’t let them know this is my first day on the job.
The man with the beard spoke.
“Hello. I’m Pedro. This is my brother, Hesoos.”
“Which country are you from?” I asked.
“From Spain. We’re travelling round the world and we’re here a few days. It’s beautiful here, no people. Not like Spain.”
I agreed it wasn’t like Spain.
Jan pulled out a clipboard and gave it to me.
“Simon, please ask our guests to fill out their details on this dive log. Name, address, and the rest. I’ll start driving.”
I gave the clipboard to Pedro. He filled in his details and passed the form to his brother.
Hesoos wrote, and returned the completed document to me.
I scanned it.
His name wasn’t Hesoos.
It was Jesus.
My first ever day working in the industry, and I was going to be diving with Jesus.
Our first dive site was a sunken freighter off Makaha island, close to where Jan had shown me the organ coral. Jan anchored, and we all donned our dive gear. Jesus helped Pedro, instructing him in rapid Spanish where he should put his arms.
Jan addressed the brothers. “I’ll enter the water first, and you both please follow me. Stay close to me and to each other. Simon will swim behind. If you have any problem, Simon or I will help you.”
Who’ll help me if I have a problem?
I dismissed this thought, as I was now a highly experienced dive professional.
Jan jumped into the water, and Pedro, Jesus and I followed. They both seemed to know the basics, which was a relief. I didn’t want to be putting my rescue diver training into practice if I could help it.
Jan pointed into the water. “If you look down, you can see the wreck. It’s shallow here; we can stay underwater a long time. Everybody ready? Let’s go.”
Jan gave the ‘thumbs down’ signal, indicating we should descend.
We submerged, and Pedro plummeted to the sea floor.
Oh great, day one at work and I’ve killed my first customer.
Pedro sat on the ocean floor surrounded by a cloud of sand, his hands flailing around as he tried to steady himself and operate his equipment. I helped him inflate his buoyancy device, and he floated just above the bottom. I gripped his tank valve to keep him near to me and prevent a reoccurrence. Once Jan and Jesus had appeared, Jan gave the okay sign, I responded, and we followed them as they swam.
All was silent in the underwater world. Pedro drifted beside me, more relaxed.
The wreck loomed ahead of us, a foreign invader in these pristine waters. She lay on her side, murky brown and green, shoals of fish surrounding her. Large fish swam past, with smaller accomplices hitching a ride in their slipstream. A stingray hovered underneath us, and settled, burying itself in the sand.
Jan pointed at the entrance to the wreck and wagged his finger left and right. The implication was clear: ‘do not enter’. We circled the wreck, our slow approach making fish hide in the portholes. We looked in, and they scattered.
Pedro showed me his air gauge. One third remaining. It was time to return to the boat. I gave Jan the ‘thumbs-up’ sign, meaning time to swim to the surface. We swam diagonally upwards, following Jan. I helped Pedro slow his ascent. I didn’t want him to get the bends, a serious condition divers suffer from, caused by ascending too fast. I knew the nearest working decompression chamber was in Fiji. The one in Tonga was broken, like much of the infrastructure here.
We surfaced a few metres from the boat and took our air regulators out of our mouths.
“How was that?” Jan asked the Spaniards.
“Amazing, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Pedro spoke some rapid Spanish with Jesus, who nodded.
We boarded the boat and Jan started the engine. I heard the anchor chain clanking up.
“Now we’ll go to Pangimotu Island. Simon, could you please change all the tanks?”
Changing four people’s tanks was hard work. I didn’t care, I pretended I was an expert marine employee who’d been working on dive boats all my life.
We dropped anchor near Pangimotu island. Nuku’alofa shimmered in the haze off the starboard side.
“Here we’re going to dive a wreck that sank in the 1982 hurricane,” said Jan.
Tonga specialised in sunken boats.
Pedro managed better on this dive, and it was more relaxing for me.
We returned the Spaniards to Fafa Island and anchored a short distance offshore.
Sparkling turquoise sea extended to the horizon, as three flying fish ploooped nearby.
“What’s the plan for this afternoon, skipper?” I asked.
“First, we’ll have some lunch. Then I’ve a real treat for you.”
Jan produced a container full of tropical fruit, which we ate while he talked.
“We’re going to collect our next customers from Royal Sunset Island Resort, on Atata Island, a long way further out to sea. They’re an American couple. I dived with them yesterday; they know what they’re doing. You won’t need me to lead the dives. I’ll stay on the boat, and you can be in charge.”
Leading the dives.
I tried not to show how anxious I was about this.
“They want to swim with sharks, so we’ll take them to Hakaumama’o reef reserve. It’s twenty kilometres out to sea, the furthest reef away from Nuku’alofa. There are small reef sharks there.”
Great. My first ever experience leading dives for paying customers and I’m being thrown to the sharks.
“Jan, is there a knack to leading these dives? I mean, I haven’t dived this spot before, how will I know where to go? And how do you find the boat again so easily?”
“Great questions. Here’s the trick. The reef has several coral heads. I’ll tell you which direction to swim in once we anchor. Count the coral heads, and once you’ve used about one third of your air, turn round and come back again. Count the coral heads on the way back as you pass them, and you’ll be right under the boat.”
“Sounds good. What about the second dive?”
“That’s even easier. It’s on the other side of the reef, a two-minute boat ride from the first one. We’ll anchor in my usual spot; you drop down and follow the edge of the reef. Once you’ve about two-thirds of your air left, you turn round and follow the reef back again. You’ll be fine.”
I was proud Jan had trusted me to give his clients an enjoyable experience, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.
“Finished?” Jan packed the fruit away. “Can you please change the tanks while we drive to Atata Island?”
At Royal Sunset Resort’s wharf, the Americans introduced themselves as Rick and Pamela. Rick carried a large underwater camera. He passed it to me as he stepped awkwardly over the edge of the boat, his tummy moulding itself to the rail. His steel grey hair swept up in a quiff, and his polo shirt displayed the logo Canyon Golf Club.
I reckoned Pamela wasn’t much older than me. She wore huge Prada sunglasses and had spent some time perfecting her bleached blonde hair and make-up, as if she were about to star in Dynasty. I found this odd as she was going underwater. They accepted Jan’s explanation I would lead the dives today without question.
Wealthy, paying divers relying on me for a great holiday experience.
I hope my nerves don’t show. I hope I don’t make any mistakes.
To give the impression that I knew what I was doing, I untied the ropes and coiled them neatly, while Jan pulled away from the dock.
We sped up, heading for the open sea, and I struck a pose as if I worked on a dive boat every day of my life. The American couple talked to each other and not to me. I realised there was an unseen barrier between the paying customers and the staff.
Nuku’alofa was distant on one horizon, and out to sea nothing was visible but water. We anchored at the outer reef. I looked over the side and could see the first coral head.
Rick helped Pamela with her gear, and they refused my offer of assistance. I was becoming more nervous.
What if something happens?
I had visions of a Stetson-clad Texan prosecutor pacing up and down in a Houston court, asking me where I was at the time in question.
Jan called me in to the wheelhouse. “It’s important when you’re leading a dive to enter the water before your customers. Then if one of them has a problem, you’re in the water and you can help. I think they’re ready, you’d better kit up.”
I rushed to put my familiar gear on, and with my hand holding my mask to my face, I tumbled backwards over the side. Rick and Pamela followed me, and we gathered at the surface.
“Everybody ready?” I asked.
Jan called from the boat. “Just a minute, Simon.” He beckoned me over. “I think you might need this.”
He handed me my weight belt and laughed. “You won’t sink very far down without it.”
Embarrassed, I took the weight belt and put it on. As I swam back to the other two divers, he chuckled behind me. I had achieved my goal of making him laugh, not in quite the way I had intended.
Thank goodness Rick and Pamela hadn’t seen.
My ‘thumbs down’ signal invited them to descend close to the first coral head.
I led the way.
One coral head. Two coral heads.
Little white-tipped reef sharks swam around us, and Rick took several pictures.
Three coral heads.
A colossal fish, bigger than the sharks, swam into view. Rick photographed Pamela with the giant fish in the background and turned to me, making the okay sign. Even though his air regulator hid his mouth, I could see from his eyes he was smiling. I relaxed.
Dive leading’s easy, I’m enjoying this.
We reached the fourth coral head.
I checked my air. Two-thirds left. Time to return.
Rick had his camera close to the coral head and his flash reflected from underneath it. Fish would be hiding there, and I guessed he’d discovered something good to photograph. I turned round to find Pamela.
Something was wrong.
Her air regulator wasn’t in her mouth. She had no air.
I swam over to Pamela as fast as I could. She scooped her right arm behind her, trying to find the hose that connected her air regulator to her tank, and her eyes were wide and panicked.
Help! What do I do?
Her air regulator dangled just out of her reach. I grabbed it and shoved it into her mouth, pushing with my flat hand against it. My rescue diver training had taught me alarmed divers sometimes spit their regulator out in their terror. I made a slow hand movement repeatedly up to my mouth and then away again, meaning breathe slowly. She calmed down as she discovered she had air again. A few seconds later, her eyes returned to normal, and she began to look at me, not through me. I made the closed thumb and forefinger signal; are you okay? She showed the same sign back to me; I’m okay.
We swam together towards Rick. He was still snapping pictures, unaware of what had happened. I made a sign to him to indicate we were returning to the boat.
I kept close to Pamela.
Four coral heads, three, two, one, and the bottom of the boat appeared above us. I gave the ‘thumbs-up’ sign, and we ascended, surfacing a few metres away from the ladder.
“That was grand,” said Rick. “The giant wrasse, the sharks. I think I took some great photos. You should have seen that lobster under the coral head.”
“Rick, I nearly goddamned drowned,” said Pamela, sounding most unlike a Dynasty actress. “If it wasn’t for Simon, I’d be dead.”
“What the hell happened?” Rick turned to me as if I were responsible.
“It’s not Simon’s fault,” said Pamela. “You always tell me to take my regulator out so you can see my smile in the photos. I’m not doing that ever again. I dropped my regulator; couldn’t find it again, and you went off like a jerk with your stupid camera, and left me.”
Her expression changed from anger to a smile. “Thank you so much Simon. I’m so glad you knew what to do.”
Rick looked annoyed. He wasn’t used to being addressed in this fashion in front of the hired hand.
“Where’s the next dive?” he asked, changing the subject.
“On the other side of the reef, a two-minute boat ride,” I said, as if I had been there several times this week already.
We climbed back on board, and the expert deckhand, dive leader and now lifesaver changed the tanks again for his adoring clientele.
I remembered Jan’s advice about the second dive and led Rick and Pamela along the reef. The sound like crinkling cellophane reminded me to search for the parrot fish, who made this noise as they tore weed off the rocks.
Rick took multiple pictures of the various coral formations. His flash lit up in my peripheral vision, while I kept a careful eye on Pamela.
We finished the dive and returned the Americans to Atata island.
“Simon, you’ve just been tremendous,” said Pamela, as I helped her off the boat.
She held my hand a little too long, making sure Rick was noticing. She mounted her sunglasses on her nose, and strode off up the jetty, without waiting for her husband.
Rick took his wallet out of his pocket. He looked down at the floor, and then up at me. “Thank you for what you did back there. And thanks for leading the dives. Here, something for you.”
He placed a note in my hand and followed Pamela into the resort.
I opened my palm.
“Jan, he gave me fifty pa’anga.”
“The Americans tip well, don’t they? You’ve earned it, dive leader.”
Fifty pa’anga was only twenty-five pounds, but I felt prouder of today’s salary than any wages I had earned in an office.