Both of us hit the big 60 a few months back. We didn’t think it mattered much, we felt great and have stayed in shape between dive trips by swimming, hiking, and practicing yoga. Besides, as our friend Brian Skerry so tactfully reminded us, “60 is the new 59.” Encouraging words indeed.
But just after Burt’s birthday we came down with dengue fever. There’s no doubt you are sick when dengue hits. Blinking my eyelids, even breathing at times, felt like way too much effort. According to our friends living in Bali (seems the disease has become a right of passage among Bali’s expat population), having dengue meant a recovery time of at least two months, probably longer. It took me about two weeks to even feel like getting out of bed, much less taking a short walk or swimming a few laps in the pool. All of a sudden we felt and looked our age.
Problem was we were scheduled to lead a dive trip to Komodo National Park, and while we very much wanted to get back in the water, we had doubts about our strength and abilities. Then we spent some time with Gladys Howard. Gladys is the owner of Pirates Point on Little Cayman, and as her almost 25 years in the dive industry prove, she is one unstoppable lady. She’s 78 and has had two knee replacement surgeries, an artificial joint in one of her fingers, and a lot of shoulder problems. She went with us to Komodo and planned on completing 20 dives. She made 23, including a few in Komodo’s famously unpredictable currents. The dragon walk on Rinca Island worried her a bit; it’s a hotter-than-hell two-hour walk over rough ground. She completed the whole walk, and motivated two 17-year-olds to finish when they wanted to turn back. Throughout the trip Gladys amazed us with her energy and attitude, and diving turned out to be just what we needed to feel physically and mentally healed. Dengue brings a bit of depression with it, and dengue patients are especially susceptible because they spending so much time lying around. Just watching an incredible reef scene unfold while we floated through Komodo’s “Fish Bowl” with the mantas was the perfect antidote for our dengue-induced blues.
Gladys isn’t the only “older” diver we’ve encountered lately. Naomi Stern and Mary Jane Stoll (both a decade or two beyond 60) are inspirations. On our last trip together I believe Mary Jane logged more dives than I did! There are quite a few of us hovering just beyond the 60 year old mark, and most are exceptionally active people. It’s hard to believe Howard Hall is 60 after witnessing his marathon rebreather dives during the filming of Under the Sea 3D, Deep Sequel. By the time you read this post, Burt and I will be on an exploratory survey of Cendrawasih Bay, a remote part of Papua’s Bird’s Head Seascape. Dr Gerry Allen (well over 60) will be on board as part of the science team. Despite a bone-crushing run in with a kangaroo while bicycling downhill (really!) and various and sundry mountain climbing falls, Gerry is still lives to be “out there” on the cutting edge of topical fish research. I think it’s important to remember that experience counts in scuba diving; experienced divers make fewer mistakes; they understand and respect their limits.
The people we know who are “getting better”, not older, stay in shape in order to dive. For some, like Howard Hall and Gerry Allen, their living depends on it. For others like Gladys, Naomi or Mary Jane, diving makes their lives worth living and keeps them on the active list. Don’t stop diving just because you don’t feel like making five dives a day like you did a few years ago. Enjoy three and have a scotch after dinner. Don’t stop diving because your back and knees can’t take climbing the ladder in full gear. Hand it off, and save your energy for the next dive. After all, age does come with a few privileges!