2018-02-01 / ReBooted

Taking a Dive

Jill Gleeson

Photo by Rory Doyle.Photo by Rory Doyle.

There isn’t a whole lot that scares me anymore, at least as far as adventure sports go. I’m terrified of awful eventualities like losing loved ones, but not of the type of activities typically seen in Mountain Dew commercials. Except SCUBA diving. Up until the moment I descended into the briny deep surrounding Petit St. Vincent, a private island in the Caribbean, the experience of strapping on air tanks, sticking a regulator in my mouth and swimming with the fishes was never pleasant for me, much less fun.

But when you have the opportunity to get wet with the staff of one of two Jean-Michel Cousteau dive centers in the whole world, you don’t say no. Jean-Michel is the son of legendary Jacques Cousteau, and he’s just as passionate about ocean conservation as his pop was. In late 2014 he opened the Jean-Michel Cousteau Caribbean Diving Center on PSV with the goal of “raising awareness of the importance of protecting our water planet.”

I was staying on the tiny island, a swanky but relaxed retreat with white sand beaches, gorgeous waters and 22 perfectly kept cottages and villas. I would have been content to laze in the sun, but I figured if there was ever a time to put my open water diver certification to good use it was with Cousteau’s team.

The season had just started on PSV, so there were only a few of us on the boat. Each amateur diver was paired with a divemaster; my undersea escort was a strapping guy named Gilan, who had grown up on nearby St. Vincent. As soon as I stepped onboard I began cautioning him about my relative lack of dive expertise, experience or enjoyment. Totally unfazed, he promised me we would hop in the water last, and that I could stay on the surface as long as I wanted. Considering how claustrophobic diving made me I figured that might be all afternoon.

I started to panic when I hit the water, but Gilan immediately soothed me, assuring me I was safe. I told him I wanted to try dipping my face into the sea and breathing through my regulator. We stayed there, bobbing with the waves, my head going in and out of the water, for no more than five minutes.

But it meant everything to me. When we began submerging, I felt entirely comfortable. It couldn’t have been more different than my previous few dives.

Down we went, to the coral reef 40 feet below us. There were tropical fish in electric blues and brilliant greens, fierce oranges, yellows and reds. I glided among them, experimenting with ascending and descending, expelling the breath in my lungs to sink a little lower, inhaling deeply to float a smidge higher. There was no anxiety, just amazement at this alien environment I felt emboldened to explore.

And gratitude for my ability to do so, intense enough I felt my eyes tear behind my mask.

As we swam, Gilan pointed to otherworldly creatures here and there — lobsters, spiny and skittering, prickly sea urchins and huge crabs. And then, with such gentleness he looked like he was moving in slow motion, a spotted eagle ray appeared to my right. He was massive, with a wingspan of at least 6 feet, and beautiful, his hide a deep ebony dotted with white spots. As he swam over the reef, his wings undulating languidly, I couldn’t resist. I propelled myself closer, so that I was just a few feet from him.

He looked pleased to see me, his mouth curving upward in what seemed a comical smile, but after a few sublime moments, I swam away, letting him be. Not long after, it was time to surface. I did so with reluctance, though we’d been down there an hour. I’m absolutely hooked on diving now — I can’t wait until my next ocean exploration — and it’s entirely thanks to Gilan and the Cousteau team. For as magical as my dive was, I might have had old Jacques himself alongside me. •SCM

For more information about Petit St. Vincent and the Cousteau dive center, visit

Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at and via her column at

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