A new start after 60: I learned to scuba dive – and realised a childhood dream – The Guardian

Share this post on:

For Caroline Babayan, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call. She was locked down in Oslo, where she has lived for the past 40 years with her wife and children, and found herself thinking about the shape of the years to come. “I asked myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” she says. “I was 62 and I might only have 15 or 20 good years left. I realised that I should do the things that I had wanted to do and not leave it for another day. It was the push I needed.”

What she had always wanted to do was dive. Ever since she devoured Jules Verne’s sci-fi classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as a 10-year-old, Babayan has harboured a love of the ocean. Despite growing up in landlocked Tehran, 1,200m above sea level, she would dream about living in a glass dome underwater and when her family took her on holidays to the Caspian Sea, she would spend as much time as possible swimming. “It was a fantasy life for me as an only child,” she says. “I lived in my imagination and the ocean was just endless with wonder.”

In 2021, after decades spent working in adult education, Babayan enrolled in a diving certification course to finally make her dreams of exploring the ocean come true. She took her written theory test and soon began trying out diving equipment in a pool. At first, it was a struggle. “Each body floats differently, so you have to get your weighting right, otherwise you don’t sink properly,” she says. “It can feel really tiresome, like you’re always struggling.”

Once her instructors found her correct weighting, she then began diving in open water, but that also brought its challenges. “I started in November and the water in the fjords in Norway was so cold,” she laughs. “I had to wear a drysuit, which was really heavy and uncomfortable – I didn’t enjoy it.”

‘It gave me that feeling of freedom I had imagined as a child’ … Babayan after finishing her training.
‘It gave me that feeling of freedom I had imagined as a child’ … Babayan after finishing her training. Photograph: Supplied image

Still determined to have a positive experience, a month later Babayan took to warmer waters on a family holiday to Lanzarote and eventually managed her debut dive. “The first time I dived successfully, it was as if I was flying,” she says. “You see fish swimming above you, which is so strange, and it gave me that feeling of freedom I had imagined as a child. I knew then that this is what I wanted to continue doing.”

Since that first trip, Babayan, now 65, tries to fit in at least two diving holidays each year and still finds that same sense of adventure each time she sinks into the water. “It’s fascinating seeing all the marine life, but it’s also so calm because the only thing you hear is your own breathing,” she says. “You have to concentrate on your breath, almost like meditation.”

One recent trip involved diving in a cave in Sardinia and plunging into a “world within a world”. “The silence was amazing,” she says. It might sound terrifying to some but Babayan makes sure to always dive with an instructor at hand and to not stray much deeper than 20 metres.

Diving has remained a solo pursuit. Babayan’s wife hasn’t trained because she wears glasses and contact lenses, while her grandchildren mainly find it amusing that their granny enjoys such an adventure sport. Still, Babayan finds strength in having the experience for herself, no matter her age.

“Your age is in other people’s eyes and our bodies are far more resilient than we know,” she says. “I have never encountered any issues or prejudice about being an older diver. I have a medical checkup every two years to keep my certification and as long as that’s OK I will carry on.”

She travelled to Hanoi for her most recent diving trip before journeying farther south in Vietnam to explore the South China Sea. “One of the perks of growing older is that you don’t have to worry about what other people might think of you any more,” she says. “Go out and try whatever it is you’ve been waiting to do. Fulfil your dreams!”

Share this post on: