Aoibheann Gillespie Mules - shipwrecked on a remote island.
Earlier this year, Derry woman Aoibheann Gillespie-Mules married the love her life in the exotic Phillippines. As a qualified diving instructor, the young Derry woman has visited many countries, spending most of her time under water. Here, in the first of two articles, she looks back on life in Derry before she started her worldwide adventures which saw her being shipwrecked on a remote island.
Born and brought up in West End Park in the Bogside, Aoibheann is the youngest of four and went to the Model Primary School and Oakgrove Integrated College.
Her earliest memories of being in the water are summers spent in Rosbeg in the Portnoo area of County Donegal.
She recalled: “We spent every day of the summer on the beaches of Donegal, exploring the rocks pools, swimming, pier jumping, body boarding, surfing - basically anything to do with water.
“I was always drawn to the water at an early age, my mum and dad have a great story of me crawling to the sea as a toddler and floating there before I could even walk.”
Aoibheann really got into swimming after a family trip to Australia.
“I was nine-years-old and went on a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef,” she said.
“I remember snorkelling that day and just being absolutely amazed by corals and the marine life. I remember seeing divers with a huge Napoleon Wrasse swimming around them and just wishing I was them.
“Snorkelling was just not enough. I also remember watching through the windows of the boat below the surface seeing people stand on the reef causing huge chunks of coral breaking off, and being devastated. This, I think, planted a seed for my future path.”
After her parents signed her up to City of Derry Swimming Club in her 'early years,' came years of training and competitive swimming which built up her confidence in the water.
“My memories of swim training are very mixed. It’s a tough sport that takes incredible dedication, mentally and physically. We had amazing coaches throughout – Seamus, Carmel, Jimmy and many more who not only coached us in the sport itself but through the transition of becoming a teenager.
“I have so many fond memories of the friendships and experiences from the team, galas and days where the training was a gentler – most days were intense training days.”
Aoibheann was also a member of the Model and Oakgrove swimming teams.
“One of the greatest advantages of training and swimming with City of Derry was the overall fitness gained and then, of course, representing your school in swimming galas.
“We were usually up against each other as we were mostly from different schools but similar age group, this always made the competition really fun - and great to represent and win for our school. There was always a brilliant atmosphere, great community feels as everyone new everyone, and the competition was much friendlier than our more serious galas out of Derry with the club.”
Aoibheann left the swimming club at 14 as she found it difficult to balance school, school sports, life as a teenager and felt as though she had reached her peak as a swimmer.
“But I continued to represent my school which kept my connection to the swimming world which I loved. I focused on other sports within the school, crosscountry, rugby, netball. I joined the university swim club, mainly for the training and to meet others, whom I still am very well connected with but I didn’t continue to swim competitively.”
Aoibheann moved on to the National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway with the intention of becoming a vet.
“I first thought I wanted to be a vet, as I had so much love for animals - but after a week work experience at a veterinary, my mind was changed very quickly.
“I believe it was down to my connection to the ocean and friend group I had in Rosbeg that mainly influenced me to go to Galway. A few older friends had already started studying there and said how great of a city it was - many friends were planning to go to England but I was determined to stay in Ireland - and Galway seemed to have the perfect degree – Marine Science.
“During the first year of my degree I joined the sub aqua club but was shocked at the prices of gear, for example, dry suits, which I couldn’t afford at the time.
“I was always dreaming of tropical waters, and then during one of my classes, an older student introduced me to a marine conservation volunteering organisation in Mozambique where you not only completed diving courses necessary but you were introduced to incredible megafauna - whale sharks, mantas, turtles etc - and assisted scientists to ID, tag and collect data of these animals which would help lead to their protection. This blew my mind, and all the saving that was going towards dive gear for diving in Ireland ended up going to this.
“We went to a tiny village in Mozambique, called Tofo. Little did I know at the time, this stunning place was an epicentre of marine science/conservation. Many incredible and inspiring marine biologists/scientists spend much of their time here. I will never forget the first breath underwater and the trust I had with my dive instructor. This is vital as an instructor, to help students overcome any fears that come from diving itself, the vastness of a new environment, the instinctive feelings – we are not supposed to be able to breath. I couldn’t get enough!
“After a month diving with incredible people and marine life, I knew I wanted to do this every day. It was a dream. However, I never thought of becoming an instructor. I went on to do my Divemaster (a level below an instructor) and, like many other dive professionals, I naturally progressed to an instructor and have never looked back. To be able to take someone for their first breaths under water, to introduce the underwater world and help a person overcome their fears, is possibly one of the greatest feelings I have, introducing them to the wonders of the ocean.”
Travelling the world has had its scary moments for Aoibheann.
She revealed: “We had many scary typhoon experiences, one of the biggest was in the Philippines where Typhoon Haiyan devastated the country. We, fortunately, escaped the worst of it, but many islands were completely devastated taking thousands of lives. Sadly, the power of these typhoons are worsening due to climate change, and are destroying homes and livelihoods every year.
”One of the most terrifying experiences was making our way home after a dive safari trip during which we spent five days aboard diving and exploring different islands. We had dropped off our customers and on our journey back when we were hit by bad weather, we were sure the boat wouldn’t make it through the waves but, thank goodness, for our amazing crew we landed back safely.
“On another trip we ended up shipwrecked for about five days on a remote island after the steel shafting of our boat snapped in half – but that’s story for another day.”
NEXT TIME... Aoibheann reveals the favourite country she has visited and how difficult it was to wed thousands of miles from home without family present due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
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