Sunday, 10 March 2013

Life is your sail boat

---Forever Learning---

It's common knowledge among divers that you never stop learning, particularly if you're a PADI diver and you're presented with an endless list of specialities to add another certification card to your ever-growing collection. I've recently qualified as an enriched air (nitrox) diver which means you dive with a higher percentage of oxygen reducing the amount of residual nitrogen in the bloodstream and so extending bottom times. It's also good when you want to do multiple dives which was the main reason for my next speciality choice.

Given the recent plummeting temperatures (we're down to seven degrees in the water which seems to have created a bunch of teeth-chatteringly chilly wetsuit divers; I could cope with eight) I decided to take the plunge and purchase a dry suit which means I need to learn how to use it. 

It was back into the classroom for another theory session which, having read the handbook, was followed by a delightful tutorial video (they're informative but so corny) and knowledge review. Next step: the pool!

Prior to that session (in fact the very same day) I had a nice little uneventful dive on the Elk (Type: Wreck - Max Depth: 31.4m - Length: 26 mins) potentially my last in a wetsuit in UK water for some time unless I decide to brave it in the summer for old times' sake. There's not much to say, aside from the fact I may have managed to do my first deco dive (extra minute on the safety stop needed, nothing dramatic bar a few tut tut hand signals from the instructor i bumped into on the shot line on the ascent - think four fingers, pointing to dive computer, horizontal movement of the forefinger, raised eyebrows, huge smile). It was a good dive with a very experienced buddy who was happy to bimble along at my pace having not been in the water for a few months. But I digress! 

Now, for avid readers you'll remember back to my initial confined water sessions in the pool and the amusement that I caused amongst instructors and fellow students alike. This time wasn't much different. I was having enough trouble taking in the concept of having to ignore your BCD inflation, instead putting air into the dry suit, so when it came to the skills the fun really began. 

If you angle yourself with your head further down than your feet you have a tendency to drift upwards by your feet. As that could lead to an uncontrolled ascent, you need to be able to get yourself out of the predicament. The options: forward roll; backward roll; tuck. The forward roll went pretty well, the tuck was nowhere near graceful but I got there. The backwards roll saw me hanging bat-like upside down with my fins resting on top of the water. I'm not going to lie, after I gave up struggling to get back down it was rather comfortable!

I was delighted to be able to introduce my cousin's son to scuba diving during this pool session as a present for his 9th birthday. He joined in with a scout group taking part in a Discover Scuba Diving session and absolutely loved it. He took to it like a, well, scuba diver to water and spent the journey home telling me how he got water in his regs at one point but just pressed the big button on the front (the purge valve) and it got rid of the water and gave him air. It's amazing how quickly kids pick up things. I'm sure it took me a good few tries to get that one right!

Skills mastered (thereabouts) it was stage two of the practical; proper water (by which I mean the sea, namely the Waterfront on Plymouth Hoe). During two dives we repeated the skills learnt in the pool, somewhat more successfully on my account this time. I still had floaty feet issues though. Women are known to have problems with more air distributing into the feet because of the position you take up underwater when finning but some are more buoyant than others, usually when your weight is distributed unevenly with more blubber on your bottom half (quick look down not necessary, yup, that's me)! I had to have more weight added to me and ankle weights to keep me from going arse up but it seemed to do the trick and the latter part of the session went well. And that was that. I'm now a dry suit diver. Definitely more work needed on the buoyancy though; I've gone back in time a few weeks and now need to perfect my ability to dive in an oh so warm (helped out by incredible Fourth Element arctic thermals) environment. Absolutely no doubt it's worth the effort!

---Dry Suit Diving---

Location: Waterfront - Type: Shore - Max Depth: 9.5m - Length: 33 mins

My first proper dive in my dry suit having completed the course was back at the Waterfront, but this time it was a night dive. It took a while to get kitted up as I'd bought a new weight belt (a padded one for lead shot as I'm now needing 16kg of lead) but unfortunately it had been supplied with the wrong buckle so was incredibly tough to thread! We got there eventually and got into the water. The first thing that hit was brain freeze. I think everything else except my face being covered and pretty much toasty warm (aside from my hands but they were still covered with gloves) gave a short sharp shock to my poor exposed cheeks. It took a minute to get used to it but once we had descended and were on our way I'd forgotten about the face chill. 

I'd say it took me about 10 minutes to sort my buoyancy out. My buddy gave me a chance to stop on the bottom and put air in my suit without having to keep up with her at the same time. I used the fin pivot technique to get myself mostly sorted and set off. I did bounce off the bottom a few times but that's down to not closing the dry suit valve so that air wouldn't escape too easily. I need to remember that; it'll make the whole process so much easier!

We had a great dive with lots of life around. We'd set out, or at least my buddy had, with the intention of collecting some scallops for supper. Before we found any of those we stumbled across an edible crab. After my buddy spent a few seconds eyeing up the crab and glancing at me (my response was wide eyes, shaking head and an attempt as saying 'but he's cute') she decided she couldn't do it. I was still on for the scallops and spent a while pointing out possibilities but the crab experience had left its mark; no scallops in our bag that night. Fortunately a friend in another buddy pair had a bit more backbone than us and we did still have a few for supper seared in a pan with garlic and chorizo - delicious!

Aside from the half-failed hunting mission, we saw something which provoked a lot of squealing from the pair of us. I spotted the little one and focused my torch on him getting my buddy's attention. I was only a baby EEL! My first ever eel! Tiny though he was, he was particularly cute and hung around for a while (okay, I may have chased after him a little bit). Definitely made the dive! The daft thing was my marine life knowledge is not strong in the slightest so I didn't find out what he was until we surfaced to my buddy shouting 'WE SAW AN EEL'! 

---The Good, The Bad and the Philosophical---

Location: Hillsea Point - Type: Reef - Max Depth: 26.8m - Length: 39 mins

I'm always experiencing firsts in diving and this trip was one of those days; my first dive off the boat in a dry suit, my first free descent off the boat, my first drift dive, the first time using nitrox and the first (and hopefully only) time I perforated my ear drum.

Cue the violin music, I'm feeling sorry for myself right now, not least because I'm writing this while on a flight to Australia with a cloud hanging over my head as to whether I'll be able to dive. But back to that tale of woe in a moment.

We've kitted up on the boat and got set to take the leap of faith (gentle roll backwards off the RIB). The decision was taken not to put a shot in as the current was quite strong so it was to be a free descent. No problem, I've done them on shore dives so no difference. Made it into the water and got close to my two buddies before we've signalled to start our descent. Ditched all the air from my BCD, made an effort to kick start my descent as always as I usually have trouble breaking the surface, and dropped. I didn't give myself a chance to even think about inflating my dry suit or putting some air back into my BCD. I got down to 14 metres in not too many seconds before my buddy caught up with me by which time my ear had popped, I'd had a bit of an 'everything's spinning' moment (which I put down to just a fast descent) and developed a bit of an ache. Having said that, it wasn't overly painful and settled down after a minute so I just presumed it was caused by clearing itself under a lot of pressure. And so I carried on the dive. 

Despite what I now know, I can't deny it was a cracking dive and the best vis I've seen (easily 10 metres). We coasted along with the current over the many gullies on the reef, occasionally hanging on to take a photo here and there. The starfish, crabs and anemones all look so much more interesting in clear vis, not to mention the plentiful dead men's fingers. The piece de resistance was a large dogfish (or lesser spotted catshark) which stayed still on the bottom for a few photos (I'll add these on my return to the UK). 

The ascent was fine, we got back onto the boat with ease (if you call ease spread-eagling in the water while the skipper de-kitted me as the current was quite strong)! It was only really once back on land that the ear ache became a bit more apparent. I cleaned out my ears with some tissue and noticed a spot (no more than a speck) of blood on the tissue. I'll spare the boring details but on the advice of a doctor who specialises in diving I spent Saturday night in A&E to be told that yes, my ear drum was most likely perforated but as there was blood in the ear it may only be a small tear which if I'm lucky will heal in a few weeks (at that point it was one week until my flight to Oz and 23 days until my first planned dive liveaboard). 

A second opinion and a few high tech tests by a diving specialist the day before I left confirmed a tear, though similarly to the first opinion dried blood is blocking the view of how big it might be. The only option is to see a doctor in Australia a few days before I'm due to dive. In the meantime I have to keep the ear dry because of the high risk of infection. Fortunate that I I hadn't planned my first couple of weeks on the beach then! 

I'm still having to hold out hope that it heals but I can't let it spoil my enjoyment of the rest of the month-long holiday. I learnt to dive because I had booked to go to Australia and wanted to do the Barrier Reef properly, but I didn't plan the trip so that I could go diving, initially at least. While I have my fingers and toes crossed, I have to remember that, and remind myself that a few days' diving (albeit on the other side of the world) is not worth risking my health or my ability to continue diving in the future.

Life is your sail boat - you don't want to sink when you've barely begun.


Posts for the next few weeks will be via iPad from Singapore/Australia so apologies for the lack of photos and potential formatting issues. The following posts are catching up on the last few weeks of UK diving before I lose track completely when I hopefully (explanation later) dive in Oz.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Diving in the dark

In the last couple of weeks the air temperature has crept up after the snow in January but with the warmth (8c is warm when it’s been -1) has come a whole lot of wind which has scuppered the usual boat dives. Instead it’s been shore dives aplenty, mainly in the dark.

Location: Eastern Kings – Type: Shore/Reef wall drop off – Max Depth: 29m – Length: 33 mins – Surface: Clear/Night
The top choice of dive site for our evening bimbles has been Eastern Kings. After my first attempt bouncing up and down for the duration, I’ve been able to practise my buoyancy and am glad to report that I’m improving. My comment in my log book from ‘teach’ on the second go was ‘much better’. Although she did manage to burst my bubble when we surfaced and told me, after letting me get through my excitedness at having managed to keep my runaway ascents/descents under control, ‘yeh, I was letting air out of your BCD without you realising half the time…but it was still better than last time’!

Location: Eastern Kings – Type: Shore/Reef wall drop off – Max Depth: 30.2m – Length: 48 mins – Surface: Overcast/Night
Kings strike three was definitely better on the buoyancy front. No particularly notable issues** which was incredible considering my brain was numb for most the dive as I was so damn cold (or bloody freezing for want of a slightly stronger term and what I wrote in my log book afterwards)! I was already cold before I went in, which should have been a sign that I was setting myself up for failure. It took a little while for us to get going once in the water. Myself and my buddy were at the back of a four; one of the guys in front was leading (this involved sitting on the bottom for a while to get his bearing, spinning round in circles a few times and then heading off…this episode has been pointed out a few times in the days following)! Once we got to the reef (I found out afterwards we’d followed the leader to the 40 metre side which was why nothing looked familiar) we parted ways with the other two (combination of bad vis and having to stay at 30 metres) and started a gentle paddle along the wall.

Pretty quickly my torch failed followed by my buddy’s so we had to switch to backups. I’d bought a couple of torches from someone on eBay and this was my first attempt at using them; I had the smaller one (an Underwater Kinetics C4) and my buddy had the huge one (an Underwater Kinetics D8). I’d charged my torch but hadn’t charged hers as I thought it was working fine. I’ve since discovered the little one has a life of around 35 to 40 minutes on full charge which will do as a backup. The large one on the other hand lasts around three hours and is like a floodlight! Fantastic for night dives, but not so hot on this particular outing having not been charged. Doh! And as I jotted down in my log book afterwards – ‘I don’t like the dark’! It’s not one of those overarching ‘I have to sleep with the light on’ kind of childhood fears, it’s more the ‘I’m underwater and the light’s just gone out, where the hell am I’, kind of fear. But that’s why we carry backups!
By the time we got to 18 minutes, I was really feeling the cold and for the first time ever had to signal to my buddy to let her know. As I’ve mentioned before, Kings is in a shipping channel, so you have to swim in to shore before you can surface. We were still quite a way out on the reef and as it was high water, and we’d spent a while messing about with directions and torches towards the start, we had a way to go. By the time we got back to shore, my computer was reading 48 minutes, although I’d lost all sense of time as I was focused on trying to minimise the intense shivering. Just as we were about to climb out the others surfaced, exited quite quickly and helped me get out, bearing in mind I couldn’t feel much so my legs weren’t doing as I wanted them to!

It was a quick (as quick as I could manage with numb everything) change in the van out of everything wet and into some dry clothes then back to the warmth of indoors, a hot shower and a hot chocolate. Key term: hot! I was after whatever warmth I could get my hands on. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before I started to feel my extremities again but it was a while before I thawed out completely.
I can only presume I felt the cold so much because of a combination of tiredness, having had a large meal beforehand and getting incredibly warm and cosy indoors before venturing back out. All I know is I’d prefer not to feel like that again and as you can imagine, I was a little nervous on the next dive that I’d be just as cold but fortunately my worries weren’t necessary.

**Several hours after writing this post, my buddy was recounting her version of this story to a friend and reminded me of a moment I had blocked out of my memory. It occurred towards the end of the dive, when I couldn’t feel a thing and had lost most of my ability to think. As we made our way into the shallows a few metres deep, we stumbled across some concrete posts, which you only come across at high water on the way out. Not having seen these before, they came as somewhat of a shock, but proved a particularly helpful guide. As I trailed my hand across each one on the way up, I realised I was ascending a bit, which then altered to quite a lot. I tried to reach my dump valve as the inflator hose was at too much of an angle to work, but I couldn’t feel my hands to grab it. Next best thing; cling onto the post with arms wrapped around it. The friend being told this story pointed out that it sounds like a moment Piglet had in a Winnie the Pooh story as he got swept away by the wind…I can relate. My buddy finally looked up and realising my predicament, darted around me to get to the dump valve and lower me back down. So when I said no notable issues, there might have been just the one!
Location: Eastern Kings/Devil’s Point – Type: Shore – Max Depth: 3.4m – Length: 24 mins – Surface: Clear/Night
Kings part four was not quite the same as the previous dives at the site, in that we didn’t actually make it onto the reef, so essentially it should really be called a Devil’s Point shore dive. My buddy was hissing. Well, her regulator was, so we couldn’t risk the 30 metre dive. We settled for a three metre bimble alongside the rocky shoreline from the entry point back to the swimming pool where you would normally end the dive. My ability to cope with 8c water temp had returned to normal and I was surprised at just how much there still was to see. It was like a miniature version of the reef, with shed loads of crabs (mainly velvet swimmers and hermits) and lots of babies around in the shallows; bib, scorpion fish, gobies and what I’m pretty sure was a cat shark but my buddy thinks it could have been a dragonet, and after looking at pictures could also have been just a different type of goby. Swatting up on species needed!  By far the funniest find (in an ‘oh dear’ kind of way) was a sole, half buried in the sand with his little eyes poking up on top of his head. The reason for the underwater giggling – we’d just eaten his relatives for dinner! Poor fish!

Not quite the lemon sole we'd just had for dinner (this one's a common sole) but enough of a resemblance to leave me feeling guilty!
Location: Cawsand – Type: Shore – Max Depth: 4.3m – Length: 21 mins – Surface: Clear/Sunny
Aside from the frequent Kings visits, I was lucky enough to join a group of trainee divemasters (DMs) on an exercise at Cawsand one sunny Sunday. I was playing the hapless student (yes, I know, not much acting needed). In a few metres of water and really bad vis, myself and an already qualified DM were given role play instructions for descent/ascent training. My favourite was by far leaving my snorkel in to descend rather than putting my reg in. The idea is that the DM is meant to realise before you descend; you’d be surprised how many get caught out by this one. I also threw in a bit of fun for myself, switching to my snorkel just as they had descended so it wasn’t so obvious. On one occasion I had to shoot back to the surface as I’d reached my breath holding limit; the trainee DM tried to stop me (it would have been the right move had I been at some depth and actually had a reg in) but I broke free to get back to the surface and then explained why I’d had to go when they appeared after me! Another time, I kept my snorkel in, changed to my reg underwater directly in front of the DM and they still didn’t notice! Some more training needed I think, although we were told to give them a chance when we got a bit carried away!

Towards the end we were told to do whatever we wanted to make it tricky. As we started to descend, I got cramp in my leg. No, I ACTUALLY got cramp in my leg! No role play needed. Fortunately the very competent trainee DM with me at this point helped me out straight away, while I was explaining that I definitely wasn’t acting! My personal golden globe moment was the upended turtle. On starting to ascend, I acted out failing to inflate and falling onto my back with arms and legs flailing so the DM has to calm me down and help stand me up so I can ascend properly; it’s happened before, I’ve had practise! I really enjoyed taking part in these challenges as at some point down the line I’d like to advance to this level myself, so it was a great taster of what could be to come. I want to become more experienced before I sign up for the Rescue Diver and DM courses though. I can’t contemplate being responsible for somebody else when I still need a helping hand myself on occasion! Myself and the other actor (!) went for a little dive afterwards but barely made it to 20 minutes before heading back in. The vis was terrible and the current was strong so we had a bit of a swim into shore on the surface.

Location: Waterfront – Type: Shore – Max Depth: 6.1m – Length: 32 mins – Surface: Overcast/Night
My final dive in recent days was off the Waterfront. Again, like all except Cawsand, it was a night dive. I went out with a couple of the trainee DMs; this was most definitely a fun dive though, not a training one. About 20 minutes in, one of the guys deployed his SMB. We carried on for a bit, then I realised he was on the surface up above me so followed him up, flashing my torch down towards our other buddy so he would make his way up. We were only in a couple of metres of water and the vis was excellent so it would have been hard to lose each other. Buddy number one was having mask issues. He’d got a new prescription mask and this was his first time trying it, but was having problems and whilst switching to his other mask, managed to drop both new mask and snorkel. While he was having a moment, my rationale was that the water was flat, the vis was good and we were in two metres of water; it couldn’t have gone far. Sure enough our other buddy dropped down and found the snorkel quite quickly. With all three of us back down, the mask was then located and secured in a pocket. With that the snorkel was once again making a great escape, so it was back down for that and we were on our way. It really wasn’t mask buddy’s day; he managed to get tangled up in his SMB line on the way back too so I unravelled that from his fin. Makes a change from me being the one in need of help!
Along the way we saw a few large starfish, one of which was eating a sea urchin. I didn’t realise this until I was told by our resident marine biologist afterwards; I thought they were having a hug! I was also quite intrigued by the scallops (I didn’t realise that’s what they were until I researched later) which essentially look like large pretty shells but they breathe! It has left me wondering whether their inner contents would taste good on the dinner table though.

I really enjoyed the dive. The conditions couldn’t have been better and the search and recovery aspect made for a bit of fun (well that’s how I saw it, a certain someone may argue with that analysis)!

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The most hilarious dive in history!

Location: Eastern Kings – Type: Shore/Reef wall drop off – Max Depth: 29.9m – Length: 40 mins – Surface: Clear/Night

1. Lost reef = lay on it! (12m)
2. Buoyant – buddy L holding to stop ascent (28 > 24m)
3. Realised – dumped air – face planted reef (24 > 28m). K caught me! 
The above is the entry from my buddy in my logbook which she took it upon herself to write after the events of, as she puts it, the ‘most hilarious dive in history’.

Just a few days after deciding I wasn’t quite ready to dive Eastern Kings, the tables had turned and I was getting set to give it a go one evening. The reef sits just off Devil’s Point (below the yellow buoy out to the left of the swimming pool) and is essentially a reef wall which drops off to 30 metres on one side and 40 on the other (I’d be sticking with my certified 30 metre limit). You have to dive the site at either high or low water, entering around 20 minutes before, otherwise you face a ropey return to shore battling a strong current in a shipping channel. You can’t use an SMB (because, as mentioned, you’re in a shipping channel) and if you lose your buddy you can’t do the usual minute search and surface (yup, it’s that pesky shipping channel again); you have to follow a bearing of 330 degrees back towards shore and only surface when you get to around the 1.5 metre mark. Not much info to keep in your head then!
There were four of us in the group and I was buddying up with someone who I trust implicitly when it comes to diving. If she hadn’t offered to guide me on my first Kings experience (she’s dived it countless times), I doubt very much I’d have done it yet!
At Kings you follow the sloping bottom down to the reef at around 12 metres and then gradually get to 30 metres by following the wall. Although I knew roughly how the site is shaped, I seemed to forget all of that once we’d got a little way down. I’m still trying to figure out how much weight I need with my new BCD and with a 15 litre cylinder instead of 12 as this was a deep dive I was having problems with my buoyancy. We got to 12 metres and the start of the wall, but not expecting such a drop, I started sliding down the wall. I managed to fall on my back with the cylinder weighting me down and essentially became pinned against the reef wall! At that point I didn’t realise I was on the wall and wasn’t making much of an attempt to right myself. My buddy had to pick me up and turn me round after realising I was getting nowhere fast!

Mishap number one complete and I couldn’t believe the sights that greeted me on the reef. Considering it was so dark, the vis was phenomenal and the colours, and range, of life under torchlight incredible. Just a few metres along the wall we bumped into a gigantic lobster. I’m betting he was about two feet long. He was a classic common red lobster but was shimmering under the lights looking rather pretty. This was the first of many times I wish I’d had my camera but given it was my first dive at the site I wanted to concentrate and as it turned out, it was the right call! Fortunately one of the others in the group had his camera so captured a lot of what we saw (thanks to him for letting me use his pics) though missed this beauty after taking a different path. Instead he met some smaller siblings along the way.

Our lobster was a grander version of this little fella

After the girls played a game of ‘let’s see how quickly Mr Lobster can move when encouraged by the light’ (pretty damn fast actually) we moved on through an array of crabs, spiny squat lobsters, olive squat lobsters, ballan wrasse, pike, tompot, sponges, anemones, starfish…it truly felt like all my Christmases had come at once. I was in awe of my surroundings and squealing like a kid, so much so that I very nearly headbutted a large metal pole sticking out of the sandy bottom along the way.

A very pretty anemone

A devil crab - okay, so that's not his real name (he's a velvet swimming crab) but you can see why!

A scorpion fish

A ballan wrasse
I was still having a few buoyancy problems at this point but nothing too drastic and managed to correct myself a couple of times while my buddy made sure I was in the right place the rest of the time (unbeknown to me until afterwards when she said she’d been holding onto me by the SMB attached to me at times to make sure I stayed in one place). That’s taking the guide role to a whole new level!
It was at 28 metres that the moment that resulted in this post’s title came about. What went wrong I’m still not quite sure, but regardless of that, we came to a point where I started drifting upwards quite quickly. My buddy was behind me and sprang in to action just in time to catch a fin while I was struggling to find my inflator hose to get rid of some air. I’d managed to get my snorkel tangled up with my hose and couldn’t get a hold of the deflate button properly, hence still creeping upwards. Having eventually managed to grab it, my logic was that I’d gone up so fast that I needed to get rid of a lot of air. So I held the button down as long as I could. Bad idea! In the space of a few seconds, I’d gone from my buddy holding my foot while I ‘stood’ vertically in the water above her,  to ditching all of my air, falling four metres, and hanging vertically upside down. All credit to her, my buddy was still holding onto my fin, albeit from a very different angle. As amusing as that sounds in itself, here’s the clincher. What I didn’t realise was that one of the others in the group was directly below us, a few metres down from where my comedy ascent/descent had started, so I’d managed to land head first on top of her, face planting the wall at the same time. As unsuspecting as she was, she did a great job of catching me!

After the drama of that part of the dive, we made our way back to shore a little more gracefully (though I still needed a helping hand). Somewhere near the end as the water was getting shallower I disappeared on up and promptly descended back down. My buddy said she was going to follow then decided I’d come back!
The below graph of my dive profile will give you some idea of my variety of ascents/descents. Generally, the smoother the line, the more controlled your buoyancy was, so you can see from the sharp spikes I was having problems!
Profile logged by my dive computer. Spikes = buoyancy issues!

We surfaced at the end of the steps up to the swimming pool; a perfect bit of navigation from my buddy. My first words: ‘Incredible’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘what the hell happened there?’. Her first words were incomprehensible through her laughter! My entertainment value is priceless!
We got rid of our kit (I still had to be helped up the steps after the cylinder got ten times heavier out the water) and headed back down to the shore to meet the others. My buddy greeted the diver who I landed on with a shout of ‘nice catch’ while I muttered an apology of sorts!

Despite the various incidents, I’ve no doubt my first Eastern Kings experience was my best dive to date. It may not have been perfect in terms of best practice, but we saw so much, the vis and conditions were amazing, and we laughed until we were close to tears.
At every opportunity while you’re training, PADI literature will tell you that ‘diving is fun’. How right they are!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

N-ice time for a dive

I’ve been finding myself doing more and more dives lately, and the more I do, the more I want to do! If I were to continue writing about every dive as comprehensively as I’ve done so far, I’d probably have to miss out on a couple of dives in favour of updating this blog, and that, my friends, just isn’t going to happen. As much as I love capturing the fun and frolics of every outing, I’ve decided I’ll have to start being selective. Otherwise I’ll get repetitive strain injury from typing so much and you’ll get bored too easily.

Instead, I propose a brief (don’t look up the dictionary definition of that word after you've read this post) mention of each dive but will stick to the detailed ramblings for the most enjoyable and interesting underwater adventures. In the last ten days I’ve logged six dives. By my standards (and that of diving in the UK in a wetsuit in January) that’s pretty impressive!

Location: Waterfront – Type: Shore – Max Depth: 7.3m – Length: 36 mins – Surface: Icy
It started with a trip to the Waterfront off Plymouth Hoe one evening. That was the day it snowed. I’d woken up to a blanket of the white stuff, a few centimetres deep. At 7am I was playing in the snow in my garden (as was Scuba Smurf), and by 7pm I was under the sea.

Scuba Smurf going for an ice dive
I think the word ‘mad’ was bandied around a few times during the afternoon prior the leaving work, but it was 8c in the water; none of that -1c we had on the surface.

We had a decent dive. The vis wasn’t great and I took a while to settle in having not done a night dive for a while, but I enjoyed it, saw a few different creatures and had fun with my two buddies. It did however scupper my plans to dive Eastern Kings (a 30-40m reef off Devil’s Point) late the following evening for a friend’s 21st birthday. Having not done the site before (we tried on Xmas Eve but the vis was so bad we called it) and still being a little wary of diving in the dark, I decided to leave that for another day as I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s fun by having to babysit me!

Location: James Eagan Layne – Type: Wreck – Max Depth: 21m – Length: 15 mins – Surface: Overcast
I joined a trip the following morning to the James Eagan Layne; a 7000 tonne US ‘liberty’ ship designed to carry large amounts of cargo, which was sunk off Whitsand Bay after being torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1945. I was with a new buddy today, someone I’d not dived with before, but she was comfortable with what she was doing so I was happy. Unfortunately the dive wasn’t to be. We descended to 20 metres, following the shot line onto the wreck, plummeting into darkness. It wasn’t that the vis was bad in the classic sense (there didn’t appear to be much sand/sediment in the water), it was literally just dark, which given that it was a bright day on the surface was a little too eerie for my liking.

We found a metal object sticking up next to where we’d landed which had a few sponges and the like on it so we left the shot in the hope that conditions would improve. Not a chance! We couldn’t find the shot line again (neither of us had torches as we’d not expected those conditions) so we had to put an SMB up to ascend. This had its positives. The last time I put an SMB up I had to let go as I didn’t have the lever to release the line down far enough so would have ended up rocketing to the surface. This time, with a little help from my buddy, I managed a successful deployment and we headed back to the boat, bypassing a safety stop at five metres along the way as the swell had increased and neither of us could hold our positions. It’s not recommended, but we hadn’t been down long enough and deep enough for it to be a worry and neither of us were planning on diving again that day. I was greeted with a high five on the boat from the skipper who had been diving with me during the previous failed SMB attempt; let’s hope I can do the same again next time!

Location: Eastern Kings…just visiting
The same day, I decided to pay a visit to Eastern Kings not long before midnight to see my friends’ surface and greet the birthday boy. As I’d had to pull out of the dive I wasn’t content with sitting at home wondering how they were getting on, so I positioned myself on the walkway next to the swimming pool at Devil’s Point, alongside a few others who I didn’t know but soon realised were there for the same group, and waited in freezing temperatures for the guys to surface. I have to say, despite not being in the water, I really enjoyed it. It was so peaceful sitting in the dark watching the sea glowing under the few lights around the area and it was great to find out what they’d seen on the dive. It was most definitely the first time I've indulged in chocolate cake in the early hours of the morning in that location! 

The birthday boy de-kitting 10 minutes before he hit the big 21

Location: Elk – Type: Wreck – Max Depth: 29.9m – Length: 20 mins – Surface: Clear

A few hours kip and with the birthday diving in full swing, I was back out on the boat to join the man himself (buddy y) and his girlfriend (buddy x) to visit the Elk; another wreck which resembled a fish bowl the last time I dived it. Buddy x had forewarned us she may have ear problems though had been fine the night before so we were hoping all would be well. Unfortunately she couldn’t clear on the way down so she had to wave goodbye and left myself and buddy y to continue on down which was disappointing, but onwards and downwards. Torch in hand (I’d learnt from the previous day’s experience, although the vis/light was far better), we arrived on the Elk at 30 metres to be greeted by an array of fish. It was great drifting over the top of them, though the current was playing havoc with my ability to stay still long enough to take a decent photo!

There's a fish there...honest!
All too soon we had to think about surfacing. Our computers were down to 10 minutes’ no-decompression time, which is generally the point you make your way up. We ascended casually and planted ourselves at five metres for the safety stop. Having not achieved much photographically speaking on the bottom, I set about capturing some stunning portraits of some lesser known species at that depth; well, I went with what was available!

Buddy Y and moi

The shot line on the way up

My computer had completed the three minutes, but I was still waiting for buddy y to clear. We waited and waited (all of a couple more minutes) and then he told me to carry on up. In retrospect, he agreed it might have helped to let me know that his computer had told him to do another safety stop at three metres (something to do with having done a couple of dives in the previous 24 hours and the computer settings being conservative) but he was concerned I was getting cold. I on the other hand, on hovering at the surface wondering what he was up to, was getting concerned myself. Having got a yell from the boat to ask if everything was okay (I should have signalled okay on surfacing rather than continue looking under water), I hovered for a bit longer and buddy y appeared, none the worse for wear and asking why I hadn’t got back on the boat! Next time I’ll just stay in the same place!

After a great weekend of diving, a stop off at the local pub and a quick check of the tide times threw up plans for the next day and what was to become the ‘most hilarious dive in history’. But that’s a story for another day.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this little gem…I found Nemo (almost)!

'I'm a real fish!'

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Twenty leagues under the sea

Location: HMS Scylla – Type: Wreck – Max Depth: 24.1m – Length: 40 mins – Surface: Overcast

No, I’ve not misspelt the title of the Jules Verne classic, this was my 20th dive. I’d hoped to hit this number before the end of 2012, but the weather stopped that from happening so it seemed apt that it was my first of 2013 just a few days into the New Year.

We were heading out to the Scylla; the first time I’ve had a chance to dive it since the wreck dive on the advanced course (if you recall, the conditions were very rough). It couldn’t have been a more different picture this time round. It was overcast but there wasn’t much of a swell and the further out we got the more the sun tried to poke out through the clouds. The biggest shock was the temperature. Our dive computers were logging 15c air temp (I was disinclined to believe mine but two others said the same). It had felt warm outside but that’s ridiculous for January!

There were 10 on this dive, nine familiar faces and nice to catch up with after the holiday, and one stranger. Though I didn’t realise he was a stranger at first. I like to be friendly and this guy was just hanging around at the centre not really talking to anyone. I thought I’d seen him around before and it’s not uncommon for me to forget names if I haven’t seen someone for a while so I set off with the line ‘I’m sure I’ve met you before but I can’t remember your name’. Introductions over (the name didn’t sound familiar) I heard sniggering behind me. I, of course, wanted to know what was so funny. ‘You’ve not met him, he’s not dived in the UK before.’ So my attempt at being friendly, followed up by ‘oh, you must just look like someone I know’ turned into what sounded like a really lousy chat up line (that really wasn’t my intention)!

I was buddied with someone who I became friends with very early on in my short diving career; we did our open water course together and I was looking forward to getting back in the water with her as we hadn’t dived together since the summer when she went off to Australia for a couple of months. Checks on the boat done, we entered the water and started descending. We had to stop a couple of times as I was having ear problems (nothing unusual and I’d pre-warned my buddy). We got down to 19 metres and my buddy signalled she had a problem so we both stopped. She then signalled that her heart was racing and she needed to go up. Before I had a chance to react she was off. I tried to keep up to start with but she was going too fast so I slowed my pace and carried on up the shot line. I passed a couple of other divers coming down the line, signalled as best as possible what had happened and that I was okay (one of the guys said later that from my overdramatic actions he knew exactly what was going on) and continued up. I stopped at five metres for the three minute safety stop, wondering whether in this situation I should do the safety stop then get to the surface and check on my buddy or stay where I was. I’d never been in that situation before!

Fortunately a few seconds later the final pair from the boat came down which included an instructor. She checked I was okay (by that time she’d already seen to my buddy on the surface) and signalled for me to stay where I was while she went back up. When she came back down she signalled for me to join them to make a three. I asked if my buddy was okay and got an ‘ish’ response. I knew they wouldn’t have carried on the dive if there was a serious problem so felt okay to continue. I found out afterwards that my buddy couldn’t get her breathing under control and just needed to get to the surface and breathe fresh air. Not recommended, but panic attacks underwater can happen. She was more concerned that she’d left me whilst I was more worried about her coupled with the uncertainty of what I was actually meant to do!

After that eventful start, the dive went well. We skirted around the starboard side of the Scylla while I kept myself busy taking photos. Visibility was about four metres at best though I’d say two to three for the most part and it was pretty dark though brightened up it certain places. The wreck is covered in Dead Men’s Fingers so that was the order of a lot of the viewing.

Dead Men's Fingers on the Scylla

When we made it up towards the deck we were greeted by a few starfish. I managed to snap a couple of pictures of some smaller fish with big beady eyes but was surprised there weren’t that many around. I think part of the issue may have been that I still need to work on taking note of my surroundings whilst making sure my buddy is still in sight as opposed to there not actually being any fish there! The one time I did stop to take the below photo I lost the other two briefly. They were of course just a little way along the wreck; I knew they couldn’t have got far if I continued to follow the side of the ship in the same direction.

Yet to discover what this little blighter is if anyone fancies enlightening me   
Before I knew it, or so it seemed, we were ending the dive. It always takes me a little while to settle into a dive and sort my buoyancy out so it feels like it’s over before I’ve had much of a chance to really enjoy it. I’d imagine that will improve with experience and this was also the first time I’d used my new BCD on a proper dive (discounting the failed xmas eve attempt) so although it was incredibly comfortable, as I used up my air I started floating upwards a little and had to make more of a conscious effort (nose dive and lots of breathing out) to stay down. It also took me a minute to start my ascent at the beginning of the dive in the first place so it may be that the extra padding in my BCD means I need a bit more weight; I’ll have to test that theory!

We settled onto the wreck where we weren’t disturbing any marine life to put up an SMB. The instructor got hers out, started to fill it with air and suddenly let go of it. The rule is if it doesn’t unravel properly and you’re hanging onto it, let go otherwise you’ll go shooting to the surface with it! I got mine out, not fully convinced I was going to manage it (wrong attitude to begin with I guess) as I’d only ever done it once before with help (incidentally, also on the Scylla). After fumbling about trying to unravel it and getting myself in the right position to hold the reel release lever down and fill the SMB with air, I went for it. All too quickly I was being pulled up with it so had no choice but to let go. Not a great result! Two SMBs down, we had to do a free ascent. All went fine. We did a safety stop at five metres though were told afterwards by the instructor who spent the whole time hovering above the two of us that in the interests of safety (i.e. a boat not realising we were there) it would have been better to bypass the stop altogether.

Back in the boat, we set about retrieving the lost SMBs. The elastic on the instructor’s had got caught around the reel which was why she had to let go. I had no good excuse, though on folding it back up I did realise that my reel has just over a foot of line that unravels by itself so I would say that I thought I have the release lever held down as it initially was unravelling when I didn’t at all! Reassuringly there was also a third SMB to pick up for one of the other divers, so it was a day of lost SMBs, which doesn’t happen often.

This was certainly a dive of new experiences. The first incident left me feeling like I need to review ‘what do I do if…’ situations. We discussed it afterwards and it seems that I did do the right thing making the safety stop but I’d like to go through it in a bit more detail, especially what would happen if I wasn’t aware there were still divers on the surface as there were this time. The second realisation is that I need to practise my SMB release skills! Scuba divers never stop learning!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The night before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas
And out in the sea
Were some mad scuba divers
My buddy and me

Location: Eastern Kings – Type: Shore/Reef – Max Depth: 3m – Length: 8 mins – Surface: Clear

In the weeks leading up to Christmas I decided I wanted to dive on Christmas Eve. I roped in (without any difficulty) a willing buddy and prompted to stamp my feet and moan every time the weather turned bad and another day of diving was cancelled in the fortnight beforehand, concerned that I wouldn't get my festive dive.
The day before, despite a few days of heavy rain and flooding in some parts of the country, my buddy (also an instructor and far more experienced than me) gave our little adventure the green light. I was warned that the vis would be pretty rubbish though. I didn't mind; any dive would do me however little we could see. It was Christmas, after all.

The eve of Christmas arrived and we met early evening to get kitted up in time to make ourselves look festive. Serious stuff aside, which included setting up my new BCD and regs for the first time, we moved onto the fun bit. I'd planned on Xmas hat and tinsel. A text from my buddy earlier that day alerted me to the fact she may have bigger ideas; 'I'm going to parcel myself later, so I may need your help!'. Now I do have a bit of a reputation for enjoying fancy dress, but I had to raise an eyebrow at this thought. Nevertheless, I'm game for a laugh and you know how the saying goes - if you can't beat the nutty scuba diver, join her!
My buddy and me wrapped for a scuba xmas

Trussed up in wrapping paper and realising that wearing it into the water may not be such a good idea as it was ripping with every step, we hopped in the van and headed to Devil's Point where the aim was to dive Eastern Kings; a reef that drops off to 30 metres on one side and 40 on the other. A quick check of the water revealed a calm moonlit sea so we were good to go. After decorating our BCDs and tanks with glowsticks (necessary to be able to see each other underwater in the dark) and unwrapping ourselves (!), we made our way down the path, onto the beach and into the sea.

It felt a little chilly at first as the water ran down the back of my wetsuit while I was being helped into my fins, but given that the air temp was 11c and the water temp had only gone down another degree to 10c in the last couple of weeks it was surprisingly nice. We descended and immediately realised the vis was practically zero. I lost my buddy straight away, then found her by bumping into her. If I could have attached myself to her I might've done at that point. Instead I just stayed as close as I possibly could next to her. Even that wasn't 100% effective; after losing her once and finding her again by pure luck after spotting a very faint glow in the distance (in reality she was probably about two metres away) we surfaced. By that point we'd barely gone anywhere and only made it three metres down!

We decided the planned dive was most definitely not dive-able. In daylight it may have just been doable as vis often improves at greater depth but at 9pm it wasn't going to happen! Disappointing, but we weren't willing to up sticks straight away. We decided on going back down for five minutes bimbling along the bottom to make the best of a bad situation. I wanted to use my new underwater camera and even though it was obvious not much was going to come out it was worth a shot!

This was about the extent of what we could see!
Amazingly, in all that murkiness, I did happen upon a little white crab making his way along the sand and tugged on my buddy's arm to let her know it was there. Of course when the signals are by torchlight and you can't see much anyway there wasn't much hope of relaying that message and crabby was too fast for me to follow. As I was attempting to make a crab sign (I figured wiggling my fingers around could work) she put her hand down to steady herself, exactly where I'd last seen the crab. Given that she wasn't wearing gloves, I was worried about the crab either being squashed or clinging onto her hand so pushed her out the way! I was only able to explain that palaver when I could speak later!

Back on the surface we took a few photos as evidence of our Christmas Eve dive (or dive attempt at least).

As I was trying to stand up to start making my way out I managed to fall over backwards. Not the first time I'd done this except this time as we were in really shallow water I'd forgotten to inflate my BCD when I came up. It was enough water to cover me so this upended turtle had to do a bit of breath holding while righting herself! Must inflate BCD next time! It did give me a moment to appreciate the moon though, almost full in the sky making the water glow around us.

Moment of reflection over, we made our way back to the van. It was a good couple of minutes’ walk so I not only got to test the new BCD in the sea, I tried out its fit on land and I'm glad to report the ScubaPro Bella is perfect for me. It was so comfortable! Very happy as I was a bit concerned it wouldn't be right for me trying it on beforehand, but as I kept reminding myself, I've only ever worn them with cylinder attached so I didn't have anything to compare.

As we hadn't taken any festive props into the water we stopped to snap a few Christmassy pics.


It seems we attracted the attention of a couple of lads in a passing car who couldn't believe they were seeing 'diver chicks' (yes folks, girls do dive) and that we'd actually already been in the water. So impressed were they that one of them hopped out to take a photo of us as evidence!

We may not have managed to do the dive we wanted but it was certainly the most novel Christmas Eve I've ever had and couldn't have been any more fun! My buddy summed it up perfectly; twas an epic adventure!