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---
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---
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.