We’re on the bus and rattling into town, shoulder bag packed with swimmers and towel. I’ve another appointment with Cydive, teaming up with today’s beginner course, this time to see it through. I’m feeling strangely apprehensive, almost wishing I’d quit whilst I were ahead. I’ve done a dive, it went ok, should have ticked the box and called it a day.
But I’m committed now, booked to join the course after the film and briefing session that I’ve already done. 10 minutes later The Blonde has strolled off to find a cool orange juice at a waterside café with a view and I’m shaking hands with Chris, a tall long haired laid back surfer type who’s our instructor for the session, and Alex, a park ranger from Hampshire who’s out here on holiday and looking for his first taste of Scuba just like myself. We pull on our wet suits and boots and we’re off down to the waters edge, kitted up and in the water.
First up are the exercises, or “skills” as they’re referred to, that we must complete successfully before we can go into deeper water. Chris clearly and carefully explains each stage one by one as we stand chest deep, then it’s time to drop below the surface for Chris to demonstrate each task before pointing at each of us to complete the same task in turn.
First off is a reasonably simple one, clearing the mask. Chris demonstrates the skill and then it’s my go, allowing a small amount of water to leak in by breaking the seal and then, holding the top of the mask against my face, I tilt my head up and blow out through my nose into the mask whilst pulling the base away, expelling the water and leaving it clear. Clever. Alex goes next and completes it with ease, Chris the cool surfer/diver gives us the “OK” signal and a firm manly underwater handshake in recognition of a pass.
Next up is slightly more challenging, retrieving the regulator (the part you clamp between your teeth and breathe through) should it be accidentally dropped. Chris goes first and makes it look easy, then points to me. I take a deep lungful of air, remove my lifeline and drop it. Breathing slowly out as instructed I lean my body to the right causing the regulator to swing out on its air line, touch my right knee, then the tank on my back, then sweep my arm around and forward in a wide arc. The reason for this is it will put my arm behind the air line and scoop it up as it comes forward. In theory. To my immense relief I find the line on my forearm as promised, grab the regulator and jam it back between my lips. Having done it all very slowly and deliberately I’m almost out of breath but just as I begin to take a greedy lungful of air a sudden saline taste reminds me of the final step, purge the regulator! It’s full of salt water and I jab the button on the front of it delivering a high pressure burst of air that blows the sea water out of it and breathe clear air in. Phew, I think I got away with that! I look at Chris who hasn’t noticed my near asphyxiation on a regulator full of sea water and gives me the “ok” and hand-shake of approval. Alex goes next and completes the task perfectly.
Next skill is switching to our reserve regulator, similar exercise but with the regulator already fitted ready for quick deployment on the front of our equipment it’s much easier. I remember to purge first this time, avoiding a mouthful of sea water. Finally “buddy breathing”, which involves tapping a dive buddy firmly on the shoulder to attract his attention and giving him the “out of air” signal at which point he should turn to you to make his reserve regulator easy to access, taking it from him and gripping each other with a Roman (hand to forearm) handshake. Again Chris goes first, each stage a slow deliberate clear action, and then Alex and I practice on each other before being rewarded with the “ok” and handshake from our tutor. Chris then motions us upward and we break the clear calm surface and inflate our buoyancy devices. Chris congratulates us both, describing our task completion as “textbook”, nope, didn’t notice my near lungful of water then. It’s time to head for deeper water and go for it!
We turn onto our backs and let the flotation devices do their thing as we paddle away with our flippers, motoring quietly backwards toward a deeper section of the small bay near an outcrop of rocks. My nerves are gone now the skills are successfully completed, and confidence up I gaze happily up at the deep blue sky and enjoy the anticipation of what’s to come. My reverie is broken by a call from Chris, I’ve drifted off course somewhat and am about to reverse headbutt the rocks, told you I was hopeless at navigation! Swivelling myself in the water I flipper across to where Alex and Chris bob on the surface, all now well out of our depth and ready to go. Show time!
After another quick briefing from Chris, basically stay within range and signal if there are any issues, it’s time to go. It’s going to be a roughly thirty minute dive so I rotate the bezel of my watch to point at the minute hand which will then indicate how long we’ve been down, position my mask, clamp the regulator between my teeth and at a signal from Chris hit the button to expel the air from my flotation device, drop below the surface, and take my first deep lungful of compressed air.
We’re about ten feet below the surface and I can feel the pressure ramping up sharply in my ears already. I pinch my nose and blow gently against it as instructed, balancing the pressure. Weird, but it works. Chris checks we’re both ok and sets off at a gentle pace, checking on both of us constantly as we flank him either side. I let my arms drop back by my sides letting my flippers do all the work, powering easily through the clear clean sea, feeling great. The sea bottom is thick with a covering of soft green weed at this depth and rises and dips with ridges and valleys. I sweep slowly across the seascape looking around at the occasional small school of fish and down at the bottom, breathing easily now, feeling calm and confident. We push on for another ten minutes gently rising and falling, getting used to positioning and directing our bodies, steering with our fins not just left and right, but also up and down.
Ahead of us what amounts to a shallow underwater valley opens up, green and lush with weed. I point myself downward and flipper toward it, keen to go as deep as I can, feeling the pressure build again as I dive deeper. At the base of the valley I check my depth, I’m at about twenty feet, kindergarten stuff by divers standards, but to me it feels like I’m on the floor of the deepest ravine of the Pacific ocean. I look up at the surface shimmering a long way above me and then around me. Alex and Chris are nearby hanging a little higher up, coasting gently along. The valley slopes up either side of me, rocks bordering the peaks on either side.
Surreally the view reminds me of Dartmoor 2,500 miles away, green covered dips and rises tipped with craggy rocks. I push off the bottom, kicking hard with my flippers, powering up the side of the valley, seaweed floor about thee feet beneath me, and burst over the top, arcing my back and shooting back down the other side before swinging round in a loop and motoring hard back up to re-join my dive buddies. I’m enveloped by sense of freedom and suddenly it hits me, this is it, I’m doing it, I’m flying! Swooping, rising and dropping like an eagle, or at least a fledging sparrow. This is what I dreamed of as a nipper and it feels absolutely fantastic!!
Shortly afterwards I spot a rope leading from seabed to surface and, looking up, spot a boat tethered to it. A lone man snorkels round it high above us, I wonder what he thinks as he looks for fishes and instead spots three men flippering quietly past beneath him!
I’m grinning behind my mask now, I feel totally at ease, warm, comfortable, happy, safe. I feel like I could stay down here all day but the sea bed shoaling gently up towards us tells me it’s getting shallower. I check my watch, sure enough we’ve been down twenty five minutes already, time to head home.
Chris breaks surface as we reach a depth of about chest deep. I stay down, just under the surface, just above the sea floor. To my left I can see Chris kicking along the surface, but on the other side of him Alex is still down, like me he’s not surfacing till he finally runs out of water. The Blonde tells me later that we look like a couple of baby porpoises scrabbling along only half submerged either side of the mother porpoise.
At the steps we struggle ashore and shrug out of our dive kit, Chris showing us how to take it apart and load it on the trolley before all pushing it the short walk back to their premises for a warm shower and a change back into dry clothes. I try to pay for the second course but they refuse to take even half of it, protesting that I was simply finishing the course I embarked on earlier in the week. I pass Chris a generous tip instead and buy a Cydive T shirt as a souvenir of my first big diving adventure. I’ve a feeling it won’t be my last.