Scuba-diving stories

The best dive of my life

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The best dive of my life – Saturday 22nd November, 2014 (supplanted today by a better one, coming soon)
As-ever with such things, it occured when unexpected and was the best for reasons I wouldn´t have predicted. After a brief simulation of swimming to the surface from 18 meters – as if we were out of air – Santiago and I began our dive.
The simulation had required us to start in open-water, away from any reefs to get the required depth. Our boat had a go at dragging us – in water – close to the reef to begin our main dive. But there was only so long we could hold on for, and we began with a swim, required to get to the reef. Down we sank and began our swim, following a compass bearing of 60 degrees.
This was the first time i´d been so deep in what appeared to be an empty stretch of ocean (i.e. no rocks or reefs to be seen). The sea floor was sand as far as I could see, and only occassionally we saw a fish, a vast blue-expanse all around, and a vast sandy floor.
On we swam and as the minutes passed the scenery barely changed. But slowly, I was changing. I started to notice, or rather feel the wonder that I was inside the ocean. As if prior to now I had just been getting on with the actions of diving – engrossed in what I was doing with my equipment and so on. Then, like magic, I began to appreciate that I was, right now, under and in the ocean. And every sight and colour around me was the ocean – alive and full. A few years ago I never imagined i´d be having such an experience, delightful sea-life centres were the closest i´d got.
I later learned that even seemingly empty stretches of water are full of life: tiny microorganisms that float all around, providing food for shell-fish and filter-feeders like whales. We swam on and as I hoped found a ray laying on the sea-floor in the sand. As if realising I was surrounded by life took me quickly to the big life we usually associate with seeing on a good dive.
A few more minyutes and we came to the reef, adorned with shoals of fish. Here I spotted the first barracuda i´ve seen – one-foot or so long, stalking the other fish.
We explored rocks and crevases before surfacing, exhilerated. For Santiago – too – a diver with a couple of thousand dives under his belt – this was a great dive.
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Scuba-diving stories

Ode to Rob Crawford

night
My second dive was my first night-dive. Something just a year ago I thought I would never do- afterall night is when the sharks come out to feed. Mostly.
So, we kitted up for what was also my first shore-dive – walking into the sea from the beach. We´d waited until 8.30pm when it was completely dark, and slowly, in we went.
Our route was following a breakwater wall, out to sea and then round to the right and back again. The depth was only around 9m, and you could make out the lights from the land on the water above you.
Looking out to sea, underwater, just looked black. Thoughts of Great White Sharks suddenly appearting from the dark started to trouble me and I realised that this was actually more scary that I´d anticipated.
Friendly marine-life was a welcome distraction. First up were some very friendly Cuttlefish. These normally burst away at high speed if you get too close, but for some reason tonight we were able to touch them and one even followed us like a dog for a few meters.
There were a lot less fish than i´d anticipated – less than during the day. Those we did see looked kind of strange – just floating in mid-air so it seemed.
Santiago pointed out a few craters in the sand, about 15cm deep. They looked strange and I wasnt sure of their significance. After the dive he informed me that they were made by a sting ray, resting there during the day.
When we later found said Sting Ray – hiding in some rocks – I had to wonder why it left the sea-bed and hid in the rocks at night? They mostly come at night… mostly.
On we went and found a blue Moray Eel about a foot and a half in length. This was the first time i´d seen more than an eel´s head poking out of some rocks – and seeing its full body was really cool. It looked a little cute.
Later we saw a large octopus with tentacles that looked about a foot long. It darted out of view but we still got to see it briefly and it looked very impressive. When I see Octopus I always remember my marine-biologist ex telling me how intelligent they are. How they need to be given toys to keep themselves entertained and intellectually challenged when they´re kept in aquariums. And how they often manage to break out of their tanks. Really cool creatures and a shame to eat them I think.
Our dive concluded in a very chilled manner with us crouching on the sand (still underwater) and turning our torches off to witness ´bio luminessance´. As we waved our hands and arms around they seemed to give off tiny luminous sparks – like something out of Harry Potter. This effect is caused by tiny bacteria colliding in the water and looks really cool.
We emerged from the sea, thrilled and shared a high-five. Santiago confided in me that whereas he isn´t usually afraid during night dives for some reason sharks were on his mind this night and so he purposefully wasn´t looking out into the deep during the dive. (ed. sorry, that´s not very confidential now Santiago!)
A smart move since they do mostly come out at night, mostly.
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Scuba-diving stories

First paddles in Africa

jackguest and santiago

Tenerife diving

With all the comforts of Spanish rule, arriving in Tennerife is arriving in Afrtica. The volcanic island is 125 miles from the African Coast at the same latitude as the Sahara Desert. It´s warm and mostly sunny year-round, this November being constantly in the mid 20s.
My base in Las Americas is like a holiday frontier-town. A sprawling town of a resort where different people from across Europe holiday, work and live. All tastes seem catered for – from luxury hotels to $1 a pint ´pubs´ for young peoples´ piss up holidays. There´s an ultra-laid-back surfing scene, with numerous surf schools and sun-brazen locals, beach-lovers and even a highly public dutch-run swingers club. The place is a melting pot and I was lucky to play in the waves with young people from France, Poland, Italy, Spain and Venezuela. I realised that 70 years ago our grandparents would never have imagined this would be possible for their grandchildren, and it is testament to the EU that it is.
Our host at the surf camp – a chilled house with dormitory bedrooms overlooking the sea & surrounded by bannana plantations – told 2 Italian friends and I about a local beach where turtles swam. (Twin Fin Surfcamp)
We arrived early when the turtles, who swim here seasonally from their true home, are fed. I swam out 100m or so, in a quiet, calm bay to where I saw a scuba-diver near the surface. She was holding a large professional camera and a big turtle was poking its head right into the lens. I swam with her for 20 minutes or so, with the turtle often swimming right up to my face and touching me with its fins. Later a baby turtle arrived and did the same, and another large adult with a GPS tracker on its back. Being this close to a animal clearly comfortable around humans was fantastic – even if I suspected it was only approaching me expecting to be fed!
Between Tennerife and the neighbouring island of La Gomera there is a 125km wide channel which, because of the volcanic nature of the islands, goes 2000m deep. This makes it ideal for whales and dolphins who live here year-round. The former diving down into the depths – 800m or so to hunt giant squid – a creature man has rarely seen alive. 2 tagged Great White Sharks have been located passing through this channel on a migration but thankfully there has never been a fatal shark attack in the Canaries and non-fatal attacks are so rare as to be statistically insignificant.
So after a few enjoyable snorkels in the local bays, seeing new fish like trumpet fish, an octopus and the blue brightly colored emperor fish – I was keen to go for a scuba dive.
I met Santiago, a Spanish dive instructor the same age as me, by chance at the turtles beach. Based on my 27 dives to date with the Cheltenam CSAC club he was able to offer me a good price for some one-to-one dives which he would lead.
Santiago works for a Russian-owned diving centre called Ola Diving. It´s a brand-new centre with brand-new equipment and boat, and lots of experience. We joined the boat for our first dive, accompanied by the the Russian owner and a Russian woman who were going to explore a cave-system they hope to take clients into at a later date.
Mistaking the woman (Alla) for a recreational diver I was told she is an ´instructor of instructors´ (in her own words) who is to be the tech (deep) diving instructor for the company.
We sped out of the harbour and along a stretch of coast for 10 minutes or so. As we approached the Palma Wall, our dive site – next to a fish farm – we spotted a pod of 7 or so common dolphins ahead of us. It was so exhilerating to see them – cruising effortlessly through the water.
Santiago and I geared up and rolled off the boat. The sea was warm and clear – with visability around 10 meters. We looked down to the sea-floor and saw a huge sting-ray below us and a shole of sardines. It quickly swam away but was a thrill to see nonetheless.
I followed Santiago on a beautiful tour of his ocean for around 40 minutes. Green, colourful fish seemed to want to swim near us and follow us. When I looked around it was comforting to see them and the nature all around me – a sense of familiarity – that they were what I expected to see and what made sense, unlike all the human activity above the water. This, I believe, is the healing power of nature.
We found cuttlefish and an octopus. Many large trumpet-fish which approached us with curiosity, crabs and a worm with a jelly-fish-like sting I was warned to avoid. The dive was relaxed and very pleasant. We stayed between 22 and 9 or so meters and had ample time to explore rocks, nooks, and crannies, looking for life. At one point we both handled a daddy-long legs crab, only to see it eaten by a fish when I returned it to its rock. It´s a fish-eat-crab world down there!
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Scuba-diving stories

Down in the bottom of the benign, red, sea!

Challaborough diving

Red is the colour that struck me as I floated down to the sea floor, arms and legs spread like a skydiver. Red plants and red fish! What a surprise since this was the South Coast of England , and not some exotic foreign shore.

Adapted to camouflage amongst the red plant-life, the red fish of different sizes looked so cool. They were a deep scarlet red all-over and wouldn’t have looked out of place on a coral reef. The colours and sights meant that what appeared like a scary place from the surface (with blue waves rolling and the bobbing boat hundreds of meters from shore)– was actually a serene and very safe-feeling environment.
The water was pretty clear, with visibility between 5 and 8 meters. This meant I could see the dramatic terrain clearly: boulders and long gullies strewn across the sea floor. James my instructor and I were quick to spot large cod and wrasse, plus loads of big star fish amongst the beautiful plants.

I was cautious not to be too buoyant and risk a rapid, accidental ascent to the surface, so I floated very close to the bottom, using my hands to push and pull myself through the water. Unfortunately, James urged me to float a little higher instead so as not to disturb the fragile marine life with my body and dive instruments. This was unfortunate because I quite enjoyed ‘underwater climbing’ with my hands, which is how it felt! But for James, as for me, marine conservation and respect for wildlife is a massive part of diving and in that respect, dragging along the sea-floor is a bad habit to pick up.

The next day I readied myself to jump off the club’s boat again for another dive, this time with Julian. We were at the same spot I’d dived with James, keen to explore the gullies and rocks at around 12 meters deep again. One of the other club divers, Graham, had seen some baby dog fish (a type of shark) here yesterday, plus everyone had seen dozens of cuttlefish. Cuttlefish are a curious, intelligent relative of octopus and squid, it’s easy to spend a long time watching and interacting with them. The area was teaming with life which (like cuttlefish) that some divers wait years to see. 

Before leaving the boat I noticed a small but significant reluctance to move! Despite my enthusiasm for diving it seemed like a part of me was still a little scared. Yet in again I rolled and down again I sank – slowly, slowly, to the bottom. The poignant redness of the plant-life on the sea-floor struck me again. And again small and large red-coloured fish weaved around nooks and crannies, barely disturbed by our bubble-blowing presence. 
We headed off into the first gully. The water was a little murkier than it had been yesterday, perhaps just 4 or 5 meters visibility. But it still felt calm, safe and serene. Again I reflected on how different the environment was compared to how your average person would imagine it to be from the surface. 

The gullies were generally about 3 meters deep and 2 meters wide with plant and animal life adorning the rocks on both sides. As we swam Julian shone his torch on an edible crab the size of a dinner-plate, nuzzled up in a hole. I decided to investigate closer and jumped with shock when it reared up and took a swipe at me! They can be quite feisty it turns out! 

Later on Julian grabbed a large spider crab and passed it to me. The way it gripped onto my hand reminded me of my cat Rocky who is a bit of a biter and holds on strongly when you pick him up. ‘Facehuggers’ from ‘Aliens’ also crossed my mind but I don’t want to give crabs an unfair reputation so I’ll actually say that it was quite sweet.

A little further down the gully I began to notice the tide was rolling back and forth all around me. First it propelled me forward for a few seconds, and I saw the plant life pushed over like surface-plants in the wind. Then it pushed in the opposite direction for a few seconds and pushed the plants over in the other direction. It was a lovely feeling and reminded me of the displays at sea-life centres explain how the movement of the tide affects all life close to the shore. It also reminded me of the words of the ex-girlfriend who sold the idea of diving to me years ago. ‘It feels like you’re flying’, she said, ‘because the weights and air keep you buoyant, floating in the water so when you move it’s like you’re flying’. This flying sensation was heightened by the tide pushing me along which felt wonderful.

Julian swam ahead of me, in single-file, into the gullies. I wanted to stop and examine the big shrimps I found hiding in the rocks as we swam, but thought I’d better follow the ‘buddy-protocols’ and stay close to Julian the whole time. These protocols ensure that if you get into trouble under the water your buddy can help you, perhaps by sharing his air supply with you, or cutting you out of some entanglement (like fishing wire or nets).

Julian’s great at spotting wildlife, and when he shone his torch into another crack, pointing, I was certain I saw a big, hairy, underwater tarantula. It had thick, hairy legs, strange round eyes and fluorescent-looking marks on its body. It looked so strange- like something from another world. Julian later explained it was a ‘squat lobster’, not a tarantula (which makes sense).

These dives allayed a fear I had about under-water currents, which are a significant feature of UK diving. Previously the prospect of currents was putting me off diving. Currents can unexpectedly take you hundreds of meters from your boat without you realising it, so that when you surface you find yourselves all alone. Now the currents I’ve described are well on the mild side of the currents scale – so can’t be too confident that I’ve cracked my fear yet. But having felt the benign push of mild currents this time, I’m certainly more positive about currents in general than I was.
The rest of the weekend included a beautiful wreck dive, which was covered in life and golf balls hit from the shore as target practice. An unexpected weather change which almost saw me swap dive gear for a surf board for the day. And an epic loss of his keys by dive instructor James which saw everyone bin-rummaging and turning out the caravan, inch by inch, before much relief when they turned up.

All credit to Garrath and the Cheltenham Sub Aqua Club for organising another wonderful and transformational weekend. You can see photos and videos from the weekend (including the dogfish) on our CSAC Facebook page.

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Scuba-diving stories

Overcoming fears of the Deep

csac

Pembrokeshire diving

Down in the bottom of the deep blue sea,., we rolled off the side of the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) and bobbed up and down in the blue, calm water off Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, the point furthest to the West of Wales, on a warm summer weekend.  My company was five highly experienced divers, clocking up thousands of dives between them, in all manner of sea conditions and depths around the world. Dave, my instructor, alone has lost count of the number of dives he’s done, but they probably number around 2000.  A quick check of our kit and Dave gave me the nod to begin the descent. A buoy connected to the shot-line marked the way and we went down the line into the dark, murky water below. I pulled myself down and then began to sink. As I went past 3 meters, then 4 meters, then 5 meters depth… the visibility became less and less good; in fact I could hardly see a thing by the time I got to the bottom. This was my first diving trip in UK sea water…I was out of my comfort zone and feeling pretty scared. Dave was somewhere in front of me, but I couldn’t quite see him, and the lack of visibility meant I felt quite disorientated. I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t be able to stay under the water.

I did my first dive with Dave in a swimming pool in Cheltenham, back in 2011. It was enough to give me a taste for more,since then I have scuba dived in Europe and Australia- seeing octopus, sharks, the distinctive Clown Fish or ‘Nemo’ and a vast array of other visual delights. These experiences, coupled with fifty or so wonderful snorkels around the world have given me a passion for diving with marine life. This passion has grown in spite of my having once had a strong fear of water and especially the sea. It was not unusual in my childhood to refuse to set foot on Brighton Pier, or to head back to safety when half-way down the pier because the sight of the sea through the gaps in the wooden floor-planks was too much for me to bear. I was petrified of inadvertently falling into the sea and drowning.  I did learn to swim as a kid eventually, and enjoyed messing about with friends at our local pool, but I never felt  I possessed the same confidence the other kids had, and panic would set in when I faced the prospect of swimming for any significant distance.

As I regained my composure and remembered that I was safe under water, and just needed to keep breathing, the visibility on the Pembrokeshire sea-floor began to improve. I could make out both Dave and the outline of the sunken Dakotian, now an orange wreck, strewn across the sea-floor. The Dakotian was a 400ft long merchant navy ship loaded up with tinplate, bicycles and Christmas puddings when, in 1940, it was sunk by a German bombing raid. Dave’s torch lit up colourful marine life including plants, crabs and fish which now made the Dakotian their home. After a few short moments the exhilaration, sense of excitement and exploration I felt in seeing the wreck pushed my latent fears into the back of my mind. This was the first wreck I had explored and doing so was much more enjoyable than I had expected it would be. I followed Dave around the outside of the wreck, moving between 17m and 14m or so in depth. Dave’s torch shone light into the dark recesses of the wreck, and I peered inside black openings and dark places, hopeful of what I might see. Round one corner, tucked away inside his own little cave formed by the metal-work of the wreck, a large Edible Crab sat on a ledge – poised and ready for whatever fish might come close enough for him to grab. As Dave shone the torch on him what looked like his tongue flitted back and forth like a mini propeller.

The journey to diving my first wreck took ten years. The initial catalyst was my first snorkelling experience, on the Greek island of Skiathos, in 2004. Remarkably for a boy who grew up in Croydon spending most of his spare time playing computer games, with a bit of football, scouting and drinking on the side, I had back then a quintessentially Australian girlfriend. That is a girl who grew up living by the sea, swimming, snorkelling and surfing, and who was now studying to be a Marine Biologist. She was fearless and confident in the water and introduced me to snorkelling. After the initial shock of seeing the blue expanse of the Mediterranean underwater and before my eyes for the first time (where all I could think about was the expectation of a shark appearing at any time) I quickly fell in love with snorkelling. A few years later I was learning to swim properly, and breathe underwater like I never had in my childhood. A few more years and a couple of mates dragged me along on a surfing trip to Newquay: getting battered around without any substantial training served to deepen my growing love for the sea. The key to enjoying surfing was the confidence my wetsuit buoyancy and un-sinkable surfboard gave me, just as the buoyant fins and mask had given me confidence to snorkel without fear of drowning.

As Dave and I continued to explore the Dakotian wreck, we saw a big wrasse around 2.5 feet long, which looked like the big Groupers I’d seen in Australia. We saw more crabs and some interesting terrain around the remains of the wreck.  It was no longer obviously the shape of a ship, but instead a collection of different shaped objects strewn together in the dark, covered in marine life. As my air got low and it was time to return to the surface Dave guided me through the deployment of our submersible marker beacon – an inflatable bag attached to a line which we could use as a guide and support to slowly swim up to the surface. As I emerged on the surface, seeing the sky open up around me I was struck by how bright and light the world was compared to the gloom below. The scene really did look very bright and appealing.

I climbed back onto the boat and I was thrilled at having accomplished my first wreck dive. Chatting to Julian – the other most experienced instructor on the trip – I was surprised when he cited the South Coast of England as his favourite dive spot in the world. It turns out that the UK has some of the best diving and most abundant marine life in the world. The visibility is often poor compared to international destinations, but just like skiing in Scotland, when conditions are good it’s truly up there with the best in the world.

Scuba diving is an activity not without its risks. In fact I once read that of all high-risk activities, such as skiing, climbing, mountain walking and so on, scuba-diving is the most dangerous based on the number of deaths and serious accidents that occur. Much of this danger and risk can be mitigated through sound training, common sense and following the established diving protocols and techniques taught by professional diving organisations. I had an insight into how things can sometimes go wrong when diving after an uncontrolled ascent during a different dive that weekend in Pembrokeshire with Julian. An uncontrolled ascent is where you return from depth to the surface quickly and uncontrolled. This can be dangerous because your lungs and body don’t have time to process the excess nitrogen in your blood-stream which is a by-product of breathing compressed air from a scuba tank. So, usually when diving you return to the surface in a slow and steady manner, with a safety stop at around 6 meters, lasting for around a minute, designed to give your body time to adjust and dissolve the excess nitrogen. Having dived down to 17 meters with Julian and spent an enjoyable few minutes exploring around a dive site just off Skomer Island, I made the mistake of letting a little too much air into my inflatable jacket and began to ascend to the surface faster than expected. Thankfully this wasn’t an uncontrolled ascent from 17 meters: we’d slowly come up to 9 meters before I took off. At 9 meters I felt myself starting to rise, and before I knew it I was rising faster and faster. The faster you rise, the more you rise and the lighter you become, and so on, until before you know it your head pops out of the surface and you realise your mistake. In this case, no harm was done – the depth wasn’t significant enough for me to have an adverse reaction. But it was enough for me to take stock and realise I needed to be much more careful in the future so that the same thing does not occur from a greater depth.

Still, this didn’t detract from the fantastic experience that diving in Pembrokeshire was. Skomer Island was the UK’s first marine reserve and is a haven for wildlife, with puffins flying around all over the place, diving in the sea next to our boat, and the occasional curious-looking seal popping its head up out of the water. Throughout the trip I marvelled at dry-suit technology. Surely many more people would leap at the chance of getting into the sea, swimming around, diving or simply floating on the surface fully-clothed, dry and warm, if only they knew about this remarkable dry suit technology.

My final dive of the weekend was a 10 meter dive round the corner from the wreck in Milford Haven, close to some rocks in a sheltered bay. It was also exhilarating but for different reasons. I followed Dave to the sea floor which again had poor visibility, but enough visibility to see long, thick stemmed plants dotted around the sea floor, which we were able to hold on to and use to scramble from stem to stem, like an underwater version of ‘Tarzan’, swinging from branch to branch. Crawling on our hands and knees we moved around like this, exploring the sea-floor, peering into the light shining from Dave’s torch, to see what marine life we could. It was a fantastic feeling, being moved around by the tide and the swell of the ocean at 10 meters depth. The sense of exploration and anticipation of what we might see was very satisfying – especially when I saw two shark-eggs attached to one of the plants.

We returned to the surface with four UK dives under my belt and a renewed thirst for more. Not only the diving but also the exhilarating boat trips around the coastline and the fantastic company of the dive club members (I’d first met only a few months ago) made for a fantastic weekend. Now that I know how to dive in the UK I am keen to go back to Brighton and face my childhood-fear by diving underneath the pier, which, as it turns out, is a noteworthy UK diving spot with abundant marine life!

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