Scuba Diving- passing my PADI with Pro Dive!
My head felt like it was going to spontaneously combust most of the day, each dive with multiple nose bleeds and blocked ears. Going down, and coming up felt like in was taking for ever with all the equalizing I needed to do. I only saw a glimpse of the sharks from the surface at sunset, but only small ones. Our instructors were the humorously named Aussie lady, Aneata Friend (I need a friend) and super sharp German, Michael Schael who often says “cuul, easy” at the end of every training exercise. I was amazing though, like skiing underwater with less snow and more seawater in my mask.
The course I took consisted of a five day “learn to dive” program. Our group spent two days at Pro Dive’s centre in Cairns where we sat through classroom work with instructional videos and exams to complete. This was accompanied by practical sections in one of two dive pools. The second half of the program was a three day live-a-board trip on THE Great Barrier Reef!
Learning to dive is not something you do every day, so I figured if I’m going to do this, I might as will go for the full hog. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the few natural wonders that can be seen from space, as well as being one of the most biologically diverse wildlife habitats on earth. You can’t get much better than learning to dive on the best reef on the planet, and by extension probably the best dive training provider around currently.
That’s probably a bold statement to make about Pro Dive. There are I think, four dive centres around Cairns, however Pro Dive are the most well-known, and have the rights/permission to anchor at certain sites on the reef no one else can.
The pool exercises were straightforward enough, although certain things like practicing removing masks and respirators underwater made me nervous and felt uncomfortable sometimes. Really, the whole process with the equipment and the new environment is totally unnatural, so its mind over matter. I had to learn to control my fears and trust in the learning principles and kit.
One area that severely challenged me were my ears! A fundamental process for a diver to descend/ascend in the water is the ability to “equalize”. As you raise or fall in the water, pressure differences need to be “equalized” inside your ear canals. I had to “pop” my ears by holding my nose and gently blowing out or swallowing to release the trapped air bubbles.
My right ear has always been temperamental and weaker for hearing than my left. It just wouldn’t pop! It made going down really painful, with a deep stinging sensation pinging throughout my whole head. Pro Dive had also invited a team of two doctors to study our group, poking and prodding our ears with optical camera devices to check for problems. It was noted I had usually long ear canals, and that one or both the ear drums looked “angry” after each dive.
The pool was only 4.5 metres deep when our group sat on the bottom. I knew when we got to the ocean, we were (quite literally) going to be thrown in at the deep end.
Our class of 12 was split into two for the practical sessions. We had Mike (the German guy), and were then divided into “buddies”, partners who supervise each other, help ready equipment and give aid in case of emergency. Sometimes though, German efficiency was too fast paced for me, and there were times when it felt like my inability to equalize was holding up the rest of the group.
When it comes to equalising, impatience and a desire to rush the process is always a temptation.
During the two days on-shore training, we were taken out for lunch at a local restaurant (their give a discount for Pro Dive groups) and to Pro Dive’s own retail store and persuaded to purchase a new mask and snorkel kit that were a better personalised fit for individual faces rather than using the rental types we had in the pool.
They would have been a benefit to buying a better fitting mask as my rental pair was a bit uncomfortable, and it would have made the ocean experience more pleasurable, but I didn’t. They were ridiculously expensive for an activity I unlikely to do regularly, even with the student discount. I didn’t object to these detours, but part of me felt they were unnecessary extras I either didn’t need, or should have been included in the price.
And so, the time came to go out on the open ocean. I packed a small rucksack and boarded the Pro Dive catamaran. The sleeping quarters were small but very comfy. The first three dives our group did were training dives. Our boat stopped at various sites (Milln, Flynn, and Pellowe). We did two to three dives per day which was exhausting but amazing. Stepping off the rear platform of the boat is a bit strange at first, but you get used to it. As soon as you hit the water, you must inflate your BCD (jacket attached to your oxygen tank) to remain buoyant on the surface.
Our boat was generally moored to a preinstalled cable fixed to the bottom of the ocean by a block of concrete. As beginners, we used the cable to support us during the descent, deflating our BCD’s and every half a metre trying to equalize our ears. Easier said than done. Our first dive took us to 15 metres, which is a lot when you’re used to a swimming pool! We would always start training sessions by sitting on the sea bottom, testing equipment, practicing emergency procedures, and watching out for the occasional shark!
Sometimes, it actually felt bloody cold down there, to the point where I was actually shivering. I didn’t see any sharks, which I was quite disappointed about really. None are man-eaters, not on the Great Barrier Reef. Most are just reef sharks of sorts, usually only around four foot long and very timid of people. Depending on visibility I would sometimes see something dart off into the distance, stirring up the sand on the sea bed.
Swimming around the reef is really what the experience is all around. It’s a coral city down there. Giant tower blocks of animal life, multiple species of fish and various other organisms living in this three dimensional habitat. This seascape kind of reflex of dramas that unfold on the African Serengeti played out in the lives of all the creatures. Probably the worst thing that could happen to a diver in terms of the wildlife, is simply being stung by anemone. My worst fear is simply being able to breathe!
Buoyancy is also a tricky business to master. Adjusting your height in the water is a bit like flying. When you’re underwater, near the bottom, I always ensure all the air has been released from my BCD. Despite this, I often find myself floating to the surface. I have to be constantly aware of this, and moderate my breathing as a result. Breathing out and expelling all the air from my lungs causes sinking, breathing too quickly, or breathing in too heavily, and I’ll be going up!
When ascending from deeper levels, our group was trained to make “safety stops”. Our mobile dive computers on our BCDs tell us if we’re raising too fast by beeping. Therefore when returning to the boat, approximately every five metres in height, we hold onto the mooring cable and wait for five minutes before climbing further.
Another interesting thing for me was the rate I consumed my 200 bar oxygen tank. Half an hour, thirty five minutes seemed to be about it for me before it started to creep into the red zone on my dial!
The second night on board we had the opportunity to do a night dive, sadly the reoccurring issues I had been experiencing with my ears prevented me from going. I was also very tired. I felt I better not push my luck. It was frustrating, as it would have been a crazy experience never to be forgotten. The people who did go saw sharks and a huge turtle called Brian who apparently sleeps in a cave in this area of the reef.
The meals from our on board chef were great. After every dive, there was plenty of cakes on offer! After some amazing views, both above and below water, including probably the nicest sunset I’ve seen in my life, we sailed back to cairns, our group, the instructors, and other crew later went out to the Bavarian bar on the Esplanade to celebrate with a meal and a few drinks. For more info, see; www.prodivecairns.com