After the intensity of completing an 8 hour triathlon, the last few Saturdays have involved something much more relaxed: Diving.
It is not really a surprise I enjoy scuba. Ever since I was younger I have loves all water based sports, spending my summers swimming in the sea, kayaking at a local lake and surfing on holiday down in Cornwall. I got back into swimming in my second year at uni, partly out of boredom to vary my days, and also to stay in shape after retiring from rugby and spending the subsequent months drinking too much beer and playing too much Halo with my best mate Stewart. I ended up really enjoying it, and I remember one particular lunchtime running into a lady-friend of mine who seemed quite impressed I was working out regularly. Ange is now my wife, and I am not sure how pleased she is I still spend most of my free time training, but there you go!
My first proper job while at school and uni was as a part-time lifeguard (funnily enough with Stewart as well) which admittedly meant spending time out of the water. I did manage to save one person once – the other lifeguard I was working with – but that is a story for another day! This was also the first time I probably came across scuba divers, who would come in on a Thursday evening from a local club to practice. To be honest they were a pain in the arse from a lifeguard point of view, as you could not really do much to help them, and swimmers would often crash into them as they distractedly wondered what was going on.
Fast forward about 5 or 6 years, and my Mum got my wife & I a try dive session as a birthday present. It was only in a tiny, but 3m deep, pool near where we lived, and I loved it, and managed to go again when in holiday in Greece. Unfortunately after growing up by the coast, and going to school with the nearest beach literally around the corner, I now live in Birmingham, which is about as far from the beach as you can get in the UK . So when I finally got around to completing my open water course, it was in the exotic location of Dostill, just north of the city.
For those who have never experienced UK inland diving, it could not be more different to exotic locations such as the Caribbean or Red Sea. For starters it is cold, so you are likely to be in a dry suit, something of an oxymoron of a name as I always seem to end up with half the river in my undersuit. Then there is the visibility, which on a good day can be around somewhere between 5-10 metres, but often less if the bottom has been kicked up by your fellow adventurers. In terms of things to see, it is not exactly the great barrier reef, but it is not all shopping trolleys either, there can be some interesting bits, but more on that later.
Because of these conditions, this means there is a huge similarity between scuba diving and triathlon: the amount of kit you need. That’s right, I seem to have managed to pick what may well be the two hobbies that involve more equipment than any others. I have already blogged on some of my tri stuff, and the main thing with that is that whilst there are a few essentials – swimsuit, bike, helmet, trainers – the other bits are basically all there to make you go faster and / or look good. With diving however, the kit is there for a more important reason: to keep you alive! Whilst you can hire bits from your local centre, it is of course best to own and get to know your own, to ensure it fits well and most importantly works for you.
Fortunately my local club (Aquasport International) is great, and has some really good equipment and instructors, but I have still ended up collecting loads over the years. My typical kit list for a day’s diving includes: Mask & snorkel, fins, undersuit, gloves, hood, Suunto dive computer, weight belt, torch, knife, reel & SMB. On top of that I hire the bigger and more expensive bits from the club: Dry suit, BCD, regs & cylinder, but I have no doubt that I will end up being persuaded to invest in these in years to come as it is rare that I manage to visit the shop without parting with any money I have left on me.
After completing my first qualification I have ended up doing various other Padi specialisms and now have the following:
- Open Water Diver
- Advanced Open Water
- Peak Performance Buoyancy
- Enriched Air (Nitrox) Diver
- Equipment Specialist
- National Geographic Diver
- Search & Recovery Diver
- Deep Diver
I had been supposed to do a nice, laid back Underwater Photography course this weekend, but it was cancelled at the last minute, so I ended up switching to the last on this list – Deep Diver. To be fair it was one I had been planning on doing this at some point anyway after a taste of going that bit deeper in my advanced course which qualified me to 30 metres. This course certified me to 40 metres, the maximum depth for ‘recreational’ divers before entering into the crazy (and even more expensive) world of technical diving, involving even more equipment and air-mixes.
The better thing about the course though, was it took place at Stoney Cove, something of a legend and possibly the most famous inland dive site in the UK. One of the Divemasters today mentioned they used to go there back in the 1960s! It is about twice the size of our usual haunt of Dostill, and there is a lot more to see underwater, ranging from boats, to cars, to flying machines.
Deep diving is of course fairly dangerous, as the further you descent, the more the pressure is, and we were about twice as deep as you would go on a normal open water dive. This means it is very cold, dark, and you breathe through your air twice as fast too. Most of this course was therefore around the safety implications and how to deal with potential problems associated ranging from as decompression sickness (aka the bends) to freeflows (where your regulator packs in due to the cold & depth). Fortunately none of these happened to any of us, but of course it is good to know what to do if you need.
For divers though, one of the big things about going deep, is what is known as getting ‘narked’. Now this has nothing to do with some kind of underwater anti-drug squad, but refers to nitrogen narcosis, which is something you experience when breathing air at depths which are typically below 30 metres. Without boring the pants of people with the science, it is basically a feeling you get, which you could best describe as like being drunk. This affects people differently, and I did notice it a bit on our last dive down to 36 m, in that for me I felt a lot more confident and did not pay as much attention to my timers as I normally would. Time also flew by, and the activity we had to do at the bottom involving putting toy shapes into a box took us all over twice as long down there as at the surface.
Of course we had a great instructor keeping an eye on us and I had enough control for it not to be dangerous, but clearly it is one to be careful of. The divemaster I was buddying with told me he still has a photo of him at one dive where he took his regulator out to pose for it but he has no memory of doing it at all. There are even rumors of people hallucinating and seeing mermaids… The strange about being narked is that as soon as you ascent a bit it wears off, and you can get on with the rest of your dive with only some hazy memories of what happened: a bit like sobering up from a big night out in fast forward.
The rest of the dives were great, and we explored a number of artificial wrecks on the quarry bed ranging from a helicopter with no rotors, to a 10 m submarine with a massive propeller, to the mighty Stanegarth, an 18 m tug boat in great condition to examine. Whilst these are of course purpose sunk to practice on, they are the most exciting thing I have seen yet underwater, and it is amazing how much more interesting something as simple as a cockpit becomes in this situation compared to wandering around on land. There was also a fair bit of marine life, and whilst you could not describe it as tropical, even our instructor looked really excited at the sight of a crayfish, beckoning us to look whilst doing the pincer hand sign to explain what it was!
For those of you wondering I have managed to count this towards my training. Although the dives have only been 30-45 mins each, there is a lot of intensity in the build up (just lugging around 40 kg of kit to the water’s edge in the sun is a serious effort!). So each dive has counted as a 5 km swim, making a total of 20 km in the swim column for two days work, which sounds reasonable to me. Hopefully I will get back in again later this year, and if I manage to do the underwater photography then I will include some of my own pictures on here next time. Until then, stay safe!