When I think of ‘extreme sports’ my mind conjures up images of skydiving, surfing, snowboarding and the like: basically the kind of adrenaline fueled adventures Johnny Utah has in Point Break, or maybe Xander Cage in xXx. The official definition of an extreme sport (according to Wikipedia) is one which is perceived as having a high level of inherent danger, often involving speed, height, high level of physical exertion and highly specialised gear.
For many people (including insurance companies!), scuba diving is also classed as an extreme sport, which interests me. Despite the fact I have over 40 scuba dives to my name, some of which have been to the maximum recreational depth of 40 metres, I have never really tend to put it in the same ballpark as it’s ethos tends to be the exact opposite of the above definition – ideally you participate as slowly as possible, controlling your breathing & heart rate and generally try to take it easy. Yes, it does have some unique and specialised gear, but does that make it extreme?
That is not to say diving is not exciting – far from it – as despite the fact most of my sub-aqua adventures have taken place in freezing quarries in the Midlands, I have been fortunate enough to see some amazing things, which certainly get the adrenaline pumping, including barracudas, lobsters, eels, octopus and even sharks, as well as some amazing tropical coral and interesting wrecks. But other than a slightly elevated heartbeat, these have all been on nice laid back dives, where (despite what you see in films) I was more at risk of cutting myself on a rock or getting cramp than being bitten by a crazed sea-monster or trapped inside the wreck.
Last week however, I finally did what I would class as an extreme scuba in Greece, when I was fortunate enough to do some cave diving in Rhodes.Although I had brought my kit on holiday, I had not been planning a cave dive, and did not even realise that where I was staying was apparently one of the top cave dive sites in the whole country, but when I found out the opportunity was there I jumped at it, and booked on with a centre called Waterhoppers who seemed pretty decent.
Under the Padi system they do offer a cavern diving course which I have not actually done (mainly as there are no caves to dive where I live!) but then again they have a course for pretty much everything – wrecks, ice, and even how to dive properly from a boat – which you don’t actually need to do, but can help out. Still, there was no way I was going to be turning this one down just because I had not been on a course, and I did have experience penetrating wrecks from that course (as well as my rescue diver course should anything not go to plan), which was good enough for me.
Once of the other things I love about scuba diving on holiday is how multicultural it is, and when I arrived at the centre it became apparent this would be no different. Our dive leader was a tough looking Serbian called Gregor, who was ably assisted by the Greek boat captain Costas. My buddy was to be a Russian dude called Mikhail who had 80 odd dives to his name which I was happy enough with, and we also had a German guy and a Geordie lad doing an internship with the centre, who both had 150 dives each. This meant I was the least experienced, which was fine by me as I am happy enough in my abilities, and reduced the chances that I was going to have to worry about the others doing something too crazy. Fortunately English was also the mutual language, as it tends to be, so I could also understand the pre-dive brief properly.
The boat ride to the dive site was an eye opener, with Costas really opening the throttle on the rib along the way, and the tourists amongst us clinging onto the edge of the boat for our lives: I know powerboating is an extreme sport, and this definitely fitted the description from my opening paragraph! At least we made it in one piece, and soon enough the anchor was dropped and we were backrolling in to the beautiful warm Mediterranean.
The cave was on the side of a steep cliff near the Acropolis of Lindos, directly underneath the tomb of Clepbulus, who was apparently one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, so a very important guy. I was pleased to see we were following proper scuba protocol, in doing our deepest dive first (it helps with underwater time, which I will come back to later)
Visibility was fantastic, well over 20 metres, so it did not take me long to notice my first problem, in that my Russian buddy who was with me a few seconds earlier as we started to descent, had disappeared – never a good thing underwater! I soon realised he had only descended a few metres and was hanging about the surface, which is usually a sign of having problems, but when both myself and our dive lead signalled him he gave us the ok sign. Given he had nearly 100 dives and he seemed to know what he was doing, we swam on, albeit slightly uncomfortably, whilst he followed on the surface looking down on us like a snorkeler. Weirdly once we reached the cave a few minutes later he dropped right down and carried on next to me as if nothing had happened.
When we questioned him after the dive he acted like it was fine, and said ‘oh yeah, when I dive I always take a while to descend’… one bollocking later from both myself and our lead for the fact he had omitted to mention this, and nearly messed up the whole dive in the process, and hopefully it will be the last time it happens. Anyway, I digress…
As we got to the opening of the cave at around 25 metres I was pleased to see it as pretty massive. Having had a few concerns it would be a tight opening, which would be awkward in hired kit we were not used to, it was a huge gap the size of a two storey house. Pulling out the torches the centre had thoughtfully lent us we drifted in, and spent a few minutes exploring the opening, which was even bigger inside.
The reason this sort of diving is considered more extreme and dangerous, is that whereas on a normal dive if you have a problem, you can head directly back to the surface, even if you have to take your time to minimise decompression issues. But on a cave dive, you have an overhead, so to get out you have to swim across (and possibly even down first) to find your way out and then up again, which is why it is strictly for more experienced divers. Obviously the further into the cave you penetrate, the more experience and extra equipment you would need. In my case, I made sure I kept my sneaky Russian buddy in my eye-line at all times, in case I needed to make a grab for his alternate air source to keep me going, although fortunately the hire kit was decent enough not to let me down!
Whilst it was interesting looking in, what was really special about it was actually looking back out of the cave, as you had an amazing light blue view from the sea outside the cave. I can’t think of a good way of explaining it, so fortunately I had my camera and for a change the pictures have actually come out well, so you can see it for yourselves.
The cool thing about this dive that really sold it to me though, was that you could swim inside the cave, and actually go further into it to surface in an underwater freshwater cavern, that could only be reached with scuba gear. The lighting was crazy, with out torches piercing the water like lightsabers, and giving a strange green glow to the cavern. For me this was real hardcore cave diving, and was a fantastic experience, surfacing in the middle of a cave which few people had ever set eyes on, and having a brief chat with the others before going back down. Seriously, an experience I will probably always remember as a diver.
We descended back down a slightly different (and tighter) way that really tested our buoyancy skills, but pleased to say we all smashed it and found our way back to the main cave – although I found myself counting everyone about 5 times just to be sure no one had been lost!
Once we exited the cave again the remainder of the dive was spent swimming along the cliff wall, looking at the marine life and for me at least, soaking up the rush of being in a real cave. I can barely remember the rest of the dive, other than deciding to try some selfies on my action cam given how clear the water was, which in hindsight probably looked a bit strange to the others.
After surfacing onto the boat we drove (a bit slower this time thankfully) over to our second site, an island right off the back of Lindos bay. The plan was another smaller cave penetration, this time though a small crack of the sort I imagined before, although at less of a depth. We were into the dive pretty quickly, with just an hour surface interval in all. To explain, this is the time between reaching the surface in the first dive, and descending in the next one. Back home we usually have a pretty long surface interval of up to two hours, as this lets you ‘off gas’ which means clear more of the nitrogen from your body. But for a tourist centre like this, they understandably want to get through the dives at a reasonable pace to get in four per day, so an hour it was.
This was another pretty good dive, with some different coral and rock formations as we were a little further out to sea, and also a lot more fish to see. It also turned out to be a drift dive, which means you basically let the current take you and push you along underwater – a great experience, kind of like a scuba version of a lazy river in a water park, although in this case you have to be a bit more careful not to let it take you away out to sea. Along the way I was really pleased to see a red starfish which was a new one for me, although unfortunately in my excitement the photo did not really come out.
This was a more traditional dive than the other, so compare the two I have included the profiles from my dive computer above. On the left is the cave dive, where we went to the max depth quickly, then worked our way into the cave and surfaced in the cavern in the middle (a sort of W-shape), before basically re-tracing our steps out. On the right is the drift dive, where we descended more slowly and drifted along the bottom before working our way back in more of a U-shape.
When you are diving there are two things that limit how long you can spend underwater. The first is obviously your air, as once you get low on that it is of course going to be time to finish up. Whilst recreational diving should never be competitive, there is always a bit of competition as to who can consume the least air on a dive, and generally the better you get, the less you will use as you relax into the dive.
The second restrainer will be less well known to non-divers, but I alluded to it earlier, in that when you dive your body begins to absorb nitrogen, and the deeper & longer you go for, the more it will absorb, which risks you getting ‘the bends’. This will vary a lot between divers, not least because you will never be at exactly the same depth as each other throughout the dive, so experienced divers (well anyone even semi-serious) wear dive computers, that help calculate how deep you have been at all times, and how much nitrogen you have. I hope I am not losing too many people by now…
Anyway, long story short, I had noticed I was getting close to my own limit (not last because of the shorter surface interval) so began to rise up a lot towards the end – it is amazing that being a few minutes higher can add ages to a dive – but our Geordie lad had clearly had other things on his mind, and managed to bust his NDL – No Decompression Limit. Whilst not the end of the world, it is a bit of an embarrassing thing to do by mistake, and resulted in him having to spend an extra 10 minutes underwater on his own decompressing, whilst the rest of us sunbathed on the boat. Interestingly his German buddy (with over 150 dives!) had not brought his computer (as it was too expensive / big!) but did not do any deco, which staggered me, as to be honest there was no way he would not have exceeded his time too, but I guess he was comfortable enough, so there you go.
Sadly my story did not end there, as after finishing the dives and heading back to my hotel, I started to get an increasingly worse pain in my left ear. At first I thought it was just trapped water, but it refused to clear with all the normal methods, and eventually I had to take two each ibuprofen and paracetamol, which is pretty much unheard of for me as I usually avoid things like that unless I have had heavy dental work (sadly all to often).
The pain eventually went away, but my ear never cleared, so two visits to the doctor later back in the UK, and it turns out I managed to perforate my eardrum. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when it happened as the dives were comfortable enough, so have to assume it was just the repeated changes of pressure of the two dives. I will spare you the Google images here as it is pretty horrific, but it did not actually hurt past the first day, and my deafness does not seem to be much worse than normal (according to my wife anyway…) Unfortunately it does mean that my diving for this summer is now over, although I do have my eye on a night diver course over the winter for my next challenge…
So that was it, two amazing and pretty unforgettable dives, and one finish that I will probably also take a while to push out of my memory. Still a valuable lesson learned, and as sporting injuries go it is certainly a new one for me. And the next time someone suggests to me that scuba diving is not an extreme sport, I will have plenty of stories to tell them!