BY Charlene Goulesque
We are eight folks to go exploring the wonders of the underwater world this weekend in Manly, including six persons wishing to become Advanced Scuba Divers. Except for our instructor Bill Robson, and Lis a master diver, most of us are both anxious and excited. Will we be able to remember what we learned during our PADI entry-level course? Despite the prior e-Learning session of the Advanced course, most of us have not been diving for a while. For my part, several years have passed since the completion of my ‘Open Water Diver’ course in the Red Sea in Egypt. I do not have a clue about what is going to happen to me once under water. All I know if that I missed diving, and this training is an excellent opportunity to renew the experience while I am in Australia.
Bill beckons us as we float on the surface of the water. It is time to begin our first descent in the submarine world. Regulators in mouths, we start breathing deeply while we let the air out of our buoyancy life jackets. The water level goes up on my mask until my head is completely submerged. We descend quietly in a vertical position, until reaching the bottom, not forgetting to equalize pressure in our ears.
This first dive, “Peak Performance Buoyancy” is not deep and is playful. It is about remembering the basics. It feels nice to breathe pure oxygen and to move just above the sand below these few metres of water. It is hard to keep the balance, and I oscillate from right to left awkwardly. The direction is not easy either, but our instructor makes us play games to help us improve faster. Thus, we swim between rectangles arranged differently, we pass a weight to maintain our buoyancy, we "kiss” a weight placed on the sand, etc. – always keeping Bill nearby, and working in pairs. My buddy, Brett Simpson, is a Civil Engineer in Sydney. You two work very well! congratulates Bill when we come out of the water.
This Saturday three dives are planned here, at Shelly Beach at Manly. The spot is perfect for beginners; the depth increases little by little, the place is sheltered from the currents, and colourful corals surround the sand in the middle.
Having gained confidence, we rest a few moments on the beach. Bill explains us the next dive, the “Underwater Navigation Dive”. Before using the compass underwater, we practice on the Earth’s surface. It does not look very complicated, but it is one more thing to manage. Once immersed for that second dive, we do squares by pairs. One looks at the direction while observing the compass, the other deals with the distance and when to turn 90 degrees, by notably counting kick-cycles.
It is amazing how from this second dive we are comfortable with our body moving below the surface. We manage well the air in our jackets and our lungs, with calm inspirations and exhalations, maintaining a proper balance: the ‘neutral buoyancy’. PADI, the world’s leading scuba diver training organization, creates well-thought lessons to learn how to dive safely and effectively.
After this second dive, we all feel like fish. To regain energy, we eat our picnics and enjoy the beautiful sunny day. Diving is a social sport, and so we talk with the other groups of divers – everyone is thrilled to be here.
The “Underwater Naturalist Dive” is the last dive of the day. Three dives in a day are tiring, even if it is not profound. The equipment, although comfortable, is also rather heavy out of the ocean. This time we take our scales; we are going to write and draw the different marine species we see on it – invertebrate, vertebrae and seaweeds. This is required to complete the specialty. The course aims to raise awareness of the ocean and to promote responsible practices for the environment.
Swimming above corals is marvellous. We enjoy a variety of fish species, such as Eastern Fiddler Rays, Yellowtail Barracuda, Southern Sand Flathead, Western Striped Grunters, Blue Gropers, Triggerfishes, Gobies…
In the evening, I take the ferry back to Sydney, the other side of the bay. I will go to bed early; tomorrow is going to be much more challenging. We are going far down in the blue and peaceful aquatic world, where we can only hear bubbles rising to the surface.
On Sunday morning, we are still lucky; the weather and conditions are good. We prepare the material that we ship on a small diving boat. We are going to move away from the edge, at Fairfax Lookout, Manly. Bill warns us, we must be cautious and do not descend or ascend quickly – especially the ascent. We will stop during the ascent for several minutes to allow our bodies to eliminate harmful inert gas, avoiding then the formation of excessive nitrogen bubbles. Bill insists, if we do not follow the safety procedure: It’s the risk of decompression accident!
On a boat, I am usually not sick. But wearing the wetsuit, and the heavy scuba gear makes me feel nauseous with the movements of the sea. Once all the teammates are ready, I throw myself back in the water. Water comes in through my mask and cuts my breath. The slight waves continue shaking me. So far, so uncomfortable.
We swim towards the rope of the boat that connects the anchor. Bill makes the universal hand signal for OK, we answer and start the descent. Hell begins. Matt, Calvin, Michael, Owen, Brett and I grab the rope that moves in all directions (yet Bill tells me later that this can be much worse with strong currents). It shakes, and we take the bubbles from others in our faces. We try as best as we can to not annoy others or put them in a bad situation.
I try to calm down my breathing and continue the descent until 26 metres underwater. I see a Moon Jelly along the rope. We stay close to the anchor for this fourth dive, observing the effects of the depth on colours. Bill uses a lamp to reveal them because without the light it is greyer – like if we were in a black and white movie. Bill also shows us how a packet of crisps is compressed underwater, and I can feel that my lungs and body are heavier. It seems that the sound of my breathing is slightly different too, more dense, even if I am quite calm down here, in that silent space. I am impressed by the depth, that is something!
When we ascend, we stop for several minutes. Again, it is very unpleasant to wait in the rough seas. Patrick, another master diver I talked with, told me later that he did not hold on the rope for that exact reason. This phenomenon, though, only occurs a few metres under the surface.
Back on the boat, I try to steady myself before the last dive. However, unfortunately for me, little time is given before returning into the water. And finally, this fifth dive is going to be another deep one: 25 metres.
With the fatigue, I experiment shortness of breath as soon as I enter the sea. I ask Bill’s help to pass the water turbulence. He holds my hand as we start the descent. This passage makes me think of when astronomers lose consciousness in space shuttles. A few meters deeper, I feel much better and released his hand with gratitude. Once at the bottom, I stay careful not to lose my regulator or take a bad shot from others.
This last dive is fairy. We admire the corals and other fish species: a bigger Blue Groper, Dubious Frogfish, Yellowtail Scad... We explore the depths and swim through a hole between two rocks. We stay longer, 29 min – there is less time deep due to increasing pressure. 50 bars left, I run out of air soon. We respect the safety measures and return on the boat, in our humans' world.
Thus, we did it! We are now Advanced Open Water Divers – maximum depth allowed: 30 metres.
Bill Robson and Dive Centre Manly were exceptional. With the PADI centre, you can choose a range of options to discover or improve your scuba diving skills, and it is nice to make the trip to Manly by ferry.
Or, on the UNSW campus, you can join the UNSW Underwater Club. They offer PADI courses at a very interesting price for UNSW students. Just be careful to book early if you want places.
There is a lot to explore at all depths, there is one for everyone’s taste, and diving is great to meet new friends!
Dive Centre Manly: 10 Belgrave St, Manly NSW 2095 – Phone: (02) 9977 4355.
UNSW Underwater Club.