Setting the dive bar
Words and pictures by Paul Oswell
Is it an oboe? A clarinet? No…trumpet! He means a trumpet fish!
Of all the things that seasoned scuba divers tell you about when you mention to them that you’re about to learn – the equalising, the buoyancy issues, the fact it’s “a whole other world down there” – no-one ever talks about the charades. It’s also an unrelentingly silent world down there, so the first time someone mimes that they’ve seen a trumpet fish, it takes a little bit of mental gymnastics. Lionel Blair and Una Stubbs would make the world’s best scuba divers.
I’d been eyeing up scuba diving from afar for some time. I’d always loved snorkelling, but essentially for its punk-rock, anyone, anywhere, any time ethic. No fancy equipment or training courses, just you, the water, a hollow pipe and lots of spitting. But then, everyone who ever scuba dives comes back with breathless tales of how unswervingly magical it all is, and eventually it was just too hard to resist.
My learning ground (ok, water) was to be the Bahamas, specifically the Sandal’s Emerald Bay Resort on the island of Exuma. This was also a first for me. I’d never stayed in an adults-only, all-inclusive resort, imagining them to be slightly bland affairs with an aesthetic stuck firmly in the late 1980s, all neon trim and awful piped music.
Annoyingly, on arrival, my preconceptions were immediately dashed. What was all this? Stylish architecture? Sophisticated pool and social areas? A boisterous, boozy English pub complete with feisty landlady? This wasn’t the khaki chino-clad vapid world I’d been expecting. Damn you, sneakily-evolving holiday brand!
In any case, there wasn’t much time to luxuriate in the surroundings as the very next morning, our wide-eyed group of learners were met at lunch by the estimably-named President, a sanguine chap with a dry sense of humour and scuba experience that seemed to verge on pre-natal.
There was some remedial health and safety malarkey regarding my mild asthma (they are very professional, I’ll say that), but in the end we got past it. The lesson seems to be: don’t ever mention you have mild asthma. President took us through the rest of the medical waivers (no, I won’t give birth underwater to a mutant half-man-half-fish superhero) and the rest of the training programme.
The first day was to be purely pool-based, and after a short drive to the training facility, we were sat in a classroom for some theory. Lots of the theory seems like common sense, but given that forgetting common sense could land you with a lungful of ocean, it’s best to go over it as much as possible.
After a short film, we were kitted out in our scuba gear and set loose in the training pool. There are some basic skills to learn, including neutral buoyancy underwater, so you can go in a straight line, and equalising, essentially making sure the air pressure in your head is equal to that of the water – usually by pinching your nose as you breath out against it.
Minor uncomfortable problems are also addressed: your mask filling up with water being one, the remedy for which is a very counter-intuitive blowing technique, something that resulted in mouthfuls of chlorine at first, but good to get it out of the way in two feet of water as opposed to fifty.
We also learn the first of our mimes – sorry, underwater signalling – a set of instructions ad responses likely to cover the situations that will come up on the first few dives. These include answering the dive leaders regarding oxygen levels, indicating problems and telling them everything is OK.
We retired to the resort for the evening buffet, pints and a sense of pretty cool skills having been learned. You know, the general feeling of massive superiority you get any time you go from being an absolute novice to someone who knows even just a little bit.
The next morning, out on the boat, we were headed for our first open water dive. It wasn’t anything too challenging, just the local reef, but enough to have a boatful of rookies excited.
We went through everything we’d learned the previous day and one by one, flopped ungracefully into the water and inched down the static line under the waves. In a few minutes, all of us were standing in a circle on the seabed looking at each other, not sure of what to do next. Like strangers at a party where no-one really knows anyone. Silence, apart from the sound of your own breathing.
Standing on the ocean floor for the first time, 50 feet of water above you, feels very surreal. For the first few minutes, all your brain is really dealing with is the thought that you’re breathing normally down where the fish are, and that this really isn’t a very natural state of affairs.
The instructors take over, taking us through our learned paces and making sure we’re buoyant, then leading us out along the reef, gesticulating all the time. Two fingers to the mask then a point – look at that. Thumb down – let’s go deeper. Um, not sure what that one is…hopefully they’ve just spotted some kind of weird fish and nothing too life threatening…
Actually, I’d imagined being underwater would be very tense, but such are the rigours of the safety procedures and the confidence and attention of the instructors that you soon feel at home. If your home had a sand and coral themed interior and no oxygen, obviously.
Over the next two days, we headed out on four open water dives around the resort, each with different things to offer and with new chances to learn what the sign language for various obscure tropical fish were. Confidence came quickly, and before long, we were joking around, dancing on the seabed and doing actual charades with each other (“Jaws” being an obvious sub-aquatic favourite).
The day before we flew back, we were given the day off underwater duties – and in any case, it’s required that you don’t dive 24 hours before flying to give the nitrogen levels in your body time to calm down.
We took the 007 Thunderball tour – so called as the ultimate destination is a sea cave where one of the most memorable scenes from that movie was filmed. Along the way, there are idyllic sandbars, rum cake, friendly sharks, seafood and swimming with pigs. Yes, you read that right. I may never have swum with dolphins, but I can now die happy saying I have swum with pigs.
As for scuba and its underwater world of silence and signals, I left very keen to do more. The Bahamas was the perfect place for an introduction – most of my friends say they got their qualifications in quarries in rural England. I’m not so hardcore. I’ll wait for another try in tropical waters – this time armed with the all the sign language for tropical fish that I can muster.