Tuesday, 5 April 2016

#82 - Scuba & Snorkelling (Abyss Scuba Diving - PADI Open Water Certificate)

OK, so there are better places in the world for scuba and snorkelling.  The Maldives, Belize, Egypt, and of course just up the road in that giant underwater garden, The Great Barrier Reef, all spring to mind.  So if you are on a worldwide trip, or even a tour of Australia, there may be better places to do your scuba or snorkelling day.  Likewise, if you're a hardened diver, then you may not be hysterically excited at the prospect of diving in Sydney's waters.  As for us, we were first time scuba divers (excluding one freezing cold dive in the shark tank at the rather less exotic South Queensferry Deep Sea World for me), so were pretty excited at the prospect.

Based on TripAdvisor reviews (of course), we went with Abyss Scuba Diving.  It was a weekend course to get your PADI Open Water Certificate.  You had to do some pre-reading and pass an online test, as well as passing a test in person in the shop on the morning of the course.  The shop wasn't in an overly convenient place, particularly to get to at an early hour in the morning, but we found it without too much difficulty, and were met by various staff members who were all very friendly.

It's all smiles before they explain that you will be taking your mask off while under water
They spent a bit of time telling us about the plan for the day, giving us details about equipment and giving us the chance to ask questions.  There was a little bit of sales involved, but they weren't too pushy, and did seem to be happy to tell you what was essential, and what was a nice optional extra.  At least that's how it seemed to two complete novices.  For all I know, they were pushing the most overpriced and unnecessary equipment in the shop.  They had me fooled if that was the case.

After the introduction at the shop, there was some classroom stuff, and then we got in a minibus with a couple of instructors and a couple of other students, and headed off to an outdoor pool for some practical stuff.  There was the boring stuff - proving you can swim 200 metres and tread water for 5 minutes, for example.  Then some more boring (but pretty essential) stuff - how to connect the equipment, pre-dive checks etc.

Finally we got in the pool and started on the fun stuff, that is, actually breathing underwater.  There was a whole bunch of tasks like swimming for a certain distance underwater, floating without touching the bottom and various other exercises.  Most of these were good fun, but, being a genuine qualification, some of it was pretty tough as well.

If you've never been underwater wearing a scuba mask, then taken it off while underwater, then you can only imagine how unpleasant it is.  And in reality, it's even worse than you think.  My brain just couldn't get to grips with the fairly simple concept of not trying to breathe through your nose while you are underwater.  I have no idea why, as I swim loads, and have never tried to breathe through my nose while underwater.  I did it almost very time on this exercise though.  I'm not even sure why this test is necessary.  I suppose a mischievous octopus could probably pull your mask off while underwater, but it seems unlikely.

Those lane ropes just make this look much less impressive - I really need to learn how to use Photoshop
Anyway, eventually we finished the pool exercises and headed off in the minibus to the ocean for our first ocean dive.  One thing that surprised me as a Scotsman living in Sydney was how cold it got in winter.  I can also confirm that the Sydney ocean in the winter is pretty damn cold.  Thankfully they were trialing a heating system for under your wetsuit on our course, so we got a free upgrade to these heated vest things.  The only downside was that mine didn't work.  That was slightly unfortunate, but to be honest, with the adrenaline of doing my first ocean dive, I didn't really notice.

Once under the Sydney ocean, we then proceeded to repeat all the tests we had done in the pool previously.  I can confirm that they did not get any easier once under 10 metres of ocean water (maybe), rather than a metre down in a nice calm pool.  Mostly it was pretty positive, but Lisa found the whole experience very uncomfortable.  Nothing to do with the instructors or course, she just didn't enjoy the experience.

The one black mark we had against the instructors was that when Lisa started to panic a bit underwater, they continually tried to pull her back down and make her continue.  Even when Lisa was able to explain how she was feeling back on the surface, they were extremely insistent, and really made Lisa feel under pressure (which she literally was under the water).  I totally understand their reasoning, and they did explain that lots of people feel that way, then go on to eventually feel really comfortable and have a great time.

People had often thanked them for being a bit pushy and making them go back down, so I see why they felt that it was the right way to approach the situation.  I just thought in our case, that they should have been able to read the situation better and make the experience a bit more comfortable. One other point to note is that any diver will know that it is unsafe to surface too quickly, so that may have been part of initial reason for pulling Lisa back down.  It was quite clear though, that Lisa wanted to surface, and they were trying to keep her down.

In any case, eventually they agreed to let Lisa finish her dive, and one of the instructors stayed with her on the surface for a while to see if she became more comfortable, before taking her back to the shore.  Meanwhile, after being reassured that Lisa was being looked after and no longer being pressured to go back under, I returned down and completed my first ocean dive.  After the dive, we returned to the shop, cleaned down the equipment, and headed home for the night.

We honestly did go out in the open ocean, we just didn't get any pictures from there
After a well earned rest, I returned on my own the next day to complete the course.  Lisa felt bad for not being able to complete the course, and the instructors felt bad that they hadn't delivered Lisa value for money.  However, at least Lisa tried, and she did get to experience scuba diving underwater for a short period.  The instructors meanwhile, clearly had Lisa's best interests at heart, even if we felt they were a bit misplaced.

As it happened, the second day was much more pleasant and enjoyable than the first.  Having completed all the nasty tasks the previous day, the second day was more about skills like navigation and checking your air.  My heated vest even worked the second day, which made a big difference. We did three dives the second day, with the third one being led by the students.  We had to plan the dive, decide on a route, when to turn back, and various other aspects.

Once you can focus on the fun part, and not have to worry about removing your mask underwater, I found scuba diving really enjoyable.  We got to see some amazing sights.  We saw a giant blue groper, which was bigger than us, a giant cuttlefish, that even changed colour, various colourful fish, and even a shark (not a scary kind - it was a wobbegong, which as well as having a brilliant, and Australian sounding, name, looks pretty lazy and harmless).  The highlight for me though, was having an octopus swim right in front of me and shoot out some black ink in my face.  If you're going to be attacked by an sea creature in Sydney waters, this is definitely one of the more enjoyable ways to do it.

Our hair isn't even wet yet at this point...
Finally, after two days of training and diving, they took us back to the shop and finished off the paperwork.  Unfortunately Lisa missed out on the licence, but I got my PADI Open Water Certificate, and am now free to roam the waters worldwide.  Of course, I've now forgotten everything I'd learned, but it was still a great experience.  Despite the issues I've mentioned above, I would still happily recommend Abyss for a diving trip.  Just bear in mind that if you're scared or uncomfortable underwater, that it might not be what you're looking for.  There are also gentler introductions on offer, rather than diving straight in (pun intended) to the full Open Water Certificate.

Have you ever had your mask fall off underwater?  Am I unfair in rating Sydney as only 'excellent', rather than 'world class' for diving?  Share your own views and experiences in the comments

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