I had two “almosts” as far as learning to dive is concerned! The first was in my youth when one of my Dad’s friends suggested he do a BSAC course and I immediately and excitedly begged to be included. My Dad bought a second hand wet suit and my parents bought the neoprene and patterns and made me a 4mm suit. Yep 4mm! You need a lot of enthusiasm to snorkel for hours on end in Scotland with that! I am not sure why we never went to the local BSAC club but I rather suspect that my Dad learned about the risks and was worried in case anything happened to his only child, and there was always the cost as well. My second near diving experience was when I was at University. I joined a student club at Uni and the training was characterised by lots of shouting, swearing and screaming with endless swimming in the pool practising a pistol grip!!! Finals came along and I gave the diving up! I always thought I would pick it up again but then there was a career, a wonderful family, and seemingly endless DIY on a 1920s house. That took care of the time. As to the money? Can you remember when interest rates were 15.5%?
Fast forward to last year. I was then just pushing 52 and the kids were moving on, I had another house that is pretty habitable, work and career was less pressing and my wife and I were on holiday in Borneo. Our first holiday in 6 years! We walked past a booth advertising PADI training and my wife gave me a prompt (I think she wanted some peace and quiet!). I signed up and 4 days later I was an Open Water Diver with 5 dives under my belt. I’d seen reefs, some small fish and a sea-snake. At that point I envisaged that I would be just diving on holiday intermittently in the future. Then a couple of fortuitous events changed my mind. I was scheduled to give a talk at a conference and the event was cancelled at relatively short notice and it left me with a 2-week hole in my work calendar. Two days later my boss phoned me at work and asked me if I could go to Ecuador on business. I accepted and planned to have a short vacation in the Galapagos after the work part of the trip (well, it would be rude not to!). I signed up for some dives and I was off. There was however, an interesting exchange before the company accepted me to go diving. “How many dives have you done?” they ask. “Five” I say proudly. “Right” they replied, “you can go to these 2 sites and we won’t take you anywhere else because the diving is too challenging”. I was a bit disappointed but was also comforted by their diligence and off I went. I did 8 dives and saw, turtles, sharks (including a hammerhead), morays, rays, and countless…countless fish. I loved it. I also realised that if I wanted to make the most of being underwater I needed to be better at it. I needed more practice and more qualifications. I needed to be safer and more proficient. So in January of this year I contacted The Diving Club - Reading and came along for the February meeting and realised that I needed to do the PADI AOW and dry suit course. I bought my kit and did the courses but my motivation at that point was to become a better diver so that I could enjoy myself more and see more things when I went diving in “nice parts of the world”. The not so subtle implication was that diving in the UK was, to my mind… not nice. I bet that made some of you smart! Never fear the conversion moment was approaching!
An assortment of images captured by Diving Club members on dive trips this year- A) Wolf-fish – St Abbs (Tom Briggs), B) Tom-Pot Blenny- Weymouth (Tom Briggs), Flat-fish – St. Abbs (Clive Dedman), D) and E) Seals at the Farne Islands (Tom Briggs), F) Jellyfish –St Abbs (Tom Briggs), G) Cuttlefish- Porthkerris (Peter Allison).
So what did I like seeing when I dived in “nice parts of the world”. Well after my whopping 13 dives I liked seeing animals, particularly big animals, I liked interacting with critters and recall playing with territorial clown fish. I also liked seeing underwater seascapes. My thoughts were that you couldn’t do that in the UK.
When I first joined the club I snorted in derision at the whole idea of diving in a lake or quarry. A few dives later I realised that they were the perfect places to practice and I also realised how much practice I needed…20 dives and counting in quarries this year and most of them have been with club members as my buddies, so thanks guys. Thanks for buddying up and thanks for advice and pointers. So if you are new to diving, do give the quarries a chance because they are a great place to go and develop familiarity with your kit and practice skills.
So going back on myself a bit, I should report that just before I went to the Galapagos I asked an old friend of mine about a camera. He politely said that with my level of experience (5 dives at that moment) I should focus on diving and enjoying what I saw and leave the camera alone.
Of course I knew different so I bought an Olympus TG2. After my first dive, I realised that my friend was right, novice diver and camera equals task overloading, so the camera went back in the drawer! As a novice diver I shouldn’t have bothered with a camera. So lesson learned!
So in the 12 months that I have been a member of my local dive club, I have managed to complete over 100 dives and get some extra diving qualifications as well. The club has to be one of the most active dive clubs in the South of England and I am really glad that I joined. Not only is it active but it is also friendly and welcoming and even middle aged novices like me can come along and develop my skills without fear of being laughed at.
Now, recall what I said that I liked about diving. I said that I liked seeing animals and scenery and I did not think that UK diving could provide that. Ok this is the conversion moment approaching… imagine the sound of “Ode to Joy” playing quietly in the background. Well in the last 10 months I realised that I just liked diving. I just liked being underwater and the whole breathing while you are underwater thing is still magical to me. So as I have gained experience, my air consumption has dropped and I am in more control and feel loads more relaxed whilst I am diving now. But what about my UK sea diving? Highlights, yes you bet, lots! For example, diving in Porthkerris and playing with inquisitive cuttlefish and territorial Cuckoo Wrasse. They were every bit as entertaining as the clown fish that I played with in Borneo and had me laughing through my regulator! Then there was diving in St Abbs and seeing the Wolf Fish and just being bowled over by the scenery in 15m of visibility…drowned cliffs topped with swaying kelp forests with variously coloured wrasse swimming within arms reach. Drama in St Abbs-the languid 80 cm-long Pollack swimming effortlessly until they see the shoal of sand eels! Then like Exocets they turn into rapacious predators harrying the eels like a wolf-pack, then whoosh as the Guillemots zip past my mask to join in on the action 8-10m below the water. The Farnes, with that same drowned coastline but with the seals… nipping your fins and swimming away like naughty school children. You turn away again and they are back, nip…nip and as you turn they swim off again! It’s a rare privilege to interact and play with a wild animal and to me it is the sort of experience that soothes the soul! Of course there were wrecks filled with ghosts of dramas past, a massive ling, congers galore, sunken tanks and the odd crab for the saucepan! Then when we surfaced and got back on the boat, there was the banter and divers tales… “I saw loads of”, “they were this big”, or “they were this small you had to look so carefully”. Finally there was and always will be the jolly evenings in the pub with like minded people. So my conversion is complete and the orchestra playing “Ode to Joy” has reached a crescendo. “I was a warm-water diver but now I have been saved, Hallelujah!”
In all honesty I can passionately say that UK diving has magnificently exceeded my expectations. It’s everything that I wanted to be and more. Does that mean that I am only going to dive in the UK? No it does not, I love English apples like Coxs and Russets but that doesn’t mean that I cannot have a mango once in a while ;-))