So, having decided to go to Ireland in July to coincide with Ariane and Igor’s wedding, I got it into my head that I would dive in the Atlantic. However being a fair-weather diver I got paranoid about the cold water, and decided to get certified for dry suit diving so I could stay toasty warm.
A not-so-local dive shop (they were the only ones who returned my inquiries) did the honours. Sara, a wonderful woman from Preston, who moved to Aus about eighteen years ago but you wouldn’t know it from the strong accent, signed me up and I did the theory and pool dive on a chilly June Saturday afternoon. It really works – you actually stay dry underwater! Very odd but great when you get out and you are all dry and warm.
The following weekend it was all systems go for an open water dive off Mornington Pier. It was a seriously early start – getting up at 5.30am to get organised and drive the two hours or so to Mornington on the far east side of the bay. I was exhausted before I got there.
Straight down to business, we changed in the car park and did a giant leap off the pier with plenty of onlookers. Water temperature was 11C and you could really feel it, but the initial shock wore off and it really was not that bad. Sadly then we had to hang around for about half an hour in said cold water, waiting until the instructor had done a buoyancy check with each person. With all that inactivity I was really beginning to feel chilly, even with four layers of thermal clothes on under the dry suit.
Finally we were on our way, and paddled under the pier before descending. I was buddied with Charles, a lovely guy with a bit more dive experience than me, but we were all new to dry suits. My rented mask kept leaking water, and I could not get my buoyancy right. Normally I float along like a little fishy, but not today. It really is a different experience in a dry suit.
Then, a hundred things happened at once. Already agitated from the lack of buoyancy control and leaking mask, I somehow knocked the regulator from my mouth. Eight metres underwater is no place to lose your air supply. There was no real danger: I had two air supplies of my own and my buddy was inches away with a spare too. I was without air for less than ten seconds.
However once I got my regulator back, I naturally started gulping air gratefully. This triggered off an uncontrolled ascent, and I was rescued from my upwards spiral by Buddy Charles grabbing at my leg, pulling me down and trying to calm me by pointing at some interesting fish passing by. Too late. I was spooked. Seconds later my mask completely filled up so then I was blind and spooked. Thrashing in the water, I had to trust that my buddy could sort me out. I gripped him with both hands, leaving no chance for me to fix my mask. I could feel the instructor coming to help, and thought they might be bringing me to the surface. But in a few moments they calmed me, enabled to me to clear my mask, and got me back on track.
I finished the dive no problem, but it was on the surface that I think it all hit home. We had to do some more assessments before getting out of the water, and by then I was tired, my hands were so cold I literally could not feel them, and I was supposed to get my breathing control device and tank off and back on again. I thought I was sinking: the instructor could not calm me down this time and I left the water.
Dejected, I decided that I could not do the second dive. I had failed my open water assessment. Hours later back at the shop, Sara convinced me that I could pass another day, and promised to take me out on a solo dive with her if that was what it took. So two weeks later early on a cold Wednesday morning, I found myself with a small band of people at Rye Pier, waiting to try again.
This time I was really nervous getting into the water. There was a serious swell, and again we had to hang around for about half an hour so that everyone did their buoyancy check. I was hyperventilating and in a panic by the time we were ready to descend. Wide-eyed, I told Sara I couldn’t do it. She disagreed. She promised to hold my hand for the whole dive if that was what it took. I looked down into the water with my snorkel on, and she asked me what was worrying me. “Everything”, I answered. Suddenly all the dangers of diving hit me at once and it seemed like a ludicrous thing to attempt. Somehow she talked me into descending. Within moments of going under, all my fears vanished and I swam away like the little fishy I usually am.
We saw great marine life on the dive: the usual five-legged starfish and the indigenous eleven-legged ones, plus another “biscuit” starfish that looked like a pentagonal tile or biscuit in the water. We saw a funky octopus who was swimming quite peculiarly (I still think he was blind or something), lots of nudibranches and sea cucumbers (yes they look like pieces of poo).
The eleven-legged starfish are the native ones, and their habitat is being encroached upon by the foreign five-legged starfish. We are encouraged to throw the five-legged ones in the bins if we see one.
This time around I had NASA-specification neoprene gloves, and every part of me stayed fairly warm. My buoyancy was perfect, especially on the second dive, and my confidence soared. I even got over the sea swell and did my assessments with aplomb, taking off and replacing my buoyancy control device and then my weight belt without breaking a sweat. I was back!
I came out of the water after the second dive elated. I had done it! I learned a new skill and faced my fears to return to my favourite place – underwater.