Image Credit: AGO Photo Library

Skills: scuba diving

  • BY Mark Watson |
  • September 14, 2016

Despite living around water all his life, only now has AGO photographer Mark Watson peered beneath the surface, finally taking the plunge by signing up to complete his PADI Open Water Certificate.

I AM A LITTLE perturbed. I am in an alien environment in which everything around me has been tweaked by nature for millions of years to survive… except me. My every instinct tells me I should not be here, but as I glance around, a shadow reassures me – it is my buddy, silently exploring alongside. I rely solely on some basic principles of physics and human anatomy to keep me alive, and so trust my forefathers’ calculations that somehow makes all this work. I glance at the shadow next to me, signal “okay”, and move on.

Despite this almost sci-fi movie environment, I am only 100m away from my local coffee shop. But today I am exploring a little deeper, scratching under the surface, for this is the underwater world of scuba diving, and this is my first ever dive!

For decades I had glimpsed this submerged Garden of Eden every time I surfed. Every duck dive under the water, every wave ridden over coral reefs showed me a teaser of what I was missing. Just below the glimmering surface and baking sun there existed a spectacular world, seemingly just out of my reach, but all I had to do was walk into a dive shop to unlock the door to this amazing place. It took me 30 years to finally walk through that door… and I warn you, once you walk through it, you are unlikely to ever turn back, for this new world is very, very addictive.

Like many Australians, I grew up around water. Swimming lessons at school, building rafts on the dam, spending after school and weekends at the beach. I surfed, I swam, I joined the local surf life saving club and, in between, my mates and I would jump off the coastal cliffs or snorkel the rocky reefs of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.

scuba diving

With so much of my life revolving around water, it seems odd now that it never occurred to me that, right on my doorstep, lay an intriguing and alien landscape, filled with strange and wonderful creatures, many of which are wilder than my imagination could ever dream up.

This world covers 71 per cent of our planet’s surface, and is where life began eons ago, and where exotic sea creatures have developed in the oceans over millennia. The appeal of underwater exploration is certainly not a new phenomenon. As far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, free diving (a form of skin diving, without supplemental oxygen) was an everyday part of life for the Korean families of Jeju. Before the existence of pressurised air tanks, or even air-fed diving bells, the fishing sea women, called haenyeo, trained from their early teens to dive to depths of 30m for up to three minutes on a single breath to collect shellfish, algae and urchins. Incredibly, some ageing haenyeo still carry on their tradition and practice the art of free diving today.

Whilst the haenyeo tradition may eventually disappear, a radical new meditative version of free diving develops presently in the form of Variable Weighted Apnea (VWT – see Dive Talk), a sport whereby the world record now sits at 146m on a single breath. This new era of pushing the body to limits is touching on intriguing biological discoveries, like when we put our face in water, our heart rate lowers by up to 25 per cent. Perhaps we are not as far removed from our aquatic ancestors as we think.

However whilst this world of extreme free diving intrigues some, it is the world of scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) that opens up the underwater world to the masses.

In 1943 Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau redesigned a car regulator into the ‘modern demand regulator’, and patented their designs as the Aqua-Lung. Their discovery revolutionised the world of deep-sea exploration and pushed diving from a fringe science into mainstream recreation.

Since their early patents, new technologies in BCDs (buoyancy control devices), cylinders, mask and fin materials and designs have all advanced in leaps and bounds, resulting in today’s high-tech apparatus, however much of it is still based on the same design principles of the Gagnan and Cousteau discoveries.

As unnatural as breathing underwater seems, the feeling of soaring weightlessly under the waves is one of the most incredible sensations a person is likely to experience. And the great thing is scuba diving is available to anybody who can swim confidently, is in good physical health and is more than 10 years of age.

…the feeling of soaring weightlessly under the waves is one of the most incredible sensations a person is likely to experience. 

It was fellow AGO contributor Caroline Pemberton who prompted me to finally pursue this underwater activity. While catching up for a quick coffee, she casually mentioned, “I am going to go cave diving.”

I remember at first feeling awestruck, and then intrigued… this was an exciting world I knew nothing of but I had always been intrigued by the amazing photos I’d seen of divers in magnificent chambers with seemingly endless visibility.

I had a million questions for Caroline and we talked about diving for quite some time before she asked, “So I’ll see you at the dive shop on Monday?”

As an accomplished diver herself, Caroline steered me directly to dive guru Matt Hopkins from Dive Spear and Sport, who reckons he probably has around 20,000 dives under his belt. I decided that if I was to stick my head underwater, I would be in pretty damned safe hands with this bloke.

Two days later and I was at the bottom of the local swimming pool, having a mask torn from my face and my air supply switched off. What the hell had I signed up for?

Globally there are a number off bodies and organisations offering scuba certification, but the most widely recognised is PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), and the PADI Open Water Certificate (OWC) is the recommended starting point for beginner divers.

The basic details of what each course entails is on the PADI website and once signed into the system, online teaching material is made available to you through an e-learning site. Realistically, this should probably be taught over at least a few days to allow all the information to be truly absorbed. Your local dive centre will most likely be extremely helpful with any questions that fall outside of the online teaching, and it is at your dive centre where you take a written test. You have to achieve 75 per cent or higher to complete this stage.

The next step in the process is to dip your toes in the water to undertake a confined water dive (in a pool or shallow beach) and then four open water dives (deeper open water). These dives are designed to put into practice all the information from your e-learning… including having the your mask pulled from your face… but it is not as bad as it sounds.

The initial confined water dive is a bit of a bombardment of information, covering such skills as:

  • A 200m swim
  • Assemble, put on and adjust scuba gear
  • Pre-dive safety check
  • Inflate and deflate BCD
  • Swap from regulator to snorkel, snorkel to regulator
  • Descend underwater
  • Use your Pressure Gauge and signal your remaining air
  • Recognise and respond to hand signals underwater
  • Clear a fully flooded mask
  • Remove mask and swim for at least 15m, replace and clear mask
  • Demonstrate neutral buoyancy
  • Take off scuba gear and put it back on at surface and at depth
  • Swim and navigate with a compass at surface and at depth
  • Emergency weight drop at surface and at depth
  • Cramp release on buddy and on yourself at surface and at depth
  • BCD oral inflation at surface and at depth
  • Out of air exercises: use alternate air source, provide alternate air source, practice buddy breathing
  • Practice a controlled emergency swimming ascent (CESA)
  • Ascend while equalising

…and more

The first open water dive is more an orientation dive, and you will begin to learn to soar through the water like a gull does through air. If you are anything like me you will likely suck down air at twice the rate you should, and your soaring may run into quite a lot of turbulence, but the nerves and excitement are part of the experience and learning to control them is an achievement in itself.

The next two dives allow new divers to practice recently learned knowledge, including hand signals, navigation, emergency procedures and much more. All this is taught within the relative safety zone of a depth allowing an emergency ascent if needed.

By the fourth dive, ideally your newfound skills are becoming second nature and as confidence grows your body relaxes and in turn you get more ‘bottom time’. I guarantee you will now be grinning behind your regulator as you check out sea horses, eels and brilliantly coloured fish, and you’ll wonder why on earth you’ve never done this scuba diving thing before.

I am still awestruck every time I descend, and I clearly recall my first dive, in which Matt showed me how personal buoyancy can be controlled by inhaling and exhaling. Who would have ever thought that as you glide across submerged reef beds you could simply take a deep breath to rise over a small obstacle, and exhale to drop over the far side? For me this weird and wonderful world is only now just opening up, and I am still but a pup in the world of scuba, but I am enthralled, enthused and the addiction is creeping in. Some of my new buddies are keen to explore our local sites and the Sunday ‘Dive & BBQ’ run by my local dive centre is always a good laugh with good friends. I am already listing dive destinations for future exploration and have even managed a few dives in the Cook Islands on a recent sojourn into the Pacific.

Somewhere deep in my subconscious I think maybe there is an urge to excel, to attain a level of ability and certification to offer confidence to cave dive, and to one day create for myself some of those incredible images that drew me in to scuba in the first place.

Dive Talk

Variable Weighted Apnea (VWT) uses a weighted sled for descent. Athletes return to the surface by pulling themselves up a line or swimming. World record holder as of 1 November, 2015 is Stavros Kastrinakis (GRE) at 146m.

Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) is the largest and most widely recognised certification and training organisation for divers of all levels. Alternate qualifications exist with BSAC, SSI and a number of lesser known training organisations.

AG Outdoor undertook the PADI OW certification with the incredibly friendly Matt and Kim at Dive Spear and Sport in Mona Vale, Sydney. (www.divespearandsport.com.au). OW packages start at $495 per person, and consist three days on a course of no more than eight people, PADI e-learning, certification, four boat dives, all gear hire, tanks and instructor.

This article was originally published in the Mar-Apr 2016 issue of AG Outdoor.