Nobody is more surprised than me that I’ve ended up as a certified scuba diver. I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I do, and (all modesty aside) I feel like I’m pretty good at it. As a kid growing up my experience of the sea was limited to holidays at the (alleged) sea-side down the Ayrshire coast of Scotland, when the water’s bloody freezing and there’s a bloody great sewage pipe running through the beach into the sea (oh yes there was!). Later holidays to warmer climes like Spain were better, and while I’ve been able to swim since I was a in primary school it’s never something that’s been a passion of mine. So when I tried a one-off “discover scuba” dive during a holiday to Far North Queensland I wasn’t expecting much (I had done a couple of introductory dives years and years before – last one was at the turn of the millennium) but I really took to it. And later that year I decided to go for my certification.
Personal circumstances and having enough annual leave meant I could treat myself to a few days away in far North Queensland. But it’s perfectly possible to do your certification closer to home. You don’t even need to live near the coast, some dive centres will run courses in rivers, lakes and quarries.
Which agency, and which certification?
There are plenty of agencies to choose from, I went for PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) purely because the dive company I used were affiliated with them. The entry-level certification is “Open Water Diver”, which is a theory exam (boring), one day in a swimming pool (worse), and five dives over two days on the Great Barrier Reef (yay!).
Every candidate needs to pass a medical to certify their fitness to dive, your GP *may* provide this service, or just do a Google search. Australian doctors providing this service will be on the SPUMS (South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society) website. Unlike when you usually go for a medical, this is one that you don’t want the doctor to take too much care and attention over! He or she will take your height & weight, test your eyesight & hearing, do a balance check, check your pulse & blood pressure, test your wee for signs of diabetes, and all the time this is going you don’t actually want him to pick up anything that’s wrong with you, you just want him to scribble on the A5-sized form that you’re fit to dive, and rip off the top copy from the pad and give it to you. Take care of this as the dive company will need to see it before they let you in the water.
There’s no way round it, you have to do a written exam. It can be done beforehand at home, which is what I opted to do, by signing up for PADI e-learning. Lots of material to get through, from introducing you to all the scuba gear components, how it all holds together and how it works, lots of stuff about how to breathe underwater, equalising (how to stop your ears from popping), when to hold your breath and (much more importantly) when not to hold your breath. Safety – from simple things like “don’t dive alone”, to how to share your air, and the safest way of doing an emergency ascent. Dive computers and dive tables (not sure the latter is taught any more) for working out your decompression times and your no-fly times. I won’t sugar-coat it, this is boring. But it has to be done, and is better to be done in advance at home than wait until the day before you first get into a wetsuit. Every module has a test at the end, and then there’s a big final exam.
As far as I can remember, there’s no time limit for the exams, and as you go through the course material there’s nothing stopping you from making as many notes as you like, or even screengrabbing some (or all) of the slides to refer back to. You also don’t need to do it all in one hit, as you can see from my final exam scores I started out doing just the introduction, then a week later I did the bulk of course, some on a Saturday and the rest on a Sunday. I’d say it does need at least a weekend cover this off, unless you are lucky enough to be the kind of person that has the self-control to concentrate for hours at a time at home, then maybe it can be done in a day. Doing one module each evening would also work, as long as you refresh your knowledge of the early modules before doing the final exam.
The screengrab below is a summary of my PADI e-learning course, click on it to see the certificate you’ll get. I’d advise printing out the certificate and taking it with you, even though PADI should send the details to the dive company anyway.
Wednesday 7th September 2011
I’m going to work this morning, and will then go straight to the airport at lunchtime. I’m just killing time at work, don’t want to start anything new, and anything I’ve got on the go I’ve more or less covered off already, and can wait till I get back on Tuesday.
Check-in is easy as I’m travelling light, carry-in luggage only even though I’m away for five nights it’s not like I need two changes of clothes for every day. I’m flying Jetstar, in the days before they had their own terminal (they shared Melbourne’s terminal one with Qantas back then) and once I’m through security I get a pint and a burger in the bar, and wait for my flight to be called. As I wander down to the Jetstar gates I’m hearing tannoy announcements (at other gates) that any customers whose carry-on luggage is too big need to get it checked in. This starts to concern me as the size of mine if alright but I haven’t weighed mine (NB out of curiosity I weighted it when I got back and it was 13kg, Jetstar’s limit at the time was 10). There’s also a form of words they’re using like “your luggage will be sent to join you on a later flight” which for Melbourne to Cairns means tomorrow as I’m on the final Jetstar flight of the day. I decide to brazen it out and luckily I don’t get pulled aside at the boarding gate, so me and my 13kg are safely onboard.
It’s already dark when we land in Cairns, but even after dark the humidity hits you as soon as you step through the plane door. I get on the minibus to the place I’m staying just for tonight, chosen purely on cost (calls itself a hotel but I’ve stayed in youth hostels that are more lavish) and I nearly don’t get in as the receptionist has no record of my booking, even though I emailed them the day before to confirm that my booking was okay, and that they could accommodate a late (as in after 7pm) arrival. Fortunately I’ve got a copy of the email they sent back in reply (printed out for just this eventuality, as I don’t yet own a smartphone) so after a bit of humming and hawing he lets me in. Like I said, basic is overstating the attractiveness of this place, but it’s cheap and it’s only for one night.
I catch up with a pal for dinner & beers, he’s already scuba certified and is up here using up TOIL as well as for skydiving and photography. Wander through the Cairns Night Markets after dinner, then he’s got an early start in the morning so we agree we’ll meet again tomorrow in Port Douglas, and then go our separate ways. I go back to the place we had dinner to see if the bar is still open, but they’re putting chairs on tables already so I just go back to my hotel. Takes ages to get to sleep as there’s no air-con.
Thursday 8th September 2011
Lazy morning as I have to check out by 10am, but then I’ve got a few hours to kill before I check in to my place in Port Douglas from 3pm. Wander around, have some brekkie, and then get myself on the minibus to Port Douglas. Other times I’ve done this trip it takes an hour in a hire car straight up the Captain Cook highway, but it’s more like an hour and a half on the road this time, and with all the faffing around finding hotels in Cairns, and then detouring via the airport on the way up, I’m on the bus for more like 2½ hours. Really wish I hadn’t stuck my MP3 player in my case.
But when I finally get there, the place I’m staying is really nice. It’s a private apartment in a complex, booked through Expedia. Separate bedroom, kitchen, balcony, very nice. First place I go is the post office to buy a pre-paid Aussie Post Express Post satchel (more on that later). I know from my last trip here that Port Douglas has got a Coles so my next port of call is along there, getting some of life’s essential supplies, and then to the offie/bottle-o/liquor store next door to get the rest of life’s essential supplies. When I got back I called the dive company to reconfirm that I’d arrived and that they’d pick me up in the morning, and after that I caught up with my mate who was in Cairns the night before. Went for a few beers in The Iron Bar, not too late as he was still staying in Cairns and the Captain Cook highway isn’t fun at that time of night, and he was also dog-tired having been up early and shooting photographs all day.
I have an early night, and I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.
Friday 9th September 2011
I get picked up in the Blue Dive van by Jorg, any my fellow student (and dive buddy for the next few days) had already been collected. We went out to the pool Rydges Hotel (now the QT Resorrt) a couple of kilometers out of town, on the road back towards the Captain Cook Highway. This is the “confined water dive” component of the “open water dive” certification, and might sound contradictory, and is not enjoyable at all, but does need to be done. There we were met by Monika, who was to be our instructor for the day.
First thing I had to do was prove I could float/tread water for ten minutes (easy – swim out to the middle of the pool and stay there). Then, prove you can swim a set distance unaided, just by swimming lengths (or laps) of the 25m pool. I’m pretty sure I had to do 16 lengths, which would mean I had to swim 400m, but the PADI Cerification FAQ (about halfway down) says it’s only 200m, so either it’s changed in the interim or I’ve mis-remembered.
Start with how to setup your scuba gear (which you will have learned the theory behind during e-learning) and then learn how to do a buddy-check with your buddy by remembering B.W.R.A.F.:
Buoyancy – your BCD (buoyancy control device) has air in it, and your dump valve & release vales work.
Weights – you’re wearing a belt, that it’s tightly fastened and won’t fall off, but is able to be released quickly.
Releases – all straps are done up, not so tight that they might choke yo, but tight enough that your BCD won’t move around.
Air – check the valve is open on your air tank (fully-open, then half-turn back), check you can inflate your BCD, that you can breathe through both your primary and backup regulator, and that your alternate regulator is tucked away safely.
Final Check – flippers/fins, mask, gloves, snorkel (required by Qld law) and a final visual confirmation that everything looks and feels okay.
Sounds hard? You get used to it, and by the second day out on the reef it becomes second nature. It also helped that right away my dive buddy taught me the the mnemonic Bruce Willis Ruins All Films for B.W.R.A.F. (though in my mind that’s been usurped by Big Women Really Are Fun which I heard on a diving holiday a couple of years later).
Once you’re suited up you’re ready to enter the water, using an entry technique called Giant Stride, which looks exactly like how it sounds. And here’s where the fun (which isn’t really) starts.
You’ve already proved you can tread water, and proved you can swim, so you now have to go through all the theory that you did on e-learning, and which you will do again tomorrow for real out on the reef. In no particular order (and I’m bound to have missed some out here):
- Inflate & deflate your BCD
- Equalising (descending at a rate that doesn’t make your ears pop)
- Working out your buoyancy
- Use your dive computer underwater
- Take your regulator out of your mouth & put it back in
- Take your regulator out and breathe through your alternate regulator
- Use your buddy’s alternate regulator
- Take off your weight underwater, and put it on again
- Take off your mask underwater, and put it on again
- Fin pivots
- Simulate a CESA (controlled emergency swimming ascent)
- Remove your BCD at the surface and swim back to the side of the pool
- “Rescue” your buddy and swim with him to the side of the pool
It’s tiring physically because you’re spending a lot of time on the surface for long periods, in full dive kit, and not underwater where you’re neutrally buoyant and so not as tired. And for myself, as a pale-skinned pasty-faced Scot I get sunburn as soon as the sun peeks out from behind a cloud, and even though I’ve put sunscreen on, it’s long since been washed off.
The dive company that I’m learning with had an option to call it quits after day one, and get half your money back, and as I’m being driven back by Jorg at the end of the day I’m really thinking that might be the better option. I’m ready to tell him that’s what I want to do, but I can’t bring myself to day the words. I don’t go out tonight, if I’m going to go diving then I want to be fresh in the morning “Invictus” was on the telly (that Morgan Freeman film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup) which I’d never seen before and it passed the time, and I also had Fox Sports on the telly, and the US Open Tennis was on (and Andy Murray was still in) but the time-difference between America’s eastern seaboard and Australia’s eastern seaboard meant that the live action happened during our mornings.
Saturday 10th September 2011
I’ve slept on it, and decided to give it a go. Well what else am I going to do with myself for the next two days? Jorg picks me up, and my buddy is already in the van, then we go along the road a wee bit to pick up the other two students who will be diving with us, a female couple from New York, about my age or maybe a few years younger. They’ve done their confined water dive before getting here, so us four students have a wee chat before we get to the boat we’re sailing on today, which is Calypso (the same boat I did my introductory dive on earlier in the year). There we are introduced to our instructor for the next two days, Rob.
Like all boats, Calypso mainly makes its money from tourists, so us dive students have to work around them. Which means getting into the water ahead of the hordes of snorkellers and introductory divers, which means setting up our kit ourselves, as the crew on the boat have enough on their plate. If you don’t realise how tiring it is to lug around tanks full of air at 200bar then you soon will.
Setting up the kit is actually pretty easy, and each of us probably gets 80 to 90 percent of it right the first time, but there’s always a schoolboy error before the first few dives (really, things like forgetting to put your mask on, forgetting to inflate your BCD, etc.). And as soon as I’m in the water, and as soon as I start to descend, I realise I’ve made the right choice by not chucking it yesterday and getting half my money back. I’m so enjoying this already.
I can’t remember what exercises we did when, but we did cover them all off. The best thing I can say is that it doesn’t feel like you’re in a class or on a course, it feels like you’re discovering a world that you didn’t know existed, and it’s bloody marvellous. My dive log book for the first day, which are also my first three dive log book entries ever, are below (click to enlarge).
I thought that on the way back to the shore, or in the van on the way back to our hotels, Rob or Jorg might mention something about going for a few beers later on, but no there’s nothing. So I go to the Rattle and Hum for pizza later on, and I notice there’s Scottish football on the telly in the bar (Rangers v Dundee Utd at Tannadice I think). After pizza I go back to the place I’m staying and find a dodgy stream showing the game, and watch the second half on the netbook that I brought with me.
This has been a good day.
Sunday 11th September 2011
Picked up by Jorg again and there’s a lot more chatter and a lot more buzz in the bus than there was this time yesterday. We’re on Calypso again today, more of the same, and I think each of us can tell that we’re getting better at diving, we’re more confident, our air is lasting longer. The reef is just stunning, and we’re able to properly admire this extraordinary natural wonder that is all around us. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend!
We go through whatever else is in the syllabus (and I use the term loosely), which I think was navigation (“swim 20 metres in that direction, and then come back”), and continuing to work on fin pivots, which we did a bit of yesterday and at which my dive buddy is excellent, I’m a bit hit-and-miss, and one of the Americans is having real trouble with.
We all pass after five dives, and there’s a really nice moment at the end of the fifth dive when we’re standing on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and Rob comes round each one of us in turn and shakes our hand to congratulate us.
After this, Rob offers us the chance of a sixth dive, which I take him up on, this isn’t part of the certification process, this is a recreational dive for fun. And it was really enjoyable. Second day’s dive logbook entries are below.
Back onboard the boat Rob takes a mugshot of each of us, which will be sent to PADI and printed onto our diving cards. And after getting back to dry land, we do get an invite to the pub tonight 🙂 Initially for dinner in The Courthouse, which all four students turn up for along with Rob, Jorg and Mark (the owner of the company, who should have been teaching us, but was on crutches – broken ankle or achilles injury I think).
The two Americans left shortly after dinner, but not before Rob had brought up the significance of today’s date to them. It didn’t upset them to talk about it, sounds like they didn’t lose anybody close to them that day, and they were already a couple back then. I had noticed that they were both wearing identical rings on their ring fingers so I guessed they were married (gay marriage became legal in New York earlier that year). Like I said, they left after another round of drinks, but not before we had all swapped email addresses and agreed to share photos.
That left just the blokes, and we migrated to the Central Hotel where we stayed till it shut at 1am. Rob and Mark are English and are into their football so we had plenty of stories to swap, but we didn’t just talk about that all evening – plenty of chat about diving (Rob used to live in Melbourne and was a member of club really near to where I live) and aboriginal rights (my dive buddy, originally from New South Wales, had family who were involved in the Mabo case).
This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’ve really enjoyed the whole weekend, much more than I dares to think I would have done before I arrived, and certainly more than I thought I would after the confined water dive.
Monday 12th September 2011
I’m really fresh, in spite of how much I had to drink last night. I have a really great brekkie (at a place that’s sadly no longer there) of chorizo in home-made beans, with poached egg and sourdough. Then I go to the post office to post my dirty washing back to me (I’m not kidding!). Mindful of the airport announcements at Melbourne last Wednesday, I’ve put as much heavy stuff as I can into the Express Post satchel I bought on Wednesday, and I’m going to post it to my work address back in Melbourne. Even cramming in as much as possible it still doesn’t make a kilogram, but that will have to do (and I’ve already paid for the satchel), and I have no idea how much my carry-on luggage no weighs (before or after).
I get the bus back to Cairns Airport, seems quicker than it did on the way up, I get on the plane back to Melbourne fine, no dramas with my luggage, and when I get home I find it was 12kg! Aussie Post’s next-day guaranteed delivery doesn’t apply to Port Douglas, so it’s not till Wednesday that Caitlin on reception calls me to say that there’s a delivery for me, and asks quizzically “what’s in that?” when collect the weird-shaped parcel.
What happened next
I joined a local diving club, which I’m not going to name, because it’s not fair to them to say that I really didn’t enjoy it. I think part of it is because I had learned to dive in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and so diving under a pier in the cold waters of Port Phillip Bay just didn’t have any appeal. The people were a bit stand-off-ish, and yeah I thought I knew it all when I only had six dives under my belt.
A couple of weeks later my PADI Open Water Certification card came in the post, a credit card-sized bit of plastic with the photo that Rob took of me, and my new PADI diver number and other details of my certification.
I’ve regularly gone back to Port Douglas with my partner, she likes snorkelling but won’t go the next step and try scuba. We find it a really nice place to spend a few days.
At time of writing I’m onto my second logbook, I’ve got 50 dives logged, with a cumulative bottom-time of 35½ hours. Where have I done all this diving? As well as Port Douglas there’s been ….
Full of tourists, even moreso than Port Douglas. If you’re a certified diver you might get lucky and be able to buddy up with a similarly-qualified diver who’s onboard.
The SS Yongala is one of the most amazing dive sites I’ve ever been to. It takes four hours to get there from Townsville, which means an early start and two quick dives which are over by lunchtime and then you make the four hour trip back. But worth it.
On the Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, just north of Brisbane, a few kilometres from the resort town of Mooloolaba lies this deliberately-scuttled warship which is now an artificial reef. I got my Advanced Open Water Certification diving this wreck.
An absolute pig to get to, four hours to Perth and then another 2½ hours to the air force base at Learmonth, and then the best part of an hour on the bus to Exmouth. It’s got an IGA and a Cellarbrations, a couple of coffee shops and restaurants, and if you go on the off-season (like I did) then there’s nothing to do if you’re not diving. Just as well then, that the diving is absolutely amazing! I’d say better than the Great Barrier Reef, and the company that I dived with, Exmouth Diving Centre, were the friendliest and loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting at any diving company.
From Tutukaka on New Zealand’s North Island, about 2½ hours drive north of Auckland. Great dive site, but I picked the wrong day for it (water was choppy as hell and nearly everybody on the boat came down with seasickness). Not impressed by the company I went with, but maybe they were just having a bad day as well.
This ship was sunk twice, first by frogs and then by kiwis. After being refloated in Auckland Harbour she was towed to Matauri Bay and scuttled to become a dive site and artificial reef. I stayed in Paihia, about 3½ hours north of Auckland, and did this in conjunction with a dive on HMNZS Canterbury the day before.