12 April 2012

Diary of a diver: Book smarts

Ingrid Sinclair

This week marks a sea change in my life. I am doing my Open Water 1 PADI scuba qualification with Iain Robertson, the Two Oceans Aquarium’s resident dive master. I’ve done a few Discover Scuba courses in my time, but last year I had a bit of a “moment” in Malta’s Mediterranean waters. It was one of those moments that you remember for the rest of your life, a watershed realisation, a memory that haunts sleeping and waking dreams. And this was it: Scuba is my thing.

My face after the scuba session in Malta last year: Pretty much says it all

On Tuesday night, my great friend Brendan and I pitched up at the Aquarium’s awesome Environmental Education Centre Discovery Centre. Brendan was transfixed by the shy sharks, anemones, lobsters and starfish that live in tanks in the Discovery Centre – this is what the Aquarium means by hands-on learning! Joined by Francesca, a German intern who is spending some time at the Aquarium, we sat down with Iain to start the theory leg of the two-week Open Water 1 course.

Knowledge development

The three of us had a bunch of questions for Iain, curiosity trumping the lesson’s structure every time, but Iain very graciously answered all our questions. From the inane “What is the hand signal for ‘pure fear’?” to the serious: “But what if I just have a very high pain threshold?”, Iain’s expert knowledge and sharp sense of humour were on hand.

The PADI book and video is a solid foundation to work from, but the course at the Aquarium really comes into its own when Iain offers supplementary insights to the material. Iain became a diver in Scotland, where diving conditions are even less pleasant than the Cape’s (depending, of course, on your definition of “pleasant”), so his experience streamlines nicely with our local conditions. But he knows the Cape very well, too. This is a good place to learn to dive, Iain says, because it’s quite a bit more challenging in terms of weather conditions, sea life and visibility; when you eventually dive in tropical areas or coral reefs, those dives will be comparatively simple.

Physics and mathematics, 12 years later

There’s a lot to know if you want to be a scuba diver. Scuba equipment operates on a fairly simple system but you have to be a gear expert should anything go wrong once you’re in the water. The better you know your stuff, the more confidence you’ll have underwater and consequently your fun levels will skyrocket.

Fact: Scuba divers have more fun than regular people.

But, geez, it’s been 12 years since I’ve come near mathematics and physics, and here we were, trying to calculate water pressure and density and volume! And I need to know what negative, positive and neutral buoyancy is? It’s a tough one, but lots of repetition has ensured that I really, really understand it now.

Always breathe continuously and never, never hold your breath

What struck me about scuba diving is that the sport’s most important lessons apply to life, too.

Always stay calm. Think before you act. Move slowly but deliberately. Never panic.

Tread lightly on the Earth, but don’t tread on the ocean’s inhabitants at all. Take care of your gear, and it will take care of you.

Always have a buddy; buddies are there to lend each other a hand. Make a habit of staying close to your buddy.

Nothing dangles or protrudes from a proficient and environmentally sensitive diver.

I caught myself smiling throughout these lessons (when I wasn’t frowning with effort to figure out what the definition of the “squeeze” is), not only because every correct answer marked one step closer to my dream, but because I felt I was getting ready to join a sub-culture with basics so firmly rooted in a healthy, happy life.

Jump in

Yes, there will be an exam

On Saturday, Iain, Brendan, Francesca and I are having our first pool-training session. We’re heading out to the Wynberg Military Base early in the morning, where we’ll put on thick wetsuits, well-fitting masks, big flippers, weight belts, buoyancy control devices (BCDs) and cylinders.

We’ll have to prove that we can swim, do training exercises underwater, we’ll be drilled on safety procedures and practise becoming aquanauts … and much more. I cannot wait.

Learn to dive with Iain

Iain’s Scuba School operates from the Two Oceans Aquarium. What’s more, get to swim in the I&J Predator Exhibit when you’re done! (As do we.)

Already qualified? Take the plunge with sharks – no cage required.

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