Thursday, 16 May 2013

Dry suit course - not so dry

So last weekend I was feeling pretty deflated heading home from Wraysbury earlier than expected without completing my dry suit course.

Here's the story...

I signed up to the PADI Dry Suit course speciality quite recently because I've been wanting to do some diving in the UK waters and I thought this course would also be good practice before I head out to Malta next week.

Last Saturday, I got up early and arrived at Wraysbury (muddy bottomed reservoir in the UK) at 9am ready to go! It took until about 11am to finally get kitted up and into the water, but this was fine as everyone was quite relaxed and very friendly. I'd come prepared with some undergarments that kept me toasty warm but were very thin and comfortable, with good "wicking" properties (draws water away from your body). I didn't want to spend a fortune on diving specific clothes so I went to Decathlon and found some hiking undergarments that did the job!

Standing on land with a dry suit, BCD, tank - I felt like the Michelin man! I was really struggling to do the most basic of tasks like put on my mask, put on my fins or just generally move about!

So I got into the water but I just wasn't sinking so had 18kg added to my pockets!! When we made our way down suddenly a guy surfaced under my legs.This place was crazy - so hectic, too many people so I think this started making me nervous.

As we went down I realized I could barely see half a meter. I've only done 4 open water dives in 20m viz. I was trying to hover on a platform (one of the required skills) but started ascending. I managed to get control but then was totally freaking out about the viz so signaled that I wanted to surface. I took 5 minutes floating on the surface then agreed to go back down to a different platform in the reservoir.

I managed to do a bit of a fin pivot then had a swim around this platform staying really close so I could see it. Then I started feeling a trickle down my neck so had to surface again. The instructor was surprised I was leaking, but I had pointed out when I tried on the dry suit that my neck seal wasn't that tight before we went in but was told it was ok.

It's not like I could just swim around the platform and I was soaking wet, so the thought of getting back in and having to swim in the open with no point of reference terrified me. I also didn't want to stay wet because I had a new tattoo that I was trying to protect!

All in all - not what I had expected. I posted about this on ScubaBoard and had some very helpful responses about how I need to get used to a low viz environment first. One poster commented whether I should even be diving in low viz if it scares me that much - but I think this place was exceptionally bad because of how busy it was.

Anyway, onwards and upwards! I'm still looking forward to my PADI Advanced Course next week in Malta and then I will try the dry suit course again once I've built some confidence up!

Sunday, 30 September 2012

What I have learned about sharks (aka. overcoming the fear)

One of the hesitations I had about learning to scuba dive was whether I would ever be brave enough to face waters where there was even a remote possibility of coming face to gill with a shark. 

Over the past month or so I have browsed forums, read articles and researched shark behaviour to quell some of the irrational fears that many of us naturally have about the misunderstood shark. I have summarised some of the common myths below and provided some links for further reading. 

I have peppered this blog post with cartoons from Phil Watson’s website:, I thoroughly recommend you check out his website!

Myth 1: Sharks are hungry for human blood

Out of all shark attack cases, many will only be “bites” rather than missing limbs or total consumption! Effectively these “bite only” cases are “hit and runs” where it’s a case of shark curiosity or mistaken identity. 

Sharks do not have hands, so the way they investigate something is to put it in their mouth. Much like the way seals are known to bite on divers’ fins. One theory suggests that sharks will bite their prey to make sure it is edible before eating it. Once the shark has realised it’s mistake and that we are not actually food, they tend to release and swim away to find their natural food source. The bottom line is, we’re just not that tasty to a shark.

The outcome of unprovoked shark attacks on divers supports this as the majority (over 80%) of shark attacks on divers are not fatal. Even then, fatal attacks are usually the result of significant blood loss and stress. 

Myth 2: Sharks will hunt you down with their human-sonar 

When below the surface humans do not look like shark food, add on some long fins, a tank and the noisy bubbles and sharks can actually be quite wary of divers. Many divers consider it a privilege to actually have a close encounter with a shark.

There are some obvious points to lower the risk of a dangerous confrontation, although some people will argue that even going against these points might not be enough to provoke a shark:

  • Enter the water quietly and descend quickly, for the reasons mentioned above about mistaken identity - think seals or injured fish!;
  • Never feed sharks, spear fish or dive with those who do;
  • Notice the behaviour of fish, they often swim erratically when sharks are near;
  • When you see a shark, remain still and do not chase it;
  • Be prepared. Understand more about the species of sharks in the waters before you enter and what their defence reactions would look like (that’s when you can get out of the water!)
There are some more tips on these websites for diving with sharks and shark safety

Myth 3: You’re only more likely to be struck by lightning than eaten by a shark because more people walk in storms than go diving

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) has recorded unprovoked shark attacks on divers, their most recently published article shows that between 2000 and 2009 there were only 34 attacks, and only 10% of those were fatal.

Even when you look at the statistics of those people who have been harmed by a shark, they are generally surfers or divers at the surface i.e. a case of mistaken identity. Visit the for examples of this and what do you see? Surfing, surfing, surfing, swimming, wading and lots of examples of what appears to be “bite and release”

Myth 4: A shark is a shark is a shark

Of the 400 or so species of sharks, only around 20 species are large enough to pose any threat to humans and out of those, only a few sharks are aggressive enough to attack humans. Many sharks are timid and the only chance you will have to get up close will be to remain calm and still in the water.

Bull sharks are considered the most aggressive towards humans and inhabit both saltwater and freshwater around the world. They tend to swim in shallow, warm waters and generally attack humans out of curiosity. 

The Great White Shark, possibly the most notorious, are about 20 feet in length and weigh in at 5,000 pounds. They are the biggest sharks in the world and curious hunters, which owing to their size can provide fatal bites for humans. They are responsible for the highest number of unprovoked shark attacks, of which there have been 194. Only 69 of these have proved fatal.

Tiger sharks inhabit tropical and temperate waters around Pacific islands. They are covered by dark stripes and generally hunt at night.

Gray reef sharks and hammerhead sharks are also over 8 feet in length, however the number of unprovoked attacks inflicted by these sharks is shockingly low.

Out of all shark species, I have a desire to see the whale shark up close. The whale shark is the largest living fish and is a gentle giant of the sea. It is a slow moving and harmless filter feed (similar to the basking shark). What’s not to love?!

Conclusion: Understand, respect and admire the shark!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Open Water Dives 3 and 4

Today I completed my final 2 dives so I am officially a PADI Open Water Diver.

Once again we had a bumpy ride with our quiet Swedish instructor. We arrived at a spot called White Island, which was much calmer. This had to be my favourite dive of the trip. We swam along at a depth of 5 metres and then there was a sheer drop to about 100 metres and we swam along the reef at a depth of 18 metres. It was just stunning.

There were a couple of other divers beneath us that were at about 30 meters, it was fun to look down and watch them. There were a lot more fish to see today, the same colourful ones as yesterday but schools of them. I also saw two very pretty miniature jelly fish, very cute but I still didn't want to get too close...just in case! The dive lasted for 45 minutes and my end bar was 40. Quite respectable I hope!

At one point though I realised my arm was caught on something. It was another girl's regulator hose!!! I quickly withdrew my arm and checked she was ok. This is why you keep your arms at your sides! At the surface i apologied profusely, she was very good about it and says it happens - but I still felt quite guilty.

The second dive of the day was at Caves, the second spot we were at yesterday. But we went in a different direction at a maximum depth of 11 metres. I had to complete the last of my flexible skills, which was using a compass underwater, pretty easy as I only had to go 20 metres. The skills required for the fourth dive were to remove and clear my mask, easy, and hovering, not so easy. I was all over the place trying to hover and kept falling backwards. I can control my buoyancy going along the bottom but not in an upright stationary postion. Will take practice I guess!

During the dive the instructor led us to what I thought was a cave and motioned for us to follow him. I point blank refused and signalled to my buddy that I was scared to follow. All I could see was darkness and I thought that if something went wrong, I would be screwed. It turns out the overhead only lasted for 3 metres and we could have swam straight through (i.e. it wasn't really a cave) but the instructor hadn't explained this at the surface and I couldn't see the other side. The bottom line was I didn't feel comfortable so I think I did the right thing by refusing. I really enjoyed the rest of the dive though and no one made a big deal about me refusing to go in. The second dive lasted for 36 minutes and my end bar was 70.

I'm itching to plan my next diving trip. I have to say that starting the PADI course was the best decision and I have loved every second so far...apart from the bumpy boat rides!

Dives to date: 4
Cumulative time: 2:29

Friday, 21 September 2012

Open Water Dives 1 and 2

Today was finally the day. I am in Santorini on holiday for a week, after first stopping off in Crete for 4 days exploring the island. I researched the local dive centres before coming here and chose to dive with Navy's Waterworld as they were the most helpful and responsive to emails.

The dive centre arranged for a car to collect my boyfriend, who is PADI certified and I from our hotel. After filling in the paperwork and getting into a wetsuit and boots we were taken by car to the south of the island and then travelled by boat around the south coast past White Beach and Red Beach to two diving spots: White Caves and Caves.

The diving instructor was not at all talkative but he was a crazy driver, the boat was bouncing up and down along the waves but thankfully the waters were very calm at the sites.

The instructor helped me into my BCD and fins and then I dropped backwards into the sea and we descended for my first dive under water. I was pleased to not feel too nervous, perhaps my early days of snorkelling had something to do with this.

There isn't a great deal of aquatic life off the coast of Santorini but there were lots of small colourful fish, which I'm trying to find out the name of.

We dove to a maximum depth of 11 metres and the dive lasted 38 minutes. Visibility was great, 25 metres. For dive 1 I performed the flexible skills; cramp removal, tired diver tow and snorkel/regulator exchange.

The first dive ended earlier than planned because I started to ascend and couldn't control myself to stop and broke the surface. This was extremely frustrating and I felt that along the way either my last or this instructor should have explained at some point that if you start to ascend you should actually keep your body upright, rather than pointing down, so that you can let air out of your BCD. I was trying to do this but as my body was pointing down the air had nowhere to escape.

The second dive was much more successful. We went to a maximum depth of 11 metres again so I was able to control my buoyancy along the bottom. For the second dive the flexible skills completed were removing and replacing scuba and weights at the surface, performing a controlled emergency swimming ascent and a safety stop. There were also more dive skills that I had to complete underwater, but my boyfriend commented that the instructor rushed through these compared with his experience.

The second dive only lasted 30 minutes because my buddy was getting low on air, however I still had 120 bar remaining so I don't think my air consumption is too terrible. Despite what I thought was a lack of good communication and instruction from the instructor I thoroughly enjoyed the dives and can't wait for day 2 tomorrow!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Fitness for diving

Okay, so I need to admit upfront that I am making a tenuous link between learning to scuba dive and also taking up running....HOWEVER, as I was reminded during my PADI course, fitness is important for diving. So whilst there is a brief pause between my classroom training and first open water dives, I wanted to write a blog post on building my fitness.

I have been following a couple of different blogs of people who are "learning to jog" shall we say. Reading about some, quite frankly much older and significantly over weight people, completing their first 5k runs in 30 minutes was inspiring. I have shared a link below.

My waist has expanded, my fitness has lapsed (cancelled gym membership, no more horse share for weekly riding etc) so it was time to take action and listen to my PADI instructor about getting into shape! Because let's be honest, I shouldn't have been THAT out of breath during the 200m fitness test.

I'm not one to do things half heartedly so I have gone all out...

STEP 1 - The Shoes

My boyfriend needed some new trainers last weekend so I slumped into a chair at the ASICS store and watched him try on a vast array of different trainers. My ears pricked up when a shop assistant asked if he would like to try them out on a treadmill, his running would be filmed and then analysed to see if the trainers were providing the correct sort of support. I do love a good gadget show!

We left the shop, with his new trainers in tow. Several shops later I was humming and pondering and finally decided to go back and try it myself. The problem that I have experienced when running, apart from the wheezing, choking and general muscle malaise, is that my ankles tend to strain. The sales assistant tried me out in some basic trainers and then some more structured, support-providing trainers. The difference was incredible, my ankles felt totally supported and what I loved about ASICS is that they knew I wasn't a serious runner so suggested the cheapest yet most supportive pair suitable for my short distances whilst I build up my fitness.

STEP 2 - The Run

So I launched out of my flat last weekend, proudly flashing my new trainers, full steam ahead...that didn't last long. I was panting, wheezing, choking all over again. I did managed to do a couple of miles but felt frustrated that I had to walk most of it. What a failure! No, not true! From my blog reading I discovered that the best way to start out is to actually walk before you can run so to speak...

STEP 3 - The Gadgets

To provide a bit of guidance and motivation I invested in two gadgets, which have really impressed me:

1) The Couch-2-5k app for the iphone. This provides a structured training programme to build up literally from being a couch potato to being able to run 5k. You load the app and hit start and it plays your itunes music alongside a coach who tells you when to walk and run, it's explained more in this blog where I first found out about it: Fat Girl Running Couch-to-5k

2) Garmin Forerunner 110. Now, the Couch-2-5k app is actually fantastic because it tracks your average speed and also uses GPS to plot a map of your run and distance. However, I couldn't resist buying this GPS watch and heart rate monitor. Firstly, because I have been told if you're serious about building fitness you should invest in a heart rate monitor, and secondly because of all the nifty stats that this watch stores.

STEP 4 - The real run (Week 1, Day 1)

After a long day at work I managed to still get my trainers on, with some excitement set up my new watch, and hit the streets. I successfully completed Week 1, Day 1 of the Couch-2-5k programme. It sounded a bit too easy (walk for 90 seconds, jog for 60 seconds, repeat), but I had read blog posts with people struggling. So I was proud of myself for completing it fully and although there was some chest tightness, it felt good that I was working my body.

5k runs here I come...

Sunday, 19 August 2012

PADI Open Water Referral Day 2

Today I was back at London School of Diving for the second day of my referral course.
We were first in the pool this morning, whilst the other group went through the final chapters and their exam. I liked it being this way round, so that we could finish the course at the end of the day with the exam. I couldn’t believe how quickly the morning went, it was one o’clock before we knew it, over 4 hours in the pool! Most of the confined dive exercises today were in the deep end, which was a bit more fun and challenging than Day 1.

Taking off your BCD underwater and putting it back on was surprisingly easy. I really didn’t enjoy having to take my mask off and swim around the deep end for a lap, then put my mask back on and clear it. But I did it, and definitely an important skill!

One of the other skills was learning to breathe from a free flowing regulator, what a weird sensation! This is one of the skills that by the time I got the hang of it, I was told to stop so the next person could perform the skill. I would have liked to have given this a few goes rather than only just getting the hang of it after a face full of air!

I think this is the problem with doing the course in a class of 5 people. First, it can be a bit boring for some of the longer exercises to just sit and watch, although sometimes you can learn from other peoples mistakes. I tried to practice my buoyancy by hovering ever so slightly off the bottom at one point and was told off like a naughty child because I had to stay still. Secondly, when I completed the exercise but would stumble through it, it would have been nice to be able to repeat some of them a few times. But I can do this out in the Open Water I guess.

I really liked the instructors at London School of Diving, and they have a good communal area and classroom. However, the changing areas really were a bit run down and dirty…but I do have cleaning OCD and no one else seemed too fussed.

After lunch we completed the videos, quiz reviews and tests for chapters 4 and 5. Much of this was focused on using the RDP tables – which I was very proud to have mastered late last night.

After a quick break we completed the 50 question exam. There is no time limit, I managed to complete this first after about 25 minutes, others in the class looked like they were all at different stages. I took it to the instructor who marked it and, demonstrating my inner geek, awarded me 100%! I believe that the protocol is that if you get any questions wrong the instructor will discuss these with you to ensure you understand the principles. The pass mark is 75%. I assume if you get less than this you have to retake a different exam but I think the goal is to ensure you understand the material if you go wrong. If you read the PADI manual and the RDP manual and understand the answers to all of the tests and quizzes, it would be pretty difficult to fail!

I had a quick chat with the instructor afterwards and bought a binder for my log book (which she was shamelessly pushing to sell the whole weekend). On the whole, I found the centre quite pushy trying to sell additional courses, join their club and convince me not to do my Open Water Dives in Greece but with their centre in the UK. The cynic in me thinks this was shameless sales tactics to get some cash to smarten up the place, but perhaps she genuinely wants to get people diving as much as possible so that you don’t just do the course and then not actually use it!

So that was my two day referral course and now I’m super excited for the Open Water Dives! I could go into loads more detail but if anyone reading this has any questions on my experience I’d love to share so post a comment below!