6 June 2010

First open water SCUBA dive!

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Yesterday was my first open water (that's to say not in a swimming pool) dive. It was actually supposed to be two dives, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Got up at 0630 for shower and shave to leave at 0730. My lift, the lovely Dominique and Sonia were a little late and we had to get another diver Françoise from the Stade Nautique (the swimming pool we train in). So we were a little late getting to our rendezvous on Cap Ferret, but we weren't the most tardy. We unloaded the car as close to the water as possible and Dominique (who wasn't diving) went and parked the car elsewhere since there's no organised parking per se.

Getting your gear on takes a good few minutes, having to heave and pull on the neoprene so you already work up a sweat just doing that. Once you have your scuba outfit on, which for me consisted of my trunks, then the first layer of neoprene wetsuit at 4.5 mm thick (weight about 6kg), then a second layer with short sleeves and legs and a hood at about 3 mm thick (weight at about 3kg), then a weight belt for me. My weight is about 78 kg, but the neoprene floats so you need roughly an extra kilo of weight per ten kilos (8kg) again to keep your "balance" in the water - null buoyancy. In total I weighed 95 kg, and I hadn't got my stabilising vest and bottle on yet. You can figure an extra 30kg for that lot. So I now weighed nearly twice my normal weight. My flexibility was severely restricted by the layers of neoprene and my balance is shit anyway (because of the MS) - and I had to walk about 150 m in soft sand.

Just to add to the fun, I was carrying a potentially explosive device on my back - that bottle is about 2400 litres of air compressed in a space that can hold 15 litres, so if I fell and hit it on a rock, more than likely it could explode. Anyway, I made it to the edge of the water with help from various people (thank you people!) and got in. I was going to be diving with Marc Bazot our monitor (that's the highest qualification of scuba diver) and he explained what we would do and see. We headed out gingerly to where we could actually swim at which point I felt hugely more at ease, but then the problems started. My bottle wanted me on my back the whole time! I had to really fight to stay on my stomach, even "standing" in the water was difficult. Next problem, I couldn't actually dive! Every time I tried to go down under the water, expelling as much of the air from my lungs as possible, I'd just bob back up, on my back. It was very frustrating for me and it must have been for Marc as well. In the end we stopped and went back to shore where I was completely exhausted. Everyone else has to take my bottle, flippers mask and snorkel - it was all I could do to even walk back to the car.

So then we had a big break during which there was lunch aplenty. I had thought that we would want to have something light so had only brought stuff to make sandwiches, fruit juice, apples and nuts and raisins - you know, healthy sporty stuff - but the experienced divers were all munching down on barbecue and drinking wine! For the next dive I need to make sure I take my chair, a glass and cutlery! All I had was my Opinel, which isn't ideal for eating salad. To be honest I was completely depressed by my lack of success in the morning and didn't have much appetite anyway. I still ate and drank a lot to make sure I would have enough energy for a second try that afternoon. The next dive was to start at 1700 and we were eating lunch at about 1230 so we had a few hours of R&R. A lot of the people took a siesta on towels in the sand in the shade while others chatted desultorily. I sat and read my book. Sonia and Dominique went for a swim, Françoise looked after our equipment, setting stuff out to dry a bit.

I took a spell for her on the equipment while she came and sat at the table to guard it and Dominique's video camera, and then it was time to try again. This time I had François as my guide, a chap that I had never trained with in the pool, although I have with his wife Christel, who's lovely. François suggested I ditch the outer layer of the wetsuit since the water wasn't that cold, but just to give me an extra layer he lent me Christel's thin sweater to put on under the wetsuit - this would get soaked, otherwise I could have worn my own t-shirt. This time I walked down to the water's edge and fell over twice, once just on the sand, little risk, but once on the rocks. I managed to cushion my fall by directing it slightly towards a boat, so I hope it's alright. After that, my stabilising vest and tank was removed :) and I got down to the water's edge with no further incident. My vest was inflated so the tank could just be floated out to where I could put it on and then we checked whether I needed to turn on my back the whole time or anything. It seemed okay! I was a bit overweighted now, so I had to keep adjusting the amount of air in my vest, but that was easy enough, and so we started to swim...

The slope down that we followed seemed gentle enough, but I made sure that I kept doing Val Salva - a manoeuvre where you pinch your nose and blow out through it that pops your ears - and soon enough it was quite dark. François showed me his dive computer and we were already 10 m deep! The first thing we saw was a sole darting between piles of sand and burying itself, until we disturbed it and it darted off again. We saw shoals of indeterminate small fish, smelts I would guess but of what species I don't know. We saw prawns, about 7 cm long and grey, difficult to spot until they moved to get out of our way and we were still descending the slope. We saw mussels and François showed me why I might want to get a knife and he picked a mussel up, cracked it open and pulled out the flesh to grab a bite - can't get much fresher seafood than that!

We were now down at around 15 m and in among a load of rocks where we saw sea spiders, squid, cuttlefish and even a sunfish I guess? It was certainly that shape and I felt completely at ease, there was nothing more natural to me than doing this. Adjusting my buoyancy, doing the Val Salva, coping with the current, being aware of the 3D space around me - the fact that there could be obstacles or other divers above or below me, not just in front, behind to the left or right, it was all effortless. Well not effortless, but certainly not an effort that I had to consciously evaluate continuously.

We turned again, following François' compass and headed back for where we started from and I was exhilarated! I has done a dive, but now it was the hell of getting back to the beach and clambering up the rocks and getting back to the car. François and others helped me out so much, so all I had to do was get my wobbly self back in my wetsuit with weights, everything else was taken care of.

There was still food left from lunch and we all sat and chatted and ate and drank (and now I permitted myself some wine and pastis in addition to copious quantities of water and fruit juice) and then it was time for home. It's about an hour's drive to Cap Ferret from here and there wasn't much talking in the car on the way back, we were all tired. Fatigué mais très heureux you could say.