I wrote recently about an important portion of the divemaster training programme – the academics. It’s here where you get stuck into the theory of diving, the science behind the sport and the knowledge required to improve your skills. But, important though the academics are overall, they can feel like something of a fun-sponge. Because, let’s face it, the reason anyone does their divemaster is because they want to, well, dive.
The good news is that not all of the learning revolves round pen and paper. In fact, the whole point of the DMT programme is to get you in the water as often as possible and improve your overall diving abilities. That’s why you’re required to complete two distinct scenarios, both of which are designed to teach and test a very specific set of skills.
The deep scenario
71% of our planet is covered in water, and the chance to explore these unchartered depths is a privilege that only divers can experience. The limits of recreational diving allow you to descend to 40 metres / 132 feet without further training. To give you an idea of scale, if you were to put Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue in 40 metres of water, his head wouldn’t even break the surface.
It goes without saying that the adrenaline junky in me was chomping at the bit to plummet down to new depths, and my excitement was piqued when I discovered that we’d be conducting this scenario in ‘the blue’. Away from the sheer wall of coral that comprises the majority of Roatan’s underwater world, the ocean takes over. If you’re one of the few divers who venture out here, you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing but blue; aeons of indigo stretch below you and nothing but a few shards of turquoise hint to the surface above. It’s this utter isolation from any form of visual or audible reference that makes the blue unique, and one of the reasons its picked as the ideal area for the deep scenario.
Nothing but blue in every direction – a surreal and exhilarating experience
The divemaster deep scenario is designed to test your reaction time and skill capacity at depth. What may seem trivial at the surface can quickly become complex and disorientating when stranded in a well of nothingness. Add in the effects of nitrogen narcosis and you could find it a struggle to even spell your own name. Narcosis occurs due to the slight anaesthetic effects of nitrogen at pressure which, whilst being physically harmless, can have a strange affect on our mental capacities. “Getting narked” is a feeling akin to drunkenness – you experience disorientation and dizziness, coupled with giddy euphoria and slowed reactions. Narcosis affects every individual differently, with no apparent rhyme or reason, but most people thoroughly enjoy the sensation.
Even the simplest of tasks can become complex when narked
The basic premise of the deep scenario is to undertake a few simple tasks underwater, whilst watching for the effects of nitrogen narcosis. The more narked you get, the harder you’ll find these challenges. Our tasks included tying a bowline knot at 132 feet, repeating the exercise without a mask on and working out simple maths equations, all the while maintaining perfect buoyancy.
Attempting to tie a bowline with no mask whilst remaining neutrally buoyant at 132 feet
On top of this, our dive was punctuated by attempts from our instructor to throw our composure at depth. Whether it was ripping off our mask at unexpected moments, or simulating numerous problems, the goal is – as always – not to panic, to handle the situation calmly without bolting to the surface.
Cool as a cucumber
Although I’m pleased to say that I maintained composure throughout the dive, I was disappointed not to feel the effects of nitrogen narcosis. I’ve heard many a tale from fellow divers about what a fun sensation it is and I would have liked to have had a taste of something as delicious sounding as “the rapture of the deep”. But, disgruntled that it may leave me to have missed out, my deep scenario more than made up for it in thrills of the pelagic kind…
Look behind you…
As we were working our way through the series of tasks required, we noticed a shape materialise in the distance. Swimming towards us was a sleek and imposing silky shark, which proceeded to circle us for about 5 minutes. This rare opportunity to interact with one of nature’s most beautiful natural predators was a huge privilege, and is the best underwater experience I’ve had to this day.
The search & recovery scenario
Search, and recovery. Two words that managed to instil a inordinate amount of fear within me. Because in order to search for and consequently recover something, there’s one intrinsic tool that’s needed. That’s right – the dreaded compass rears its ugly numerical head. My loathing of the compass had, up until the point of the scenarios, become infamous. It’s one thing to find them a tad fiddly, it’s quite another thing all together to break into pathetic tears of frustration in both your Advanced and your Rescue course because you JUST CAN’T MAKE NORTH STAY STILL. True story. Sadly.
Grappling with reciprocal headings during my Advanced Course in St Lucia
So knowing that PADI dedicated a whole scenario specifically to compass skills didn’t fill me with joy. The tasks for search and recovery are, in essence, very simple: locate a small object, practice your underwater knot skills, and deploy a lift-bag to bring your identified object to the surface. Each instructor at Coconut Tree put their own spin on the scenario, and our tasks took the format of a game of underwater hide and seek. Firstly, we would have to take an object of our own and hide it, all the while keeping a record of our movements. The instructor then had to follow our route (20 fin kicks on a 130″ heading, 45 fin kicks on a 260″ heading, etc.) and see if he could locate our object. Next, we would become the seekers, using the compass to locate a golfball within the large patch of reef below us. Finally, our knots were to be tested as we were required to secure a lift-bag to a belt of heavy weights and carefully accompany it to the surface. Simple right?!
But, despite the basic nature of the tasks, I know what I’m like when I’m grappling with a compass; the numbers seem to lose their meaning and I descend quickly into embarrassment if I can’t get a handle on what I’m supposed to be doing. Embarrassment quickly converts into frustration, and the risk of an underwater meltdown is suddenly just around the corner. I was nervous that this dive was going to turn into an hour of underwater weeping followed by an argumentative (me) and disappointed (my instructor) debrief, which was the last thing I wanted. I have my issues with compass work, but I was determined not to let them define me and my diving skills.
So I fired up my stubborn streak and descended towards the sand patch that would be this dive’s stomping ground, a fierce determination coursing through my veins. Throughout the dive, I kept my eyes fixed on the damned compass and refused to let my irritated brain start scrambling the numbers. I counted out my kick cycles; I made clean, neat right angles and razor-sharp U-patterns; I didn’t let even the prettiest of distractions steal focus from the task at hand.
And it worked! I surfaced the dive having absolutely smashed all the challenges, and was forced to take a long hard look at the compass I was clutching and concede that maybe, just maybe, neither search nor recovery need be intimidating any longer.
I’m a big advocate of learning by doing, and, when it comes to improving your diving, you just can’t beat practice. The scenarios provide a great opportunity to practice the more specific skills that are essential to becoming a professional diver, and to build up your confidence within a controlled environment. From the sublime (silky shark) to the ridiculous (compass related tantrums), the scenarios showed me my strengths and weaknesses and challenged me in a way that a written test never truly could.
If you enjoyed this post and what to know more about the divemaster training programme, you can read my full series of posts about becoming a divemaster, including:
Look out for more posts coming soon…