I am lucky in love. I have found a burning passion, a heady romance, a deep and unconditional love in diving. Me and diving have entertained a courtship that started years ago, tentatively, on a blustery day in April. On a Mediterannean island in the chilly Spring of 2012 diving began to woo me. Much like any holiday romance, after our brief but ardent fling, we parted ways for what I thought would be forever. But, just a short year later, I found myself in diving’s underwater embrace once again, this time in Bali. Whilst gliding alongside sea turtles in the clear Indonesian waters, I vowed that I would stop being such a capricious lover and that I would take my fickle flirtations to the next level; it was time to commit. I wanted to become certified, to complete my PADI Open Water, and where better to do so than in the place where it all began – Malta.
Malta is a bit of a playground for Brits like myself: less than 3 hours away by plane, with temperatures of up to 35 degrees, enviably clear waters and air fares for less than £100, it was an obvious place to take our Open Water. We’d originally toyed with the idea of learning to dive in the UK with our local BSAC club which would have allowed us to fit in training around work without taking extra time off. However, when it came to weighing up sunshine and a turquoise ocean against over-chlorined pools and a murky, near-freezing quarry, the choice was a no brainer. Malta it is.
We found a dive shop online that offered a good package offer, with training and accommodation for the very reasonable cost of €450. Maltaqua have been in operation for over 40 years, and I feel very privileged that my first (proper) experience of diving took place in such a well-run, organised and conscientious centre. They’ve definitely set the bar for quality thanks to their dedicated team. I can’t recommend this shop highly enough so, if you find yourself in Malta and at a loose end, give them a call.
Under the watchful eye of Maltaqua’s fabulously fierce matriarch Agnes, James and I were assigned with our instructor, Anders. Agnes ran the centre with an iron fist and a twinkle in her eye, clucking around her customers like a stern mother hen whilst throwing disparaging jibes to any of the team who might try and give her sass, her wit as sharp as a tack. Anders was a young Danish scuba fanatic who’d spent the last few years skiing and diving his way round the world. His relaxed, happy-go-lucky persona suited us perfectly, and we were confident that he’d be a patient teacher whilst also showing us the fun side of diving. Chalk and cheese, but both proved to be helpful, assiduous and very friendly. Over the course of the next 5 days, they would be responsible for getting us up from shambling, ignorant hobbyists to clued-up certified divers.
PADI’s Open Water certification consists of three main elements: knowledge development, confined water dives and open water dives. The course is designed to teach you the fundamental skills that you need to be safe and confident when diving up to 18 metres deep, and each of these three elements helps to educate you in different ways:
Having not dived for months I was itching to get back into the water. Instead, the first day found us sat in a classroom watching DVDs and studying the theoretical foundations that support the practical side of diving. Whilst the study sessions are definitely the least entertaining aspect of learning to dive, there’s no getting away from the fact that you need to know the basics in order to be a good diver. The knowledge development section of the Open Water takes the form of 5 chapter. Each is accompanied by a short film in which gurning failed actors and actresses from the 80’s show off their DayGlo wetsuits whilst performing perfectly executed scuba manoeuvres. Hilariously dated though these DVDs were, they were useful for demonstrating the tasks we’d later have to replicate underwater.
The videos are supplemented by more detailed information in the PADI Open Water Diver manual which was to become my bible for the week. At the end of each chapter is a Knowledge Review where you’re challenged to prove just how much you’ve taken in. Once you’ve finished all five chapters there’s a final test to complete which you have to pass in order to be certified. I’ve always had a fear of failing exams so I put my naughty streak to rest and crammed like mad. I hadn’t realised just how much information I’d be taking in on this trip but whilst the study section of this course is a little tedious, it’s fundamentally important as it allows you to get stuck in to what you came here to do…
Confined Water Diving
One of the real plus-points of training with Maltaqua is that they conduct their confined dives in the sea rather than a pool. Arriving at a secluded cove, I was grateful that we’d be submerged in the ocean, contending with the actual elements, rather than bobbing around in the deep end. The confined dives are a chance to put the theory you’ve learned in the classroom into practice, and I eagerly got stuck into the tasks. I have a competitive streak (OK, perhaps a little more than a streak, let’s call it a competitive whitewash) and was keen to show that I was a quick learner.
Unfortunately, whilst I found some of the tasks easy and fun – clearing my mask underwater was a breeze – I found myself struggling with my buoyancy. Buoyancy is one of the hardest but most fundamental skills to master, and good buoyancy control is the difference between a flailing newbie and an experienced diver, but it takes practice to perfect. Thrashing around with all the grace of fish out of water, I was starting to wonder if my love for diving had maybe been nothing more than a fleeting crush. I began to get increasingly more frustrated that I couldn’t just seem to ‘sit’ on the seabed, that I’d feel myself drifting sideways at the slightest swell in the current. Every time I felt the swell wash over me, I’d tense my muscles in a desperate attempt to stay upright and end up flailing my arms and legs like a psychotic mermaid. It’s fair to say that I was struggling to keep my composure.
Sensing my frustration, Anders brought me to the surface and explained that the more het up I got myself, the worse the problem would be; instead, I should just try to relax completely underwater. With this advice we descended again and, when I felt the inevitable roll of the water I just went with it. I allowed my body to go limp and took deep, slow breaths. But just as I started to hope that I’d mastered it, I watched as my feet began to rise. As if possessed with a will of their own, my fins started to gravitate towards the sea’s ceiling. Slowly, my legs followed and I found myself hanging upside down, feet in the air, like some kind of sub-aqua joint of ham. If I stayed relaxed I could remain in that position quite comfortably, but as soon as I tried to right myself again I struggled to stay down and began floating upwards against my will. At the surface for a second time Anders admitted that it wasn’t something he’d seen a lot of before but, if I was comfortable and was in control of my position, there was no harm in being buoyant upside down.
It’s a novel approach but it meant that I felt more confident from then on in. Every time it came to a buoyancy exercise – wherein we’d have to hover at the same level for minutes without drifting up or down – I’d feel my body relaxing into its preferred hanging position and just spend a few minutes chilling upside down, perfectly happy that I’d pass the task. Whilst I hadn’t exactly mastered my buoyancy, I’d found a way to manage it for now and we sailed through the remaining practical tasks without any issues.
After a few hours, we surfaced for the last time. What I hadn’t reckoned on was how cold it would be. It was only April and the summery weather had yet to kick in. Peeling off our wetsuits at the van, the wind bit into our goose-bumped skin and no amount of towelling down could warm me up. I spent the drive back to the centre wrapped in blankets and coats with my teeth chattering loudly over the hum of the engine, vowing that our next diving holiday should be in tropical waters.
Open Water Diving
Although the water was cold, nothing was going to cool my enthusiasm, and we arrived at the centre early on the last day, ready to complete our final open water dive. Having demonstrated all the skills you’ve acquired over the course of the previous 4 dives, the final open water dive is a chance to have a bit more fun. The tests are over, you’ve passed the knowledge review and now you can get on with the business of being a diver. We drove to Valetta ready to get in the water for one last time.
It was during this dive that my infatuation with diving turned into true love. I’d enjoyed my first plunge into the ocean back in 2012 for the rush and thrill of new experience, of breathing underwater for the first time. I’d enjoyed seeing turtles in Bali despite problems with my mask that meant I finished the dive with a bad case of face-ache. I’d even enjoyed the practical parts of the last few days, of seeing my confidence grow, and of learning how to use my body and my equipment to improve my buoyancy. But it wasn’t until this last day, all tasks and tests finally completed, that I really learnt the true joy of diving. Sculling through the water, happy and free, I felt completely at peace. The noise and busyness of the everyday is left at the surface and for a single hour you and your thoughts can be calm, affording you a luxurious stillness in which to appreciate the stunning hidden landscapes that our planet has to offer.
I surfaced from that dive feeling elated. The love affair that was sparked in Gozo, kindled in Bali, and nurtured in Malta now had my heart in a headlock. Honing my skills, learning more about the science behind the sport, and diving in new and more challenging conditions turned out to be just what I needed to turn a passing hobby into a passion.
We all know how it goes with true love – once bitten, forever smitten. Whilst the Open Water is only the first tier of PADI’s qualifications, flash forward a year to 2015 and my flights to Roatan, Honduras are booked, my dive centre chosen, and I’m gearing up to leave my conventional life behind to train to be a divemaster. After years of puppy love, I’m happy to report that me and diving are still very much in love. Completing the Open Water was but the first step on what’s proving to be a long and passionate journey together.