The PADI Open Water course (1)

Before my diving on Malta I’d dabbled a little bit in SCUBA by doing introductory dives in Turkey and Egypt. The Turkish guys that took me along were proper cowboys in that they took me to see a wreck on my very first dive ever, which admittedly was awesome, but probably wasn’t the most prudent course of action. Things in Egypt were more controlled and it was there that I’d decided that SCUBA diving was something I’d like to do more of.

Fast forward to Malta, where after having settled in for a week or two I start my PADI Open water course. It’s the entry level beginner course which teaches you how to assemble and maintain your basic SCUBA equipment, how to handle yourself under water and how to share air should you or your buddy run out. The buddy system is heavily emphasized as well, basically stating that you always stick together with another diver so that you can help one another out should the need arise. The idea is you both carry redundant regulators (the thing that you breathe from) so you can both breathe off the same tank if you have to.

Additionally you learn to control your BCD, or buoyancy control device, which is basically an inflatable jacket. Because water pressure at depth compresses your wetsuit, your buoyancy changes and by in/deflating the BCD you compensate for this. The goal there is to maintain ‘neutral buoyancy’ so that you don’t float or sink, just hover at whichever depth you’re at. Also taught is ‘the first rule of SCUBA’: Never hold your breath. As pressure rises the deeper you go, the air you breathe from your cylinder becomes denser. Were you to hold your breath and ascend, it’ll expand again and hurt your lungs.

The PADI open water course usually takes four days to complete and consists of four pool dives, four ‘actual’ dives and four classroom sessions. As I’d dived before and only had the one free day a week me and my diving instructor on Gozo (Blue waters dive cove, an excellent outfit arranged to do it in three. The first day I knocked out all the theory (basically four hours of video explaining the above paragraphs) and did a checkout dive in which several basic skills were practiced (mask removal/clearing, breathing off a malfunctioning regulator, sharing air and doffing/donning equipment underwater and at the surface). So, with that out of the way, let’s move on to my first proper dive

Dive #01 – Hondoq bay, Gozo
Date: 29/5/13
Max. Depth: 12 meters
Bottom time: 00:35

Me and my instructor did a giant stride entry (where you just take a big step off a raised edge above the water) over the beach at Hondoq Bay and descended to the sandy bottom a few meters down. We practiced a few of the underwater skills again and then went for a swim around the bay. My mind was occupied mostly by following the instructor and controlling my buoyancy striving not to crash into the bottom or anything else. This was mostly successful. The past few weeks had been rather stressful in adapting to a gruelling work schedule and the underwater tranquillity struck me as an amazing contrast. Everything just moves so slowly underwater, at one point I found myself mesmerized by my instructor’s slow fin kicks that would stir up some sediment and plant matter which would whirl and float about in slow, viscous silence. Very relaxing. Otherwise Hondoq bay was very clear and rather quiet, we saw a bunch of fish, a very unnatural stack of three rocks (put there by another diver probably) and a toilet bowl which had an octopus drawn on it. Upon exiting the water through a ladder I had briefly forgotten that gravity was a thing and almost fell off it before I thought to use my muscles to remain upright.

Dive #02 – Hondoq bay, Gozo
Date: 29/5/13
Max. Depth: 12 meters
Bottom time: 00:44

The second dive of the day was another swim around Hondoq Bay, using a slightly different route and another entry. This time around we did a ‘shore entry’ which is walking in through the surf. There wasn’t a lot of surf so it was very easy. Apart from the fact I was barefoot and there were a lot of seashells and pebbles. Walking over those I was reminded of the extra 35 kilos of gear I was carrying rather painfully. We were wearing full body exposure suits, consisting of 5mm thick neoprene in two parts, one for the torso and another for the legs. This is required because at depth the water gets cold quick. At the relatively pedestrian depth of 12 meters the temperature was still around 20 degrees C, but even that gets cold if you’re in it for an hour. So while exposure suits are nice to have underwater, you still have to don them on the surface and at this particular Mediterranean day the sun was out in force and I was very happy that we were able to park right next to the beach because I’m not sure I would’ve lasted all that long in the full sun wearing a black thermo insulating neoprene suit.

The dive itself was uneventful and I was a little sad that it had seemed so amazing last time and already looked so dull the next. I thought maybe my enthusiasm would’ve just been a shortlived fad and perhaps it’d be better not to continue after all. After the dive I surfaced and discovered my mask had completely fogged up without me noticing! I cleaned it and had a peek at the underwater world, which had instantly regained its crisp beauty. I decided I’d be returning after all.

Lesson learned: Always make sure to de-fog your mask! And bring a nice one, you’re in it to see amazing sights, might as well get to see them. Upon leaving the water and checking the time and remaining air in my tank I was pleased to note that already I’d gone noticeably longer on a single tank of air. The slower and deliberate your movements, the less air you use and the longer you can stay under, which is obviously a good thing.