Scuba Diving - Refresher Course

Seventeen years ago Kelly and I stopped at a wonderful island in Fiji called Vatulele. During our stay in this tropical paradise we got married on the beach and learnt to scuba dive. Well we are still happily married but we have never had or taken the opportunity to dive again, until this week.

Hey look, a dive table for people like me who can't read the fine print. (Note size of standard chart in my left hand)

On the 2nd of April Kelly and I fly to Cairns to once again enjoy all that the adventure cruise ship the Orion has to offer. Our trip this time will take us from Cairns up through Milne Bay, along the north coast of Papua New Guinea to the Sepik River and then Rabaul. From there we head further up the north coast to Irian Jaya and places like Mapia Atoll and finish up in Darwin, but more on that later.

In the itinerary there are a couple of locations where Scuba Diving is possible and I hear the diving in Papua New Guinea is quite spectacular. Now, as it has been sooo long since we last dived it seemed only appropriate that we should do a refresher course. A refresher course involves a review of the theory behind diving as well as the full course of closed and open water exercises. Things like buddy breathing, mask clearing, navigation under water etc.

We have some neighbours a couple of doors down who are serious divers and their garage is always full of tanks and diving gear so I asked them to recommend a dive shop that we could approach for a refresher course. They recommended a company called Plunge, located at a fantastic spot on Sydney Harbour, called Chowder Bay. Chowder Bay, is named after whalers who made "chowder" from the bay's abundant seafood, and was until recently a naval base originally used as a Submarine Miners Depot. In fact we did some of our confined water dives in the pool constructed to test underwater mines!

Open water training in the old mine testing pool.

So on Thursday and Friday of this week we had our planned refresher course. We'd hoped for some really nice weather but a cold front had moved in the day before and it was a bit overcast, what the hell we were going to be getting wet anyway. We had to be there for an 8am start so that was the first shock to the system but not the last. We'd already got our mask, fins, snorkel, boots squared away a week before so once we arrived we were introduced to Steve Woodhouse, our instructor, who got down to business and gave us a knowledge test.

Steve preparing our tanks.

After that it was down to business and the first order of business was to set up all our gear. This involves sorting through all the gear, preparing your tank, checking the air, setting up your BCD (Bouyancy Control Device), loading weights and getting it all on your back. Standing up for the first time with all the gear on is quite a shock as it is really heavy!

Scuba Diving is quite "gear" intensive.

Actually before that there is one other thing, and it's probably the hardest part of diving, that's getting into your wetsuit. What a challenge that is, we were handed a couple of 5mm wetsuits and by the time we were standing upright, we were sweating hard and felt like a couple of trussed up turkeys.

Yours truly all very manly in his wetsuit.

So after this it was into the mine pool for our first confined water exercises. Trust me, the first thing I did was drop my mask and snorkel into the pool. It sank to the bottom and Steve had to go in and get it for me. The first exercises are quite simple and involve stuff like clearing flooded masks, clearing your regulator and swimming underwater while mainting control. It's a bit of work the first time, and even though we'd done it before it had been so long it was like the first time again. By the time we'd finished the first part it was almost 3pm and we were pretty tired and took a break for lunch.

After lunch we came back and prepared for our first open water dive, this time we would walk down the wharf and enter the water using what is called the Giant Stride. This is where you take one big step off into the water holding your mask, regulator and weight belt with both hands. The great thing is that once you are in the water the weight of all that gear is completely offset by the displacement of the water and it feels great. We dived to about 10 metres, did some exercises and then went off exploring. We saw some small rays, lots of fish we even came across an old motorcycle on the seabed. Back at the wharf you have to climb up a ladder to get out and all that weight just comes straight back at you.

Kelly had been having some problems with her orientation, she kept doing sumersaults in the pool and Steve thought having a larger tank may help distribute the weight more evenly, unfortunately it had the opposite effect and she could hardly walk. So after we'd finished our open water Kelly was quite exhausted and not feeling well.

The next day, we felt it best that Kelly stay home, she had a headache, was a bit congested, not ideal for diving. So I went off by myself. Rather than going back in the pool we headed out to the wharf and swam back in toward the shore to do the final confined water exercises, these involved taking all of the gear off underwater and resuiting back up, navigating between two points, swimming without regulator for 30 seconds more mask clearing, sharing air etc.

Once finished we took a 20 minute break and headed out for the last dive. This time we dived to about 15.3 metres or 50 feet and cruised around for about 45 minutes until doing our controlled ascent, this is where you stop at 5 metres from the surface for 3 minutes to let the excess nitrogen release from your body. It's amazing how fast time goes when you are diving, it seemed as though we'd only been down for 20 minutes, that's why it's important to always keep a close eye on your gauges.

Once back on dry land we flushed out all the gear with fresh water and I watched some other divers who were on an advanced course get suited up. Talk about gear, these guys had on more stuff than I could imagine carrying on my back. First off they all had double tanks, for long dives, they were wearing dry suits, which means air from the tanks is pumped into it to form a barrier between the skin and the suit, as well as torches and other bits and pieces that I have no idea what their use was. I couldn't resist taking a picture of them fully kitted out.

Really serious divers!

So hopefully Kelly will feel well enough to dive while we are in Papua New Guinea, I certainly can't wait to get back into the water.