Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In at the deep end.(scuba dive in the Red Sea).

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The author describes a scuba dive she made in the Red Sea. The nature of diving instruction, altered behavior while underwater, exotic sights, appropriate safety procedures during a dive, and the sensation of weightlessness are recounted.

Full Text :COPYRIGHT 1999 Savedash Ltd. (UK)
Scuba diving is now one of the Fastest growing sports in the UK. Carolyn Fry went to Egypt to find out why, and took to the underwater world like a fish water

PEERING INTO THE SHIP'S DARK HOLD I saw motorbikes, packed side by side in rusting trucks. Their tyres were inflated, their instruments intact, but these vehicles' driving days were long gone. Fish darted to and fro among the rusty wheel spokes and glided through the trucks' glass-less windows. Swimming down, I spied crates of rubber Wellington boots and, balanced on a nearby ledge a typewriter, its keys bent and rusted. The boots, like the vehicles, had been destined for active service in Africa but had never made it onto the feet of British soldiers. And the typewriter had stamped out its last communiqu6 in 1941 when the ship carrying this military booty sank beneath the waves in the Red Sea, its fate sealed by a German bomber.

I was exploring the wreck of the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea, having just completed a course on learning to scuba dive. Scuba is the fastest growing sport in the UK and, as I swam around the hulk of this doomed ship, I realised why so many people are hooked on it: quite simply, it opens up a whole new world. "The appeal is that it's not a sport, it's an experience," explains Tony Backhurst, who runs the Tony Backhurst Scuba Centre in Guildford. "It's not a competitive thing; it's about learning to exist in a different environment. It's something you can do in all kinds of places. You can do it in the Arctic; you can do it in the tropics; and you can do it in the lake down the road if you want."

My initiation into the underwater world had begun in a swimming pool at Tony's scuba centre in Guildford. Scuba diving is now one of the fastest growing sports in the UK. Carolyn Fry went to Egypt to find out why, and took to the underwater world like a fish to water I was taking the `open water diver' course, the first level of PADI scuba certification. With this course, you start off in the classroom learning diving theory and then get to grips with scuba equipment in a pool. Once you've passed a final exam and practised a range of skills underwater, you're ready for the open water part, which involves making four dives and demonstrating all you've learnt. For the latter I was to join one of Tony's liveaboard boat trips for a week in the Red Sea.

I completed the pool and classroom work over a weekend, with fellow learners Steve Fuller, a 23-year-old camera assistant; and father-and-son team David and Jonathan Huckfield, investment and construction managers respectively. The Huckfields wanted to learn to dive before a trip to Australia, while Steve was booked on the same Red Sea liveaboard as me. Our instructor was Robbie Renalson, an enthusiastic Kiwi who had been a butcher until he'd gone diving with some mates and caught the scuba bug. He'd risen through the PADI ranks and had qualified as an instructor nine months before. "Right, I'm going to take you land lubbers and turn you into fish," he told us.

We headed for the pool where Robbie explained the `buddy' system and scuba kit. Your buddy is your partner for the duration of a dive; it's never advisable to dive alone. In our pairs we helped each other assemble our kit; essentially an air tank, buoyancy control device (BCD) and `first stage'. The BCD looks a little like a life-jacket and has a low-pressure inflator attached to it which allows you to fill it with air or deflate it in the water to control buoyancy. A `first stage' is clamped to the top of the tank and this has a hose leading directly to the BCD inflator. The first stage also has hoses leading to a `primary regulator', the mouthpiece through which you breathe air from your tank, and an alternate regulator or `octopus' which allows your buddy to use air from your tank should he or she need to. There are also depth and pressure gauges, to show where you are in the water and how much air you have left.

Struggling under the weight of the tank and with normal walking now hindered by the luminous green fins we'd strapped to our feet, we gingerly lined up along the poolside. "OK, you're going to take a giant stride into the water," called Robbie. "Hold your mask, snorkel and regulator, look up and then GO!" Seconds later we were drawing deep breaths under water. I had thought it might be claustrophobic or hard to breathe through the regulator but neither was the case. In fact, I soon learned that you can do pretty much anything underwater. You can cough, laugh and even be sick (or so Robbie informed us) through your regulator and still breathe. On countless occasions I found myself giggling helplessly as I headed feet-first towards the surface, but I still managed not to drown.

In several pool sessions we learned skills that we would need to know when in the open water environment. These included removing and replacing our masks underwater, fine-tuning our buoyancy with the use of our BCD and controlled breathing, and throwing away our regulator and recovering it. One of the first things you learn when you start diving is that you must never hold your breath under water, so if your regulator leaves your mouth you have to slowly breath out at all times. This is because air becomes compressed at depth and expands as you move up to the surface. You have to let air out of your lungs as you come up or they could explode. "One guy was just nine metres down and held his breath as he rose to the surface and his lungs exploded," Robbie told us. "He died almost instantly."

Another potential danger we learned of was decompression sickness. The increased pressure exerted on your body at depth causes nitrogen in the air you breathe to dissolve into your body tissues. The deeper you dive and the longer you stay, the more excess nitrogen your body absorbs. When you ascend, the pressure decreases and the excess nitrogen begins to come out of solution. If you rise too quickly, your body can't get rid of it fast enough and bubbles form in your blood vessels and tissues, a bit like when you open a fizzy drink. This causes decompression sickness or `the bends' which can be painful or fatal. The final, and certainly the most brain-taxing part of our training involved learning to use tables to work out how deep you can safely go and how long you must wait between dives.

Four days later, our pool training complete and our final exam passed, Steve and I boarded Eshta, the boat that was to be our home for the week. It was time to put our new found skills to the test in the Red Sea. On the first morning I felt quite nervous knowing that we would be dropping down to twelve metres, ten metres deeper than the swimming pool. However, once I'd got my kit on it felt so heavy and uncomfortable in the stifling Egyptian heat that I just wanted to get going. We took a `giant stride' off the back of the boat and plunged into the blue juice. As the cool water filtered through my wetsuit, I took a few deep breaths through my regulator and began to relax. At the bottom, I kneeled on the sand and took my first look around the strange underwater world. Brightly coloured parrot fish darted here and there among clusters of coral. Watching them, I felt like a privileged guest in someone else's home.

As we made the four dives we needed to qualify over the following two days, using the scuba equipment was beginning to come naturally. One of the best things about diving is the feeling of weightlessness you get once you have learned to control your buoyancy. "I imagine the feeling is the same as you would get in space," said Steve. "And the only other way you're going to experience it is if you become an astronaut." Getting the buoyancy right, though, takes practice. You have to remember that as you rise, the pressure on the air in your tank and BCD lessens, so the air expands. If you swim up a few metres you have to let out air from your BCD or breathe out so you don't rise too far. Often, as I carefully tried to follow the contours of the reef, I would find myself shooting skywards only to be yanked back down by a firm pair of hands round my ankles.

Mostly our skills practice passed off smoothly under water, though we had a few close encounters of the scary kind. On our last qualifying dive we had dropped down to the bottom of a beautiful turquoise lagoon at Sha'ab Abu Nuhas. Robbie indicated that he would give us each a bearing and we would have to swim along it, using our compasses, for ten `kick cycles' -- a sort of underwater equivalent to ten paces. I was about to set off at 12 degrees when I came face-to-face with a mean-looking brown fish, with a down-turned mouth and angular spiny fins surrounding its tiger-striped body. This was a lionfish, a highly poisonous creature and definitely one to steer clear of. In our hurry to get out of its path, Steve and I stirred up the white sand with our fins and the water became foggy. I saw the fish follow us for a while, before withdrawing into the murky white haze.

Luckily none of us were stung and Steve and I surfaced triumphantly, our open water training complete. Back at Eshta, we were welcomed with cake, and cards signed by the crew and our fellow divers. One of the great things about being on a liveaboard trip is that you get to meet all sorts of people. Altogether onboard were 11 visitors and seven crew members. Included in our party were Felicity and Mike Fitchett, both aged 45 and an insurance claims negotiator and builder respectively; Joe Tubbs, a PA who had decided to come for a week's diving while her husband was at Le Mans; and Tim Griezitis, once a civil servant scientist and now an IT city consultant; "I've been diving with all kinds of people," explained Tim. "One guy used to work on surveying boats in the oil industry. He'd dived in every ocean in the world and was still going strong at 85."

From the next day on, Steve and I were able to dive with the others, and for the rest of the week we made three or four dives a day. No longer having to spend time practising skills underwater, we were able to look around at the marine wildlife. In the Red Sea, you can see more species underwater in ten minutes than you'd see in ten hours on land. I saw all manner of fish that I'd not even realised existed; yellowsaddle goatfish, their long feelers helping them graze their way along the sides of wrecks; tiny `chocolate dip' fish, so named because their front half is brown and their tail half white; and a bluespotted stingray, its bulbous eyes peering warily from a coral hidey-hole.

One of the most memorable moments was when we saw a leopard shark, dozing on the seabed. We had been dropped off at a place called Small Passage on the Sha'ab Mahmud coral reef. I was near the front of group when Essam Zaki, Eshta's dive-guide gave the signal that he'd spotted a shark. I looked at where he was pointing and saw the fish, around one-and-a-half metres long, resting on the bottom several metres away. As we moved closer, it gracefully rose up, snaked its tail round and glided towards us. I could see its distinctive mouth and tiny eyes as slid its dark, spotted body past us and faded into the blue.

A world apart

But fish and coral are not the only things to see underwater The Red Sea has many surprises beneath its surface. A few days after we had marvelled at the jeeps and motorbikes on the wreck of Thistlegorm, we were diving at Shark Reef, Ras Mohammed. After a gentle half-hour drift along a sheer coral wall, I spotted a solitary toilet, sitting slap-bang in the middle of the coral. A few metres farther along and the mystery of this unusual seabed siting was revealed. Wedged on the reef were the sparse remains of the Cyprian freighter, Jolanda, together with her cargo of 100 or so toilets. Even more amusing than this bizarre spectacle was that one had become the home to a snake-like moray eel.

Not all the dives were straightforward. On one occasion, the sea was quite choppy when we sank below the surface and the visibility not as good as on previous dives. For a few minutes we drifted with the current, hugging the reef but then the flow seemed to stop abruptly and we hit a much stronger current flowing towards us in the opposite direction. Robbie swam down and up trying to find a current at a different level that could take us forward but each time came up against the same wall of water. Eventually, we were having to fin hard even to stay stationary and using up lots of air in the process. The only thing we could do was go up and abort the dive. Later I asked Robbie what was the worse dive he'd ever done. "Probably that one," came the reply.

Towards the end of the week, Steve and I were discussing our worst and best dives with Mike and Felicity Fitchett. Altogether we'd completed nineteen dives, seen coral reefs, swum with sharks and explored one of the world's most famous wrecks, Thistlegorm. Not bad considering that we'd taken our first breaths underwater just ten days before. "You've certainly had a baptism of fire," said Mike. "These have been some of the hardest dives we've done. "You learn on every dive you do though," he continued. "And now that your training's over, it's time for your learning to begin."

Source Citation:Fry, Carolyn. "In at the deep end." Geographical 71.8 (August 1999): 76. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 29 Sept. 2009

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