A Whole New World

  After years of thought and no action, Emma Gant finally took the plunge and signed up with Aqualand Divers for a PADI Course.

    If you have ever even fleetingly thought you might quite like to give scuba diving a go, my advice is to stop thinking about it and do it. And with Christmas just around the corner, now is the perfect time to start hinting to Santa about what will make you smile on December 25.

    I spent years thinking about it and somehow never quite got round to organising myself. So when my colleague Susan asked me if I fancied giving scuba diving a go, I said yes straight away and we tripped off to Aqualand in Great Baddow to sign up for the five week course.

    Just to be on the safe side, before you hand over any money, you can do a try dive to make sure you are going to enjoy the experience. I tried, loved it and so decided to go for it.

    Unlike the majority of sports verbal instructions are obviously null and void when you are actually doing the practical session. So that you are prepared for each underwater lesson, there is a manual and video for students to look through at home.

    The first part of each lesson started with a recap on the week's homework and a quick quiz, just to make sure it had all sunk in. And then i was down to the pool with Diane Gentile our instructor and her assistant Alex Tolley to put theory into practice.

    As I knelt on the bottom of the pool for the first time, I suddenly started to question exactly what I thought I was doing. What if the air supply suddenly failed? Or the regulator (the bit you breathe through) fell out of my mouth? Or I forgot to breathe which could lead to very unpleasant consequences.

    And then I remembered I was 3m not 30m deep and the ratio of students to instructors was 2:1; pretty low odds of anything untoward happening. It was perfectly safe and my irrational fears burst like the bubbles from my regulator.

    With scuba diving some things are very easy to do while others are incredibly hard, but it is possible to feel like you have made great strides from the word go.

    It was only our first lesson and we were going to start with dropping the regulator and then reclaiming it all without the merest drop of water sneaking into our lungs.

    Although this wasn't something I had ever really imagined doing, it was really quite a doodle and I started to relax completely. However, I soon found that this was the easy part of the lesson; half filling the mask with water before clearing it, on the other hand, was a different matter entirely.

    Having let the mask half fill I then accidentally inhaled through my nose. It may only have been smidgen, but it was enough to make me head for the safety of the surface.

    Afterwards Diane assured me that mask clearance was a skill that many people found tricky, and I was relieved when she admitted that she too had found it hard.

    Probably the most physically tricky part of week one was actually levering our air tank laden bodies from seated position at the edge of the pool into the water without cracking our chins on the side.

    All that changed in week two with a far easier water entry using the 'giant stride' method where you simply take a large step into the water. During this lesson we learnt how to clear a snorkel of water (a great skill to learn even if you don't want to actually go scuba diving), exchange the snorkel for the regulator with our faces in the water, snorkel with scuba equipment on, learn what it felt like to be running low on air and, horror of horrors, take the mask right off under the water and breathe for one minute before replacing it.

    I was scared, the memories of last week were very fresh in my mind. Sixty seconds later I wondered what all the fuss had been about.

    And that's pretty much how the rest of the course continued; a mixture of fear, elation, excitement but above all, great fun.

    Over the subsequent weeks we learnt, amongst other things, how to exit the water in an emergency, tow a buddy if they become tired (actually very relaxing when you're the one being towed), hover under water, swim with no mask on and roll backwards into the water from the edge of the swimming pool - very Cousteau.

    The course was great and the instruction superb; Diane was very patient whenever any of us (usually me) had a problem with any of the exercises and was very encouraging when we did something well.

    After one particularly chatty 'classroom' session we didn't leave enough pool time to complete the practice for that module. But it wasn't a problem, we simply added a sixth session.

    Another potential hiccup was that our course took place in July and August - prime holiday time - and three out of the four of us had to miss a session for our annuals. But again it posed no problem and highlighted Aqualand's relaxed approach.

    Once the pool sessions are over with, students have to do two open water dives, when newly acquired skills are put into practice in the real world.

    I couldn't make one of the weekends for these final sessions and so, as the year was getting on and the weather getting decidedly colder, and having never thought I'd be anything than a fair weather diver, I made the choice to complete the course next year when temperatures are on the up again, or perhaps even to trek off to warmer foreign climes.

    Susan, on the other hand, is far more intrepid and ventured up to a quarry in Peterborough with fellow hardy souls. Speaking to her afterwards, it sounded like it had been quite an experience, the sunken double decker bus being an off-beat highlight of the day.

    Taking a PADI course truly is a great thing to do. At times it's a little scary, but when you manage to do something you thought impossible, you leave on a real high desperate to explore the underwater world of fish and coral.

    For more information visit www.aqualanddivers.co.uk or call Bob on 01245 477701.

Emma Grant