It was both one of the best experiences of my life and worst. The best, because – cliché alert – I found a whole new and utterly amazing world down there.
The worst, because my course instructor was like David Brent, without any of the vulnerability.
A man who would tell appalling jokes (yes, yes, worse than mine). A man who would habitually turn up 20 minutes late for class, without apology, then bollock you if you were a minute late back from lunch. A man who would regularly retort with the sweetly obnoxious, “not relevant”.
Get my goat? Certainly did. That aside, the experience changed my life.
I used to think water was something to be frightened of (especially at bath time). Now I’ll climb into a skin-tight black suit, strap on a mask and start sucking on that thing in my mouth quicker than you can say, “you’d make an excellent gimp”. I’m addicted.
However, because more recently I spend most of my time at a desk (a nice desk, with my little framed Arsène Wenger picture on it, but still a desk) I wasn’t getting all deep and meaningful very often. That made me sad. So I took the plunge and signed up for a PADI Advanced Open Water course in Sydney.
I was nervous as I arrived at ProDive Manly on Saturday morning: would I remember the hand signals? Would I see sharks (yes!)? Would I still fit a wetsuit (yes, but not in an attractive way). And, Sydney may be famous for its beaches and bridge, but not so much diving. Would it actually be any good?
It’s not Bambi on ice
The advanced course includes five dives, doesn’t include hours of classroom quizzes (huzzar!) and can be done over a weekend. First up, we quickly went though our manual’s knowledge reviews.
Then before I knew it we were on the beach, doing “buddy checks” (Will you be my buddy? Good. Thanks) before wading into the wet stuff.
Though of course I did the old thumbs up, when I was trying to say “okay” (this actually means “go up” and people who do this by mistake get laughed at), all the basics came back pretty quickly.
The first practical aspect was Peak Bouyancy. This means being able to control your position – your height – in the water primarily by using your lungs; breathe in to go up, out to go down.
It sounds easy. For someone who has the body control of Bambi on ice it’s not. But when I learned to be a bit patient it all fell into place. Next up, Navigation.
After some warm-up routines, this culminated in a hilarious spectacle.
By following a compass bearing and counting our kicks we were meant to navigate an invisible underwater course and return to the start point.
But, through no fault of our excellent Swiss instructor Dan (a tiny bit loony – from so much diving? – but thankfully not a hint of Brent about him), it all went a bit Benny Hill.
Divers took it in turns to “navigate” the course while the others could see their bubbles rising to the surface… often a long way from the course markers on the surface, forcing Dan to go haring after them to correct their trajectory, sometimes by, say, 90 degrees. Of course, my effort was 100 per cent accurate and completely without hilarity. I just told quite a big lie.
Despite the laughs, my favourite dive of the day was the last; Naturalist (not to be confused with naturist, which would require the absence of clothing).
The idea was to encourage an appreciation of what lies beneath, the underwater locals and their habitat. We jotted down everything exciting that we saw as we went and it wasn’t long before my jotter was full up (in fairness I have big messy writing).
In only about 30 minutes we had seen two big octopus growling (or whatever it is they do) at us, baby manta rays gliding along like mini spaceships and plenty more curiously shaped creatures, big and small, green and pink, spikey and blobby.
Dive another day
The next day was even better. We swapped sand for a deck and went boat diving out near the harbour jaws. Descending was exciting and surreal.
We edged our way slowly down the anchor chain and as I was last, all around me was a sort of green darkness and a bombardment of bubbles coming up from my co-divers beneath me.
Sunday’s two dives were a Deep Dive and a Boat Adventure Dive. The latter is all about the problems and benefits of diving from a sea vessel. The former about what happens to you when you go deep.
Dan gave us a simple point-to-the-numbers test to do on the boat, which we all repeated at a depth of 21 metres. Without exception we were several seconds slower, thus proving something scientific had undoubtedly happened that meant our reaction times and mental agility altered at depth. Nothing to be alarmed about. But good to know.
The diving was amazing. We glided slowly through a massive shoal of fish, completely cacooning us but staying just out of arms reach, like in those photos you don’t quite believe are real. Then we saw sharks.
Wobbegong sharks. They’re funny things to look at, all orangey-brown, kind of flat and with really crap beards.
They’re not known to want to bite us ground-dwellers, but you should never make too many assumptions about how friendly (or unfriendly) other creatures might be (another course lesson). We watched them with a mixture of awe and nerves… till we realised they were actually asleep.
I also saw my new favourite animal: a weedy sea dragon.
They are essentially a sea horse that looks like a bit of seaweed (not actually very dragony). But much, much cuter than that. They don’t seem to run away. They just kind of float around, pretending to be seaweed, hoping you won’t bother them. So I pretended to be… er, an ungainly human barely comfortable in an alien habitat.
Regardless, it seemed to do the trick and we just watched each other for a while… I’m certain we had direct eye contact a couple of times. It was magic.
So, is Sydney any good for diving? You do the math.
The damage & the details:
Sydney has some 33 dive sites; you can see wrecks, reefs, weedy sea dragons and even grey nurse sharks. PRO DIVE Manly (www.prodivesydney.com) has PADI Four-Dive Open Watercourses from $447 (including a $100 voucher to spend in-store or towards a course upgrade to their popular six or nine-dive courses), Advanced Open Water courses from $437 (book both to get a further $70 off) and pleasure dives starting from $67 (equipment included).