Sunday, January 27, 2008

Papua New Guinea: Scuba Class at Loloata

After a day of watching instructional diving DVDs and practicing skills in a swimming pool, my colleague Bill and I set out with our instructor Irene (another colleague of ours) for our first open water dive.

When diving magazines publish their “best of” lists, Papua New Guinea frequently comes out on top in a number of categories (best underwater photography, healthiest reefs, and so forth). PNG is also said to have the best diving in the world close to a major city because there are many prime sites just outside Port Moresby.

One of the most popular spots for diving in the Moresby area is Bootless Bay, 20 kilometers southeast of the city, and this is where Bill, Irene, and I were headed. We had hired a banana boat with a skipper through the Loloata Island Resort which is located on Loloata Island in Bootless Bay.

When we arrived at the dock, our boat was nowhere to be seen. After a few phone calls, though, our ride turned up with a guy named Yamu at the helm.

For our first real dive, Irene took Bill and me to a spot just off Lion Island. If we had gone on one of the bigger boats that was loaded with other divers, we would have been forced to move quickly so as not to delay the rest of the group. As it was, though, we had booked the private banana boat, and we could take our sweet time getting ready. And we did.

As we were suiting up, Bill found himself in a battle royale with his wetsuit. After much yanking and squirming, he was nearly in the thing. Then he asked Irene to help him zip up the back.

With one look, she could see that his suit wasn't going to work. She was like, “Oh my God! That's way too tight. Can you even breathe?”

And truth be told, he couldn't breathe all that well. The whole thing was very amusing – to me anyway.

A wetsuit is a close-fitting garment, so manufacturers generally construct them based on several different body measurements (height, weight, waist size, chest size, and so on). When Bill had purchased his suit, he had only matched up the height, thinking that this was the most important thing. The waist and chest on his suit, however, were not even close to being right.

Before we had gone diving, Bill and I had each tried on our gear at home, and Bill had told me how much of a struggle it had been getting in his wetsuit. When I heard that, I was afraid that mine was too loose because it hadn't been such an ordeal for me to get into mine. Turns out that mine fit properly. This shouldn't have come as any surprise, though, because I had matched up all the body measurements when I had ordered mine.

Anyhow, Bill's suit was entirely too small.

Breathing is an important part of diving, so Irene suggested that he leave his suit open in the back for the rest of the day, and then purchase a proper-fitting suit for next time.

When we were all ready to go, we stepped off the side of the boat into a seaweedy patch of sea and descended.

In the interval between the surface and the seafloor, there wasn't much to see - just large expanses of empty, blue water. Then when we reached the bottom, there still wasn't much to see. Irene had selected a patch of seafloor that was obviously used as a training ground for new divers with some regularity. The sandy bottom was littered with broken pieces of coral, and there didn't appear to be much life except for an anemone and a few anemone fish.

Irene motioned for Bill and me to look at the anemone, so we followed her example and floated upside-down for a look. Our control wasn't so great, and the anemone got sloshed around a bit by some of our flipper kicks.

After we finished disturbing the anemone, we moved on to our diving exercises. We practiced removing our masks, putting them back on, and clearing them. Then we practiced buddy-breathing. Then we did things like removing our air tanks and putting them back on. Then we practiced controlling our buoyancy.

We were about 14 meters (45 feet) down, and at that depth the water was a very comfortable 84 degrees.

When we finished practicing specific diving skills, we swam around and tried to find things to examine. When we were about to ascend, Irene motioned for us to look at something. When I looked in the direction in which she was gesturing, I saw a few unremarkable small fish. Irene motioned for me to look again, which I did. Again, I couldn't see anything other than the few small fish. I could sense that I was missing something, though.

About 45 minutes into the dive, our tanks started running low, and we surfaced.

Once we had flopped back into the boat, Irene asked me if I had seen the school of squid that she had tried to point out toward the end of the dive. Unfortunately, they were nearly transparent, and I had totally missed them. Bill saw them, though.

We were all hungry, so we used our interval on the surface for lunch break. Bill brought some meatloaf, and Irene brought carrot cake. I was responsible for the no-effort items: a loaf of bread, ketchup, and drinks.

As you could probably tell, meatloaf sandwiches were on the menu.

Bill, Irene, and I were no strangers to meatloaf, but it was new to Yamu.

As Irene made him a sandwich, she explained the concept of meatloaf. It was a perfect way, she told Yamu, to stretch a quantity of meat by mixing it with bread. The more frugal a person wanted to be, the more bread he would add.

Her explanation reminded me of the Simpsons episode where Larry Burns meets his super rich father Montgomery Burns for the first time. “Whoa, this guy's got more bread than a prison meatloaf!” Larry remarks about his father. I quoted this line to my companions, but they didn't much appreciate it.

We all ate our sandwiches, and some of us went for seconds. Yamu, however, was nursing his sandwich like a kid eating Brussels sprouts, and he claimed that he was too full to have a second. If a Papua New Guinean says he's too full for seconds when there is still a table full of food, that basically means that he hated the food. So, Yamu was not a fan of meatloaf.

After lunch, we chilled out a bit on the boat, and then we prepared for our second dive. Irene decided that Bill and I weren't ready to dive on a real reef, so we were relegated to the training zone again.

For the second dive, we pretty much followed the exact same routine as we had for the first one. We had improved over our first effort, though, so Irene told us that we would definitely be diving a real site the following weekend when we returned to finish our training. The battered anemone down in the training zone couldn't have been happier for us!

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