Sunday, February 03, 2008

Papua New Guinea: Scuba Class, Part 2: Graduation Day

The Saturday after our first two open water dives, Bill and I reported back to Irene's house for the conclusion of our training. We watched a few more diving videos and did a few more exercises in the pool. Then we each had a final exam. The test, which was mostly multiple choice, was a real cake walk.

Our colleague Andrea – based in Canberra, but in Moresby for about a month to cover a staffing gap – also joined us for the pool portions of class. She had earned her dive certification years before but had only gone diving infrequently since then. She was refamiliarizing herself with everything, and the following day she would accompany Bill and me on our final two open water dives.

Bright and early the next morning, I was preparing my gear when Bill called. He had managed to catch a cold during the night and was not going to be able to dive. He had already phoned Irene with the news, and it was decided that the rest of us would go ahead and that Bill would finish the course later.

Besides Irene, Andrea, Bill, and me, our group also included Tom (Irene's husband) and another Chris from the embassy.

With Bill sidelined, the rest of us drove out to Loloata, signed our releases, and headed out to sea. We were joined by a few other miscellaneous divers, Franco, the dive master, and the crew of the dive boat.

We reached our first dive site – a place called Di's Delight – at around 10:00. Irene, Andrea, and I were going to buddy-up, so we all suited up and descended together.

The week before, Bill and I had spent the bulk of our time in the sea practicing specific techniques. This time, Irene didn't have me practice any isolated movements. Instead, she allowed me to swim around like a normal diver, which was much more enjoyable.

We went down to a depth of about 24 meters (about 80 feet), and the water was a perfect 83 degrees. There was plenty of sea life, and my small pack prowled around, taking in everything. Initially we were keeping together very well. Then I noticed that the more comfortable Andrea got, the farther she started wandering from Irene and me. On more than one occasion, Irene had to flag Andrea down and reel her in.

Di's Delight is a cool dive spot in general, but its coolest single feature is a narrow canyon populated with giant sea fans. These fans, which spring forth from both rock faces, are easily large enough to fully block the passage. The result is a sea fan maze of sorts. To get through the canyon, you have to swim over and under the fans, through a natural little passageway.

One of the basic skills of diving is controlling buoyancy, and this is mostly done by controlling one's breathing. Experienced divers control their buoyancy perfectly without even thinking about it, but I was not at that stage yet.

We had to traverse the sea fan gauntlet one-by-one, and as I watched the others go through, I started to have some doubts. Specifically, I was envisioning myself losing control of my buoyancy, crashing into a sea fan, and breaking it off the wall. If that were to happen, I was sure that everyone would be royally pissed off at me.

Soon enough, though, it was my turn to swim through, and I had to stop thinking about bad outcomes for a moment. As I negotiated the passage, I monitored my body position and my flipper kicks like a hawk. And when I came out the other side, all of the sea fans were still in tact. What a relief!

After about 40 minutes, I was running low on air, so my pod had to surface. The other, more experienced groups stayed down about 10 minutes longer.

Since we had a few minutes to spare, Andrea and I shed our dive gear on the boat and went snorkeling on a nearby reef.

When everyone was eventually assembled back on the boat, we sped off for the next dive site – a wreck called Pai 2. As we skimmed across the water, we lounged around on the deck, eating fruit and ginger cookies and drinking sodas and tea.

When we reached the site, we continued to lounge around so as to allow for a proper surface interval between dives.

When it was nearly time for us to dive again, Franco gave us a briefing for Pai 2, which had been a 25-meter shrimp boat in it's former life. Using a map of the site, he showed us the general course we should follow for the dive and pointed out areas of special interest.

When he had finished his briefing, Irene popped up with a question.

“We have a new diver with us today who is diving his first wreck,” she said. “Can you give him some advice on wreck diving?”

Franco was happy to help. He turned to me and said, “When you get close to the deck, watch your fins. There is a lot of sediment, and if you stir it up, you will ruin the visibility.”

And that was all Franco had to say. I thought that Irene had been prompting him to give me safety advice – warning me not to go into enclosed spaces and to avoid overhead obstructions – since the training manual harped on this quite a bit. Apparently, though, I was wrong.

When Franco finished his nugget of advice, Irene was like, “Right! Watch the sediment!”

Then we suited up and hopped in the sea.

This time we went down about 23 meters (about 75 feet), and the conditions were perfect again. Much of the Pai 2 was covered with coral, and among the coral, there were many sea creatures. My favorites were the lion fish on the deck and the school of barracuda just off the stern.

As we were floating around taking it all in, Irene got my attention and motioned for me to follow her. I did as instructed, and she led me into the ship's wheel house. The wheel house was a fully enclosed little room, and I was slowly bobbing from the ceiling to the floor (cause, once again, my buoyancy control kinda sucked). I was stirring up the sediment a bit as well, but thankfully Franco wasn't around to see.

I thought back to the diving manual and its warning about going into enclosed spaces. “Oh, well – safety, shmafety,” I told myself.

While we were in the wheel house, Irene fished around in her vest pocket and pulled out a PADI Open Water Diver patch. Then with the grand gesturing that is required when talking is not possible, she presented it to me. Likewise, I grandly gestured a thank-you. Thanks to Irene, I had not only graduated, I had graduated in style.

After the ceremony, I celebrated by bobbing up and down and stirring up more sediment. Then we swam out of the wheel house. Andrea was just outside the door and she gave me a congratulatory thumbs-up.

We all looked around for a bit longer, and then we headed for the surface – a trio of certified divers.

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