Un­der­wa­ter world

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Scuba Diving - WORDS MARK WAT­SON PHOTOS AG PHOTO LI­BRARY

De­spite liv­ing around wa­ter all his life, only now has AGO pho­tog­ra­pher Mark Wat­son peered be­neath the sur­face, fi­nally tak­ing the plunge by sign­ing up to com­plete his PADI Open Wa­ter Cer­tifi­cate.

IAM A lit­tle per­turbed. I am in an alien en­vi­ron­ment in which every­thing around me has been tweaked by na­ture for mil­lions of years to sur­vive… ex­cept me. My ev­ery in­stinct tells me I should not be here, but as I glance around, a shadow re­as­sures me – it is my buddy, silently ex­plor­ing along­side. I rely solely on some ba­sic prin­ci­ples of physics and hu­man anatomy to keep me alive, and so trust my fore­fa­thers’ cal­cu­la­tions that some­how makes all this work. I glance at the shadow next to me, sig­nal “okay”, and move on.

De­spite this al­most sci-fi movie en­vi­ron­ment, I am only 100m away from my lo­cal cof­fee shop. But to­day I am ex­plor­ing a lit­tle deeper, scratch­ing un­der the sur­face, for this is the un­der­wa­ter world of scuba div­ing, and this is my first ever dive!

For decades I had glimpsed this sub­merged Gar­den of Eden ev­ery time I surfed. Ev­ery duck dive un­der the wa­ter, ev­ery wave rid­den over co­ral reefs showed me a teaser of what I was miss­ing. Just be­low the glim­mer­ing sur­face and bak­ing sun there ex­isted a spec­tac­u­lar world, seem­ingly just out of my reach, but all I had to do was walk into a dive shop to un­lock the door to this amaz­ing place. It took me 30 years to fi­nally walk through that door… and I warn you, once you walk through it, you are un­likely to ever turn back, for this new world is very, very ad­dic­tive.

Like many Aus­tralians, I grew up around wa­ter. Swimming lessons at school, build­ing rafts on the dam, spend­ing af­ter school and week­ends at the beach. I surfed, I swam, I joined the lo­cal surf life sav­ing club and, in be­tween, my mates and I would jump off the coastal cliffs or snorkel the rocky reefs of Vic­to­ria’s Great Ocean Road.

With so much of my life re­volv­ing around wa­ter, it seems odd now that it never oc­curred to me that, right on my doorstep, lay an in­trigu­ing and alien land­scape, filled with strange and won­der­ful crea­tures, many of which are wilder than my imag­i­na­tion could ever dream up.

This world cov­ers 71 per cent of our planet’s sur­face, and is where life be­gan eons ago, and where ex­otic sea crea­tures have de­vel­oped in the oceans over mil­len­nia.

The ap­peal of un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­ration is cer­tainly not a new phe­nom­e­non. As far back as the 17th and 18th cen­turies, free div­ing (a form of skin div­ing, with­out sup­ple­men­tal oxy­gen) was an ev­ery­day part of life for the Korean fam­i­lies of Jeju. Be­fore the ex­is­tence of pres­surised air tanks, or even air-fed div­ing bells, the fish­ing sea women, called haenyeo, trained from their early teens to dive to depths of 30m for up to three min­utes on a sin­gle breath to col­lect shell­fish, al­gae and urchins. In­cred­i­bly, some age­ing haenyeo still carry on their tra­di­tion and prac­tice the art of free div­ing to­day.

…I had al­ways been in­trigued by the amaz­ing photos I’d seen of divers in mag­nif­i­cent cham­bers with seem­ingly end­less vis­i­bil­ity.

Whilst the haenyeo tra­di­tion may even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear, a rad­i­cal new med­i­ta­tive ver­sion of free div­ing de­vel­ops presently in the form of Vari­able Weighted Ap­nea (VWT – see Dive Talk), a sport whereby the world record now sits at 146m on a sin­gle breath.

This new era of push­ing the body to lim­its is touch­ing on in­trigu­ing bi­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies, like when we put our face in wa­ter, our heart rate low­ers by up to 25 per cent. Per­haps we are not as far re­moved from our aquatic an­ces­tors as we think.

How­ever whilst this world of ex­treme free div­ing in­trigues some, it is the world of scuba (self-con­tained un­der­wa­ter breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus) that opens up the un­der­wa­ter world to the masses.

In 1943 Emile Gag­nan and Jac­ques Cousteau re­designed a car reg­u­la­tor into the ‘mod­ern de­mand reg­u­la­tor’, and patented their de­signs as the Aqua-Lung. Their dis­cov­ery rev­o­lu­tionised the world of deep-sea ex­plo­ration and pushed div­ing from a fringe sci­ence into main­stream recre­ation.

Since their early patents, new tech­nolo­gies in BCDs (buoy­ancy con­trol de­vices), cylin­ders, mask and fin ma­te­ri­als and de­signs have all ad­vanced in leaps and bounds, re­sult­ing in to­day’s high-tech ap­pa­ra­tus, how­ever much of it is still based on the same de­sign prin­ci­ples of the Gag­nan and Cousteau dis­cov­er­ies.

As un­nat­u­ral as breath­ing un­der­wa­ter seems, the feel­ing of soar­ing weight­lessly un­der the waves is one of the most in­cred­i­ble sen­sa­tions a per­son is likely to ex­pe­ri­ence. And the great thing is scuba div­ing is avail­able to any­body who can swim con­fi­dently, is in good phys­i­cal health and is more than 10 years of age.

It was fel­low AGO con­trib­u­tor Caro­line Pem­ber­ton who prompted me to fi­nally pur­sue this un­der­wa­ter ac­tiv­ity. While catch­ing up for a quick cof­fee, she ca­su­ally men­tioned, “I am go­ing to go cave div­ing.”

I re­mem­ber at first feel­ing awestruck, and then in­trigued… this was an ex­cit­ing world I knew noth­ing of but I had al­ways been in­trigued by the amaz­ing photos I’d seen of divers in mag­nif­i­cent cham­bers with seem­ingly end­less vis­i­bil­ity.

I had a mil­lion ques­tions for Caro­line and we talked about div­ing for quite some time be­fore she asked, “So I’ll see you at the dive shop on Mon­day?”

As an ac­com­plished diver her­self, Caro­line steered me di­rectly to dive guru Matt Hop­kins from Dive Spear and Sport, who reck­ons he prob­a­bly has around 20,000 dives un­der his belt. I de­cided that if I was to stick my head un­der­wa­ter, I would be in pretty damned safe hands with this bloke.

Two days later and I was at the bot­tom of the lo­cal swimming pool, hav­ing a mask torn from my face and my air sup­ply switched off. What the hell had I signed up for?

Glob­ally there are a num­ber off bod­ies and or­gan­i­sa­tions of­fer­ing scuba cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, but the most widely recog­nised is PADI (Pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Div­ing In­struc­tors), and the PADI Open Wa­ter Cer­tifi­cate (OWC) is the rec­om­mended start­ing point for be­gin­ner divers.

The ba­sic de­tails of what each course en­tails is on the PADI web­site and once signed into the sys­tem, on­line a good un­der­wa­ter cam­era is a must once you start div­ing; close-up en­coun­ters are a given in the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment; co­ral spawn­ing; group div­ing out of a dive boat is one of the most pop­u­lar dive ad­ven­ture op­tions.

…the feel­ing of soar­ing weight­lessly un­der the waves is one of the most in­cred­i­ble sen­sa­tions a per­son is likely to ex­pe­ri­ence.

teach­ing ma­te­rial is made avail­able to you through an e-learn­ing site.

Re­al­is­ti­cally, this should prob­a­bly be taught over at least a few days to al­low all the in­for­ma­tion to be truly ab­sorbed. Your lo­cal dive cen­tre will most likely be ex­tremely help­ful with any ques­tions that fall out­side of the on­line teach­ing, and it is at your dive cen­tre where you take a writ­ten test. You have to achieve 75 per cent or higher to com­plete this stage.

The next step in the process is to dip your toes in the wa­ter to un­der­take a con­fined wa­ter dive (in a pool or shal­low beach) and then four open wa­ter dives (deeper open wa­ter). Th­ese dives are de­signed to put into prac­tice all the in­for­ma­tion from your e-learn­ing… in­clud­ing hav­ing

the your mask pulled from your face… but it is not as bad as it sounds.

The ini­tial con­fined wa­ter dive is a bit of a bom­bard­ment of in­for­ma­tion, cov­er­ing such skills as:

• A 200m swim

• As­sem­ble, put on and ad­just scuba gear

• Pre-dive safety check

• In­flate and de­flate BCD

• Swap from reg­u­la­tor to snorkel, snorkel to reg­u­la­tor

• De­scend un­der­wa­ter

• Use your Pres­sure Gauge and sig­nal your re­main­ing air

• Recog­nise and re­spond to hand sig­nals un­der­wa­ter

• Clear a fully flooded mask

• Re­move mask and swim for at least 15m, re­place and clear mask

• Demon­strate neu­tral buoy­ancy

• Take off scuba gear and put it back on at sur­face and at depth

• Swim and nav­i­gate with a com­pass at sur­face and at depth

• Emer­gency weight drop at sur­face and at depth

• Cramp re­lease on buddy and on your­self at sur­face and at depth

• BCD oral in­fla­tion at sur­face and at depth

• Out of air ex­er­cises: use al­ter­nate air source, pro­vide al­ter­nate air source, prac­tice buddy breath­ing

• Prac­tice a con­trolled emer­gency swimming as­cent (CESA)

• As­cend while equal­is­ing


The first open wa­ter dive is more an ori­en­ta­tion dive, and you will be­gin to learn to soar through the wa­ter like a gull does through air. If you are any­thing like me you will likely suck down air at twice the rate you should, and your soar- ing may run into quite a lot of tur­bu­lence, but the nerves and ex­cite­ment are part of the ex­pe­ri­ence and learn­ing to con­trol them is an achieve­ment in it­self.

The next two dives al­low new divers to prac­tice re­cently learned knowl­edge, in­clud­ing hand sig­nals, nav­i­ga­tion, emer­gency pro­ce­dures and much more. All this is taught within the rel­a­tive safety zone of a depth al­low­ing an emer­gency as­cent if needed.

By the fourth dive, ideally your new­found skills are be­com­ing sec­ond na­ture and as con­fi­dence grows your body re­laxes and in turn you get more ‘bot­tom time’. I guar­an­tee you will now be grin­ning be­hind your reg­u­la­tor as you check out sea horses, eels and bril­liantly coloured fish, and you’ll won­der why on earth you’ve never done this scuba div­ing thing be­fore.

I am still awestruck ev­ery time I de­scend, and I clearly re­call my first dive, in which Matt showed me how per­sonal buoy­ancy can be con­trolled by in­hal­ing and ex­hal­ing. Who would have ever thought that as you glide across sub­merged reef beds you could sim­ply take a deep breath to rise over a small ob­sta­cle, and ex­hale to drop over the far side?

For me this weird and won­der­ful world is only now just open­ing up, and I am still but a pup in the world of scuba, but I am en­thralled, en­thused and the ad­dic­tion is creep­ing in. Some of my new bud­dies are keen to ex­plore our lo­cal sites and the Sun­day ‘Dive & BBQ’ run by my lo­cal dive cen­tre is al­ways a good laugh with good friends. I am al­ready list­ing dive des­ti­na­tions for fu­ture ex­plo­ration and have even man­aged a few dives in the Cook Is­lands on a re­cent so­journ into the Pa­cific

Some­where deep in my sub­con­scious I think maybe there is an urge to ex­cel, to at­tain a level of abil­ity and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to of­fer con­fi­dence to cave dive, and to one day cre­ate for my­self some of those in­cred­i­ble images that drew me in to scuba in the first place.


Scuba div­ing skills come in handy for all types of jobs, such as re­search­ing co­ral growth, as th­ese ma­rine sci­en­tists are do­ing.

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