It’s been about a decade since I last strapped tanks of air onto my back, and probably twice that long since my first ever dive in Australia during the early ’90s. I wanted to get some air into my lungs, shake off the malaise brought on by my recent brush with malaria, explore the sea and begin to put the stresses of work as far behind me as I could. Now, with some spare time on my hands, what better way to kick start my sabbatical than by reviving my diving past and taking in the beautiful underwater scenery for which Malta is famous.
One small problem. I’ve lost all my paperwork, dive logs, contact with old dive buddies and many skills. I can barely remember qualifying for my open water diving certificate back in Perth, let alone find any of the supporting documents. They have become unfortunate casualties of constant travel — forgotten, discarded or destroyed. I’m slowly trying to piece together the records and will be reaching out to old dive buddies in the hope that they can fill in the blanks. The aim is to re-qualify at least some of my previous dives towards prerequisite minimums that I’ll need for advanced diving credentials.
I gave Perth Diving Academy a call to see if they were still operating. Good news, someone answered and they are in business. I asked whether they had any records dating back to the ’90s but was informed that because I completed my course before mainstream computerization, their records don’t extend that far back. They would, however, try to get in touch with one of the original managers to see if he kept any backup records. I’m not holding my breath.
As luck would have it, not far from the apartment and nestled in the center of Balluta Bay is Neptunes Diving, a well-established diving shop that really does live up to its tagline as the Friendliest Dive Centre In Malta. I don’t know what came over me, but when I saw the shop’s flags swinging in the wind I had an impulsive urge to start my six month sabbatical with a diving adventure.
Starting from scratch might not be such a bad idea. I’ve probably forgotten most of what I learned and a new open water certification, this time with PADI, would help me get back into diving without any bad habits. What is it that they say: it’s not what you do but how you do it and who you do it with? I imagine that diving is no different and that the calibre of the teacher directly impacts the proficiency of the graduates. A good instructor, teacher and/or mentor is paramount to mastering the skills that make any sport enjoyable and safe.
My instructor has logged well over 10,000 dives — a conservative estimate — and is highly regarded not only on the island of Malta but also in the UK and throughout the Med. I have all the confidence that between him and his partner, they’ll make a decent diver out of me.
So, while the rest of the northern hemisphere braces itself for more winter snow, I’m gallivanting around the island and dipping my toes in the Med with a big smile on my face. Life could be worse.
Having enough free time to complete the full open water certificate in one sitting is a welcome change. I’m usually struggling to find a few spare hours let alone a week. When I did the previous open water certificate in Perth, I remember having to split it over three weekends just be be able to fit it around my work schedule. Getting everything done in a single stretch is far easier and more effective, I also think it improves retention.
The first half of day one centred on theory, safety, equipment and the basics of diving. The theory hadn’t changed much but the equipment had advanced a bit. With theory mastered, we suited up and headed into the bay for a series of confined dives to assess my abilities in the water. Basic things like clearing your mask underwater, removing your buoyancy compensator and weight belt, cramp removal, dealing with a malfunctioning regulator and testing my ability to maintain neutral buoyancy (neither sinking nor rising).
At 18°C, the water was a lot colder than I thought it would be. It wasn’t long before I was appreciative of the 10mm wetsuit, booties and hood, which stood between me and hypothermia. After the swim and 10 minute water tread tests I was ready for day two.
The second day focused on emergency procedures, ascents, towing a tired diver, exchanging the snorkel and regulator, alternative air sources, out of air procedures, hand signals, safety stops and regulator retrieval. It was all coming back to me. I was starting to look forward to getting out of the bay and into deeper open water.
Day three was the real deal — deeper and in open water at Cirkewwa Bay. It would not only test my practical skills but also my ability to deal with the cold water. The relatively sheltered bay outside the dive shop was a lot warmer. I packed an extra t-shirt and used it as additional padding under the wetsuit in the hope that it would stop some of the cold water swooshing in and out. It worked to an extent, but it was no substitute for a dry suit.
My mission after each dive was simple: warm up as quickly as possible in preparation for the next dive. While I guzzled cup after cup of hot cocoa in an attempt to raise my core temperature, my instructors unzipped their toasty, and dry, cocoons without so much as a care in the world. They were better prepared for the temperature of the water and, of course, trained in using a dry suit. Something I may need to invest in moving forward.
The final and third dive for the day covered underwater compass navigation, controlled emergency ascent and buoyancy exercises. Despite the cold water, each dive was like stepping into a magical world, an underwater Disneyland with all of its whacky and colourful characters.
With only 60 bar of air left in my third and final tank, it was time to call it a day. Once on the surface my instructor shook my hand and said that I’ve passed the PADI Open Water Diver course. I was cold but excited.
For me, diving is like being suspended in an aquatic soup, free to glide without any restrictions. Bubbles streaming to the surface, fish swimming in all directions with complete indifference to my presence; and all around, bright coral of purple, orange and green, surrounded by life and the gentle motion of the sea. I even saw a tuna fish shooting past my right shoulder trying to catch its breakfast. There was an octopus, hundreds of different species of fish, fire worms and an eel wrapped around a limestone formation. It reminded me of a dive I did in Indonesia where an eel had wrapped itself around my regulator hose mistaking it for a potential mate. It took me a good couple of minutes to pry the two lovers apart.
Can’t wait to explore some of the shipwrecks in deeper waters and try out the underwater camera. Tomorrow I start the Advanced Open Water Diver course. After that, onto Rescue Diver and Divemaster, time permitting. Time permitting — I crack myself up :)