Discovering a new world
Both Franco and I have been tempted by scuba diving in the past. Franco, to while away time in Berlin, took a pool based course. Back in Jersey, he did a couple of dives but didn’t pursue it because it was too expensive. As a kid I was fascinated by Jacques Cousteau, I wanted to become a professional diver but life took a different turn and I never took up scuba diving.
Snorkelling in the Rotoava anchorage
Iridescent green fish hiding in coral
We talked about it, wasn’t snorkelling enough? If we were ever going to dive though, French Polynesia had to be one of the best places to learn. Our goal was a drift dive through the north pass of Fakarava and then we would give it up.
I phoned ‘Dive Spirit’, a dive centre in Rotoava, from the Marquesas.
“Hi, we have no diving qualifications and want to do a drift dive through the north pass. What do we need to do?”
Delphine, the manager, signed us up for the French level 1 course, just four dives with a few technical exercises. We’d got off lightly, I had expected weeks of training before we would be let loose in the pass.
Our coach was Yann and our first dive site was a large ‘patate’ (potato) of coral in the middle of the lagoon. The Americans call them ‘bommies’ and the French call them ‘potatoes’ (don’t ask why) though there may be something to be said for the vegetable analogy since these coral formations grow up from the lagoon floor and look a little like broccoli or cauliflower.
Kitted out with buoyancy jackets, air bottles and demand valves, we dropped backwards over the side of the RIB and sunk to the bottom of the lagoon. We recognised many of the fish species from our snorkelling forays but being down there with them was a completely new and different experience. A snorkeler is a voyeur, or at the very most, a spectator. A diver is at the heart of the action, an aquatic actor, a fish among fish.
A new fish
An hour later we surfaced, grinning from ear to ear. We were hooked. How were we going to fit a compressor on Caramor?
Morning tea break on a beach between dives
We progressed fast, if you can equalise your ears and are comfortable under water, then scuba diving is easy. The buoyancy jacket was a new aspect for us, the old weights that you strap around your waist are still in use but the jacket allows you to manage very precisely how much you float at different depths but adding air from your bottle or deflating it.
Our fourth dive was a drift dive through the south pass of Fakarava. As the tide speeded up, we ‘flew’ over the underwater canyon. I looked at Clementine, one of our dive buddies, she was pretending to be ‘Superman’. It really did feel like that!
The Marvel comic characters must have been dreamt up by a scuba diver. Delphine, in her purple wet suit was, I decided, ‘Super E Woman’. Energy, efficiency and enthusiasm epitomise her way of working and it is a delight to spend time with her. Yann, we soon realised, is the ‘Zen Master’, he can hover a foot above the bottom, for hours. We tried it, each time I thought I’d got it, my feet would rise up and I would fall backwards onto the bottle and end up stuck like an upside down turtle. During an exercise where we pretended Franco was out of air and I had to share mine with him, I passed him my spare demand valve upside down. When he breathed in, nothing happened, Yann to the rescue, once more. Clearly in the spirit of Marvel, I was the ‘Buffoon’, and Franco had to be the ‘Joker’ after the compass exercise. He was supposed to follow bearings which would lead him back to the start in a triangle. He set off on a course and returned on the same line. Through the mask, I could tell he was a little puzzled.
Even Zen masters can get it wrong, Yann turned around to check the whole dive team was following. He couldn’t understand why everyone was gesticulating that he should look behind him ... DONK, he drifted straight into a coral bommie backwards.
Heading back to the centre after a north pass dive
It wasn’t long before he got his revenge.
“Today, you are both going to inflate the parachutes at the end of the dive.”
A parachute is a fabric tube, open at the bottom and attached to a lead line, it is inflated at the end of the dive to warn boats that divers are about to surface. We had seen him inflate his several times and it looked easy.
We pulled our chutes out of our pockets and unrolled them, letting the lead line fall below us. So far so good. Using our spare demand valve, we inflated the tube. It shot up to the surface, pulling me up with it. Yann was expecting this and grabbed hold of my ankle to slow my ascent until I managed to stabilise again. Recovering from my surprise, I saw a parachute floating off into the void and Yann gesticulating to Franco to recover it. Franco had just let go, to avoid being pulled upwards. The next three minutes, the duration of the safety decompression stop were a comedy sketch with Franco and I drifting past at various depths, sometimes upside down, sometimes with our fins tangled in the line. On the surface, our parachutes drooped or lay horizontal on the water, just now and then, we managed to get them to stand up a few centimetres above the surface. How our dive mates didn’t drown with laughter, I do not know.
Franco and Yann discussing some technical stuff
Franco and I were now French level 1 divers. This enabled us to dive to 20m accompanied by a more experienced diver. Since we were going to give up diving after the north pass drift dive, this should have been enough. Our new concern was whether this award would be recognised in English speaking countries who tend to use the PADI system. Yann told us that our four dives could count towards the nine dives required for a PADI Open Water Diver ticket if we preferred. This would enable us to dive unaccompanied to 18m and to hire dive gear. The decision was easy.
As well as some extra exercises,the PADI course involves a bit of theory and an exam so we took a couple of days off diving to do our homework.
Franco sipping a hard to find coconut
The lagoon level was a little high to enjoy these ‘feet in the water’ tables
We cruised through the exam and Yann looked a little worried when we answered all the questions correctly, until the last one, about diving in a high altitude lake, which we got wrong.
The course was brilliant, mixing technical exercises with exploration. Of the nine dives for the PADI award, four were drift dives (considered by PADI to be much more advanced) and all of them were in a crystal clear lagoon in warm water. We saw manta rays, spotted eagle rays, four types of shark, a moray eel, sea cucumbers, Napoleon wrasse, groupers and thousands of colourful fish. ‘Dive Spirit’ had done us proud.
The Dive Spirit RIB