Learning Scuba in Scapa

There are many things I hoped to see and do during this year of travelling but only one thing I’d promised myself: a scuba diving course. I’d wanted to learn scuba for years but extreme short-sightedness stopped me: what would happen if my contact lenses washed away? A prescription mask was an option, but it might come off in the water and there’d be a faff with lenses before and after. The prospect of total helplessness, unable to read dials under water, and not knowing which way to swim even if I got to the surface, was too much. Lens replacement surgery a couple of years ago removed these obstacles, but work commitments kept me too busy – making money and not having the time to spend it!

By mid-August we were on Orkney and, on our first walk through Stromness, I spotted Scapa Scuba at the bright red Lifeboat House. lifeboat-station They offered courses which looked ideal and time-wise it was probably the last opportunity I’d have this year. I booked on the four-day course with my fingers crossed as the previous week had been spent in bed with a cold and chest infection, not ideal preparation for scuba diving. In the two days before the start I read the PADI manual and watched the video. The theory all made sense and looked doable on paper and the video, shot in warm, clear, tropical waters, made it look a doddle in practice.

Day one 9 am I pitched up at Lifeboat House and met Karolina and Patrick my instructor and wingman, both lovely, patient people and skilled divers. The morning flew past reviewing theory in the classroom and drinking coffee, easy-peasy. After lunch I learnt how to fit into a drysuit, complete with boots, hood, gloves and tight band around my neck. I could barely breathe before the equipment was added: weight belt, ankle weights, buoyancy jacket, air cylinder, gauge and regulators, mask with snorkel and fins, and with all that on I could hardly stand! The walk down to the sea at the side of the Lifeboat House slipway was tortuous. Great relief when the water took the weight! With Karolina leading, me following, and Patrick right behind watching out for me, we descended to about 3 metres. I didn’t immediately find it comfortable to breathe through the regulator and didn’t like the constriction of the mask around my nose. I wasn’t happy, I was concentrating hard on remembering to breathe deeply and not hold my breath and equalising pressure in my Eustachian tubes every couple of minutes (harder than it should have been due to the recent cold) and worrying about all the things I was likely to forget or get wrong. Then I saw a hermit crab doing its stuff on the sea bottom and, for some moments, forgot to worry.

The swimming around looking at sea life was fine, but then we had to do the skills training. I fully appreciate it’s necessary, to make sure you don’t die, but I really didn’t like practising taking the regulator out and putting it back under water. What made it worse was the counter-intuitive necessity to breathe out constantly while you’re doing it. One time I forgot to press the regulator purge button and got a mouthful of seawater. I couldn’t think how to get rid of the water and get another breath so I panicked. I made a mad dash for the surface, just making it in time to spit out the water and breathe again. Totally stupid! I was lucky to be only about 10 feet down at the time, but I’d really no idea how deep I was. By then I was thoroughly unnerved and feeling cold and defeated. We called it a day.

On day two we managed two confined water dives . It’s amazing how quickly one can become familiar with a load of new equipment and actions. Putting on the dry suit and all the gear was easy, if not comfortable, on day two. And the training competences went a lot better. I was very anxious about trying the regulator exercise again. This time I was kneeling on the seabed and again got a mouthful of water but I forced myself to stay still, press the purge button and trust that water would be replaced by air. And it was. I think Karolina was as relieved as me because if I’d panicked again I don’t think I’d have been able to continue. It wasn’t exactly plain sailing but basically, I’d cracked it. I did get things wrong: emptying air out of my buoyancy jacket rather than filling it when I wanted to ascend for example, but no more panics.

dive flag at the day one dive site, Churchill Barrier No 3Day 3 was the first open water dive at the Churchill Barrier No 3, Scapa Flow. Divers come from all over the world to explore the famous wrecks here; what an introduction for me!

The weather was pretty foul, and the visibility underwater just 5 metres, but we made two dives and completed more skills tests. The first things I saw underwater were drifts of sea gooseberries – a beautiful sight which got me into the ‘flow’ without any anxiety. As we swam around rusting wreckage I saw crabs and jellyfish, lots of seaweed and shells. I hadn’t fully mastered how to maintain neutral buoyancy in my drysuit so there were several sinkings to the bottom followed by rather too sharp ascents! Patrick was there every time, to raise my arm to release air from the suit and stop me popping up too far (the air release on my suit was on the left forearm; you had to raise it above your head for air to flow out). A bit of an up and down day really!

wreck at Churchill Barrier No 3The final day was warm and sunny. We went out to Churchill Barrier No 3 again, but this time to the other end and other side. We’d done all the skills tests required the day before, so these two dives were purely for fun. And I really enjoyed them. The visibility was quite good and we swam around looking at the wreckage and the resident seaweeds and other life which now inhabits them. Afterwards Karolina and Patrick discussed the various parts of the ship’s anatomy that we’d seen but I couldn’t differentiate one piece of rust from another, I just enjoyed the seaweed. We did surface inside the hull of the main wreck (in the photo) which was pretty amazing. It’s just not right to see the ribs of a ship above your head and at that angle!

And that was it. Four exhausting and at times scary days, but by the end I felt reasonably confident and relaxed under water. I’m very pleased I did it and extremely happy with the training and care I received from Karolina, Patrick and the team at Scapa Scuba.

I’m looking forward to diving again but I think I’ll try to arrange tropical warm waters and a lightweight wetsuit for the next time!