My first experience of diving took place on the Caribbean island of Dominica, and I got my PADI Open Water whilst living in the Indian Ocean. I’ve honestly never been one for cold temperatures, and I can’t exactly explain what motivated me to head off to Plymouth in April for some underwater adventuring. The idea of diving into murky British seas struck me as somewhat distasteful, and my uncertainty about the whole enterprise was only compounded by emails telling us to pack fleeces, warm jumpers, and moisturizer for a wind that was allegedly going to flay our faces raw. But armed with my dive knife, thick layers of neoprene, and all the confidence I could muster, off I went into the unknown.
The weather upon our arrival was surprisingly clement – I think it was a balmy 25°C on Day 1 of diving. We all struggled with basic mathematics whilst filling in our dive slates, developed Houdini-esque techniques for getting into our diving apparel, and before you knew it, a string of lead around our waists, off we headed for our very first dive in British waters. I would like to say mine went smoothly, but the truth is I swallowed half of Bovi harbour whilst doing my weight check, and then went on to display a shocking lack of grace as I struggled with my buoyancy. I floundered about helplessly in a sea of kelp, and I think a small part of me died when Ali asked me to do a full mask removal in the 10°C water. Nonetheless, both I and the good weather persevered…
In the days that followed, we continued to be blessed by ridiculous sunshine – my dive computer even recorded a 31°C at one point. We fell into a merry routine of chaining, diving, and binging on corned-beef sandwiches and Morrison’s value ham. We ignored the slightly dubious sanitation that accompanies food preparation with a sea-soaked dive knife, and happily ate our way through mountains of chocolate. I don’t know about everybody else, but I certainly didn’t lose the 3kg I was promised.
We patted Woody and the grey dog, drank beers at Sippers whilst Winston salivated at our feet, and enjoyed a barbeque as the sun gloriously set over Plymouth Sound. We explored all the sexual innuendos that are contained in diving terminology (tastes fine, no fluctuations anybody?), carried an awful lot of tanks about, and saw dolphins majestically leaping clear out of the ocean. We ate diver burgers, mastered the art of lightening showers (well, some of us did), and, most importantly, struggled with the deep existential question that accompanies diving in a semi-dry: to pee or not to pee?
We enjoyed relaxed rides home in Martin’s Zen car, and frantic rides home to go and cook for an army. We discussed how weird the ‘locals’ at the hostel were (super weird is how weird) and also how awesome our diving mentors were (super awesome is how awesome). Finally, we ingested vast quantities of Polo mints, and valiantly rescued each other from flat calm seas.
Amidst all of those pleasant memories, however, some stand out more than others. Perfecting a backwards roll over the side of the Scoundrel made me feel like James Bond, and hearing our ‘elders’ tell tales of ETs gone by made me feel like the newest member to an extended diving family – one full of colourful characters I haven’t all met yet but have heard a lot about.
As for highlights… I think that much like everybody else one of them was exploring the Scylla and the James, and I was privileged enough to dive them both for the first time in Mark Bell’s company. Casually swimming around those wrecks was (figuratively) breath-taking and is something that I will remember for years to come. The Eddystone Lighthouse, as my first ‘unsupervised’ dive, was also pretty special to me. It was really rewarding to feel autonomous and self-sufficient, and I was glad to share that moment with my partner in crime, Helen ‘Muppet II’ Stevenson. Despite her threats to do away with me underwater we had an ace of base dive, and even enjoyed a nice game of ‘rock, scissors, paper’ on our 6m stop.
I was less fortunate when it came to congers, however. For days I had to listen to everyone yapping away about all the hoards of eels they kept seeing, with some trainees even being so bold as to casually poke them. But despite diving the James three times, I was having No Luck At All. You can probably imagine my joy at finally finding one on the Scylla then (on the very last day!!) Never have I been so happy to see such a surly face staring back at me.
My experiences in Plymouth have therefore convinced me of two things: 1) the fact that there are eels aplenty on the James Eagan Layne is an absolute myth and 2) Plymouth in April is a positively tropical destination. The notoriously bad weather we’d heard so much about never came, and I returned to London with an enviable tan that had everyone convinced I’d sojourned somewhere distant and exotic.
That’s not to say that every day was plain sailing though (or plain diving). There were a few minor incidents involving SMBs and reels, somebody’s weight-belt may have fallen off 20m underwater, and a solitary white fin now lies abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. But these things pale in comparison to the fun we had and the skills we honed.
Much to the disappointment of ET veterans, however, no new romances blossomed on the trip. Friendships were consolidated though, and many of us found an idol in Dougie Live, the singing sensation of Plymouth. The only thing I could possibly add to this account now is a massive thank you: to Ali, to Martin, and to everyone who made the trip possible – be they Advanced Diver or Ocean Diver trainee. It was an absolute pleasure spending Easter with you all, and I enjoyed myself far more than I ever imagined I would. See you next year…?