Tuesday, 23 August 2011

PADI course in Korcula - Summer 2011

Tutor becomes the tutee
Tuesday, 23 August 2011

I have decided to write this as a completely separate blog entry as in a sense it feels like a completely different trip.  I said goodbye to my friends yesterday and from here on i am on my own to fend for myself and not get lost.  Luckily i am not entirely on my own and to be fair i have very little time to myself to get in a situation to become lost.  My company is being spent in a hostel (left) with other divers and my time is being spent on an Open Water PADI course starting at 7:30 every morning and finishing at 6:30 every night.  Today was my first day and first impressions... there is soooooo much to learn! I did about 4 hours of solid theory where i had to sit on the less familiar side of a classroom and fill in a booklet of questions using a text book and a DVD as my guide.  This was followed by a closed book test to ensure that things were genuinely learnt and then a lecture from a dive master.  To be fair it is all quite easy as any questions that i answered incorrectly (or too vaguely in my case) were simply explained and signed off as now understood.  But damn it is long and tedious.  Like most good things in life you have to go through the ball ache first before you can reap the pleasures. 
The afternoon was where theory went into practice as my instructor taught me how to set up all the gear and put it on.  It weighs a ton and from the short walk to the water my wet suit already held an insulating layer of moisture to keep me warm in the already warm sea.  Carrying what felt like a baby elephant on my back i was sure to sink like a rock the second i hit the water.  But, thanks to what is called a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), i floated, uncontrollably... slowly drifting away into the blue.  Quickly anchored by my instructor i gained my bearings and readied myself for the first set of my shallow water skills.  The BCD is a jacket that works like inflatable arm bands which you inflate or deflate with the press of a button.  An ingenious idea allowing you to sink or float when you wish.  The first skills were getting the brain used to the fact that despite what it has learnt the past few million years, you can actually breath underwater.  Other skills included removing the mouth piece, losing your mask and using the hand signals learnt in the theory. 
My instructor is great but it is amazing how much fonder and closer you get to them when underwater.  I am pretty sure it's not just me that finds this but it really is a very strange feeling.  I am not entirely sure why this is either.  Maybe it is the thought that they are very much in control of your life when you are down there.  Or maybe it is the constant signing of "are you ok", using the thumb and index finger to make a ring, at which you respond with the same sign back.  Or it is simply the sense of security felt from just having another human being with you in a world that human beings don't belong.  I think that there is a great sense of solitude underwater and it very much feels like you and your buddy are the only people around for miles.  Maybe i am just going mad!? Anyway, day 1 of my PADI is over and it has been fascinating so far.  Tomorrow i do my deep water skills and the dreaded swim test.  Wish me luck! 

In the deep
Thursday, 25 August 2011

Ladies and gentlemen you are now reading the blog of a fully qualified and PADI certified scuba diver.  So yesterday, somehow or other, i managed to pass the all so scary swim test.  I was genuinely worried about this test as it was the one thing that could potentially stop me from gaining my full open water PADI.  My worries are 100% valid as they stem from the plain and simple fact that i can't swim.  Ok i can splash and splutter a short distance and in practice i managed about 75 meters before going down like half a battle ship.  But the test asks for 200m!? 200! I can't even do half of that in the controlled environment of an indoor swimming pool.  So how on earth did i do it?  Well it turns out that swimming in the Croatian sea has one big difference to swimming in a pool.  I love it on my chips and in most of my food but never did i think i would love it in such a way.  Salt makes me float!!  I have always blamed my Indian genes for the fact that i sink like a lead weight but this added salty bonus meant that i could swim until i was tired, lie down on a metaphoric lilo for a bit and then carry on.  In a little over 3 hours i finished the 200 meters.
My skills tests had to be taken from the shallows and into the deep.  5 meters down i did skills like removing the BCD and practiced 'out of air' procedures.  Going deep aches the ears due to the extra pressure and i had always wondered how divers managed to overcome this.  A small part of the several hours of theory taught us the method of "Equalising" which is simply holding your nose and very gently blowing out of it whenever you feel the squeeze in your drum.  It can take some time (and at times not work at all if your sinuses are blocked!) and shouldn't be rushed as a ruptured ear drum is a common consequence if it is.  We also practised a technique called hovering where you make yourself perfectly buoyant with just the right amount of air in your BCD.  This is my first experience of complete weightlessness just lying there using my breathing to go up or down.  An amazing but surreal experience. 
Today was the grand finale where i finished my remaining skill tests, sat a 50 question exam and did two deep water (well 10 meters) dives.  My buddy this time was a 10 year old girl that spoke 3 different languages (English, German and Italian). 3!? how greedy is that!  I struggle with one.  Anyway she was brilliant and underwater it felt like she was my little sister.  Seriously the water does strange things.  In fact there is a thing called nitrogen narcosis which is a condition caused by being in deep water and has foolish behaviour as a symptom.  Maybe it is that.  My deep dives were actually amazing and as it was no more than 10m my camera came with me!  We went out to the dive site by boat and learnt the Hollywood style backwards roll into the water.  It took me some time to get down as i was struggling to equalise but once i was down i was free to explore a whole new universe much brighter and colourful than ours.  Though me and my buddy were more than capable of looking after each other we had 2 fully trained instructors to guide us.  Armed with an underwater rattle and hand signals that represented various fish they took us around and introduced us to sea cucumbers, rock fish and octopuses.  Completion of these dives was the completion of my PADI.  Congratulations to me!

Furthering my studies
Friday, 26 August 2011
So i passed my PADI yesterday and i don't leave Korcula until tomorrow.  What should i do in my spare day?  Diving of course!  In fact i decided to do 3 "adventure dives" and go for my advanced diver certification (which i need to complete 5 all together to get).  This means that i will be able to dive much deeper and visit ship wrecks.  More importantly it means i can tell people that i am an advanced diver and seem extra cool.  Today i did Fish Identification, Boat Dive and Navigation.  The first dive was at a site called the blue hole; a beautiful cave with holes in the top allowing beams of sky to slice through the darkness.  This kind of diving plays out like your most typical dream.  Floating around with flashing stars around you as the thousand fish catch the sunlight and fluorescent colours of the coral drift underneath whilst all your stresses just seem to dissolve into the blue.  We observed creatures that i never even knew existed like fire worms that looked like they could melt your skin if you touched them and beautiful slugs far superior to our on land slimeys.  The fish identification part of this dive meant that i had to take a white slate down with me and draw 5 different species i saw on it (using an ordinary pencil!) and then identify them on land with the use of a book on Mediterranean fish.  The boat dive was pretty much a normal dive off a boat (though slightly shallower due to the rule that you should never dive deeper than your previous dive) but with a briefing about various types of boats and ways of entering the water.
My Navigational dive didn't amount to much. It was a shallow dive with no more than a 20cm visibility and i had to use a compass to get around.   I suppose i can imagine it being a little useful but it did just feel like a hoop that i simply had to jump through to get my advanced.  My camera, being the best camera in the world, survived (though struggled) both of these dives.  At depths of 13m and 11m this was a little risky as the specs on my camera say 10m.  During the blue hole dive the screen was very clearly caving inwards and at one point switched itself off and refused to come back on until i went a little shallower.  Nonetheless, it is in full working order still and gave me some beautiful, priceless shots.

A phenomenon that i shared with many others was the fact that diving makes you hungry.  Like starving even if you ate just before (not recommended).  I have easily munched my way through more than 5 Bureks to satisfy my post diving hunger and i take back whatever i said about Bureks in the past.  Bureks are perfect post dive hole fillers.  In fact the meat ones taste exactly the same as a big english samosa.  Other Korcula delights consumed were Adriatic squids grilled to perfection and an octopus stew which i had to order the day before i wanted to eat it.  I can confidently say that the squid was the best i have ever had.  The octopus however, was a disappointment.  Maybe this was down to the fact that i was looking forward to it from the moment i ordered it and right through the day.  Diving only made it worse seeing supper swimming by every now and then.  The octopus dish in St Lucia still remains way in front. 
It is a shame that i did not get to see Korcula town but my first trip on my own has been just lovely.  I shared a dorm with diving interns and so got to meet and hang out with some genuinely interesting people.  The dive centre is already rated 5 stars and i am definitely not about to take any of those away.  I felt completely safe and at home during my entire stay and thrived off the chilled and relaxed pace of Vera Luka.  Here's to the end of a great experience and to the start of many more diving adventures.  :o)