We recently got back from Portland on the Dorset Coast. It's a small peninsula beside Weymouth famous for Portland Stone used to build grand buildings like St. Pauls Cathedral. It also forms the east most end of Chiswell Beach.
Our goal was to complete our PADI Advanced Open Water Diver certification. Unfortunately, Jenny had to drop out of the course because the doctor refused to give her medical approval. However, it still meant two days holiday without the kids. A friend of ours volunteered to look after them (on condition we take her two kids another time). Fair enough.
Now your reaction to diving in the UK might be "are you crazy?". Well, that was my prejudice as well but I decided it wasn't fair to condemn something I haven't tried so I decided to do the course in the UK and give UK diving a chance.
We got down there Wednesday evening after a three hour crawl, checked into our B&B and went for a nice dinner at Perry's in Weymouth's Old Harbour. Food was excellent and the harbour is very pleasant to stroll around. The B&B oozes character. It's called the Queen Anne House. It's a Grade II listed house built in 1710 and we stayed in the tastefully decorated Oyster room. My only complaint is that the bed was only five feet long with a mattress so soft it felt like a water bed!
The next morning I had difficulty forcing down a full English breakfast. My nerves were wavering as I contemplated with some trepidation diving to a massive deep gloomy wreck in cold murky water. We arrived early at The Scuba Centre and my nerves disappeared as I got busy fitting on equipment and listening to a briefing. On the instructors encouragement, I hired a Halcyon Wing. Since the course was during the week, all the kit hire was free.
With four fellow students and all the gear in tow, we headed over to the boat moored by the Aqua Hotel. The general format was always:
- Get kitted up either by the Aqua Hotel or on the boat.
- Take a short boat ride out to the dive site.
- Listen to the briefing.
- Do the dive.
- Take the boat back to the mooring by the Aqua Hotel.
- Get the cylinders refilled and relax for a while around the cafe
- Go back to 1
This format worked great but it does require lots of humping around heavy equipment and sitting around like a gumby in thick layers of neoprene. Glad the weather wasn't too hot!
Dive 1: Countess of Erne, max depth 10m, bottom time 36 minutes
I was pretty tense as I made my giant stride entry. Ten months since my last dive was too long. I expected to feel a massive shock of cold water but it never came. Hey, the water wasn't cold! Okay, it was a bit cold when you stuck your face in the water but it wasn't any big deal. I was wearing a 5mm full wetsuit and over that I had a 5mm shortie with an integrated hood. It was downright toastie and I never felt any water flushing down my back. Superb! The water temperature was 17 degrees celsius and I felt comfortable.
We practiced some "Peak Buoyancy" control and frog kicks around the wreck of this paddle steamer sunk in 1935. Visibility was maybe 4m. I slowly relaxed and got the hang of diving again. I started to get familiar with all the new equipment I had including a new Suunto dive computer I was trying for the first time. The Halcyon Wing was excellent; keeps your swim profile much more streamlined.
After this dive, I relaxed considerably.
Dive 2: Landing Craft, max depth 16m, bottom time 34 minutes
This time we took a RIB out to the diving site and I did my first ever backwards roll from a boat. This dive we learned about using lines for exploring wrecks. In this case, the wreck was a WWII Landing Craft and Bombardon Unit. Visibility was terrible; one to three metres at best. Still saw quite a few fish and a large crab.
Also tried deploying a surface marker buoy (SMB) for the first time. As expected, I lost my neutral buoyancy and shot to the surface while concentrating on reeling in the line. My new fangled computer made it clear I wasn't supposed to do that!
That was it for the first day. After cleaning up, Jenny and I went for a excellent meal at the Blue Fish Cafe in Portland. It's a new restaurant and I would highly recommend it if you're in the vicinity. We then went and sat on Chiswell Beach and watched the sunset while playing with the bazillion pebbles.
Dive 3: Pulpit Rock, max depth 24.4m, bottom time 26 minutes
Next morning we started with a deep dive. This was my first drift dive. I deployed the SMB on the surface and went down ok but messed up ascending the SMB line later on. The drift was along the bottom of a short wall. Not a great deal to see. Some fish here and there including a big stingray at one point. It's all very drab but sometimes the rocky topography was interesting. Enjoyed just drifting along and watching the scenery pass by.
Dive 4: Bally Bay, max depth 15.5m, bottom time 26 minutes
This was another drift dive but in a stronger current. It was a bit scary to watch the boat leave us drifting in the open sea. I deployed the SMB and we descended to the bottom. Got much better at using the SMB this dive and at the end, made a perfect ascent up the SMB line. Hoorah! Visibility was about 5m but the group still managed to lose each other. I made sure I could always see my buddy.
There wasnt' a great deal to see. The instructor and my dive master buddy collected scallops along the drift which we later had with lunch. I found drift diving very relaxing since there's nothing to do but float along. I had lots of air left by the end of the dive. The current got faster near the end of the dive and I was quite amazed later to discover just how much ground we covered.
On the surface, there was a bad chop and it was hard to get to the boat. At one point I was left bobbing around by myself being hit by waves while the boat had to circle around to make another attempt to recover me. Yep, diving does have its moments.
Dive 5: The Dredger, max depth 10m, bottom time 31 minutes
The final dive was a shallow wreck dive to practice underwater navigation with a compass. Visibility was very poor but that was intentional since we had to rely on using the compass. I messed up navigating a square but did alright with the triangle. The Dredger is a very broken up wreck so not a lot to see.
What I've Learned
I've learned quite a bit this trip.
I was never cold during any of these dives. In a similiar exposure suit, I would happily dive in 15 degree water. So diving in the UK can be comfortable but I wasn't impressed with any of the dive sites. UK diving is mainly about wreck diving and that doesn't have a lot of appeal to me. I'd rather see more sea life. I hear the visibility around Cornwall is much better so I'm very open to making a future dive trip there. Need to remember to take a collecting bag so I can pick scallops along the way!
Good buoyancy control takes practice and you need to dive frequently to maintain the skill. Before going on a dive trip to another country, it would be worthwhile doing a local dive to refresh all these dive skills.
The Halcyon Wing was excellent and seems to be a much better choice than using a regular jacket-style BCD (buoyancy compensation device). It's a bit trickier to figure where all your gear needs to go but it's worth going this this route in order to be better balanced and streamlined.
As for other gear, the SMB takes practice but is well worth carrying. The Suunto Vyper dive computer was an excellent investment. I stopped carrying a snorkel because it got in the way but I should find another way to carry it since it could be vital in choppy water.
The PADI Advanced Open Water Diver is an easy course. I certainly don't feel advanced. I know some more techniques but I'm still very much a beginner with only 19 dives under my belt. Practice counts for a lot in diving. I'm now qualified to dive to 30m but I'm inclined to stick to 20m or less.