A school of bright fish pass over the luscious blue of the TV screen, two divers floating behind them. So far, the diving course at the ORCA Dive Club Soma Bay is easy and pleasant enough. The video then goes on to explain the history of diving, the equipment and how to use it. By lesson 3, we have learned about decompression sickness and enormous pressure changes in lungs and ears, inadvertently fingering our ears and swallowing nervously. Without transition the sugary voice goes on, "Diving is a wonderful experience!" By now we have slight doubts, but are nevertheless still curious and full of positive anticipation.
The next step is to get the rental equipment. In the beginners' course you are not supposed to have your own gear, although Natascha, being quite short-sighted, brought her own mask with optical glasses. Diving is a gear-intensive sport, and apart from mask, snorkel and fins we get a wetsuit, a buoyancy jacket, lead weights, a diving regulator, a dive computer and of course air cylinders for each dive. All of this weighs about 20 kg, and we don't exactly feel like plunging into deep water bearing all this. Our diving instructor Shady is an Egyptian with several thousand dives under his belt. "And then you make me a sign that you don't have air, and take my second regulator", he is explaining the first lesson. "You mean, underwater??!". Shady had been planning to go straight into the lagoon for practice, but since we seem so shocked and there is a stiff breeze in the lagoon, we do our exercises in the pool.
In spite of the video preparation, we are surprised how diving actually works: You can breathe quite effortless underwater with the regulator, although the sound of those air bubbles is a bit nerve-racking and reminiscent of the life support machine in intensive care stations (knowledge from the movies...). Thanks to the mask you can see clearly, and despite the lead belt you can move – although our movements are more hopping and bouncing than weightless floating. And the following afternoon lesson is out in the open water. To qualify as an open water diver, you have to go deeper than 6 meters and stay underwater for longer than 20 minutes, we learn. We stay for 29 minutes and get down as deep as 9.6 m, and we do get to see a good many fish – all on the first day! Again, apart from the bouncing around and a certain amount of nervousness due to too much water, it goes quite well.
Everyone seems to pity us when we have to go inside for more theory – but in fact we are glad to do something familiar such as looking at diagrams and taking some notes.
On the second day, we are more nervous, because the challenge of breathing underwater – and evenly so – now becomes more real rather than just a one-off experience. The difficulty is not so much the breathing itself but the knowledge that you may not panic under any circumstances. “Doesn't that make you rather more prone to panicking?” Natascha worries.
Hesitantly, we jump into the lagoon. And yes, we pop up in spite of those 20 kilos because the jacket is filled with air like a lifejacket. Today, we are up for safety drills under water: Changing mouthpieces, getting water out of the mask, removing and replacing the mask completely, taking off the various pieces of equipment under water and on the surface, and fixing them again, buoyancy practice, dealing with muscle cramps underwater, and so on. Some of these exercises are ok, others more frightening. Later on shore, talking to other divers, we learn that most people have exercises they hate, and hear of experienced divers who refuse to take off their mask.
Rationally, we agree that it's better to practice these drills to be prepared if something does happen, but we are not keen on doing them, as being underwater and breathing evenly through the regulator seems challenging enough.
On day 3, more safety drills follow. The next open water dive goes deeper in, along the coral reef. The sea is cold, and diving appears more like something to get through with than a pleasant hobby. Theory lessons have meanwhile arrived at responsible diving, planning the schedule and length and depth of each dive, with brief mention of the various animals to be seen in the sea. But being able to identify certain fish and sea slugs is a matter of every diver's personal priorities, it's not important for the diving certificate. Natascha has meanwhile quit the course because the stress diving causes her is greater than her interest in fish and slugs (although at least underwater slugs are more colourful though than their earthling counterparts).
The final day consists of only one dive with almost no exercises – the idea being to make you feel more relaxed in the water and keen to continue your new hobby. After three days of diving drills it feels indeed somewhat less frightening, and Isa has also learned to move more controlled underwater so that she can enjoy the dive more than before. The theory part is ticked off with an easy multiple choice test comprising 50 questions mostly concerning security measures and procedures. And then Isa finally is a certified open water diver!
The SSI Open Water Diver card authorises its holder to dive without further instruction – but for another 26 dives still accompanied by a dive guide certified to do this. The same applies to the equally popular PADI Open Water Diver programme. A very sensible requirement, we think, since the course with its 4 open water dives may prepare for easy dives in good conditions, but certainly not for any unusual or dangerous situation.
Although diving (as everything) gets easier with practice it might be helpful if you are a confident swimmer, even in the open sea, and don't find the idea of being stuck under tons of water too disturbing. Even better if you are additionally interested in fish and underwater fauna, although this automatically comes with more dives, the other divers assured us. On the other hand, if you continue, you will meet nice and open-minded people around the world (yes, we found divers to be a very uncomplicated and friendly bunch) and you have an additional 70 % of the world to explore.