The alarm went off at 6am and my stomach began to churn. Today was the start of Open Water weekend, and if all went well, I would earn my first diving certification. Having struggled with some of the skills in the swimming pool, not to mention the fact I was still getting used to all the kit, I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive as I pulled on my warmest clothes. I hastily gobbled a petrol station flapjack, which tasted like cardboard in my dry mouth. Knowing I shouldn’t be feeling so anxious, I tried to shake the nerves and triple-checked I had everything I needed.
Luckily, the site was only a five-minute drive from the hotel, and I arrived in plenty of time. Stoney Cove used to be a stone quarry that was used in the 1960s and 70s to train commercial divers and test underwater equipment used in oil fields. Now, Stoney Cove has conference rooms, shower facilities, a shop and – most importantly after a tiring dive – a pub called Nemo’s. The actual quarry is a multi-level city of shipwrecks and aquatic life, split up into areas of different depths for divers of all abilities. As this was our first open water dive, we stayed safely in the 7m limit, which still contained a submarine and an aircraft cockpit. Although, I was more interested in the crayfish, perch, roach and pike that called Stoney Cove home.
It was a cold but clear day, with sunlight pouring weakly onto the water. No rain at least, though I suppose rain shouldn’t really be a concern for divers. As I stood at the quarry’s edge watching seagulls floating on the surface, I couldn’t quite believe I would soon be diving several metres beneath it.
Soon it was time to start kitting up. We assembled in buddy pairs and helped each other don scuba kits just like every week at the pool. This time, however, we also had hoods, gloves, compasses and a dive computer. We made our way down to the ramp, where several divers were already in the water. For dive one all we had to do to enter the water was stand on the edge and sit gently back, floating out into the quarry.
Ungainly as always with my cylinder and weights, I felt like a tortoise on its back as I tried to strap on my fins. Eventually I was ready, and made my way hesitantly to the edge of the ramp. I turned, squatted and leaned back. The shock of freezing cold water rushing into my wetsuit wasn’t exactly comfortable, but in a strange way it was exhilarating. This was it, time to dive.
Once everyone was in the water, we began our first descent. As more of my body became submerged, I soon grew numb to the cold and instead focussed on the underwater world we were entering into. I descended to the bottom, making sure to equalise my ears to the increasing pressure, and looked around. The visibility wasn’t superb and the only features I could make out were other divers, but the murkiness only added to the suspense. It still felt strange not to have to work to stay down in the water, instead floating effortlessly.
The instructors led us on a swim, past the Nautilus submarine to a wooden platform where we would perform our skills. An underwater classroom surrounded by shipwrecks and fish; it was quite extraordinary.
After each taking turns to carry out the skills, we started our ascent. For the first time on the dive I looked up, and the sight was breathtaking. Sunlight streamed through the water in slanted shards that lit up our bubbles as they cascaded upwards. I still hadn’t got my head around being able to breathe underwater. It had been a dream of mine as a child, pretending to be a dolphin in the local pool. I wasn’t quite a dolphin yet, but I was closer to the underwater world than ever before.
Coming soon: day two of Open Water weekend!