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Scuba Diving

Blowing Bubbles Back at School: Becoming a Certified Diver

The names of the students in this article have been changed.

'Is Colin here?'

'Yes.'

'Jan and Ayla from Sweden?'

'Yes - but we're from Norway'

'Sorry!'

'And what about Maria, Giselle and Romario?'

'All here. Hola!'

'And Ross is over there. Good! All present and correct!' concluded Mark, the manager of the Northern Coast Diving School, as he slammed shut his register. 'Paul is waiting for you upstairs. Have fun!'

The notion that school could ever be 'fun' was alien to my way of thinking; and the idea that several precious hours of a Caribbean vacation should be spent in a classroom was nothing short of perverse. But here we all were, first thing on a Monday morning, staring at an ominously empty blackboard as a jovial Welshman introduced himself as our diving instructor for the next three days.

We were the latest intake of students at Northern Coast Diving, all hoping to earn the right to call ourselves 'certified divers'. This certification comes from the largest of the world's several diver training organizations, and successful completion of the Open Water Diver course (THE PADI OPEN WATER DIVER COURSE) qualifies you to dive independently under certain conditions. It is, if you like, the scuba diver's driving license.

Being at the back of the class, I was obliged to wait until the others had made their introductions before giving my own name and number. Maria, a white Dominican in her late-40s, was the headmistress of an international school in Santo Domingo, the mother of Romario, aged 10, and the aunt of Giselle, aged 14. Colin was from Leicester in England and was also in his 40s. He had a computer-related job and was here on vacation with his family. Jan, a construction engineer, and Ayla, a sunglasses saleswoman, were a young Norwegian couple who were taking the course to prove a point to friends skeptical of their aquatic prowess. And then there was me: a writer from Paris. It seemed that Paul (the 'jovial Welshman' of whom we have already spoken) had his work cut out! This was, in fact, an unusually large and eclectic group (three or four students is more normal) - and I expected the young Romario to be the likely joker in the pack.

The introductions over, Paul asked if there were any questions before the course got underway. 'What are the chances of getting hurt?' asked Maria, somewhat inauspiciously. This was obviously not the first time that the instructor had heard such a question: 'Diving is one of the safest sports around, so long as you follow the rules. The Dominican Republic is also a great place to learn how to dive. There's warm water, no extreme currents, and enough to see under the surface to get you hooked.' Moreover, unlike many other diving destinations around the world, the dive sites in the Dominican Republic tend to be close to the shore and easy to get to, which means that Open Water Diver students will probably experience two or three different sites before completing the course.

The first morning of our first day was spent confined to the classroom, watching instructional videos and being introduced to the basics of scuba diving before we could be let loose in the swimming pool to put theory into practice. Romario could hardly wait! With a little help from his mother he had enthusiastically answered most of Paul's diving-related questions, and now he wanted to have some fun. This sentiment, I fancied, was shared by all. Indeed, although most of the Open Water Diver course takes place in the water (pool and sea), you should be prepared for about one of the three days to be spent watching videos, learning about dive tables, and taking the written exam. This academic part of the course is a vital element of the training, so bear with it!

It was decided that Colin should be my diving 'buddy'; the Norwegians formed another pairing; Giselle was put with her aunt; and Romario went under Paul's careful supervision. The PADI instruction manual makes a big deal of your first experience of breathing underwater: 'With that first underwater breath, the door opens to a different world...Go through that door. Your life will never be the same.' And so is was that, on a sultry Monday afternoon in one of the larger hotel swimming pools in Sosua, scuba diving claimed another seven disciples. Or was that six? Instructors often complain that too many boyfriends and girlfriends put undue pressure on their reluctant second halves to learn how to dive, hoping to find a mutually enjoyable hobby, but failing to take adequate stock of their partner's absolute terror of being underwater. Was this the case with Jan and Ayla? Or was the latter simply suffering from first night nerves? For, out of the seven, it was Ayla who seemed to be the least comfortable. Romario, meanwhile, was swimming on his back underwater within seconds of entering the pool. His mother was more cautious, while Giselle seemed to be a dab hand. The same could also be said for Jan, Colin and myself, although the Norwegian was having to keep a constant eye on Ayla.

It is perhaps inevitable that when only a handful of students take a short, intense course, a team spirit should draw the group together. It is also true to say that each day of such courses tends to build to a certain 'moment', when this team spirit is put to the test. The protagonist of today's minor crisis was Ayla, who, having muddled through the other exercises, was now having great trouble breathing underwater without her mask. Several aborted attempts were punctuated by words of encouragement from the rest of the group and reassuring squeezes on the arm by Jan, until finally she conquered her fear and got the 'okay' signal from Paul. Thus, we all moved on to the second day with confidence and pride more or less intact.

Teaching a ten-year-old how to dive was never going to be easy and Paul was doing admirably well with the feisty Romario. This is not to say, however, that our instructor was not appreciably more tired and jaded on the morning of the second day than he had been 24 hours earlier. 'I'll go bald before he [Romario] calms down! When you're ten you're not afraid of anything, and this little guy obviously loves the water. He'll probably be a very good diver when he's older - so why can't he wait till then?' With these thoughts, Paul began the final session in the classroom before returning to the pool in the afternoon; and by the end of the day it had been decided that Romario should not continue with the Open Water Diver course - although he could still attain his PADI Scuba Diver certification, which would allow him to dive accompanied by a PADI professional to a maximum depth of 12 meters. This decision had been reached after an afternoon during which the youngster had been a law unto himself. We would all be on our knees at the bottom of the pool watching Paul as he demonstrated various diving skills, when Romario would descend from above and land straight on top of the hapless instructor's head. At other times he would start to remove his scuba gear underwater; and at one critical moment Paul found him lying spread-eagled on the bottom of the pool, regulator out of his mouth, and motionless: a prank that almost gave the Welshman a heart-attack! Safety is always the number-one priority, and even Maria agreed that her son was not yet ready to dive without supervision.

The third day was the one that everyone had been looking forward to: the dives in open water. Colin was eager to see some fish; Giselle wanted to try out her new scuba gear; and I dreamed of diving in something a little deeper than a two-meter swimming pool. There are over ten dive sites in Sosua, which is one of the principal scuba diving destinations in the Dominican Republic. The highlight is arguably the wreck of an old banana boat which hit a reef and sunk in 36 meters of water. Due to its depth this dive is for the more experienced, although there are plenty of other sites for the novice diver. The place known as 'Paradise', for example, is a coral reef at a maximum depth of 12 meters - and was the location of our first open water dive.

There was a feeling of nervous excitement as we sped towards the reef on one of the school's dive boats. Only the Norwegians, especially Ayla, seemed to be out of sorts. 'The old demons must have returned,' I thought, 'and Jan is now probably debating with himself whether or not this was a good idea after all'. But, in fact, the 'open water' part of the course would really be no different to what we had already done in the pool: the same exercises, performed a little deeper and with a bit of a current. Indeed, the depth and current are two of several differences between diving in a swimming pool and a tropical ocean. Others include: the aquatic life; underwater sounds (which travel further and faster in water than in air); the chilling effect at depth of sea as warm as 27°C at the surface; variable weather conditions and fluctuating degrees of underwater visibility. Such differences are why the skills learned in the pool are repeated in open water conditions.

To be honest we all adapted very well to life in Paradise, and standard scuba diving procedures were now starting to become second nature to us all. Forty minutes later we resurfaced to change our tanks and have some lunch. In the afternoon, after a straightforward written exam testing what we had learned from the videos and oral instruction, we returned to the dive site. And so it went on until we had gone through every step of the course ad nauseam, and, I must admit, were starting to look rather more like scuba divers than aquatic Quasimodos. The final dive was more like a lap of honor. We were now certified divers! Sally, the school's underwater photographer, and Romario had joined us on the reef, and for the first time we were allowed to swim over the coral gardens and look at the fish. For some reason the Sergeant Majors in Sosua are fond of bananas, and, sensing a photo opportunity, Sally had tucked a small one in her wet suit. She now handed it to Giselle, who was instantly surrounded by hundreds of gold- and black-striped fish. Maria and Romario joined her as Sally prepared to take a photograph of the happy family. The two ladies were on their knees and Romario was lying in the sand - blowing bubbles out of his empty mouth! Paul was busy examining a sea spider at the time - or was he just pretending not to notice?

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