Sunday, June 01, 2008

May 30, 2008 - Havannah Harbor, Efate, Vanuatu

Over the past year and a half, Sten and I have been snorkeling in some amazing places. Friends who dive the same passes or reefs we have snorkeled come back with tales of seeing sharks, manta rays and turtles. Whenever we have been tempted to take up diving, we've been able to reassure ourselves that we get to see the same stuff while snorkeling, just from a different vantage point. But Vanuatu presents us with a challenge. It is home to some of the best wreck diving in the world. We can free dive a couple of meters deep, but that isn't deep enough to get us close to the World War II wreckage that lies just below the surface of the waters off these islands. So we decided to take the plunge and get our PADI Open Water Diver certifications while in Vanuatu.

This week we went back to school. For four days we studied our text books, went to class, did written reviews, took quizzes, practiced new skills underwater during a series of confined water dives, taught ourselves how to use a dive table, went for two open water dives and took our final exams. At first, it was so hard to concentrate on the text book. It has been an awfully long time since we studied anything new. But it got easier as the week went on. And it was even kind of fun to help each other puzzle out the use of the dive table. The written work was easy enough, and our instructor, Roger (who hails from the village that was our first landfall in Vanuatu; his goal is to open a dive shop there to cater to yachties and cruise ship passengers), was good at making us understand what skills he wanted us to demonstrate on our confined water dives.

Our confined water dives took place in the shallow water in front of the Tranquility Island Resort, on Moso Island (where Survivor Vanuatu was filmed). The water was a bit choppy as a stiff wind was blowing across Havannah Harbor. But it was a beautiful spot to explore. After we worked through the skills outlined for each dive, we got to use up the air in our tanks diving along a nice reef. During these dives we saw a big green turtle, lots of fish, and even two pipefish, which are in the same family as seahorses.

After three days of study and two days of classwork and confined water dives, we were ready to head out the pass and do some open water diving. On Friday morning, we piled into the resort's dive boat with Jess and Sam on Kaleva, their friend AJ, and two other divers who had come out from Port Vila for the day. Our first stop was Owen's Reef, named after the owner of the Tranquility Island Resort. To start the dive we demonstrated a few more skills, including putting on our scuba unit while floating on the surface of the water and performing controlled emergency swimming ascents (CESA's). Then we dropped down to 12 meters and followed Roger around the reef for 45 minutes as he pointed out various fish and hazards to us. We saw lots of beautiful soft corals and some fish varieties we'd never seen before.

Around 1pm, we joined the guests on the resort's day trip boat on "Survivor Beach" for a buffet lunch. After lunch, we headed off to Bottle Fish, a dive site named after a Coca-Cola bottle and a dinner plate embedded in the reef. Both artifacts are supposedly from a World War II era submarine that was anchored in the area. The coolest part of the dive was an underwater hot spring. We put our hands out and felt the hot water swirling up out of deep hole in the reef, mixing with the cool water around it. A little further on, Roger gestured to Sten to plow his hands into the sand. It was hot to the touch - such a very cool experience.

Our instructor, Roger, blowing smoke rings underwater

At the end of the day, PADI cards in hand, we were glad that we'd taken the class, and happy to be certified, but neither of us is running out to buy scuba gear. When we snorkel, all we need are reef shirts, to keep our shoulders and backs from burning, masks, snorkels and fins. Even if you bought top of the line stuff, you'd have trouble spending more than $200 to kit yourself out with snorkel gear. But diving . . . well diving just strikes us as a moneypit, and we have one of those already. If BOAT stands for "Bring On Another Thousand," then PADI surely stands for "Pay Another Dollar In."

A full set of diving gear includes the following: wet suit, mask, snorkel, fin, air tank and valve, regulator, alternate regulator, BCD (an inflatable vest that also functions as a backpack for the tank), low pressure hose to inflate the BCD, SPG (pressure gauge to tell you how deep you are and how much air you have left), weight belt (to help you sink to depth and stay there without expending a lot of energy), dive computer or dive tables, dive knife, compass, collection bag, and a dive bag in which to store it all. Even though we have wetsuits and snorkeling gear, we estimate that it would cost us around $1,500 each to get kitted out with diving gear. And once you've got the tanks, you've got to have a way to fill them. On a trip like this, you're often far from the nearest dive shop. That leads to installing a compressor on board, which would be another big chunk of change.

Beyond the expense, the gear is cumbersome. Oh, when you are in the water, it is fine. Weightlessness has its advantages. But on land, the stuff makes you walk around like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a bit hunched over with this giant shell on your back. And if you happen to have excessive positive buoyancy like I do (in other words, if your bootylicousness allows you to float effortlessly on the surface, without getting cold for long periods of time . . .), then you have to wear extra lead on your weight belt so that you can get down to depth and stay there. On each of our confined water dives Roger added an extra weight to my belt. By the time I stepped off the boat on our open water dives, I was wearing 30 pounds of lead around my waist and carrying a 20 pound scuba unit on my back. In the water it was fine, but hauling myself up the swim ladder at the end of the dive was a real struggle.

The first time we went snorkeling after diving, it was such a relief to be so unencumbered by gear. Pull on a reef shirt, slip on the fins, grab a mask and dive in. Cheap and easy. We're looking forward to renting some gear and doing some wreck diving here in Vanuatu, but it will take a bit more convincing before we are ready to splash out on our own gear.

No comments: