Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cycladic Divemaster - A Final Refresher (part 3)

While a few weeks diving was great, I found getting to grips with what it means to work in a dive shop and start on the ladder to being a dive professional equally engaging.

There is the practical stuff, like fitting people up for gear, setting up the boat, filling tanks and the ritual post-dive dunking of gear to remove salt… and piss. Then there is the people stuff, explaining what the local diving has to offer, escorting divers around the sub-aqua sites, giving pre-dive plan summaries (I only did this right at the end of my time) and generally trying to make the diver trip experience as pleasant as possible. Inevitably, there is also the admin stuff, which seems to gobble up more permanent staff/owner time than everything else put together. Thankfully, as a short term DMT (Divemaster Trainee for the uninitiated), I was safe from the admin on this occasion.
Finally, there is the teaching or, strictly speaking as a DMT, assisting others' provision of instruction. This is the part I found the most interesting and enjoyable. During my Divemaster, I helped with pool sessions, OWT (Open Water Training) dives, refreshers, snorkel courses and discovery dives. A wonderful combo of sharing knowledge, calming nerves and invoking excitement in what diving has to offer. 
While most of this was straight forward, on my last day as a DMT I was given a stark reminder of the responsibility that comes with working as a dive professional. 


The task at hand seemed simple enough. A qualified diver was looking for a refresher, having had a prolonged break from diving. Yes, his demeanour was slightly odd and stuttering, but he seemed like a nice, competent person. We drove across the island to Agios Giorgos, did a refresh of diving skills and set up our gear. The sea was calm, conditions clear. All good so far. We entered the water.
We prepped at the surface, signalled to dive and submerged.  I assisted him to descend slowly and eventually settled down on the sandy bottom to continue the refresher skills. He managed with some, but struggled with others. Nothing strange in itself for someone who has not dived in a while, but there was something off which I could not quite put my finger on. 

We moved off slowly for a circuit, Peter out front with the dive buoy and the refresher diver a short distance behind him. I positioned myself slightly behind and to the side. We had barely gone a few meters when he shot to the side, arms and legs flailing. I pursued him, grabbed his arm and signalled for him to slow down and follow Peter. He nodded calmly and we moved off again. A minute later he did the same thing, but this time bolting diagonally towards the surface. Again I pursued, managed to catch up with some serious fin strokes, took hold of his arm and settled him down. 

From my limited experience, alongside heavy air usage, there are two main giveaways of a distressed diver: unnecessarily panicky movements and darting wide open eyes. He was displaying the first in droves, but the peculiar thing was that his eyes were serene, as if he did not realise he was doing anything out of the ordinary.

I signalled to Peter that something was pretty off. He had seen it too and we turned around back to towards our entry point. Just when I thought the refresher diver had found his comfort zone and buoyancy, he darted off again, more sharply upwards. As any diver knows, a golden rule of diving is to ascend slowly (rapid ascent risks various nasty gas expansion injuries). He was, though, shooting upwards at a ridiculous rate of knots, kicking and flailing his arms like a panicked swimmer. I reacted as quickly as I could, exhaled as I burst upwards, just managed to grab his leg before he broke the surface and bought us back down, dumping air from each of our BCDs (air fillable diving jacket). 

As we slowly descended to 5 meters, I signalled for him to calm down and level off. Again his eyes were calm. I just did not get it. I kept a levelling hand on him for our safety stop and all the way in.

As we got out and put the kit away, Peter and I barely said a word to each other, but a shared look of “WTF” said it all. Again the refresher diver was acting as if nothing strange had happened. It was only when back at the shop and the refresher had left, that Peter told me that this was right up there with his oddest instructor experiences, and he has seen a lot.
Diving is a statistically safe sport. When within dive limits and showing a bit of common sense, danger is at a minimum. I have dived with numerous types of poisonous, spiky, many-toothed creatures, in caves and wrecks, through tight swim-throughs, in violent currents and beneath heavy seas, but this was the dive which left me most on edge. It was a valuable lesson that the most dangerous thing to a diver is a diver.


So there you go. A strange way to finish, but I was now a Divemaster. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and my time with Blue Island Divers. Diving in Greece, while rarely spectacular, had exceeded my expectations. It left me with a real taste for more and desire to pursue my diving to the next level. The instructor course beckons… but not for a while, largely due to something (or, more accurately, someone) who quite rightly took up more of my time and attention on the island than diving. Welcome Nikolaki!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cycladic Divemaster - Rocks and Wrecks (part 2)

The real draw of diving in Greece is the inanimate stuff. Whether that means rocks or wrecks, there is a lot in store to explore. To give you a taste, what follows are three local dives I undertook during my Divemaster, in ascending order of interest.

“Mick Jagger's Lips”
Back-rolling from the rib, we entered the clear, perhaps a little too refreshing, Aegean waters. Assembling and moving off, the dive route took us over a series of root-like ridges which stretch out from the south-eastern finger of the island.  Amongst the small fish, sponges and rocks, an alien shape caught the eye. Alien to the water that is. The symmetry of man-made object sticks out like a sore thumb under water.
First an isolated fragment, soon a scattering. The remains of ancient amphorae adorn the rugged sea bed, in places fused into the rock and covered in fire worms. The last clues of an age-old ship wreck, likely bashed up on the rugged shore by the fierce winds which rip through this region.

An interesting dive and appetiser for the hundreds of more complete sub-aqua archaeological sites all over Greece. Plus, I have soft spot for “Pots” as it was my first ever dive in Greece.

“The Cave”
A small, seemingly indistinct island in the Parian channel hides an underwater secret. Dropping anchor at a barren inlet, we dived down and finned over to a 30 meter sea wall. The greater part of the dive was spent making our way along the vertical edifice, peering into nooks and crannies for scorpion fish and the odd moray. There was meant to be a big grouper lurking, but I didn’t have the fortune of meeting him.

All of a sudden, 14 odd meters down, an opening appeared in the rock. Heading in one by one, we entered into a thin sub-aqua passage. Narrow and gently sloping upwards, it led on into darkness and the heart of the island. A circular silhouette gave away the end of the tunnel. It opened up into large cavern. Submerged stalagmites below, exposed stalactites above. Surfacing, we rested for an interval, listening to the echoes of the swell. On a rough day, the small band of air at the roof of the cave is compressed into waves of mist as the sea drives in and out of the cave. Something I would have loved to experience, but it was not to be on this day.
Descending again, we passed into an even larger chamber. Tube worms clung to the walls, gently sifting, but the scene was stolen by a vast window opening out into the blue, pimpled by shoals of small fish. That was our way out, back along the wall, to the surface and away.  

 “The Samina”
A wreck and memorial to a disaster. I only dived the Samina once during my Divemaster, but it was the most thought provoking dive I have ever done.

Having struck rocks – the Portes – on its way into Parikia, the MS Express Samina sunk with the tragic loss of 82 lives, including a number of locals from Antiparos. She now lies on her side in a little over 30 meters of water. This happened on 26 September 2000. This is uncomfortably recent and raw and, to be honest, I was not sure whether I wanted to dive the wreck. The respectful way in which the dive school discussed and approach the wreck persuaded me to head down.
Nonetheless, I had distinctly mixed emotions as I let the air out of my BCD and descended. This turned into a sick feeling in my stomach as I first glimpsed her giant dark shadow emerging from the depths. Coming closer, it was the details which really struck me. Funnels, railings, the name on her side. Despite the light covering of green gunge - plants and invertebrates inevitably colonise wrecks – she didn’t look aged. It felt all too present. Being a regular traveller on boats across the Aegean, it felt too close to home. 

At our bottom depth, we reached the rear of the ship and the entrance to the car deck. The door lay open, allowing entrance to a large metal chasm. We entered. To the front, our torches illuminated little due to the size and emptiness of the space. Below was another matter. All too clear to see were the largely intact wrecks of cars and lorries. Very raw. 
Exiting back out the car door, we made a long slow pass to one side, within touching distance of her exposed deck. Lines of deck seating covered in stringy-green gloop, windows intact, doors lying open. Worst of all, lifeboats never launched. 

Limited on time due to the depth, we ascended and made a final close-in pass over the top. Then slowly back to the surface, leaving the Samina where she lies.

From a purely diving perspective, the MSS Express Samina is a fascinating and significant site to dive. Circumnavigating her, the diver in me was drawn in by all the possibilities of exploring the wreck. The naturalist in me was amazed by how much sea life had inhabited her in such a short space of time – an emerging oasis in an all too barren sea. The father, husband, son and brother in me wanted nothing to do with her, aghast by the tragedy of it all.

Mixed emotions, but a dive I won’t forget.

(NB - Thanks to Blue Island Divers for the pictures...)

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Cycladic Divemaster - Blue Island Divers (part 1)

There are many potential benefits of changing jobs. For me, high on the list is grabbing a little pocket of freedom in between the grind. Doing just that a couple of years back, I managed to squeeze out six late summer weeks and ran away to our troubled European partners, Greece.

I spent a month of this time on the small Cycladic island of Antiparos. Warm people, hot sun, clear waters and culture. Add a dive school with a good reputation, my long held desire to complete my Divemaster qualification and it seemed like the best possible use of my time.

The only potential blip in the plan – apart from the possibility of Greek strikes stranding me on the island indefinitely – if only – was the standard of the diving. The Mediterranean is not exactly famed for its world class dips into the blue. Too far north for significant reef live and over-fished from every angle, there was a chance I would leave disappointed, spoilt as I have been by my tropical diving to date.


Situated at the far inward corner of the idyllic old harbour, Gary has owned this place for the past few years, since taking the courageous step of running away from the endless Mancunian rain and a job in IT. Through the dive school he met Albena, a bubbly Bulgarian who became a co-owner. Peter, a South African educated Greek was the second instructor and, for that summer, the team was completed by Emma and Simon, two Brits straight out of uni and working the summer in the sunshine.

Whenever you join a group of people towards the end of a season, you inevitably feel a bit of a plus one, but within a short time I felt at home with what was a good crowd  or “paraia”, as the Greeks would better put it. Each day I would roll out of bed, complete the 300m commute along the sea front to the dive-shop and see what the day had in store.

The Divemaster is the first step on the professional dive ladder, so requires a lot of box ticking. From the start it was clear to me that this was not simply a case of logging dives for a few weeks. From timed swims, to mapping, dive rescue scenarios, lengthy tread-waters, exams and navigation, there was a lot to fit in and much to learn.

Day one started with Peter giving me a lengthy lecture on the history of diving and dive law in Greece. Unsurprisingly, this was a tale of corruption, bureaucracy and a fundamental misunderstanding of how a well-regulated dive industry could work to the benefit of the country and its underwater life. This was further illustrated by many anecdotes Peter shared over the next few weeks, a typical example being the banning of dive trips near ancient wrecks. The aim was to limit theft, but instead removed the only people with the combined means (regular site trips) and interest (long term success of the dive-shops) to protect the sites for posterity, rendering them open for unsanctioned divers to thieve at will.

Fortunately, the Greek diving equivalent of the Big Bang in 2005 opened up the industry and gave opportunities for places like Blue Island Divers to show just how much the Greek seas have to offer. A classic case of deregulation improving things for all but a few pocket-lining cronies of the old protected regime.


So how good is Greek diving? Well, the short answer is, at least around this little island, good.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many places in the world with more spectacular sea life. The unfortunate truth is that the Mediterranean is largely fished out. Your chances of seeing something large and pelagic are very low. Turtles, sharks and seals are out there somewhere, but in ever dwindling numbers.  Monachus Monachus is a good example. The small Mediterranean monk seal used to be widespread, but is now largely restricted to a small protected area in the Sporades. There are rumoured to be a couple left around Paros/Antiparos, but if they are still clinging on, their days are numbered. A depressing state of affairs, which has made me a fervent supporter of the efforts of Green Peace and others to create large no-fish zones in the Aegean.

So what do you see? Plenty of small to medium sized fish. On a typical dive you might see a dozen varieties, including the odd reasonable shoal. The more interesting Med inhabitants that I have enjoyed saying hello to include morays, squid, fire worms, scorpion fish and octopi. There are some big groupers hanging around, but very wary of humans – not surprising given the Greek obsession with spear-fishing them. There are also a wide variety of sponges, small coral and tube worms.

If you are brought up diving on tropical reefs, this may be a little underwhelming, but you know what, the more time I spent diving around Antiparos the more I enjoyed it. I liken it to rambling through a European woodland. Just because you have visited tropical rainforest should not reduce your enjoyment of your local woods. On the contrary, a lack of the big ticket stuff allows you to focus on some of the equally interesting yet small critters. That said, give me an orang-utan over a squirrel any day…