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Tuesday 28 May 2013
Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Just put the bubbly thing in your mouth and keep breathing!

Open Water Day One consisted of theory and a pool session to learn the basic skills in the morning, then our first Open Water dive in the afternoon. I was quite nervous in my first pool session. My biggest fear was having to clear my mask underwater as this was the one thing I hadn't been able to do before. The instructor then had been quite blase about it and that nervousness had stayed with me. On my first attempt this time, I panicked as soon as the water touched my face and stood up out of the water. Roland was great, just calmly told me to take my time and try again when I was ready. I managed to clear it successfully, although I took a while to open my eyes again afterwards because the chlorine stung against my contact lenses. When I did, he was giving me the ok sign and grinning around his regulator. On later pool sessions, I had to remove my mask entirely, swim 20m without it (and my eyes closed) before replacing and clearing it again. I'm still not a fan of this and it took a few attempts to clear my mask fully, but it definitely got easier.

Our first Open Water dive was quite simply breathtaking. We went to Shallow Shark reef. Unfortunately, the sharks tend to stay at Deep Shark level (30m) and we were only going to 12m, so we didn't see any. (In fact, I didn't get to see a shark once in my 18 dives, but I saw so many other great things that I can't really complain.) We geared up on the boat, did our buddy checks to ensure we were all ok and did a back roll off the side of the boat and prepared to descend as a group. This was it, the moment of truth, had I learned anything and what would it be like to be in so much water? I pressed the button on my BCD to release the air and descend... and nothing happened. I watched the others dropping down as I stayed exactly where I was! It took me a few moments to realise I was not holding the BCD hose high enough for the air to release, but once I did I started to descend properly.

Part of the reef is made up of swathes of dead coral fragments. While it is sad to see this, it is also a good thing because turtles love it. We saw more than 10 turtles on that first dive! I thought I had seen big turtles on the barrier reef, but these were in a league of their own. A couple of the biggest ones we saw were having a nap under coral bommies or just happily watching us go past while raymora fish cleaned their shells for them. I never get bored of turtles and I still get excited every time I see one - Rupi said she could tell whenever I was excited as my bubbles went mad every time!

We saw a lot of fish on that dive, including snappers, angel fish, butterfly fish, moorish idols, clownfish in their anemones and a very peculiar looking brown speckled flat creature. I had no idea what it was, but it reminded me of Dr Zoiberg from the cartoon Futurama, as it seemed to have a line of tentacles drooping off its chin. (Any divers reading this guessed what it was yet?) As I watched it, it turned to look at me too. Then it spread these tentacles out like a cloak and started changing colour. At first I thought I was imagining it and this was just a play of light from the surface above us, but no, it was definitely putting on the full light display, radiating rings of black and white from the top of its head out across its whole body. I looked at Roland and the others, who were as fascinated as I was. When I tried to ask Roland what it was, he put his fingers to his chin and wiggled them downwards, which was no help at all. We swam on leaving this mysterious creature to continue his wanderings and I quickly got distracted by another turtle and a family of Nemo fish in an anemone. I later discovered it had been a cuttlefish, which was very cool indeed for a first dive. Apparently they can be very curious creatures and will swim up close to a diver's mask - if you wiggle your fingers under your chin they sometimes mimick the actions with their tentacles. The dive was over far too quickly - 47 minutes felt more like 15 minutes - and we sent up a signal marker buoy to attract the boat, waited for three minutes at 5m (a safety stop for releasing any residual nitrogen in the body) and then surfaced. I could not stop grinning the whole way back.

The rest of the pool sessions were maybe not easy, but less challenging in terms of nerves.  My biggest challenge was with Dive Tables which are used to calculate the level of residual nitrogen in the body after each dive. Divers can calculate how long they can stay at a particular depth and how long to remain on the surface in between dives in order to stay within a safe limit. I struggled with the calculations and got several questions wrong - horrible flashbacks to my pathetic attempt at AS-level maths, cue cold sweats and panicky feelings - and I wasn't reassured by hearing nobody really uses Dive Tables as everyone uses a dive computer instead now. If PADI has them in the course, then they must be worth understanding, right? I asked for extra help with them afterwards and discovered there was actually an instruction book which I hadn't been given - eureka! One read through and it all made sense. Happy days.

Roland took us out for our second dive and it was just as much fun as the first one. This time we went to a reef just off the beach called Shallow Halik. The initial descent is only about 6m so the light is still bright here. There are a couple of nice sandy areas, one of which is set up as a training site with a rope strung between two concrete blocks. This is where we did our skills assessment, so we could kneel down and hold onto something without affecting any marine life. We had to clear our masks, remove and replace our regulators and use the emergency air supply on our buddy's tank. I don't think it will ever feel right to let water into my mask deliberately, especially as salt water stings even more than pool water, but I did it successfully first time.

Roland and Josh had to go up to Singapore to renew their work visas so Nadja, a lovely multilingual German instructor, finished off our training. We'd done all the confined water skills, so we had two open water dives on our third day. During these we completed the remainder of the skills, such as using a compas and emergency surfacing methods (slowly being the key element).The main component of all our dives was simply to get used to moving around and learning to control our buoyancy. Jerome had a few more challenges with this than I did - almost every time I looked around for him he was somewhere above me - but my own buoyancy was by no means perfect. However, I managed not to hit anything I shouldn't have done (except perhaps my fellow divers on occasion!) and avoided kicking up too much sand with my fins.

I spotted a brown striped sea snake on our last dive so I went over to investigate. Suddenly, the 'coral' next to the snake opened a big eye and glared at me and I realised I'd found an octopus. I was about to signal the others, when the 'coral' at the other end of the 'sea snake' opened another big eye and glared at me too! I'd found two octopodes! The second one started giving me a similar light show to the cuttlefish we'd seen on the first dive. I looked around at Nadja to point this out and she made a universally recognisable hand gesture - a circle with one hand and a pointy finger through the middle with the other!  We'd disturbed these two octopodes in the underwater version of a quickie on a sun lounger on a holiday island beach. No wonder they were glaring at us! The male octopus then retracted his, ahem, tentacle from under the female and they both burrowed down into their holes.  They seemed most unimpressed with the coitus interruptus!  Oops.

After sitting our final exam, for which I got 46/50 (stupid dive table questions) Nadja gave us a big grin and made us official Open Water Divers! Hooray!!

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