Jacques Cousteau rated the waters around BC to be “second only to the Red Sea”. As a newly qualified diver who has never been anywhere near the Red Sea, I have no idea if he was right or not. I do now know that Vancouver’s coastal waters are bloody freezing and that the visibility sucks balls during the summer months. But hey, it wouldn’t have been any fun if it had been easy, now would it?

I’d done a bit of research into the various different dive centres in Vancouver, but to be honest the International Diving Centre’s tagline of “Diving is our middle name” had me pretty much from the word go. Their PADI Open Water course, more or less the default entry-level diver course the world over, ran over two weeks and a final weekend, with six classroom sessions and four i.e. swimming pool dives in the evenings, and then four open sea dives at the end.

The only obstacle in my way was the medical form. A few questions like “Do you or have you previously had any respiratory diseases?” and “Have you had any operations in the last two years?” (for which the answers were “yes” and “hell yes” respectively) threw a spanner in the works and I had to undergo a dive medical. I’d taken and narrowly failed such a test once before in Brisbane, childhood asthma causing me to score 73% in a single spirometry indicator where the reasonable minimum was 75%. This time round I drove over to a doctor in Burnaby, went through all of the same rigmarole and came through with almost all the same results — bigger lung capacity than average (windbag? Moi?) but lower throughput, for lack of a better word — but with a score of 78% in that one crucial indicator.

So, with a change in my readings well within a typical experimental margin of error, I was passed as fit to dive.

All told, the class contained about 15 people. We were a varied bunch: one Romanian chap proclaimed that he could already dive, but “without a qualification I can’t rent gear”; a couple of girls studying marine biology and volunteering at Vancouver Aquarium felt they had a better chance of getting a paying job with a dive course under their (weight) belts; a martial artist/bouncer/stag party planner, unsatisfied with his triple-barrelled job description, wanted to expand his horizons, and most of the rest of us were simply dive-curious.

Each evening we’d review a chapter of the Open Water textbook, do a few short quizzes to check we hadn’t entirely missed the points therein, and then head over to a nearby school’s swimming pool for the night’s dive. PADI gets a bit of a hard time* for “dumbing down” the science underpinning scuba diving, but given some of the questions that were raised in the classroom (“Whoa, whoa, whoa. The air gets compressed as you go deeper?”), maybe that’s not a fair criticism.

We had the options of renting a wetsuit for the pool dives, although the head instructor Landon assured us that the pool wasn’t all that cold. God, I wished I’d gone for a wetsuit. Not because the pool was cold — because it was cold after half an hour sitting largely immobile on the bottom — but because my awful, awful T-shirt tan would have been safely hidden under a layer of neoprene. Fully clothed, my limbs had acquired a modest tan and I no longer looked like a greasy-skinned, pallid anorexic; shirt off, my albino torso was revealed in all its terrible glory to the rest of the predictably athletic Vancouverite students. Red might be the first colour of light to be absorbed by the water but sadly nowhere is a swimming pool deep enough for it to matter.

Anyway, we went through a series of exercises during each pool dive, mostly to inculcate a degree of sang-froid when faced with emergencies. We had to deliberately discard and retrieve our regulators, breathe from our buddy’s alternate air source, get used to the feeling when the air runs out (simulated by the instructor turning the valve off), perform simulated emergency ascents, and so forth. We got used to the bulkiness and constriction imposed by our gear, learned how to manage our buoyancy and generally got comfortable underwater.

(To be continued!)

* IDC are essentially a franchise — one of a huge number — who have subscribed to PADI’s particular curriculum and qualification system. I wish I’d read more about PADI, because I now find out that they’ve been criticised for providing courses of dubious thoroughness and for emphasising profits rather than proficiency. I found out while chatting with the instructors that that some of the IDC staff had gone straight from student diver to instructor in one go, doing all of the requisite courses in (if I remember rightly) six months. Granted, they’d now all been teaching for far longer than that and were all able teachers, but that reflects better on them than it does on PADI. Couple that with the informercial flavour of the last chapter of the Open Water textbook, and one does start to wonder.