I slept like a log after the combined terror and exhilaration of the velodrome and rolled out of bed surprisingly awake at 6.30 am the next morning. I had to pick up Sam & Fiona, a couple of my scuba course classmates, before heading out to Whytecliffe Park for our final open water dives.

I’d been down to the dive shop the day before to to pick up my gear. I chose the wetsuit option; a drysuit would have been dryer and warmer but, according to our instructor Landon, drysuit newbies have a tendency to uncontrollably shoot feet first toward the surface, as the air in the suit bubbles towards their ankles. I had no particular desire to die such an ignominious death, leaving a corpse with exploded lungs and zeppelin ankles bobbing flippers up in the bay, so I chose instead to suffer the peculiarly acrid smell of sweat, salt water and sloughed-off skin which only a rental wetsuit can provide.

We arrived at Whytecliffe Park around 8, lugging our cylinders down to the shore and following Landon up onto a cliff overlooking the bay as he pointed out useful landmarks. It was a lovely place, a tiny green cove with a pebbled beach and dramatic cliff-sides backed by an unbroken line of trees. It was cool but warming up, and by the time we’d all squeezed into our wetsuits and BCDs, I was sweating like a hot person in a thick wetsuit and couldn’t wait to get into the allegedly arctic water.

Shane, our group’s assigned instructor, had us wade into the water and help each other get our fins on. We walked in gingerly over the slimy rocks, the water seeping in over the tops of our boots and then creeping up inside our suits. Happily, the 14mm of neoprene which had brought me to the edge of hyperthermia on the beach kept things nice and temperate in the chilly water, and we all bobbed comfortably just off shore with our BCDs inflated to keep us upright.

All, that is, except my buddy Amanda. (Who am I kidding? I don’t remember her name at all, but I’m pretty sure it had an ‘A’ in it. I’m a bad person.) Amanda flopped and floundered around in shallower water, trying to sit on the rocks to put on her fins and being constantly buffetted by the gentle waves. “Go in deeper!” Shane shouted.

“I can’t get my fins on!” she replied.

“I know,” he told her. “Go in deeper so you float!”

Eventually Amanda floated out to join us. I’d managed to pull on my own fins on by this point, and I helped her get hers on. “Did you try these on before?” I asked. “They seem a bit loose.”

“Yah, it’s fine, it’s fine. I tried them on earlier.”

(A beat.)

“I’ve lost a flipper! Where is it?” she wailed.

Shane, who had joined us by this time, stuck his face in the water, dropped out of sight for a second, and then resurfaced with the offending fin. “Tighten it,” he said through gritted teeth. I yanked the strap down as hard as I could, and we swam out to our dive float to do our various surface skills, towing each other to simulate ‘tired divers’, taking off and refitting our scuba gear, orally inflating our BCDs (pre-flight safety presentations do have a use after all) and so on. Shane gave us the thumbs-down and, one by one, we held up our inflator hoses, breathed out and deflated our BCDs to slide down into the murky water.

The change from above to below the surface is, for lack of a better word, mental. Everything changes the moment you submerge: the world contracts from the open air to a claustrophobic sphere of murkiness. The sound of wind and waves is replaced only by the hissing intake and bubbling exhalation of your breath. Your ears immediately start to complain of the increasing pressure. The sides of the mask intrude on your vision so that your field of view is impaired. I had the oddest feeling that my awareness of my body had retreated from my weightless limbs and now resided solely in my head, drawn there by the sensory shock of the cold water on my exposed face, the pressure in my ears and the comforting pocket of air in my mask.

It was a just little more intense than the swimming pool.

The sea in Malta had been clear and blue; here it was so green and opaque I felt like I could almost see the tiny particles of algae and plankton which gave it its colour. My mask fogged up almost instantly. I breathed in and out rapidly, the bubbles rushing past my ears; I descended hand over hand down the float’s orange anchor line and equalised each time my hand was free. I peered down through the condensation in my mask to try to pick out the bottom, and periodically I looked up to see the light at the surface grow fainter and the flippered legs of the other divers recede as I dropped along the cable. The bottom loomed up at about fifteen or twenty feet and I settled on my knees, sending a cloud of silt, and tried to relax. The sand and rocks beneath my knees afforded the situation a bit of solidity, and everything seemed a little less spacey and disconnected. Our instructors had talked about how it was possible to become disorientated in the deep ocean, where sometimes neither the bottom or the surface is visible, and even after this laughably shallow descent I could see how it could happen.

I tipped my mask down to swill some water around it; I tilted it back and exhaled to clear it, and took a look around.

And I couldn’t see anything. Flurries of silt were sent up anew each time another diver settled onto the bottom, and even as it cleared the water still presented a greenish wall not more than ten or fifteen feet off. The surface wasn’t visible as such, but there was a vaguely perceptible gradient to the brightness of the light above our heads. I sent Amanda an ‘OK’ sign, and she signed a twitchy ‘OK’ back. Details of our little orb of visibility became apparent. A few multi-armed sea stars, coloured a dusty orange (I suspect before we arrived they’d been simply ‘orange’), were scattered around. Little crabs danced sideways away from us. Tiny silver fish darted around. We’d arrived.

We went through the skills familiar from the pool sessions: dropping regulators; removing and replacing masks; sharing air with a buddy, and the rest. Things went remarkably smoothly for most of us. Amanda, cursed, perhaps, with birdlike hollow bones, had a tendency to float upwards slowly but uncontrollably, grabbing at whoever was nearest (me, mostly) to arrest her ascent. Of course, because the rest of us had more or less managed to achieve neutral buoyancy, the net result was for both of us to float off, Amanda clawing at her supposed saviour while I frantically tried to dump air out of my BCD and swim back down. Given that bad shit can happen on uncontrolled, panicked ascents — principally, one’s lungs can explode — I was less than happy about this. There is unfortunately not a standard hand signal for “Get to fuck.”

Anyway, we finished off our exercises and Shane motioned for us to follow him. We lurched off like a school of drunk turtles and made a short circuit of the bay, taking in a few more starfish and crabs, and then ascended with upraised arms and plinking ears to meet up by the buoy. “Nice work everyone,” said Shane. “No flippers lost?”

We finned to shore, struggled to our feet and staggered up the beach as the water drained out of our boots. One dive down, three to go. So stay tuned for parts 2, 3 and 4 of this diving epic — 4,000 more words about gripping undersea adventures!

(A beat.)

I kid, I kid. I wouldn’t put you through that. And besides, I still have an entire road trip’s worth of entries left to write about the west coast of the USA.

The rest of the weekend was pretty straightforward: another dive on Saturday afternoon (almost a replay of the first, down to Amanda losing a flipper on the way back to shore) and two more on Sunday and we were qualified Open Water divers. Simple as that!

I was shattered. And August still wasn’t over yet.