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Learning to fly

Finding weightlessness in a place that continues to bear the burden of human irresponsibility.

Words by Dan Warden

Divers often refer to the feeling of suspension underwater as the closest you’ll get on Earth to weightlessness. In other words, it feels like you’re flying, and as somebody who has never experienced the world beneath the waves beyond surface level (with a snorkel and a leaky mask), when the chance arose to undertake PADI’s Open Water qualification with the guidance of the instructors over at Dive Project Cornwall, it was an opportunity too rare to pass up.

PADI, short for ‘Professional Association of Diving Instructors’, is the world’s leading scuba diver training organisation, and the Open Water Diver course is its first level of certification. Taught by a highly trained PADI-certified instructor, it introduces students to safe diving and the techniques required to enjoy that incredible feeling of weightlessness for themselves. It also welcomes them to explore the enigmatic marine landscape and the myriad species of life that live often just a stone’s throw from the shoreline – species that, if our oceans continue to bear the brunt of human irresponsibility, face an increasingly virulent, existential threat.

As you might expect, PADI is also a firm advocate for any organisation that champions the welfare and protection of the marine environment. No surprise then that it is also a leading sponsor for Dive Project Cornwall – a not-for-profit organisation working to inspire the next generation of Ocean Influencers, who in turn will enact the positive change that our oceans so badly need. To achieve this, and in doing so raise awareness to hundreds of thousands across the UK and beyond about the importance of our oceans and protecting the life systems they support (including our own!), Dive Project Cornwall ran a competition for schools around the UK, with the ultimate goal of giving 400 children the chance to come to Cornwall and earn their Open Water Diver qualification. The team are now in the throes of delivering on this promise, with a number of schools having already visited the site at Porthkerris Dive Centre on the Lizard. However, during a recent week when the instructors weren’t gearing up to welcome the next group of children, we were able to steal an opportunity to learn for ourselves. Having already seen and heard so many great things about the way in which the project was unfolding, we wanted to go and experience it so that we might be able to put into words just how precious an opportunity this is for the schools involved, and honestly, it’s hard to find them.

On the first day of our course, we were told to be ready for a long day in the pool. This is where the key skills required to be able to hit the open ocean are taught and learned, and whilst we were warned that it would be a long, tiring afternoon, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the sheer physicality of the day ahead. This, along with the mentally draining influx of information, from proper kit-assembly and hand signals, to safe water entry, emergency ascent procedures and more, meant that by the end of the day, we were exhausted. But it was exhilarating, and I think we all drove home that evening feeling like we’d learned something. Better still, we left feeling excited (albeit with a touch of trepidation) that we were going to be applying our new-found knowledge in the ocean the following day!

Images by NCLT

Our Open Water Diver course was led by Darren Sutton, Head of Diving for Dive Project Cornwall, fountain of underwater knowledge and regaler of exciting (often scary!) scuba stories. Guiding us through the basics on our first day in the pool, reinforcing the many safety procedures and the acronyms designed to help us remember them, when we arrived for our second day’s diving – this time in the sea – we did so reassured that we would be in safe and very capable hands. This was, after all, our first dive away from the safety of the pool! It was also the first of four training dives that we would embark upon, during which we would learn and execute a host of scuba skills, all whilst exploring and enjoying the underwater world.

And enjoy we did! It is absolutely fascinating just how much life there is only yards from the shoreline, from enormous starfish, anemones, shrimp, even lobsters, to colourful species of fish. And whilst it would have been all too easy to lose ourselves in this stunning underwater world, the point of this first dive, and indeed that of every training dive, was to prove that we understood and could demonstrate a number of important and potentially lifesaving skills. On the first dive, for example, we had to demonstrate pre-dive buddy safety checks, how to safely descend from the surface, how to recover our regulators, how to communicate our air supply with hand signals, how to deal with a partially flooded mask, how to switch between our snorkel and regulator at the surface, and how to drop our weight-belts in case of an emergency. The following three training dives saw us demonstrate cramp relief with our buddies, inflatable signal tube deployment on the surface, how to ‘tow’ a tired diver to shore, how to clear a fully flooded mask, sharing air with a buddy, and how to ascend whilst doing so. We also demonstrated controlled emergency swimming ascents (CESA!), mask removal and replacement, as well as full kit removal and replacement. We learned and put into practice skills like free descents with and without underwater references with which to orientate; we learned to signal to our buddy that we should turn the dive based on our remaining air supply, and we gained experience in both surface and underwater navigation using a compass. But I think one of the most fundamental lessons we all learned (aside from the most important rule in scuba diving, to never hold your breath!) is how important it is to have buddies.

This may sound twee, but in reality, your buddy is absolutely fundamental to a safe and enjoyable dive. When underwater together, you are potentially one another’s lifeline, and so as we embarked on our second, third and fourth training dives, Darren put the onus increasingly on us, the students, to ensure we stayed within reach of our buddies. I for one found it all too easy to become distracted by a fish winnowing around on the seabed, and there was a moment for my buddy, Rosie, who found herself in awe of the sun shining through the fronds of kelp as they danced in the current. But what we realised is that part of the joy of diving – of having a buddy there alongside you – is the ability that gives you to tap them on the shoulder and point excitedly at the beautiful forms of life that you are both there to see.

Images by Kennack Diving

But of course, this relies on there being a healthy marine environment to be able to enjoy in the first place, which is why the work of organisations like Dive Project Cornwall is so important. The opportunity it is providing to all of those schoolchildren – many from UK cities who may never have even seen the sea before – is putting the importance of our oceans front and centre in their minds. It is an experience they’re unlikely to ever forget, and the appreciation they are bound to form over the course of a week in Cornwall, for the beauty of the sea and the life it supports, will stay with them forever.

This is crucial, as it is their generation that we will need to champion the health of the marine environment and influence the decisions that will ultimately govern the fate of our seas. In other words, Dive Project Cornwall is inspiring a generation of Ocean Influencers, to enact the positive change that is now required to save our oceans, which is reassuring. Because if our experience with Darren and the team is anything to go by, we’re certain that each and every child who learns to dive from the shores of Porthkerris will see for themselves just how worthy they are of our protection.


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