The beauty of running a dive centre is that we become the first port of call for the ‘odd projects’ that come along. Over the years this has varied between organising dive conferences, running evening snorkel safaris, recovering plankton data recorders, surveying scallops, razor shells and caves, and every so often some film work. A while ago I worked with a German film presenter whose task was to catch and cook some scallops. Part of the director’s vision was that the poor presenter didn’t know the plan until she arrived on the shoot. This is a European programme so she’s seen Belgian chocolate factories, Swiss cheese makers and now she was headed for the bottom of the Manx sea bed.
In situations like this your Instructor Sense starts tingling as bad as Peter Parker’s Spidersense ever did. How much diving has she done? Has she dived in cold water before? Has she used a dry suit before? Has she ever used a full face mask and comms? The director shrugged the questions off with an air of nonchalance that only a non-diver could maintain. Would it be alright if they flew in on the Saturday morning, did the filming and flew out in the evening? Involuntarily my hand flew up to smack my own forehead as I briefly lost my air of professionalism. Cue a lengthy discussion about sea conditions, weather, familiarisation with new kit and skills, risks of DCI and flights. Oh and the scallops in question being out of season at the time they wanted to film, making us liable to a fine of £50,000!
The Director of Fisheries was duly contacted and issued a special permit for us to collect and retain enough scallops for the filming. The TV director was persuaded that a three or four day filming period was needed to be able to teach his presenter the necessary skills, safety divers were lined up and we started anxiously watching the weather. I read somewhere the other day that many teenagers wake up and check their Facebook profile before getting out of bed, brushing their teeth, using the toilet or anything else. I’d like to think I’d never be that bad, but I’ve realised lately that I can find the weather apps on my iPhone before I’ve really opened my eyes in the morning. I’ve become a compulsive forecast watcher. And as filming days approached the weather was looking less and less favourable.
We took the executive decision to go and catch our scallops early and store them so that we would at least be able to ‘seed’ a sheltered bay if the weather really turned bad. As the scallop season had closed in June we hadn’t bothered going near our favourite scallop spot over the summer. We dropped down in anticipation and were stunned by the state of the seabed. Port St Mary Ledges are a series of limestone gullies running out from the shore. Although the dredgers run up and down the sand at around 30m, they never usually come into the rock ledges – but that must have changed last year. If we’d sunk a tractor and ploughed the seabed it couldn’t have been any worse. The deep gouges through the rock and sandy gullies had cleared every bit of life; the hydroids, dead man’s fingers and sponges had all been ripped away. And there were no scallops at all. Luckily our back up plan for a slightly deeper, more tidal site came through and we collected our scallops for the shoot.
The shooting days were long and repetitive. The weather was as bad as predicted and the visibility was poor. Our safety divers ‘seeded’ the seabed from the bottom of the shot line. Never before has a skipper so confidently said “Head North and you’ll find the scallop bed.” But our presenter wasn’t happy. The overwhelming amount of new skills and new kit, the demands from the director and film crew and challenging surface and underwater conditions tipped her over the edge. For a couple of hours she sulked in the cabin next to the heater, declaring that she had never been so cold and miserable in her life. Never underestimate the power of divers to ‘make things happen’. We dressed our male dive intern in the female presenter’s drysuit, gloves, mask and hood, dropped off the back of the boat and went and did some more filming anyway. The dive brief was short and sweet and mainly consisted of reminding him “Don’t look into the camera” repeatedly!
I want to dive all year round. I’m not addicted to diving, of course. I could give I up any time I want. It’s my choice to have the kit and the training that allows me to be out whenever the conditions permit.
I started out my diving career in a wetsuit, a badly fitting, compressed, slightly smelly dive centre wetsuit. It wasn’t described to me in those terms of course – it was a semi-dry suit, which is a term that has always puzzled me. Semi-dry must by definition be semi-wet and how wet do you have to be before you are just wet? Maybe my approach to life is too scientific but wet and dry are opposites and in my world ‘damp’ is still a form of wet. So there I am in a wetsuit. On my 9th dive, whilst on a diving course, I had my first hit of hypothermia. It was a sunny day in Cornwall, but an old and poor fitting wetsuit was enough to make me cold in the water and then the wind chill back on the boat sapped my remaining core temperature. I just remember feeling extraordinarily tired as I huddled down into the bottom of the RIB and passed out. It took 3 or 4 days before I felt well again and the experience was enough to send me off to find out about the dangerous world of dry suit diving.
My Diving Office at the time thought that drysuit diving was best left to the experienced guys so his ruling was that only Sports Divers with at least 2 years diving could use drysuits. (And just in case you were wondering, yes Nitrox was the devil’s gas.) I went outside the club for my training and have never looked back. The first training session wasn’t auspicious. Despite the 5am arrival at Stoney Cove we still didn’t manage to get into the water until after some other divers had been in and come out. The water dripping off their kit froze on the path and my buddies and instructor slid elegantly down into the water.* The instructor I was diving with provided a membrane suit without any undersuit, but I was reassured that hiking socks, tracksuit bottoms and a long sleeved t-shirt would be fine. The sweatshirt I’d brought was a layer too far and would have “doubled the amount of lead” I was carrying, so it was left in the car. Needless to say I was freezing during and after the dive. Inversion drills aren’t funny when your feet come out of the suit boots but I was so cold that I didn’t notice until I tried to fin. It seems funny now, but as an instructor I would be mortified if I had taught such a poor course. Half the students in my group gave up diving totally shortly afterwards!
So now I am an instructor I am acutely aware of hypothermia. We’re taught on instructor courses that your kit as an instructor should mirror your students. All of my instructor team wear dry suits, so it’s natural that so do our students. Besides, there’s no point trying to teach someone whose only thoughts revolve around wanting to be somewhere warmer. Our students not only get drysuit training but proper undersuits and socks as well. We explain the cooling properties of sweat on cotton t-shirts and frown on those who keep mentioning that their mate in [insert name of a.n.other UK diving location here] has just been learning in a wetsuit – and they said it was sooo much easier. Less dives and less to remember. And ultimately less diving too!
Around the Isle of Man the sea hits it’s coldest at the end of February, beginning of March. Over 120 years of continuous data recording at the sadly closed Port Erin Marine Lab have shown this to be the case. It’ll bottom out at around 4 degrees and dry suits become essential. Every so often the devil inside me offers the newly qualified diver with the ‘mate who learned in a wetsuit in the Irish Sea’ the chance to do a wetsuit dive. That is usually the end of the topic and within a couple of weeks they’ll be in the dive centre being measured up for their drysuit. This ensures that they too have the kit for that year-round hope that the wind will stop blowing, the swell will subside and the vis will superb. They join me in the ranks of fevered weather watchers just looking for the gap in Atlantic low pressure systems. The winter storms have stripped the kelp off the rocks now and this breathes a whole new perspective into our favourite sites. Maybe I am addicted to diving. Winter diving? Bring it on!
*I lied about the elegant part.
Michelle has been scuba diving for over 20 years. These blogs are a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.