You weren’t expecting this, were you?

shark-674867_640Yes, it’s but a small step from learning a new set of sporting skills in the North-East of Scotland to having to face down a shark. So if anyone says that life in Aberdeen at RGU won’t be as exciting as, say, in London, ask them when was the last time they met a thirty foot shark in Sutton…

I learnt to dive off the Aberdeenshire coast in the Spring/Summer of 2003 – fortunately one of the hottest on record for many years. Even at that time of year the water is only between 8 and 12 degrees (compared to 28-30C in tropical climates). I think some people think you just get a pair of flippers and an air tank and then jump in and swim around like James Bond, but in fact you really have to learn all the essential skills in the pool before tackling open water. For a start, you have to learn what all the kit is called and what each bit does.

When it came to my first trip away from the pool I wore a semi-dry suit (basically two wets suits one on top of the other) a full neoprene hood, gloves and boots. We travelled to Rosehearty further up the east coast, for the majority of our open water experience and skills testing. Once you arrive it’s a real work-out, trekking back and forth across what seems like acres of rocks with all your kit, weight belts, buoyancy jackets, steel tanks etc. There’s an initial freezing rush when you first jump in, but the water in your suit soon warms up – that is until you have to remove your mask in a test exercise and get the worst ‘ice cream headache’ ever as the icy water hits your face!

Visibility in the North Sea is pretty poor, so your navigation skills need to be top notch and you’ll need a good diving torch to find the wildlife between the kelp. During our advanced training (which allows you to dive up to 40 metres) we had a memorable trip up to Lossiemouth to dive an old fishing trawler, ‘the Unity’, which sits on the seabed about 25 metres down. We arrived at 5pm and it was still 35 degrees! After a great dive our skipper had prepared hot Bombay tatties on the boat to warm us up. Lovely!

One of the best things about diving is that they are usually a very social crowd. We learnt to dive with a small group that organised regular trips – and the associated social gatherings. It was with these guys that we went diving on our first ‘liveaboard’ in Egypt. Living on board for a week, the conditions were extremely basic but the diving was out of this world and you could dive up to 4 times a day. When you are permanently at sea you can reach some of the best diving spots that the day trippers can’t reach.

Learning to dive is a bit like learning to drive. You really only start to learn once you’ve passed. As with driving, once you’re out on the open road/water, you start to get experience of all sorts of things that aren’t part of the initial tests. On the Egyptian trip we had some very real (i.e. a bit too exciting) experiences. My dive buddy and I managed to ‘lose’ the rest of our divers when our torches failed on a night dive. On another occasion we jumped off the rib to follow a dolphin then had to exit the water pronto when a shark started to circle. And another time we were enveloped in a dark shadow only to realise there was a 30-foot whale shark above us.

Personally I’m a fair weather diver these days. I prefer the ease of diving abroad, the warm water and some sunshine to dry you off when you come back to the surface. Having said that I would always recommend learning to dive in the UK. In my experience (having recently seen my daughter go through her junior training), the quality of instruction and assessment is far more stringent here. I’ve been lucky enough to dive in some of the world’s best dive sites including the Great Barrier Reef, Malaysia, Dubai, Thailand and Mauritius. My personal highlights were diving with stingrays in Grand Cayman and shark diving in Barbados. There, the guide had a chain mail suit and fed sharks from a metal canister. Our only defence was to kneel on the seabed and link arms so we presented a larger presence to the sharks that they would be less likely to attack!

Julie Skinner, Resourcing & Benefit Specialist