Monday, November 16, 2009
Living a dream in the deep
Fraser Debney and his friend wanted to get their advanced scuba rating quickly so they would not be excluded from some of the most interesting dives at southern resorts.
Open water divers (the beginning level) are restricted to a depth of 60 feet. With the advanced qualification, they could go down to 130 feet, “which allows you to participate in pretty much all the dives at a resort.”
Yearning to dive in warm-water locations with exotic sea life and colourful coral reefs, they began their course in April of 2009. They trained in Montreal, where Fraser, who grew up in Pickering, Ontario, now lives.
There was an added financial bonus to fast-track: “At the time I took the open water course, the dive club was offering a reduced rate for the advanced course if you bought both at the same time,” said Fraser. “As long as you passed the requirements, you could move up a step.”
Within months, Fraser was living his dream. His first such experience was with a Kissimmee, Florida –based dive shop. Leaving shore from Jupiter, on the Atlantic side, the boat took them on two reef dives in 90 to 100 feet of water. “On the first dive I saw a turtle about the size of a double bed.”
The reef creatures and colours of the coral were highlights, but the biggest rush came at the end of the second dive. Hovering with two other divers15 feet down for three minutes before resurfacing (to guard against the bends), Fraser saw three creatures in a triangular formation coming down the reef right at him. They were black-tip reef sharks and came within 25 feet of the divers before veering off. When they got to the surface Fraser asked his fellow divers if they saw the reef sharks. The boat crew responded quickly with “half a dozen hands” reaching out to help them aboard. When he returned home to Montreal he did some research and discovered that reef sharks usually hunt in groups of three.
To Fraser, taking diving training with a friend made a lot of sense because divers need to dive with a “buddy.” While dive boat operations can usually pair divers up, it’s nice to go with someone you know. And if you want to practise your skills between boat dives, a friend who’s a dive buddy just a phone call away is a bonus.
Fraser had been warned that the theory part of his diving courses would be boring, but he didn’t find it that way because he was so interested in the sport.
He did have to coax some of the younger instructors to teach the dive tables as a backup to a diver’s wrist-bound mini computer. With youthful attachment to all things electronic, they were used to wearing two computers to back each other up. But at a cost of about $500 each, Fraser felt it was cheaper to buy just one computer and learn the tables. The instructors complied and taught the dive tables.
During in-water training for his open water course, Fraser found his greatest challenge was to obtain “peak performance buoyancy,” which is maintaining a constant depth. He found that even the pace of a diver’s breathing (too fast or too slow) can affect this. “If it’s too fast – a panic type of breathing – you’re all over the place.”
When he did his open water test in the St. Lawrence River at Prescott, “six of us (student divers) were in the water waiting at specific points.” The instructor would come down and tap them on the shoulder when it was their turn and by the time he came for the fifth or sixth diver, the silt or mud at the bottom was churned up, restricting underwater visibility.
That test was in June. Three weeks later at the same location, they qualified as advanced divers.
Fraser had a bit of an edge on one element of the advanced course – the requirement for proficiency in the use a compass. Now retired from the military, he could call on the compass skills he was taught in the army. Still, plotting a course under water introduced different challenges. Compasses rely on the magnetic north pole as their base point in determining direction, so it’s important to be aware of metal objects that can result in errors in compass headings. For instance, a nearby metal sea wall could cause false readings. With visibility much less under water, it’s more difficult to see similar bearing-altering structures there. The test of compass reading skills involved swimming a square course underwater, with the diver required to come back to the starting point, plus or minus a couple of feet.
Fraser had no hesitation in signing up for both courses together because he knew from an experience in 1993 that he wanted to dive. Off for a few days leave while serving in the Canadian army in Egypt, he first experienced the sport at a resort there. It was a half-day excursion out on a boat in an enclosed area, in this case a small bay. They were given a tank and regulator, but no training or safety instructions. The dive group did have experienced divers that kept an eye on the novices as they went down about 30 feet. “All the things you learn safety wise, back then I had no idea about them.”
But beside the euphoria of his first diving experience in Egypt, there was another important benefit for Fraser in taking up scuba diving. He had suffered injuries during one of his deployments with the military that led to chronic pain and the ongoing need for medical care. “It was better for me and the military that I ‘medically’ retire,” he said.
“There has not been any other form of physical activity that I have been successful with in the last few years, without irritating my current physical issues. Swimming was one of the best things, and then the issue of scuba was discussed with my doctor,” said Fraser. “I have found that my pain virtually disappears when I am buoyant in the water. My doctor figures that the release of all weight on my damaged parts probably releases the stress put on the nerve endings, and thus the pain signals are blocked to the brain. Whatever the issue, it works and is a definite bonus for enjoying this sport even more.”
Fraser thinks scuba can help a lot of people cope with their pain. He was also amazed during one of his courses to see the mobility scuba gave to an older man in a wheelchair. “I watched him descend as able as any of the other divers without the use of his legs.”
While Fraser and his friend qualified at the higher level quickly, he has no aspirations to teach or dive professionally. “For me it’s strictly recreational. It’s calming and peaceful. It’s a totally different world underwater.”
Instead, he will pursue diving experiences in interesting locales. One of those was Santa Lucia, Cuba, where in October he hooked up with a dive shop called Sharks Friends. As the name suggests, this shop specializes in dives with sharks, specifically the more aggressive bull sharks. The weather was bad in the area where they find the sharks on the day he was scheduled to dive, so it was cancelled. The following day was fine but since it was within 24 hours of the time of his flight home, it would be unsafe for him to dive. He did see the videos of the dive master using an extended bar to feed the bull sharks, which the tourist divers watched from about 10 to 15 feet away. For their own safety, tourist divers are no longer allowed to feed the sharks themselves.
Earlier in his week in Cuba, Fraser did participate in a dive to a spectacular reef that the Cubans say is the second largest in the world. He went down 82 feet and the water temperature was 82 degrees. The marine life included a sting ray and “lots of blue lion fish. They’re taking over the reefs now and eat smaller fish.” They have long barbs that take on the appearance of a mane, and hence the name “lion fish.” He came within a few feet of them but didn’t know at the time that their sting is poisonous.
Fraser also swam into a small cave where he encountered the biggest lobster he had ever seen. His dive buddy declined to enter the cave and explained later, “It’s nice to go into them but you don’t know what’s coming out in the other direction.”
During a January visit to Las Vegas, he plans to dive in Lake Mead, a reservoir created when the Hoover Dam was built. “They pretty much buried a city. There’s a cement factory there and it’s all under water.”
While trips of this nature and relief from pain are what drive Fraser’s diving aspirations, there are a variety of reasons why people take up scuba. A case in point was a woman in Fraser’s class in Montreal. She wanted to overcome her feelings of terror for the water.
“She did very well.”