By Liz Griffths
We are now half way through our six week expedition. Last week, the few dive ‘beginners’ amongst us sat (and passed) our PADI Open Water exam. Three of us then carried on to complete the PADI Advanced Open Water course. This second course involved a series of five dives focussing on specific skills, supported by theory classes. It was a rather entertaining few days. Our first dive was Peak Performance Buoyancy, which was aimed squarely at our newly developed habits of crashing into anything and everything that was around us, particularly our surrounding environment. As usual, Axelle, our instructor, made the various exercises look easier they were. While she and Bic, the dive manager, hovered just above our heads, we thrashed and crashed near the bottom, trying desperately to control a small ascent and descent with just our lungs. The eruptions of bubbles from their regulators let us know we’d kept them entertained. Eventually, our patience tested, we managed the Holy Grail of the hover. Admittedly, it was more upside-down turtle than upright yoga pose, but close enough.
The next day was our deep dive to 30 meters. It was a beautiful site, full of diverse and colourful coral and much bigger fish. It was darker, slightly colder and had the feeling of definitely being ‘out at sea’.
Our third dive, Underwater Navigation, was always going to be problematic. I can’t navigate my way out of a paper bag. I get lost on a straight road. North and south mean absolutely nothing to me. A compass? You have to be kidding. As I struggle with navigation at the best of times on land, I had significant concerns about how I was going to cope with simple underwater navigation at 12 meters. Our exercises for this dive had us working to find certain co-ordinates and routes, counting fin-kicks and speed of swimming to navigate distance and time. There were several moments where we would stare at our compass, tap it a few times, stare at each other, shake our heads, shrug our shoulders. No idea where we were. Luckily, our instructors did. With a bit more patience and perseverance, and the occasional frustrated attempt to throw away my compass, (I’m sure it was broken) we managed to find our way. I say ‘find’ our way, as navigate is probably too euphemistic for what we did. Anyway, more practising, more perseverance, more blank stares at the compass. We learnt it in the end. I also learnt that it’s quite hard to swear with a regulator in your mouth.
The next dive, rather ironically, was Search and Recovery. Given how challenging I found the underwater navigation, the idea that I might ever actually be able to find anything underwater had me in stitches. But, armed with a range of techniques we had practised beforehand on land (including a knot tying exercise that took us all the best part of the morning to get right), we set about finding the newly hidden treasure. Luckily, I got to swim around in circles looking for mine. Quite appropriate, really.
Our last dive before we qualified for our Advanced course would be a night dive, conducted in the very early hours of the following morning. There we were at 3:30am, struggling into wetsuits, fumbling with BCDs and regulators, and stomping down to the boat with nothing but the stars to guide us. Night time really is pitch black in Andavadoake. There are no street lights, no house lights, no soft glow of far off villages or cities to guide us. It was pitch black. Torches in hand, we rolled into the water, swallowing the odd moment of fear with our air. The sea at night really is another world. Calm, quiet, eery. We didn’t see a great deal, thanks to us landing off the reef and spending most of the dive time looking for the right site. But we had a few fish to keep us company, and a barracuda followed us for a while, keeping tabs on where we were heading. Back on land, we took in the sunrise with coffee and bok bok (sweet, fried bread). And that was it – after that dive and a few more theory sessions, we were newly qualified Advanced Open Water divers.
The rest of the week has passed in a blur. In addition to passing our two dive courses, we have all now passed our two benthic tests (a classroom test, and a point-out test in the water). We’ve been learning our fishes (there are a lot!) and slowly getting ourselves ready to sit the fish tests. We are all now keen to get the science training out the way so we can start being a bit more useful on our dives.
In between all of this, we’ve had plenty of time to sit around, read, soak up a little sun (yes, Mum, I’m wearing sunscreen) and start to get involved in some of the other projects that the BV team has on the go. The main one, last Saturday, was the English lesson with a group of school children. BV has run English lessons for quite some time, but due to the lack of volunteers over the last few months, they’ve slipped away.
Thanks to the help of Liz, an ex-physical education teacher from Australia, we held an afternoon of tabloid sports for 75 kids. In the courtyard of their school, we divided the kids into groups, gave each group a station and ball game of some sort with which to score points. After 3 minutes, all teams changed locations. They loved it. We used the exercises to help teach them English words, numbers and phrases and to encourage teamwork, rather than individual competiveness. It was a great afternoon, if not hot and exhausting.
We’ve been the beneficiaries of lessons too, with Bic giving us our first Malagasy lesson and Chiara holding a lecture on coral reproduction. Today we have a session with Maggie, who is taking us through the family planning clinic programme and how BV is trying to help the village manage its extreme population growth.
On our day off last week, we hired two pirogues and headed to the edge of the reef, where 25-30 cannons lay buried in water shallow enough in which to snorkel. It was an incredible day. Pirogue is now my favoured way of travelling and the coral that lies just beyond the reef, to where we swam, was incredible. Huge valleys with soft sandy bottoms, steep coral cliffs and ledges hid all sorts of beautiful, colourful fish. We’re getting better at naming them. The Aussie family, fish experts including the kids, can name most of what they see. Rob and I are still staggering somewhere back at the general species. “It’s a fish, I know that much…”. But, hopefully, if we study hard we should be fish trained in the next few days and then the real work begins.