SCUBA School

'OK, the first science block this year is Marine Science and we're going to be SCUBA diving as part of it.' This statement was well received by the 22 Year 10 students that sat in front of me. Actually they already knew about the diving course as each of the preceding classes had done the same thing but there is nothing like getting that direct confirmation from the teacher that yes, it is true, you are going to be doing something exciting.

If I had told them that we were going to study gas-laws, respiratory physiology and marine ecology I would have received a very different response from most, so the SCUBA disguise was a fantastic ploy.
'Hey, anyone watch Killer Sharks last night?' said one bright young lad with a twinkle in his eye.
'Yes' was the majority response
OK, time for some creative teaching.
'Well sharks are actually in decline worldwide kids and are being brutally killed for their fins, perhaps you saw that on the show too?'
'Well, they kill us.'
'But not many of us in comparison and mostly by mistake.'
'Oh right on, that makes me feel better.'
'Will we see any sharks?'
'Mostly only wobbegongs and leopard sharks but possibly a grey nurse, there's still the occasional sighting at this time of the year but you'd have to be very lucky.'
'Lucky! Oh they are really bad, I don't like them! They have really scary teeth.'
'Their teeth aren't designed for eating people are pretty safe, and they are an endangered species.'
'Well they look really bad and wed better not see one!'
'Will we see dolphins or whales?'
'Oh derr.. whales dont come until July so there is no chance ...'
Fortunately the thrust of that discussion had changed and we moved on. Shark girl would have to confront her fears another time.

Bandidos of the DeepA SCUBA course, easy, no sweat; theory, pool and then open water dives, right. Well it all looks easy enough on paper. Enter 22 fifteen year olds.
'First thing you need guys is a medical, here's the sheet, answer the questions and then the doctor will examine you.'
The little bottles certainly had a few eyebrows raised. 'How are we meant to pee in this?'
Some of the questions on the medical really appealed to the potential hypochondriacs of the group!
'No dear, I really don't think that you have had emphysema, you can check with your mum if you want though.'
'Now class its time for some theory and we are going to watch a few videos OK'
'Yeah great, bring it on! Video 1.'
A short time later....
'You can't be serious Gerard, that guy is trying to tell us how to put a wetsuit on and breathe through a snorkel!'
It's a bit hard for kids who have lived close by the coast for most of their lives to believe that there are people who haven't actually done these things.

Overheard in the classroom the next day...
'I think I've failed my medical, I'm going to have to go for another one to check' said L.
'Don't worry, you can just snorkel while we dive, we'll all be going up and down anyway so its not as though you won't have someone to talk to,' answered P. Good grief, should I warn the instructors? Fortunately the medical was passed.

'My advice to you is to get them under the water as fast as possible - they can't talk there' was the comment from one haggard looking chap as he finished teaching pool session one and greeted the incoming instructor and group. The multi-tasking skill of teenage girls is incredible. They managed to stretch the patience of their instructors to the limit with an incessant stream of verbal....well talk, and at the same time hear every instruction that was given.

On the open water dives, after they had discovered the wonders of hand signals they invented new ones. Things like: 'There's a cat fish here' (actually it was a wobbegong), 'having a bad hair day', 'I've just seen a scorpion fish' and 'If I have to clear my mask one more time I'm sure my waterproof mascara won't hold up!' Well maybe not but they were certainly signalling madly back and forth and seemed to understand each other while I had no idea what they were on about.

Serious navigationThe pool sessions were interrupted by cyclonic weather conditions and local flooding. It looked like the sea would be churning for days. Amazingly the swell dropped from about 4m to 1m within a day. We were ready to take on the open water dives.

With 2 groups doing 2 dives back to back we needed to get an early start. My daughter happened to be in the early morning group on the first day so I took some of her friends as well. By 7.15am we were in the car and on our way to the bay. The girls were quiet, the early starts were taking their toll. 'What type of deranged person invented the structure of this course' asked one of the more seedy looking specimens. Ah, I see their opinion of me is lifting, no comment required. Silence and then the conversation shifted to sharks again.
'Will we see sharks?'
'What type?'
'Wobbegongs and leopards if were lucky.'
'Leopards! Aren't they those really dangerous ones that eat people and cans and stuff? '
'Yes they are. I saw it on TV.'
'No you're probably thinking of Tiger sharks.'
'Oh, well. OK. '
'Do they look like sharks?'
'Well, yes, a bit, but they don't look scary. We'll probably mostly see wobbegongs.'
'How many?'
'Lots if were lucky.'
'Will they try and eat us?'
'Are you sure.?'
'Positive. '
'You're just saying that to make us feel better. If a shark eats me Im going to sue you!'
'That's comforting.'
Shark girl contemplated the possibility of an attack in silence.

By the time they had geared up and loaded the boat they were looking much better but noticeably quieter than usual. The instructors had the best brief ever. How much of it went in I'm not sure as each face showed the mixture of excitement and anxiety and the readiness to take on another personal challenge. For some of them this was huge.

The sea was beautiful and the ride out to the rocks in the boat was fun. There were lots of laughs getting in, as some students rolled over the pontoons and onto the floor in anything but elegant style. The boys were helpful but not chivalrous, they let the girls find their own way on.

Jubilation of the surfaceAt the rock I took photos while the students geared up, went through their buddy checks and then rolled in, all good with plenty of interesting poses. The visibility in the water was a bit low but I started shooting anyway thankful for the wide-angle lens. The instructor tapped me on the shoulder as I was descending. What's up, a fish? A shark? Oh, a girl with only one fin! OK, this was a good chance to put search pattern skills into use. About 5 minutes later I found it on the bottom and was able to return it to its owner. She assured me later that she hadn't even noticed it was gone.

On the bottom the fantastic instructors worked like sheepdogs herding the kids together. The visibility was pretty limited so they kept things tight. I take my hat off to them, they did a fantastic job patiently moving from one to the other and making sure that every one was coping.

Meanwhile the students were having a ball, looking at all the fish and forgetting their buoyancy and looking like so many yo-yos. I'd forgotten what first time divers look like. Gradually though they got it together and started to gain control.
My daughter signalled that I had to come and look urgently. I raced over expecting the photographic opportunity of the month to find yet another fat wobby lazing on the bottom. Her eyes were wide with excitement. So I took another look at that wobby and tried to see it for the wild animal that it was, allowing me to share some of its domain.
'Half an hour, no way were we down there half an hour!'
'I saw 14 sharks'
'And none of them ate you. Ha, ha!'

Back on the surface the mood had changed completely. It was a case of smiles all round and as we got back on the boat the half hour of repressed conversation bubbled into stories of the wonders of the deep.

Search and Recovery in progressDive 2,3 and 4 followed and confidence and skills grew enormously. I know that my eyes are definitely getting worse now. On one dive the instructor signalled to the kids that if they looked carefully they might find some sharks teeth in the sand trenches. I couldn't find a thing. Who wants shark teeth anyway I thought jealously as I snapped shots of the kids with all theirs!
Final exams over and all the paper work done, well almost all. there is always one who forgets to sign one of the ten thousand places, we left the dive shop at about 7pm on that last day. I felt sorry to leave the last instructor there with the folders and his own signing to do but he was still smiling so that was good. I walked down the driveway to a chorus of 'We are diver Dans, we are diver Dans!' 'Cant wait to go diving again', 'Yeah, I wonder what night diving is like?' 'I think I want to be a marine biologist.'

After about 200 phone calls and a week of working from 7am to 8pm, chasing students around for medical forms, record cards, signatures etc, organising their groups and then reorganising and then again reorganising their groups I ask myself was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY.

We only really care and protect what we know. And now there are another 20 teenagers who will grow into adults knowing the wonders of the undersea world. Many of them probably won't dive much more- partly because of the expense involved and partly because they find its not for them. But for others a new window of opportunity has been opened and they will continue to seek opportunities to dive where they can and to improve their skills. But all of them will know the reason for preserving our oceans and have come face-to-face with its inhabitants...and lived to tell the tale.
One last diving gem:
Instructor: 'What will you do if you run out of air?'
Student: 'I know, use your octopus'
Instructor: 'No there's no extra air in the octopus, its attached to your first stage.'
Student: 'Well, whats the point in an alternate air source that doesn't have any air!'
Indeed. Can't wait till next year.

Many Thanks to Giac and the great team at Sundive in Byron Bay. They just kept on smiling!

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