By Darrell Staight
Who can remember when they truly got hooked on diving? With every true enthusiast there is a moment when the sport went from being a mere hobby to a consuming passion. That’s what often separates people who have but a passing interest and those that keep doing it whenever they have an opportunity with it becoming a fundamental part of their life. I’m most definitely one of the latter. I’ll dive until I physically can’t anymore and my spare time revolves around it much of the time. But it wasn’t always like that, I was polarised by a particular dive and I’ll wager that many of you can relate to similar moments yourselves. That moment when diving becomes life changing is a poignant one and that’s what this article is about.
Recently I’ve had cause to look back and reminisce, probably because I’ve been going through a process to assist my partner SJ who is at the beginning of her journey. She would probably be the first to tell you that diving doesn’t come easily for her, nor is it yet a passion. But I’m trying to encourage her to persist to a point that she feels comfortable enough in the water to truly appreciate that moment if and when it comes along. I believe it will at some stage given her appreciation of the natural environment in all its diversity. Being underwater just takes a bit of time to feel equally at home as the avid naturalist does when they walk through a nature reserve or something similar.
Let me tell you about when it happened to me, I need to go back 16 years, a time well before I was a cave diver, before my time as an Instructor, even before I became a wreck diving enthusiast. Right back to when I did my PADI Advanced Open Water Course at Jervis Bay with the staff from Pro Dive Sydney. It’s where we all started and have the opportunity to get exposed to different environments for the first time. As such I think such experiences are all the more vivid as everything is new and exciting. In many ways it’s where my love for diving started. I’ve gained all kinds of satisfaction from courses I’ve done over the years, particularly the challenging technical ones but I still look back to this one as my favourite.
I was already a diver of sorts but not from an inner desire to go sightseeing. Whilst in the Navy I had done a 3 week course, which in addition to my main day to day role, enabled me to also do some maintenance tasks under the waterline whilst my ship was alongside in various ports. Far from pleasure diving, visibility was normally pretty limited and instances with all manner of waste floating past was not uncommon. An anecdote from this time that I’m fond of telling is a story that allegedly took place on another ship where a diver in a filthy overseas port managed to somehow accidentally swallow something foul (most likely some sort of excrement) floating on the surface when he took his regulator out of his mouth. When he subsequently asked the ship’s medic to give him something to help him throw it up, the response he allegedly got (amidst fits of laughter) was this “If that didn’t make you throw up then there’s nothing I can give you that will!” Not withstanding the humorous side of this story, it paints a picture of the environments we sometimes were required to dive in, particularly whilst overseas. Partly out of necessity, I became reasonably comfortable diving in low visibility (which has proved useful for my current interest in cave diving) but as I hadn’t had any exposure to proper pleasure diving at the time, I wasn’t really aware how good it could be. I thought diving in 1 – 5 metres visibility was fairly normal and the course I had done, whilst physically demanding placed little emphasis on the small idiosyncrasies that come with good buoyancy and trim. With no other diving background at the time the course felt like it had been raced through and while it focused on important skills like search and recovery techniques, I hadn’t really developed a particularly good feel for diving itself during the 3 weeks. I dived with all the subtlety of an overweighted bull in a china shop. The equipment felt awkward and clunky in comparison to what I use today. In my imagination I had already developed my own idea of what the freedom of diving should feel like in an ideal world and this wasn’t it! It served a purpose for the crude work we were trained to do but I didn’t immediately think this would be an ideal activity for relaxing.
This changed however when I was considering what I would do when I left the military, particularly as at the time I had a friend who was looking to become a commercial diver and one day he ended up telling me about it over a drink at the local bar. After doing a bit more research into it and asking him lots more questions, I became intrigued in some of the possibilities of where it could lead. I found out that for the most part commercial diving schools trained you from scratch and the only diving pre-requisite was to do a basic Open Water Course. With that, I decided to make use of a few days I had off during the week and so walked into the nearest dive shop which was Pro Dive Sydney and signed up to get that tick in the box. The Open Water Course was not life changing but I did enjoy it, doing pleasure diving for the first time in the Clovelly Ocean Pool and adjacent Gordons Bay. By sheer fluke I also had the luxury of doing a one on one course with an experienced instructor, Nikki, who was just a couple of months away from changing to a totally different career path. In between dives I had the chance to hear about some of her experiences teaching over the years and while they didn’t sound nearly as profitable, I became equally intrigued in the world of professional recreational instruction as that of commercial diving. A seed had been planted.
Throughout the Open Water Course we had at least 10 metres visibility and there was plenty to see by following the signed underwater nature trail that existed in Gordons Bay. While I was still focused on the prospect of becoming a Commercial Diver, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a little detour. It took little convincing for me to sign up immediately for the PADI Advanced Open Water Course. As luck would have it there was one happening two days later.
That Friday afternoon I showed up out the front of the shop and was introduced to my fellow course mates for our weekend of adventure. More than a series of local dives, this course was to be done during a trip away to Jervis Bay. Our instructor was a Canadian diver with a very calm disposition called William (Will). Also along for the trip was Rod de Groot (somewhat of a Pro Dive icon over the years), who would be driving the bus and teaching his own separate course that weekend. I would get to know both better in the following months in subsequent courses and trips. We got on board and off we went on a 4 hour drive to Jervis Bay.
Things got off to a rocky start when one of my course mates had all his diving equipment stolen from the bus when we stopped for dinner on the way. We later worked out that his window had not been latched completely shut and his bag which was on his seat would have been easy takings for any would-be thief. Nevertheless, I’ll give the poor guy credit as somehow it didn’t dent his mood or enthusiasm for too long. We worked out that there would still be enough surplus gear to go around and after a couple more hours driving we eventually arrived at Jervis Bay, and pulled into the dive lodge that we were staying at.
The next morning we woke up to glorious weather and the full grandeur of Jervis Bay was revealed. We had only tantalising glimpses of this the night before with the white beaches barely visible from Huskisson disappearing off into the distance, but in broad daylight the full ‘reveal’ did not disappoint. Jervis Bay can be stunning.
For our first 2 course dives we headed to a secluded beach located near the point where the bay joined the open sea. This was to be the one and only time I ever dived at Murrays Beach but after lugging our gear through the trees and dunes when we emerged it was clear it was a pretty special place. It resembled something you’d see in a movie of a remote island. That’s how I remember it anyway, I can only hope that it’s still like that. Flat clear water, beautiful clean white sandy beach with thick healthy vegetation hanging over it. The serenity was quickly brought to an end however, when another personality of the time roared past and ran into the water complete with his students around him amidst laughter and yelps when the brisk water temperature became apparent. They then slowely got out and started the process of kitting up for their course dives with various banter being thrown around. This was my introduction to the Pro Dive Drummoyne Instructor Tyrone. He was certainly a bit of a character. Loud, flamboyant but well meaning and full of enthusiasm. He was popular with his students and a solid diver himself.
Then it was our turn. Will gathered us around for our dive briefing. The first 2 dives focussed on navigation and naturalism. I was buddied with an English diver called Tamsyn, who was on a year working visa at the time. She took everything with good humour and as it turned out was enjoying the diving and sailing so much in Australia that she ended up extending her stay. We were to do numerous dive courses together over the coming months and she became my first regular dive buddy. Once below the surface we were greeted with beautiful gin clear water. It almost made navigation a bit too easy as you could see from one marker almost to the next without the aid of a compass. When it came to identifying various forms of marine life on the next dive we drew a series of pictures on a slate to discuss with our instructor after the dive. We’d already drawn a few and were getting near the end of our dive. Whilst looking for our last subject we came up behind another buddy pair (unbeknown to them at the time). Tamsyn started scribbling away and then showed me the picture she would later present to Will. It wasn’t a species I recognised on our marine life slate but that yellow tank on the back sure looked familiar! Despite the serious side of making sure everyone was doing the skills required, which comes with being an instructor, he appeared equally amused with Tamsyn’s drawing as the two of us were!
We headed back into Huskisson to refill our tanks and had lunch overlooking the bay. What better to have than fish and chips from the local cafe, particularly when you know that the fish was pretty fresh. At the same time we were able to take in the scenery looking over the stunning beaches at Huskisson. It felt like we were a million miles from the hustle and bustle of Sydney. No doubt about it I was enjoying this trip. Our instructor Will joined the group and started to brief us about the plans for the evening. Prior to dinner we were to do a night dive at the Hyams Beach boat ramp, then dinner at the local pub before relaxing with everyone else back at the lodge and covering any last minute theory.
A few hours later as the sun was going down we geared up at Hyams, which many have claimed has the whitest sand in the world (not sure if that’s substantiated but it is indeed pretty white). Before we entered the water, I remember him saying something that stuck with me to this day; “This dive will change your life.” We then got in the water and did our dive. It was indeed another good experience but I’ll be honest, it didn’t exactly change my life. Hyams is nice, and it’s convenient for instructors because it’s so accessible but it isn’t the Bahamas! Nonetheless I remembered the phrase he used because the next day it was to ring true.
The date was Sunday 11th July 1999. Not withstanding the very social night at the lodge we all enjoyed with students from different stores, comparing our own stories (including a few tall ones no doubt) which ran into the early hours of the morning, we still woke up pretty chirpy and ready to go again. I recall the delicious serving of pancakes we had at the lodge prepared by Luciano (who looked after us on that and subsequent Jervis Bay trips). We then headed back into Huskisson to meet our dive boat. Our course was to board the local dive charter ‘Avalon’ a comfortable well equipped 10 metre twin hulled boat, owned by the local dive shop which these days is known as Dive Jervis Bay. We had 2 course dives remaining, the first of which was to be my deepest to that date. We travelled outside the heads and took a short trip down to the temporary residence of a seal colony, in the process seeing a few Humpback Whales breaching nearby. This was to be my first proper pleasure dive on board a charter boat, but I didn’t really give that much thought at the time. Previous boat dives with the Navy involving late night excursions into Sydney Harbour or hull searches under the various ships moored at the Fleet Base, somehow didn’t seem to cut it. It was a stunning day, the water was reasonably flat and as we neared the seal colony expectations were high.
When we pulled up at the dive site and dropped anchor, you couldn’t miss the pungent odour or the sounds of the seals. They were everywhere and the smell permeated the air. After another dive briefing, this time by the skipper of the boat, we entered the chilly water in our buddy pairs and I chose to immediately immerse my face in order to adapt to the cold. I was blown away by what I saw, it was absolutely gin clear and I could clearly see the bottom 30 metres below. When Will gave the signal we started to descend the anchor line to the sea floor and the majesty of the environment we were moving into became more apparent. In addition to the clarity we also had dramatic underwater topography with steep walls leading from the cliffs above protruding out to form a gully. When we got to the bottom we did a few course skills but then attention turned to the seals that had joined us and the display they were putting on around us and between us. It was just spectacular, a delight of nature. They moved around with such grace and speed and it appeared effortless.
Occasionally one would get curious and would come in closer for a look. As they barrel rolled you would see streams of bubbles trapped in their fur stream out, which in itself added to the spectacle. Their behaviour reminded me of dogs due to their almost playful nature and at times they would get to within inches of our faces, take a long look before disappearing off at great speed again. But how time flies when you are enjoying yourself underwater. All too soon the experience had to come to an end as we were signalled by Will to start heading back up to the Avalon. As we waited at our safety stop I was just buzzing and could hardly wait for more of the same. Looking at my course mates they appeared equally intoxicated with this experience. After a surface interval and a warm cup of soup we were back in the water with the seals again and this time did a slightly shallower dive profile where we ascended bit by bit pausing for a while at different features. This was to be classed as a multilevel dive and our last elective requirement for the weekend. All too soon we were again back at the safety stop and whilst hanging from the bar Will came around to shake each of our hands one by one, signalling the successful completion of the course. Sadly that also meant that this particular experience was also over but I was keen to come back soon. As I reflected on what we had witnessed that day; the clear water, the dramatic topography, the spectacular show the seals had put on, I remembered Will’s comment from the night before “This dive will change your life”. It may have been one dive premature but it was totally applicable now. I had been totally caught up in the moment.
We headed back in to Huskisson and I can remember standing on the front of the boat with the guy who had had his equipment pinched two days before. It must have been the furthest thing from his mind as we both reflected on what a good experience the weekend had been. My only regret was that I didn’t have any photos of it so I need to sincerely thank Dive Jervis Bay for allowing me to use some of their photos to hopefully bring this article to life.
I went round the back of the boat to find Tamsyn similarly grinning like a ‘Cheshire cat’ and before we even got back to the wharf the two of us had hatched a plan to come back the following weekend to participate in Rod’s Deep Course. That was to be the sign of things to come. Most weekends in the coming months were filled with courses or pleasure diving. Several months later we were both qualified Divemasters and I’d made a decision to focus, at least for a while on the prospect of becoming a recreational Instructor after leaving the Navy. I never ended up doing any commercial diver training, content instead by being hooked along the way on something more enjoyable.
“That dive will change your life” – Damn right!