Practically Rescue Diving – Part 1

On Friday afternoon Cam, Yael and I had moved into Shwari house, which is Des’s house, because Des was flying to Nairobi then on to Dubai to refresh his visa. This meant someone needed to be in the house to look after the sausage dogs, Kipling and Treacle, and we were more than happy to comply. I mean who wouldn’t be? The house is gorgeous; there’s a pool, an amazing covered outside seating area that’s basically a giant sofa and I have an en-suite double bedroom. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

Cam and I had to wake up early on Saturday morning to start our Emergency Rescue Diver practicals with Simon so I set my alarm for 6:45am. The tide was high so I awoke to the sounds of hunting ibis and the crashing of the waves on the shore. My mosquito net billowed around the four poster bed (I know – what a struggle) as I dragged my body out of bed. I looked out of my window and stopped, momentarily entranced by the sunrise. Bright light splashed across the water, casting it in gold. The waves rippled underneath the orange sky, sending the reflection of the light in every direction. Beautiful.

I tore myself away from the view to help Cam get everything ready. It turned out one of the tanks leaked a little bit over night and needed to be topped up. That meant we had to get the air compressor up and running again, but we managed to get the tank pretty much full by the time Simon arrived. Cam went down to the beach to get the boat while Simon and I started to carry down the dive kit. I wiggled my shorty wetsuit on until it was up around my waist and then heaved the tank and BCD onto my back. I gingerly picked up my mask, fins and weight belt off the floor, not wanting to unbalance myself with such a heavy load, and started toddling down to the boat. No one is their most graceful when fully loaded with dive gear.

Cameron and Khamisi were on the beach and helped us put everything into the boat. Once it was all on we set off out to the other side of the reef. Before we even made it out of the lagoon the engine stopped. What a great start. I was ever so slightly convinced that was going to be the end of our dive trip, given the boat’s slightly sketchy history. Thankfully it was just the fuel tank that was empty so we swapped it over for the full one stored in the boat (thank God) and in a few minutes we were speeding along again. Disaster averted.

The morning is usually the best time to go diving because the water is calmest, but I don’t think the sea got the memo that day. She was kicking up a fuss. I sat on the bench in the boat facing Cameron, who was driving, and the beach behind him so I didn’t notice at first. Then I heard Khamisi shouting,

“Cameroon! Pole pole!” He called, ‘Slow, slow’ I turned around to see a six metre swell looming up in front of our little boat.

“Oh crap,” I said gracefully as the boat slammed down the other side of the wave. I could see the concentration set in on Cameron’s face as he tried to follow Khamisi’s erratic instructions.

“Go, go, go,” he shouted from his perch on the bow, pointing wildly with his arm to the right, where the waves seemed a tad less fearsome. Cameron started the boat in the direction of Khamisi’s gesticulations but clearly not fast enough,

“Stop, stop.” He called out and we rode up another wall of water and down the other side.

“Are we sure this is a good idea?” I asked, looking between Cam’s grim expression and the choppy sea out in front of us.

“Oh you should see it when it’s really bad.” Simon said from his place next to me on the bench. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that as an answer to my question.

“Now, go, go.” Khamisi shouted, his voice snatched and flung back at us by the wind. Cameron put the engine on full throttle and we sped through before the next wave could reach us. When we were out past the reef it calmed down and I could let go of the side of the boat for a bit. The boat has a depth sounder on board so we used it to try and position ourselves in a good spot for our dive.

“We don’t want anything deep.” Simon said, flicking through his PADI instructor cards, “Around six to eight metres so we can do the practice scenarios,” We watched the readings on the depth sounder, there was a drop-off that went suddenly from about twelve metres to around twenty seven.

“Let’s drop the anchor here and then swim into the reef where it’s shallower,” Simon said, before saying something to Khamisi in a stream of Swahili I couldn’t comprehend.

“Sawa, sawa,” Khamisi said, ‘Okay, okay’ and hurled our ‘anchor’ overboard (currently a big plastic bag of sand tied to a rope on the boat). We kitted up, trying our hardest to safely manoeuvre the heavy tanks while the boat pitched from side to side in the swell. I nearly gave up on my fins all together, but eventually managed to shimmy my feet into them and clamped my mask down onto my face. Concentrating so hard on the equipment had made me feel a little bit queasy so I stared determinedly at the horizon as we ran through what we’d be doing underwater.

“We have two unresponsive diver underwater scenarios.” Simon explained. “One is the panicked diver, where they are too freaked out to respond to you and the other is the unconscious underwater diver. You will both try being the rescuer and the victim and then we will swap.” He glanced up at us to check we were happy with that. We nodded.

“With the panicked diver you will check, are they okay? When they don’t respond you give them your octopus (the spare regulator you carry on your BCD) and slowly swim with them to the surface.” Cam and I nodded again, jiggling the snorkels attached to our masks.

“Then there’s the the unconscious diver.” Simon continued, “When they don’t respond you deflate both of your BCDs and get into the knee cradle position. That’s when you are behind them and their tank is between your knees so you can be more stable. You then hold their regulator in their mouth with one hand so it doesn’t fall out and use the other hand to slowly inflate your BCD to bring you both to the surface,”

“Sounds good,” I said. We had seen videos of this on the e-learning course so it was all pretty familiar.

“Then we will do a missing diver search. Do you remember the different search patterns?” Simon asked, looking up from his instructor cards.

“There was U-shaped, expanding square and the one with a surface swimmer and two divers at the end of a line below them,” I said, trying to cast my mind back to the afternoons spent at the beach bar staring at the laptop screen.

“And the circular pattern where one person stays in place and the other uses a rope to draw a circle around them,” Cameron added. Simon seemed contented with our answers.

“We’ll try and do U-shaped, depending on the conditions when we get down there,” We waited a moment to see if Simon was going to say anything else. When he didn’t I said,

“Shall we?” I was quite keen to get into the water and down under the swell.

“Let’s” Simon said. We quickly ran through our safety checks, making sure our air was on, that we had weights, the releases on our BCDs in case they needed to be removed in an emergency (that we would soon be qualified to handle) and a final check to make sure everyone was happy. We arranged ourselves to sit on the side of the boat with our tanks hanging over the edge so we could roll backwards into the water, holding our masks to our faces and our regulators in our mouths.

“One, two, three,” Khamisi called out so quickly that I nearly missed it but we all landed in the water with a splash. The bubbles cleared and I bobbed up to the surface, signalling to the others that I was okay.

“Let’s swim into the reef for a bit and then descend so we don’t waste our air,” Simon said. I put my face into the water and couldn’t see the bottom, just blue. I always find there’s something a little bit unnerving about that. Even for me, as a marine biologist nerd and lover of the sea, there was definitely something slightly unsettling about what could be lurking out of sight. It was ridiculous, especially given that the idea seeing ‘scary’ things like sharks would actually be incredibly exciting for me. There was just something about the unknown-ness of it. The potentially infinite blue-ness that gave me a little shiver. The way that you’re suspended over a blue expanse of nothingness. Of course in a matter of minutes it was shallow enough to see the sandy bottom and Simon signalled to descend.

I was borrowing Cameron’s dive computer which beeped bossily at me as I went down. I squinted at the face to try and figure out what it was telling me off for but couldn’t figure out what it was chastising me for. Never mind. I slowed down just in case and met the others at the bottom. Simon pointed at me and mimed panicking. He pointed at Cam and made an ‘okay’ sign, the signal for the rescuer.

I flailed around a bit in the water and Cam approached me, asking if I was okay. He then shoved his octopus into my mouth, pressing the purge button to rid it of any sea water, and we swam a few metres upwards. Simon signalled we could stop ascending and clapped. We swapped roles and I did the same for Cam. One done.

Next we did the exercise with an unconscious diver. Cameron was unresponsive first this time. I clasped my knees around Cameron’s tank, after determining that he was unconscious, and tried to manage the bulk of both of us effectively. This exercise felt much more clumsy than the other and I didn’t really understand the point of deflating both of our BCDs as it meant we started crashing down towards the sea floor. I could feel us both sinking dangerously close to some very pretty corals and tried to inflate my BCD quickly so we could ascend and get out of the way of them, which luckily we did. Then we swapped around again before trying the missing diver search patterns. Simon pointed at a large coral with a sea urchin, indicating that this was to be our missing diver.

This exercise was also a tad flawed. Simon did some sign language that I found completely incomprehensible. I had no idea what he was trying to say. He put his index fingers together, ‘Get with your buddy’ I knew that much, but then he moved one hand down to his elbow, wiggled his fingers and pointed at me. ‘What?’ I mimed back. I was very confused. Eventually it became clear that Simon and Cameron were going to swim on ahead to do the search pattern while I was to stay well behind.

I was a little puzzled again soon after. Cameron and Simon seemed to just swim away from the urchin for ten or so metres before simply turning around and swimming straight back. Not really a search pattern if you asked me, but I guess it worked? Next it was my turn and I did the same thing. Simon clapped and did a little dance, to signal that we could have fun for the rest of the dive.

When we surfaced we deployed our marker buoy, also known as a safety sausage which I think is just fantastic. It’s basically a fluorescent orange tube that you can inflate to get the boat’s attention when you reach the surface. We waved it around a bit in the hope Khamisi would see us. He was quite far off but I thought he’d spot the bright orange inflatable reasonably quickly. The dive had been longer than usual, with a bottom time of nearly an hour, so I figured that he must be looking for us by now. We bobbed around for five minutes or so and watched the boat get smaller and smaller.

“Let’s swim towards it a bit,” Cam said. “Then he’ll see us,” we turned onto our backs and started finning, every now and then turning around to see Khamisi fishing off the boat, completely unaware of us. Simon was moving slower than me and Cam, stopping to try using the whistle on his BCD, but it was feeble and Cam and I could only just hear it ten or so metres away. It didn’t help that there was still quite a lot of swell, so we would regularly dip out of sight.

“Do you think he’ll just drive back to the lagoon without us?” I said with a laugh, trying to joke away the concern that I felt. Seriously, what would happen if he didn’t see us? He didn’t have a watch so wouldn’t be able to tell that we had been gone for longer than usual and he was pretty preoccupied with his fishing. It would be tough swimming all the way to the boat – he was at least four hundred metres away which is far when you have a heavy tank to tow. We sure as hell couldn’t swim back to shore in these conditions. I willed him to look over at us. No luck.

We swam along for about thirty minutes before Khamisi finally did notice us and came to pick us up. Simon was not impressed. He let out a long stream of Swahili and whilst I couldn’t tell you what a word of it meant I could tell he meant business.

Cam told me after that Simon was talking about how it was unacceptable for Khamisi not to have looked for us sooner. How he should have used the binoculars on board to find us and should have known which direction we were drifting. He was an excellent fisherman after all and knew these waters probably better than I know my own house. But he redeemed himself by being invaluable in getting us smoothly back into the lagoon, despite the waves that were crashing all around us. When we were back at the house we heaved our dive kit out and took it up to the house where we proceeded to throw it, and ourselves, in the swimming pool.

“Okay, let’s take a break for breakfast and do the pool exercises at eleven,” Simon said. “There’s a lot to get through,”

To be continued…

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