On Friday the 10th of May this year I attended the first ever New Zealand TeCFest. By June 30 just seven weeks later I was certified on my own closed circuit rebreather. Claire has asked me to write a few paragraphs about how this all came about so here goes.
Prior to TecFest I was certified to nitrox level and generally did 50 minute shore dives most Saturdays, taking a few photos of the local life. I had a vague idea that I wanted to advance in diving in some direction but I wasn’t really sure what direction that might be. I wasn’t sure if I was interested in wrecks, I was fairly sure I wasn’t interested in caves and there didn’t seem to be any avenue of technical diving for people who just want to hang with the fish.
So I went up to TechFest with an open mind hoping that I would discover what I wanted to do next. After the first day of dives we all got together in the kitchen to listen to presentations about various aspects of technical diving. Richard Taylor said a few words about rebreathers in his introduction and then Paul Trainor got up to talk about them in more detail, by which time I’d had a ‘that’s it’ moment. There are several advantages to rebreathers including gas efficiency, decompression efficiency, warm gas, and silence but what really sold me was the fact that you can get closer to the fish and potentially get better photos. After the presentation several of us got up make further enquiries and to prod the two units on display. It turned out that getting set up with a rebreather, while being a considerable investment, had got a bit cheaper since my last idle enquiry about costs 2 years ago. And I could do the training in Wellington and Paul had a unit on hand that would be ideal for what I wanted…
Admittedly I hadn’t done a great deal of research up to this point so the next step was to spend the fortnight after TecFest asking as many questions and doing as much reading as I could before making a decision. My unit is a KISS Classic manual closed circuit rebreather (mCCR), the main deciding factors in its favour were that it has a reputation for being easy to maintain and is one of the lighter units available which makes travelling easier. And for the same reason as learning on your Dad’s old Hillman Hunter was supposed to make you a better driver when you graduated to your first Toyota Starlet I could also see the value in starting out on a manual CCR.
So decision made and bank account emptied I fronted to Island Bay for my first training sessions over Queens Birthday weekend. The training is huge. The first six hours or so just covered the initial setup of the unit and an overview of what all the bits do. After setup and pre-dive checks it was off to the pool for my first go in the water with it. I had heard that buoyancy was different so I expected this, on open circuit when you inhale your lungs inflate and you ascend in the water column and the opposite reaction occurs when you exhale. On a rebreather this effect is absent as you exhale into and inhale from a loop which includes counter lungs that inflate and deflate after each breath while passing the gas through the scrubber to remove carbon dioxide ready for your next breath. The thing I noticed the most was the silence, in the pool you can hear the water pumping and the sound of the water hockey players but noise from regulators and bubbles are very noticeable in their absence.
Having completed a pool session you then do seven hours in the water over seven dives. On each dive you complete a number of skills to simulate getting out of trouble. At first you get an underwater demo which you repeat, then come the flash cards with the name of a possible issue e.g. hypercapnia or hyperoxia and then towards the end of the course you just see a card with the likely symptoms of the problem. After every dive there is a review session and you get scored on a scale of 1 to 5, hopefully showing some improvement over the duration of the course. There is also a great deal of time spend on dry training i.e. setting up, dismantling and sterilising the unit, pre-dive checks, checklist theory and other safety issues.
On day two we went through the pre-dive checks and then it was off to Island Bay for my first dive in the ocean. Within about five minutes I knew I’d made the right decision. We descended to a depth of around 5 meters and were surrounded by a school of baitfish. Instead of just buzzing past they circled past us over and over again. They got so close you could look into their eyes and see their colours and markings, you could almost see scales. It was like you could reach out an arm and touch them. When I tried this they moved just out of reach and then moved closer again once I dropped my arm.
Admittedly there were some issues to get past, for the first couple of dives you feel like you are going to spend the rest of your diving life monitoring and adjusting PO2, but then during dive three or four you begin to get the hang of maintaining it at the appropriate level. The Wellington weather has been rubbish in June and boats seemed to be cancelled more often than run. The course requirements are for several deep dives including at least one to 30m so it was back to Lake Taupo for dives three to six. It’s fair to say that there were no more beautiful fish moments in Lake Taupo, or in Shelly Bay for the final dive of the course with 1 metre visibility, but I’ve completed the course and now need to focus on getting out and diving and consolidating the good practices learnt on the course.
I’ve booked a trip to Northland in a few weeks and I’ve got a rough training plan for the next two or three rebreather courses. I’ve even booked a trip to Truk in 2014, having decided I may be interested in wrecks after all, especially if they’re kept in warm clear water. So the trip to TecFest was definitely a success as it looks like I’ve found my direction in diving.