By Bob Halstead
Qualifying as a NAUI diving instructor in the Bahamas in 1970 was a revelation. My previous life was quite ordinary, but the course inspired me to adventure and self-fulfilment. I can now look back on many marvellous moments diving, and many dealing with the strange and wonderful people that, one way or other, I have taught to dive.
My favourite students have always been those that, like myself, are totally fascinated by the sea and its creatures. The motivation is so strong that even if they are not the world’s greatest swimmers or the most coordinated athletes, they will still learn to dive.
One such student had a motor-coordination problem and although very intelligent would have to stop and think if I told her to hold out her right hand. “Well done! – now try the other right hand …”. She had every possible problem described during my instructor course, and then many that were not. I learned from her just as much as she learned from me.
We started with private lessons. She could swim but could not jump into the pool. She could hold her breath, but could not put her face underwater and open her eyes. She could kick fins but moved backwards as often as forwards. Eventually she completed a course but I could not award her certification. She went to another instructor and completed a course, but he also could not qualify her. She went to Australia and did another course and still was not certified. She came back to me and we had more private lessons and she did another course. She had made over fifty dives by this time … and eventually I could not find any reason not to certify her. Sheer determination fuelled by that overwhelming desire to be underwater had seen her through. She continued with other courses, became an assistant instructor and would give good advice to students. She understood their problems; she had had them all.
At the other end of the spectrum meet Lillian. Lillian is a water baby and the first time I met Lillian she was in her late fifties. She was wearing a skimpy bikini which her slim figure complimented gracefully, had a large unsheathed diver’s knife stuck down the side of her bikini bottom, and was holding a spear gun. She was free diving to 15m to collect some lobsters for supper. Strangely, although she was a complete natural in the water, she had never learned to scuba dive. I found out why.
Her husband, Ron, had built a large catamaran that was used for weekend charters and they often took divers out on their boat. Lillian expressed an interest in learning and one of the divers who claimed to be an instructor offered to teach her. Ron was not too sure about this. He was dubious about the casual and to his mind unsafe attitudes of some of these guys, and was not too happy about trusting his wife’s life to their care.
Ron was a powerhouse of a man. During the war he was a personal bodyguard to General Blamey and he had mastered the art of physical intimidation. Although I have never seen him lay a hand on anyone, when he looked me in the eye and told me that his hands had killed men, presenting huge knarred mitts that matched his battle scarred face, I believed him. Like most powerful men he can usually get what he wants without resorting to force.
A date was arranged for the instructor to teach Lillian to scuba dive. Ron provided his boat, anchored on the site and Lillian got into the borrowed gear. They were about to get into the water, but, unable to restrain himself, Ron called the instructor aside for a last minute instruction.
“I just want to make something very clear to you” he said, his face a mask of barely controlled apocalypse. “If she does not come back exactly as she is now, you had better not come back at all.”
The instructor of course was too terrified to try anything, and Lillian experienced the most minimal of dives.
But Ron and Lillian became my close friends, and I was flattered one day to be asked if I would teach Lillian to scuba dive. She had made friends with a lady who lived on a yacht and they would like to learn together. The lady’s husband was a keen diver. He would come with us on my boat. Ron would not come, and he would not give me any last minute instructions. He did not need to – I remembered the story.
So, after some successful pool work and theory, I took the two ladies for their first dive. It was beautiful, the water was clear and Lillian found creature after creature to show her friend. I led them back to the boat and we surfaced at the stern platform. The husband looked down the ladder at us and Lillian’s friend looked up at him … and burst into uncontrollable tears. I did not know what was wrong, but the husband glared at me angrily and I realised that I might have difficulty getting back on my boat. He was not quite as big or strong as Ron but it seemed he might easily apply Ron’s methods. I stayed in the water while the lady continued to bawl. Lillian tried to comfort her and finally she got herself together and spoke.
“Oh!, Joe!, it was SO WONDERFUL, and YOU WEREN’T THERE!”
Lillian became a regular diver and was a joy to have aboard. She was always enthusiastic and I never had to worry about her in the water. She often came alone and I would buddy her up with another diver on the boat. Once it was necessary to buddy Lillian with a young man and I was immediately taken aside and abused for making him “look after the old lady”. I did not respond since I knew full well what would happen.
Half an hour or so later they arrived back at the platform and I could hear Lillian talking to her buddy who was nearly out of air. “Are you all right dear? Oh good, because I still have half a tank left and I’m just going to go down under the boat to finish it up.” She always liked to breath her tank “to the last puff” as she called it. About an hour later Lillian would finally surface looking very pleased with herself and telling her buddy about all the things she had seen after she had brought him back to the boat. “It is a pity you ran out of air so fast” she would say.
Men, particularly if they are super fit and well muscled, generally do not make as good divers as women. They try to overcome the resistance of water with strength, and have the wrong attitude of “braving the oceans” instead of trying to be in harmony. I took particular care with male students to get them to slow down, learn skills and be cunning – otherwise they could never keep down with the women. When I am not diving by myself I prefer to dive with women. They do not rush around all over the place, they see more critters, and always have heaps of air in their tanks even when you give them a tiny tank and you have the biggest on board.
People learn to dive for all sorts of reasons, not just to see the wonderful marine life. The worst reason is usually that a spouse dives and wants their partner to dive even though that is the last thing the partner wants to do. Sometimes the only way they figure they can get out of it is to deliberately fail the course, and, before I learned to recognise the symptoms, this would give me all sorts of problems.
One class of students contained a particularly voluptuous and attractive young lady … and most of the men who worked in the same office. She had decided to learn to dive and that was enough for them. They trailed behind her in the pool and ocean oblivious to their surroundings. These guys were not interested in fish or coral, there was only one thing they were interested in seeing underwater, that magnificent body. And they did. And so did I, it’s one of the perks of being an underwater instructor. Hell, I can always see fish.
Mind you, not all the sights are so splendid. Strange things happen to bodies and swimming costumes when no longer under the constraints of gravity and that includes men as well as women. Various organs or parts thereof occasionally float or pop into view and some you definitely do not want to see. Well I don’t anyway. Some of these things I do not care to mention, but a couple I can.
A diver was struggling to learn to clear his mask in the shallow end of the pool and I was standing close to see if I could help. All I could see was a mass of bubbles as he held his hand over his mask and repeatedly blew, yanking his head back and forth as he did so. Finally the bubbles blew from the mask instead of his regulator, his head came up, his hand came away, and I found myself staring through a clear mask at a face which had been perfect one minute before, but which now contained one normal eye and another which had turned completely white. No pupil, just a blank white space. It was quite a shock. I had not known that he had a false eye and this had somehow rotated during the exertions of mask clearing.
A more pleasant occasion came about when a fellow asked me to teach his wife to dive. He was an avid diver and had just bought a yacht and was intending to sail off into the sunset. His wife wanted to learn to dive, he said, but was very shy and did not like the idea of being in a class with a lot of other people. It would make her nervous and self-conscious. Could I give her private lessons?
A meeting was arranged at a hotel pool one week day morning when there was not much chance of other swimmers in the pool. At exactly the appointed hour a very pretty, petite blonde turned up for her lessons and shyly introduced herself, head down and barely audible. After a few moments explaining the basics it was time to get in the water and I asked her to get ready. She removed her skirt to reveal a bikini bottom and removed her T shirt to reveal two beautiful breasts.
This might not seem particularly daring where you come from but for a European at a hotel pool in Port Moresby it is about as common as streaking in Saudi Arabia. Needless to say I did not bat an eyelid and, since this was in the days of horse collar buoyancy vests, instantly made the decision that use of a buoyancy vest would not be necessary for the first lesson. A nervous start was made (by the student) but after a few minutes she realised that she really could breathe underwater and that she was actually enjoying herself. We both were.
She was looking much more confident and I called her to the shallow end for the next lesson. As she stood up she looked down, and, for the first time realised that she had forgotten to put on her bikini top. What I took for ironic cool was something else entirely, and she started to scream. Of course a couple of good yells brought faces to the overlooking balconies to see what the commotion was about … only to see me with a half dressed lady in the pool. Fortunately she stopped screaming, and no one rushed to save her honour.
Teaching diving is certainly not without risk. After a couple of lectures and just one pool session we would take our students for a first dive in the ocean. This was not the way it used to be done. My very first dive course after instructor certification taught me a valuable lesson. I taught all the theory lessons and tests, and all the pool sessions before the climax of the course – the Open Water certification dive.
I led my group to the water where we kitted up for a calm beach entry into clear Bahamian water which sloped away quite rapidly to a lovely reef in 10 m or so depth. We entered, cleared ears and descended. Everything looked just perfect – but three of my students turned back. I watched them exit safely, then carried on with the rest. There was no sign of them when I returned, just a pile of scuba gear. I eventually found out from one of them that they really enjoyed the course – but hated the dive!
So we redesigned our courses to get people in the water as soon as possible and made sure we were teaching them real diving.
Most students are understandably apprehensive on their first dive. The technique Dinah and I developed from our dive boat Solatai was that she and I would enter the water and then students would get a personal escort to the bottom where they would sit on the sand at 5m, with assistants to look after them, until the whole group was assembled.
My next student was ready and made her way down the stern ladder and into the water facing me and holding on to both of my arms. I stared at her and waited for her grip to relax (I often ended up with bruised arms), then I released air from her buoyancy compensator, reminded her to clear her ears, and steered her on a slow, feet first, descent.
Down we went, I was still staring at her and she was staring back, eye to eye. We were just above the sand when all hell broke loose. She ripped my mask off, caught my regulator hose in her flailing arms, and kicked at me with her knees. This is how I drown, I thought. I felt for her inflator, pumped some air in her vest, pushed her away and saved myself. She arrived at the surface a moment later.
“What happened? You were going really well” I asked.
“Well I was looking at you, and looking at you, and suddenly you reminded me of my …….DENTIST”.
“Does Dinah look like your dentist?” I inquired.
So she switched to Dinah, and that solved the problem.
One day an elderly lady rang me up and begged me to take her scuba diving. It had been a dream of hers for many years but she knew she could never complete a full diving course, she just wanted me to take her to a safe shallow reef in the easiest conditions and hold her hand on literally the one dive of a lifetime. She would charter the boat and it would just be the two of us. I agreed but insisted on a session in the swimming pool first.
When I turned up I could see why she did not want to do a full course, she was obviously extremely frail – though she claimed to be in good health and happy in the water. She was a lovely soul. I determined that I would be super-cautious and take no chances. She learned quickly but after five minutes came to the side of the pool and hung on. “Just resting for a moment, dear”, she told me.
The big day arrived, and it was perfect. We motored out to the reef over glassy seas and anchored in a shallow spot with particularly lovely corals next to a sandy slope. I would not have to take her deeper than 15 feet. Down we went, but sure enough after just a few minutes she signalled to come up where she hung on the back of the boat “for a little rest, dear”. Down we went again, I got her onto the sand and as I turned her to face the reef a huge dark shape began to emerge along the slope. It was a magnificent great hammerhead shark swimming straight for us.
We had not talked about sharks and indeed I had not expected to encounter one – especially one this big. I put my right arm around her tank and shoulder, stuck my left hand out and pointed in the general direction of the reef. As she peered along my arm to see what I was pointing at I slowly swivelled round keeping the shark behind us and watching it over my shoulder as it swam past. “What were you pointing at?” she asked later. “Didn’t you see that lovely angel fish?” I replied. She was overjoyed at her successful day, and I never told her about the shark, but it has bothered me ever since. I had been cautious and she had been safe – but I had deprived her of an extraordinary experience, even if the excitement or shock may have killed her.
Another shark encounter at exactly the same dive site was almost a disaster. Dinah and I were side by side with two students each practicing dive skills. We would demonstrate the skill then they would repeat it. Dinah and I removed our masks, replaced them and cleared them of water. The students removed their masks, replaced them and tried to clear them. Three were immediately successful, but as their heads came up to drain the last of the water their eyes became enormous as they stared at something above our heads. We looked up and there was a beautiful Whale shark on top of us slowly swimming to the students. Unfortunately the fourth student just did not get the hang of mask clearing and was blowing air out his mouth instead of his nose. So his mask remained full of water while the shark swam by, and he did not see anything. Eventually, too late, he cleared the mask completely oblivious of the shark. We were excited and of course could not stop talking about the shark when we were back on board Solatai.
A Whale shark on their first dive! The fourth diver was not so happy and it took all my persuasive powers to keep him in the course.
Diving instruction obviously has a lot to do with diving but, perhaps not so obviously, has even more to do with people. People who have fears and physical problems, people who may want to learn to dive for all the wrong reasons, and people who simply glow with pleasure after they realise their dreams have come true.