How I Learnt to Scuba Dive in Malta and Became a PADI Open Water Scuba Diver (aka certified mermaid!)
One of the perks of writing a travel blog is the myriad of travel competitions open to us bloggers. I’ve has my fair bit of luck with these competitions and the latest one included a fantastic prize: the chance to learn to scuba dive on the Mediterranean island of Malta!
So that was how I found myself surrounded by wetsuits, fins, masks, air cylinders, regulators, buoyancy devices recreational dive planners and dive computers on my latest holiday. I had been signed up to a 4-day PADI Open Water Scuba Diving course. Once you complete this PADI course and pass the various exams and underwater tests, then you can safely dive to 18 metres underwater anywhere in the world!
I’d had a few tasters here and there on previous holidays so I knew I was going to like it, and I eagerly got stuck in with my wonderful instructor Clive, who I can’t praise highly enough, from the very friendly and family-run diver centre Maltaqua, in St Paul’s Bay. Not only did I have Clive attending to my every question and underwater need, I was also fortunate enough to be looked after by two divemasters-in-training, Leah (granddaughter of the founders of Maltaqua) and Matt (a Liverpudlian). Together we four muddled through the theoretical elements of the course, watching 4 hours of very outdated but hilarious training videos and patiently going through my written tests. Each night I was set a couple of chapters to read as homework. (As I mostly felt too tired, I didn’t quite manage all my homework, but I blame the nitrogen in my bloodstream for that!) I needed to learn about the scuba equipment, the various hand signals, the technique, the physics of pressure changes underwater, the emergency and rescue procedures for scuba divers, the way to measure nitrogen intake and how to prevent decompression sickness, among other things.
But the fun bit was of course being actually underwater, not in the classroom. No matter where in the world you learn, the PADI Open Water involves 4 written tests, 1 final written exam, 5 Confined Water dives (normally held in a swimming pool) and 4 Open Water dives (in the sea). My first two Confined Water dives were held in the stunning infinity pool belonging to Malta’s National Aquarium (not a bad place to get my sea legs, aka ‘mermaid tail’) and all the other dives were held in the sea. My first venture into the actual sea was a bit daunting, but fortunately there were no close shaves and I survived the entire course without drowning. Phew. What I can say is that learning to dive is pretty exhausting. Perhaps because of nerves and gasping breaths underwater, or perhaps because of the increased nitrogen entering my body, I finished each day needing an early night.
Bit by bit as the days continued I began to master buoyancy (the art of hovering in the water, rather than sinking or floating) and various scary emergency skills like swapping regulators with another diver, breathing through a freeflow regulator, swimming blindly without a mask and emergency ascents to the surface. The more fun part was getting to use a dive computer to monitor depth and time underwater, and spotting fish and exploring the wreck of HMS Maori, which was bombed and sunk in Valletta Harbour during World War II. On my last day I took out my Go Pro and took the fantastic shots in this blog post. I literally adore my Go Pro, it’s the most fun toy I’ve had in a long time – if you do any kind of adventurous sport, then you’ll love it.
On Day 1 we dived in the tame waters of Qawra, on Day 2 we headed to Sirens, on Day 3 to HMS Maori in Valetta and on Day 4 to Cirkewwa, a really popular spot for divers with a great big rock wall underwater and some cool rock arches to swim through. It was on Day 4 that I completed every component of the PADI Open Water course and officially became a certified mermaid! Here’s a great photo of my instructor Clive and I underwater, with him holding a slate saying Congratulations.
Although I sometimes doubted my ability to complete some of the underwater tasks required for the course (having your air supply actually turned off at 9m underwater is somewhat alarming I can tell you!) I found out how much I love scuba diving. The feeling of floating midwater is very very similar to the flying sensation I’ve often had in dreams where I can fly, and I adored the wreck dive. When I first reached 15m of depth I tentatively looked up at the surface and instantly felt a sort of dizzy vertigo. As I continued to look up I realised I quite like seeing the surface a long way away, and I kept wanting to try diving deeper and deeper! 18 metres no longer seems like deep enough so I’d love to be able to dive to 30 metres, where you find a lot more to explore.
One slight difficulty I had at first was equalising. ‘Equalising’ means unblocking your sinuses and ears during the descent, which is equivalent to the popping sound you get in a plane or in a realllly long lift, like The Shard in London (here’s my blog post about the Shard). It’s a more serious matter underwater as it can blow your eardrums if you don’t equalise. One day I finished a tricky dive with trapped water in my left ear and felt quite unbalanced and dizzy for around 5 hours. But I do seem to have got over the equalising problem.
All in all, I had an absolute ball learning to scuba dive and it is most definitely something I want to do more often… just maybe not in the UK during the winter. It helps that I was taught at Maltaqua, a very reputable and well-respected diving school that’s been run by one family for over 40 years. I had a very patient and reassuring instructor with a great sense of humour. After hearing some horror stories from other divers about rogue dive centres that ignore important safety measures, I appreciated the rigorous checks.