The beauty and dangers of scuba-diving
Guest Blog by J F Kirwan
My first dive outside of a swimming pool was in a large pond with a muddy bottom, called Ecclestone Delph, where the most interesting things you could see were a metre-long green pike with sharp teeth, and an old army boot. But when I went to the Red Sea, and then later to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the kaleidoscopic explosion of colours – from purple anemones, to giant emerald fan corals waving in the current, to fields of turquoise staghorn coral – and the menagerie of fish, from tiny but gorgeous (and poisonous) slug-like nudibranchs that look like a psychedelic throwback to the fashion madness of the seventies, to swirling tornados of glimmering silver barracuda drifting near the surface, to the eminently beautiful and deadly tiger shark – well, frankly it blew my mind.
I’ve been lucky enough to dive all over the world, and to be trained more or less for free in the UK under the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) as an instructor. The one thing you learn when training as an instructor (and I hope as a normal diver), is to respect the sea because we are not fish, and there are many hazards in this beautiful, silent realm. Actually, it’s not silent, but so far at least, there are no mobile phones, emails, tweets, or even conversations. The silence is in your mind.
But about five years ago I damaged my back, had an operation to remove a disk (okay, my second disk removal – I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff in my time), and I was banned from diving for eighteen months, forced to live permanently on this side of the ocean’s surface. I missed it so much I started writing a thriller which involved scuba-diving. I’d read a few thrillers which had passing references to diving, but most of them were horribly inaccurate, and the authors had clearly never dived in their lives. They would say things like ‘I dived down to thirty metres with my oxygen tank’, which if you did, in reality, that is with pure oxygen instead of air, you’d be dead fairly quickly. I used to give a lecture called ‘dangerous diving’ when I was an instructor in land-locked Birmingham, based on what I call ‘the Big Five’, and decided to put these hazards into the book, which attracted publisher Harper Collins, and became a series of three.
One of the main dangers is nitrogen narcosis. This can be fun and can be deadly. If you dive to around thirty metres, you may experience it. It starts off as quite pleasant, as if you’ve had one or two drinks too many, and you feel great, you feel super-confident, and you can be bordering on euphoria. I once dived to fifty metres in Sulawesi in Indonesia and believed I was a tuna for a few minutes, as I swam inside a big school of them, watching out for sharks. Usually, it’s not that extreme, but the over-confidence is the real hazard. On the surface, when you are ‘sober’, you plan the dive and your maximum depth. Trouble is, down there, you think, hey, why not go deeper? And then the narcosis will only get worse. This is one reason (amongst many) we always dive in pairs because narcosis hits us at different times, so usually, one buddy is okay even if the other is ‘drunk’.
The upside is that there is no hangover, and narcosis is completely depth dependent. You rise just a few metres, and suddenly your mind is clear as a bell, and you realise how close you just came to becoming a statistic. I used to take divers down to the point they would get ‘narked’, then take them up, and later, back on the surface, go through all the signs to know when you are getting too deep.
In my first book, 66 Metres, Nadia is the one who gets to experience the hazards. She’s not a depth junkie but has to dive very deep in order to save her sister’s life. Sixty-six metres is the depth at which normal air becomes toxic if you’re a diver. It may kill you, but doesn’t always. I’ve dived to seventy-six on air whilst looking for hammerheads out in Borneo, but that’s another story…
The books aren’t just for divers. Many non-diving readers have commented that it’s great to get an insight into the underwater world without having to leave one’s armchair, and that the undersea scenes are the most vivid, and that it makes the thrillers very ‘fresh’. I hope so.
Do the books put people off diving? Well, someone who read and reviewed both books back in April promptly went to Bali to learn to dive and sent me an email when she did her first real dives in the ocean and got her license. She said it was everything I’d promised (well, minus the Navy SEALs armed with spear guns). That meant more to me than a dozen five-star reviews on Amazon.
Wow, thank you! This was fascinating and at the same time terrifying for me to read! I have a major phobia about water and cannot imagine scuba diving at all but what a brilliant insight into the underwater world from a place of safety for me!