Scuba diving has plenty of risks, but the rewards are immeasurable, as Lorcan Lovett finds out on a visit to Nha Trang.
There’s 12 metres of sea flowing above me and the visibility is four metres, murky for southern Vietnam, but the dive is going well, and I’m content. That is until a thought flashes through my mind: ‘Always check your pressure gauge’.
I fumble for the device strapped onto my side that tells me how much air I have left, and then tug at dive instructor Jeremy Stein’s fin in an act of utter shock.
Beginners are told to ascend with a minimum of 50 bar left in their tanks, allowing a five minute pause near the surface to avoid decompression sickness, or ‘the bends’, so my reading of 35 bar is, well, breathtaking.
It’s about to get a lot more traumatic, as Stein, grasping my shoulder, thrusts his emergency air supply into my mouth, and we struggle up into the bleak water. Another thought flashes through my mind: ‘Am I actually going to die on my first ever dive?’
About two hours earlier, I sat in Stein’s Rainbow Divers bar in Nha Trang, watching a group of excited divers chatter, before taking a taxi 10 minutes away to the harbour where I would set about completing globally-recognised training group PADI’s Open Water Diver course.
Stein and I ploughed through the water on a speedboat, passing fish farms that float like sea shanties under the shadow of the area’s biggest island, Hon Tre.
Cable cars stretch out to the island, that’s often mistakenly called Vinpearl, the resort company, after it smacked its name, Hollywood Sign-style, on the hillside following major hotel investments there.
We arrived at the smaller, neighbouring island of Hon Mun and the salty air stirred in my lungs, awakening nostalgia for my coastal home city, although a few waves knocking the hull reminded me there’s no better cure for sentimentality than seasickness.
Leaning back against the boat, Stein gestured to the glimmering sea lapping against lush islands, and said, “This is my office.” I felt both eager to put my pool training into practice and reassured that Stein was possibly the most qualified man in the country to help. He launched Rainbow Divers, the first PADI dive centre, in Vietnam 20 years ago; a period when he contended with local bird hunters who took potshots at the boats and fisherman who would nonchalantly toss dynamite sticks into dive sites.
Fortunately, dynamite fishing was banned, which is one of the reasons why Stein believes the coral is flourishing so much these days. The veteran diver has centres on Whale Island, Phu Quoc Island and Con Dao Island as well as Nha Trang. Promoting safety has driven Stein’s success, and that’s because scuba diving is not for the hypochondriac.
Among the many dangers divers face are ‘the bends’, when the ambient pressure from being underwater is suddenly reduced by climbing too the surface to quickly causes harmful nitrogen bubbles to be released in the bloodstream, and results in anything from a skin rash to paralysis and even death.
Pulmonary embolism, when a rapid ascent expands gas in the lungs, causing them to pop like balloons, was my contemplation as I bit into Stein’s back-up regulator. It was my laboured breathing and unnecessary exertions which had drained the air tank so quickly, and now, clouded with panic, I failed to bite the regulator correctly.
Dizziness ensued, however, Stein calmly repositioned the regulator to increase the oxygen flow and then I felt the warm, shining sun above and broke the surface while inflating my buoyancy jacket and gulping down air.
I looked over at Jeremy, who seemed surprisingly relaxed. Why isn’t he yelling for help, or doing some kind of emergency procedure on me? Then I realised my training had kicked in all along, even before checking the gauge. My mind was cast back to the pool in Saigon; to this exact procedure which we had practiced.
Stein saw the situation as a good opportunity to learn. Back on the boat, I had watermelon instead of the emergency oxygen I was expecting. Over the next two days I submerge into the wonders of the underwater world. We continue different training exercises among a profusion of marine life illuminated by brilliant, lurid light in the shallows.
It’s extraordinary to visit this kaleidoscopic world. In it, blue starfish are draped over coral like fancy pillows, and above them wonderfully camouflaged fish dart from anemone, while goat fish shoot their tongues at the sea bed. Almost every encounter with the fish is unique and memorable. On the second dive, a black, distorted shape revealed itself to be a school of baby catfish, which negotiated obstacles like a flock of starling.
Besides the elusive whale shark, all the fish in Nha Trang are small, but that’s not a negative. Whether it’s the Spanish dancer, a long, fat, pink sea slug, or the tiny, monochrome humbug, each has its own personality, and, despite my slightly hair-raising introduction to open water diving, I can’t wait to meet more of the creatures in many more dives to come.