Saturday 9 December 2006

Learning to dive in Cape Verde

The clear, starry sky that greets our arrival at 3am has given way to clouds when we get up 5 hours later. Still, it is warm and the sun peeks through from time to time.

We settled on Cape Verde because we wanted a relaxing week by the sea where we could learn to dive without going too far. More travel, more new experiences, more learning.

The principal centre for diving in Cape Verde is at Santa Maria on the little island of Sal. A flat, small rock in the Atlantic ocean, it is buffeted by the wind that blows sand across from the Sahara. It is perhaps the least attractive of the 10-island archipelago lying 450km from Senegal on the West African coast.

Our first diving lesson is at 9am so an early start after little sleep. The Hotel Morabeza provides us a good breakfast buffet and then we’re set. We meet our dive instructor at the ScubaTeam Dive Club not 50m away. After a few formalities he suggests we return at 10am. So we take a walk along the fine sandy beach, watching the waves rolling in across the green sea.

The PADI Open Water Diver course consists of 5 modules of theory with 5 dives in ‘confined water’, usually in a classroom and swimming pool, followed by 4 open water dives, going down to a maximum of 18m below. Our classroom is the dive club beach hut; and for a swimming pool, we have the warm shallow waters a little way out to sea.

In the hut, we watch a DVD and seek clarification on any points that remain unclear before taking short tests to ensure understanding of each module. We’ll have an exam at the end of the course.

In the afternoon, it’s my first ever experience of breathing under water. We get kitted up, check over our gear and waddle down the beach to the water’s edge. We swim on our backs to a little buoy and get ready to go down. I find it difficult breathing and as we go down I have trouble ‘equalizing’, ie matching the pressure of the air in my airways, particularly ears, to the increased pressure from the water overhead. This creates a painful ‘squeeze’.

The problem stops me breathing normally – slowly, deeply, continuously. I have a small panic, motion to the instructor that I have a problem – using the sign language we’d learned in the classroom in the morning – and head straight back up. On the surface, I get myself together quickly and return gradually to the bottom, where Perrine has sunk like a rock.

I begin to feel more at ease and manage to do the 5 exercises without hesitation. I find myself surprisingly calm at taking out my breathing apparatus, letting the air bubble out of my mouth, then replacing it and blowing hard to clear the water out, before continuing to breath. End of module 1 and back up to the surface.

Module 2 involves a couple of rescue exercises on the surface then another descent. This time all good. It’s starting to feel natural already. By the time we’re back out on the beach I’m looking forward to the next session on Monday.

We take a shower to desalinate and a siesta then head out to make our 6pm appointment with l’Homme Tranquile. At lunch time, we’d been anticipated by a friendly local man who’d taken us to see his little craft shop. After Ghana, this was not a novel experience. He had some nice items but we had no cash and were in a bit of hurry to get to our afternoon dive. He didn’t believe we’d be back even after I’d given my word. He was amazed, therefore, when we showed up as promised to buy the items we’d seen and liked earlier.

We had dinner at a very small restaurant, Nocturno. It’s just a little kitchen with a window onto a small terrace. There are perhaps six tables with maximum seating of 14 or 15. The food is very good value. We enjoy some excellent grilled fish, wahoo and bica, with rice, chips and salad. Plus a couple of beers, of course.