Saturday, 11 July 2015

Time for a Break

I'm not going to be updating this blog on a weekly basis after this week. Which is not to say that I won't ever update it again, but I really need to be doing more cycling and diving to make it worthwhile. So, see you here in future again I hope, but only once I have more stories to tell!

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Back in the Sea

I managed my first sea dive of the year yesterday. I say "dive"; we managed about 3.5m of depth, and the viz was as shown in the photo!

Still, 'tis good to have some saltwater on my gear. Also, we were at St Mary's Island, and whilst the seals didn't get too close, they did pop their heads up to see who the strangers were. All in all, it was way more fun than being at work.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Got My Pills

Things are better since my last post. I have successfully obtained my pills, meaning that the floor is now where I expect it to be. Losing your sense of balance is a side-direction of sudden SSRI-drug withdrawal. It is exactly as much fun as it sounds.

Happily, my prescription was where I expected it to be, at the chemist's. In the past, neither the chemist nor the doctor has known who is supposed to have it, so I traipse backwards and forwards (unsteadily) until I find it, or have an argument with the receptionist. It's always fun trying to convince someone you are not selling your pills on the black market or OD-ing on them, when "GIVE ME MY ****ING DRUGS!" is written all over your wavering face.

Anyway, the magic happy pills are back in the medicine chest, I'm back in the sea, and all is well with the world.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

This Week, Then

So, on the negative side, I pulled press desk duty the day after three violent incidents happened on the same day. I had to deal with two sets of unexpected cock-ups with three big projects, and I failed to pick up my prescription for the happy pills. Joy of joys, the prescription is now sitting inside a pharmacy that is closed until Monday and I ran out on Wednesday, meaning that I'm spending the weekend chemically impaired and not reliably able to judge where the floor is. (Yes, misfortunes caused my your own incompetence are the worst.)

On the plus side, I finally managed to do this....

... so at least I have a free cappuchino to console my woes.

I am not entirely sure that the universe is playing fair.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Terror of Space

I was reading this article on people signing up for the Mars One expedition; a one-way trip to Mars. I cannot imagine anything much more terrifying.

The article describes the selection process for people wanting to take part. I do wonder if any part of it (yeah, you know this is coming) involved asking "Have you done any scuba diving?"

I don't often talk about the scary aspect of diving. Most other divers don't. We know it is there, and if it bothered us, we wouldn't do it. Talking about to non-divers gives the wrong impression, and can put people off. And by "wrong impression", I don't mean I'm pretending something dangerous is safe. Scuba diving is in a similar risk category to jumping into half a ton of metal and barrelling down a narrow asphalt strip at 70mph. Actually, if you check out this infographic (worth it just for the hilarious illustrations), it may well be safer than being in a car. 

The scary aspect of diving is one that it took me a while to grasp. Possibly all those people who reacted to my tales of diving with "Ohmigod, I could NEVER do that" grasped it faster than I did. From my point of view, I know where I'm going, I assess if it's safe and if my buddy and I can get to where we want to go and back with the air supply we've got. And if we can do all those things, then off we swim, breathing happily through our regulators with 12m of water over our heads.

And all that is fine, up until the proverbial hits the fan, and you suddenly realise with absolute clarity that you are in an alien environment where, to quote one of my favourite blogs on diving, "A single breath of the ambient atmosphere can, kind reader, fucking kill you".

I have never had a catastrophic experience when diving, but I had one very nasty experience when I over-breathed my regulator about 25m down in the Farne Islands (meaning I was breathing very heavily and too fast, and the regulator was struggling to deliver gas at the rate I was demanding it - gas thickens slightly at depth, which is why all divers are advised to breathe deep and slow). I felt like I was suffocating. More scary than that, I could feel myself starting to panic. Panic is the number one killer of divers. There are few more potentially panic-inducing situations than being surrounded by water, with 25m of it above your head, and not being able to breathe the air that is the only thing keeping you alive.

Fortunately for me, my dive training took over. I realised what was happening, and took the appropriate action; ascending slowly until the pressure lowered slightly, my breathing rate dropped as the surface got slightly nearer, the regulator began delivering the gas more easily, and I calmed down and carried on with the dive. But for a few seconds, I suddenly understood why panicking divers rocket up to the surface and rip all their dive gear off their faces. If willpower alone could cause humans to teleport, I would have been out of the water and on the boat in two seconds.

The only thing that kept me calm was the knowledge that it was within my power to end this situation. I knew that if I really couldn't carry on the dive, I could end it, ascend slowly and be floating on the surface in a matter of minutes.

Note: this is not the ideal way to end a dive, as technically you should always pause for three minutes at 5m deep to help ensure that any excess gas is out of your system, but all recreational diving is planned in such a way that you don't HAVE to make the stop if things go completely wrong.

Technical divers do not have this safety margin. To dive deeper, they accept that they will give up the option of ending the dive at any point, and that if they have a problem, it must be resolved under the water. (This is why they dive with two sets of working scuba gear, plus quite often extra tanks of gas in case of emergency.) This is a big part of the reason I think I may never technical dive. I respect people who do it mightily, but I am terrified of the idea of having a panic attack under the water without the option of safely removing myself from the situation inducing the panic. (This is also why part of NASA's astronaut training involves scuba diving.)

Which brings me back to Mars One. Imagine this situation for a moment. You're locked in a room the size of your living room with, say, three other people. You want to go outside. You can't. You start having a panic attack and pass out. And when you wake up ... you still can't go outside. You will never, in your entire life, see a tree, or an animal, or the sea, or anything familiar, ever again. You are sealed in that can for eternity, and there will never be a way out. Even regular astronauts in the International Space Station have the knowledge at the back of their heads that at some point, they'll be going back home.

No human beings have ever subjected themselves to this. To my mind, it's not a description of a scientific expedition, it's the plot of a horror movie. To quote another blog on this subject:

Over the decades, people in the colony will die and there is no guarantee that more people will come to replace them. In time, there will be only one person left on the entire planet. If that person is you, it will be very lonely indeed. You could be alone for ten or twenty years and possibly longer. It will just be you, marooned on an inhospitable rock out in the solar system, alone. That is truly the stuff of nightmares.

Ever since that incident in the Farne Islands, space movies scare me. I love them and still watch them, but when Sandra Bullock was floating around running out of oxygen, I was there. Space is unimaginably vast, inhospitable and empty.

And yet, funnily enough, I still do hope that at some point, my species will leave our home and travel somewhere else. Just because... well, I was brought up with Star Trek. Real space is much bigger and emptier than Gene Roddenberry made it seem, but it would truly be a remarkable thing if we could somehow find a way to travel outwards and establish ourselves on another world.

Just... not yet. And in a ship much bigger than a living room.

Monday, 25 May 2015

My Life Depends on Tiny Bits of Rubber

A picture of my regular, a Scubapro MK2
So, I went on an Equipment Servicing course yesterday at the dive shop. As is the way of these things, it was held on one of the most sunny days of the year, but we couldn't have known that when we booked it!

Actually, it was worth giving up four hours in the sun for. I spend a lot of time with my dive gear, and it's good to know how it works. Also, taking things to bits is fun, although slightly alarming. The tiny bits of rubber in question are two pieces of rubber, each half the size of a penny, which sit inside the regulator (the thing you breathe through) and form part of the valves within it. In other words, they ensure that the air comes through only when you want it to, and not when you don't.

Some people on the course found this a bit alarming, although this may have been induced by the fact we'd all been sniffing glue. (The sort kept in the workshop to stick ripped-up wetsuits back together - it's not a very big workshop.) I can relate (to the alarm, not the glue sniffing - my poison of choice is ethanol). At 35m deep, sometimes, it's better to think along the lines of "It works by magic, la la la, DIVE FAIRIES", than to know exactly how tiny and delicate the mechanism currently keeping you alive is. On the other hand, my gear is serviced by the same chap who ran the course, and he has clearly forgotten more about how dive gear works that I will ever know.

So, I can now take my scuba mask apart and wash it, which has hopefully got the mould off it. Tonight, I shall learn if I can put it back together again. 

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Narked by Cold?

My buddy, finding Thunderbird Four 

Well my last dive was ...interesting. In the sense that the final part of it involved me learning first-hand that my ability to safely do a free ascent from a depth greater than 10m in my drysuit is something that needs work. Also, that I will never again forget to clip my SMB (Surface Marker Buoy) to my jacket - lesson learned. It would have been very helpful to have the cord as a visual reference point when trying to ascend. On the other hand, I was having enough to deal with the incessant "YOU ARE GOING UP TOO FAST STOP THAT NOW OR YOU WILL DAMAGE YOUR LUNGS YOU FLAMING IDIOT" beeps from the computer, the fact that I couldn't seem to balance the weight in my jacket and the air in my suit to be neither sinking nor rising, and the fact that my mask chose this moment to fill with water.

I distinctly remember having a second or so's brain space to think "Hmm. This isn't working out how I planned" in the middle of the "Well, shit, what now?" situation.

I solved the problem by dropping down a bit, stabilising, then ascending and swimming across to a nearby rock ledge at 6m, when I floated around doing a safety stop, clearing my mask and thinking baleful thoughts at my computer. And at my own stupidity. Luckily my buddy was fine, although he had his hands full shepherding some very new divers back to the exit point.

The second dive went much better, as myself and my buddy retraced our steps, and I practised a safe ascent, which went better. The only odd thing about that dive was that towards the end, my buddy signalled "I am cold, let's turn around" (he wears a wetsuit). We immediately turned round, but he suddenly paused, and picked up an object (I think a discarded metal ring from someone's dive kit) from the quarry floor. He then swam around for a while, looking for something, then carefully placed the object on the rock and swam off.

This is unusual behaviour, as most divers who have signalled "Cold" will start kicking with some speed once the end of the dive (and a nice cup of tea) is in site. I asked him about it later, and he commented "It just seemed really important to do that". We both pondered this, as this sort of fixation with completing a specific task, without thinking about the dive plan, is characteristic of nitrogen narcosis. However, we were only about 8m deep at the time, which is way too shallow for narcosis to kick in.

Was it exertion and cold causing a slight form of narcosis, or was it slight hypothermia? No way of knowing, but an issue to be aware of; that would be more of a problem if we were in the North Sea needing to get back to the ascent point, and then climb back into a boat.

Other than that, though, it was an interesting dive. And we found Thunderbird Four.