Return of the rockhopper
Brendan O'Brien recalls how getting hooked on snorkelling as a youngster led to a lifelong obsession with diving
It all started with a cheap set of beach-shop mask and flippers. As an eight-year-old, I hadn't quite discovered diving, but armed with these beach toys I was able to take my first peek into the underwater world.
I had spent previous summer holidays in Abersoch, North Wales, searching for and collecting marine life from rock-pools. I was now able to venture past the limitations of land into the surrounding shallow water.
Summer holidays came to mean one thing - the opportunity to spend vast amounts of time in the sea snorkelling.
My obsession was later channelled through Hazel Grove and Bramhall BSAC. This dive club had a snorkelling section specifically for youngsters. At the age of 12, I was learning about the effects of pressure, rescue and resuscitation, and hypoxia; and practising snorkelling and life-saving techniques in the pool.
After the serious stuff, we battled with each other in octopush matches (a sort of underwater hockey).
Eventually, armed with my elementary snorkelling award, I was allowed to join the rest of the club on dive trips. These day-long expeditions were what I lived for.
It was my opportunity to be with the men and women who were able to stay under water without having to surface to breathe. I could only dream of what it must be like truly to join the marine world.
In between dives, the instructors took me through snorkelling drills: a 500m snorkel; rescue and 50m tow; fin 30m under water; and a 7m surface dive. More lectures followed and after several open-water snorkel meets I was elevated to the rank of advanced snorkeller.
I kept going on the snorkelling dive trips. My logbook was slowly filling up with such eloquent entries as:
"Horseshoe Pass, The Blue Pool, cold, jumped off the rocks, loads of other divers, good viz."
"Porth Daffarch, saw some fish, swam down to divers training, jumped off rocks."
Jumping off rocks was a popular snorkeller pastime; after all, we were just kids.
But that all changed one day at the Horseshoe Pass, a flooded quarry in North Wales. We had pottered around on the surface watching the divers below and played out a competition to see who could duck-dive down to wave at them. After our dive we spent what seemed like hours jumping off the rocks, daring each other to see who could jump off the highest ledge.
When the divers surfaced, one of the instructors called us over. It was time to become a real diver. This was the experience I was more than ready for. As I stumbled into the water, I realised that this was it. I was about to live my dream.
As I descended, I felt that at last I was part of the underwater world, as opposed to being a visitor who finned around on the sidelines.
Now I had time to take a good look around - one breath had never been enough. How could I ever go snorkelling again? I marvelled at the boulders that formed a spectacular drop-off. I had time to explore the compulsory abandoned quarry vehicle.
I had been infected with the bug. It was a significant life-altering event and the last time I went jumping off rocks.
Several hundred dives later, I returned to this site. The dive was awful. The incredible drop-off was just some boring boulders that had no growth on them. The fascinating vehicle was as uninteresting as watching seaweed grow.
Of course I found the dive boring. My diving is now an addiction that can be fed only by new experiences.
From these beginnings I have looked up at humpback whales en route to their mating grounds. I have emerged from an underwater tunnel to see eagle rays gliding like a flock of birds in the clear waters of Cayman Brac.
I have played with wolf-eels in the emerald waters surrounding Vancouver Island and flown through the kelp forests of southern California.
The addiction is now a welcome part of my life that takes me to parts of the world that many people don't even know exist.
On my return visit to the Blue Pool at Horseshoe Pass, my dive lasted only 20 minutes. As I surfaced, I felt cheated. There had been no new experiences in this folly.
I stood at the water's edge and surveyed the quarry's walls. The ledges we had jumped off were still there, including the one that had always been too high for me. I clambered up the rocks on to the ledge and stood for a moment taking it all in.
Below me I could picture a young diver enthralled with his new surroundings. I suddenly realised it was here that fate had chosen the road I've been travelling ever since. As I flung myself off the ledge, I discovered that you're never too old to go jumping off rocks.
Take the Plunge -
Beginner's Luck -
Quarry Deep, Mountain High -
Delayed Entry -
Return of the Rockhopper -
How to stay in the black..and out of the Red -
Ready, Steady, Dive
Appeared in DIVER - September 1998