The liveliest letters from the DIVER mailbag...
I enjoyed Gavin Parsons' article about the Lumpsuckers of Wittering (July) and would like to tell you about our own encounter with a lumpsucker.
Picture the scene, a gale force 10 west of Eire, rain bucketing down and divers packing up at the busy dive site saying: "We're not diving in that." But having travelled from a land-locked county, and knowing the dive site well, my buddy and I decided to dive anyway.
What a shore dive! Once down, the water was perfectly clear and at 14m we encountered our amazing lumpsucker. It seemed to be infatuated with my buddy, swimming right up to his mask and slowly tapping it as if it could see its own reflection.
We stayed transfixed, but allowed it to determine its own boundaries. It swam all around us and then fixed itself to my buddy's leg. He took it all in his stride, and some time later it just took off and swam about 2m away. We took that as our cue to leave.
We were exhilarated by our encounter and I memorised every tiny part of our lumpsucker. Back on shore my buddy, who is my husband Noel, told me that he had been both petrified and excited when the lumpsucker came to say hello. I must admit to feeling jealous of all the attention he was getting.
Carolann Slevin, Ballinasloe, Roscommon, Eire
I was born with a VSD or ventricular septal defect (not quite a PFO but still a "communication" between the two pumping chambers of the heart). I understood that it was not significant in my everyday life but I mentioned it to my GP before I took up diving in 2001 and at my regular hospital check-up that year.
I was told there was no reason why I should not dive within ordinary recreational guidelines and did 25 dives while attaining my PADI Open Water, Advanced Open Water and Rescue Diver qualifications in the UK.
Imagine my horror when I was reading a complimentary copy of Diver on a flight to Sharm el Sheikh and saw the news item Hole in the Heart A Common Cause of the Bends (May). It cited work by Dr Stephen Glen on "massive" predisposition of divers with PFOs to decompression sickness, and work by him on a migraine-PFO-DCS link.
There was no categorical statement that those with PFO should not dive but I immediately decided to dive very conservative profiles, extend my surface intervals, limit repetitive dives and monitor myself for post-dive aura. I am extremely grateful that I read and acted on this article
Perhaps I should not have dived at all, but I don't seem to be any the worse for wear. However, I have now studied articles on this subject more carefully and understand that the only practical recommendation for someone with PFO is to stop diving.
I wonder whether the results of the findings you cite are routinely conveyed to cardiothoracic specialists and GPs. As scuba-diving is one of the world's fastest-growing sports, and with such a high incidence of PFO in the population, I am amazed that the advice "do not dive" is not routinely administered.
I sought expert medical advice, but it seems that I put myself at considerable risk.
Dr Alun James Fowler, Hambledon, Hants
Diving Doc Ian Sibley-Calder comments: The points you raise are very valid and reinforce yet again that potential divers with medical problems must get checked by a doctor with expert knowledge of diving problems before starting to dive.
There is an association between right-to-left shunts and an increased risk of decompression sickness in divers, and of migraine with aura in everyone. Any heart or lung condition that allows gas bubbles to bypass the lung filter and enter the arterial circulation directly is an extra risk factor.
PFOs are common and about a quarter of the population has them, but it is thought that only "holes" greater than 10mm put the diver at significant increased risk. VSDs, provided they are small and insignificant, are not a problem with divers. The shunt is usually from left to right (because of the very high pressure generated in the left ventricle) and therefore does not bypass the lung filter.
It is advisable to get your case reviewed by a doctor who knows about diving medicine.
S Geraghty comments about the parking charges in force at St Abbs (Off-Gassing, August) and I agree that it seems harsh on both the diving fraternity and non-divers to levy such a high cost for parking a vehicle. His comments about channelling these taxes back into the facilities available are also very pertinent.
Perhaps it should be considered that Eyemouth Council does not want people visiting the area without spending any of their hard-earned money in the town's "non-diving" businesses.
I appreciate that St Abbs and the marine reserve is one of the best diving areas in the country, but there is an alternative only 10 minutes down the road.
Eyemouth is undergoing a fabulous upgrade in facilities and Aquastars Dive Centre (located directly on the harbour, with ample free parking) has opened in the past few months. I have met and spoken in detail with all the parties involved at Aquastars and they are very helpful, knowledgeable and easy-going in terms of what's on offer.It is still possible to dive the St Abbs Marine Reserve, but simply from the other end.
Perhaps S Geraghty and all the other divers who love this beautiful area should consider equally good alternatives, rather than paying through the regulator for parking or complaining about it.
David Marke, Edinburgh
The main car park at St Abbs is run by Scottish Borders Council (SBC), which takes the money and sets the charges. Members of St Abbs Community Council requested the increased charges at a meeting with SBC staff. I was not allowed to comment at the meeting.
At a subsequent site meeting with SBC staff I suggested a number of changes and alterations to the scheme and car park, but the stock answer was: "We're not doing that." Like many people I have formally objected to the proposed scheme. In many areas of the Borders, such as Eyemouth, car-parking charges have been removed because of local opposition.
Mr McQuillan has his facts wrong. The proposed scheme will start at 8am at the weekend, not 10am. The question of the "black hole" (the Gents) has been raised but like most things involving spending money has disappeared from SBC's agenda - as has a disabled toilet.
The other car park at St Abbs is owned by the Harbour Trust and money from this is used for harbour works. Unfortunately the trust is engaged in emergency repairs to the piers, which will probably cost around £200,000.
Access has always been a problem. To put steps in the south-west corner of the harbour for better, shorter access to Cathedral Rock, or to cut and spray the existing rock access would need the approval of many quangos.
It would also require cash, and given the desire to charge for access to the pier by some of the "screw the divers and they won't come back" locals, don't hold your breath.
Peter Scott, former Harbourmaster, St Abbs
I have just had my annual medical for fitness to dive and one of the questions on the form surprised not only me but also my doctor. It relates to "ability to perform moderate exercise" and gives an example of being able to walk one mile in 12 minutes.
We both agreed that this was a rather unrealistic example, even for a very fit individual. I am disabled with spina bifida, so this could present me with problems.
Surely it would be better to give an example more appropriate to diving, such as the number of lengths the person could swim in 30 minutes.
Using both front crawl and breast stroke, I regularly do this distance in 25 minutes. What do readers think?
Tony Buchan, Beckington, Somerset
My partner and I decided to learn to dive with a PADI diving school over a period of six months, and paid in advance for the Open Water course. My partner had a few fears to overcome and was advised initially just to do the Scuba Diving course. We agreed to this, though we received no refund.
We carried on through the courses, completing the relevant confined-water dives to the required standard. We were then invited to go to Malta to qualify. Great, we thought, and everything seemed fine - until the first day of diving.
My partner was very nervous and the sea quite choppy but our instructors said that she should be first in, as she was doing only the Scuba Diver course. They must have known how wary she would be on her first open-water dive, yet she was rushed into her kit and into the water.
The coldness of the water and the roughness of the sea took her by surprise and she had a mild panic attack. After only five minutes in the sea she was told to get out, that her course was over and that she had failed. How can you fail a course if you haven't done the required skills? She didn't even get her head under the water!
My partner had so much wanted to learn to dive and had needed to overcome a lot of fears just to reach this point. Surely, if our instructor had thought she was not ready, he wouldn't have taken her out to Malta. All she could do for the next five days was safety cover, which was just rubbing it in.
On the fourth day the instructor did say that she could do a try-dive, and she carried this out with no panic or problem. Her buoyancy control was excellent, one of the instructors told her.
But the school again refused to let her complete her course, and said it had only let her do the try-dive as a goodwill gesture. To say that she was upset would be an understatement. The school has refused to refer her or release her file. It says she can do as many try-dives as she likes but must pay the going rate. She has now completed all her confined-water dives to module 3 and knowledge development to module 5.
Can a school refuse to refer my partner to another school? She refuses to go back to this one and others say they need her referral form. She feels very cheated.
G Major, Stanford Le Hope, Essex
Eric Albinsson, PADI International's Training, Quality Management and Mem-berships Manager, comments: I was very sorry to hear about your negative and highly unusual experiences. PADI Standards stipulate that certification may not be withheld from a student who has met all performance requirements of the course on which he or she enrolled. The same is true of referral documents.
Please contact me or one of my colleagues with more details of your experiences so that I may try to resolve this situation satisfactorily for you and your partner with regard to the referral document and the conduct of the training dives. The student record file, however, belongs to the dive centre or instructor and should not be released to the student diver.
Matthew Disley's letter Get Qualified or Bite the Bullet (June) was full of sound advice and what one would expect from someone who follows good safe diving practices. Matthew was correct regarding the recreational diving limit for PADI Open Water Diver being 18m, but he then states that an Advanced Open water Diver can dive to 30m and 40m.
Though this is correct in principle, no Diver, Dive Master or indeed Instructor trained under the PADI standards is qualified to dive to 40m unless he or she has completed the Deep Diver Speciality Course.
I have come across this many times, and DMs and OWIs who believe that their qualification automatically allows them to dive to PADI's recreational diving limit of 40m get very upset when they are told that they can't.
I agree with Matthew: all divers should be fully aware of what exactly their diving qualification allows, and should stick to it or get qualified to the next level. After that, they should once again gradually build up on their experience at that qualification.
Steve Kirkman, Munster, Germany
In Hurghada recently we had an Egyptian dive guide from Diving World called Shabaan, whom I have dived with several times before. On one dive he found a stonefish that none of us could see, so he put his hand under the sand and picked him up.
As all divers know, this fish is a potential killer if you get stung by one of its spines.
We were even more shocked when he kissed it, so as I had my Olympus C50 digital camera and underwater case with me I took a couple of pictures of him. He is giving it a smacker on the lips.
The fish didn't bat an eyelid (I know, they don't have eyelids) and was put back unharmed on the sandy bottom.
Neil Holden, Sale, Cheshire
Comment: You know what we're going to say, don't you? Touching any sea creature is a bad idea for both toucher and touched, and we hope none of our readers ever thinks that snogging stonefish is a smart idea!
Many recent letters to Diver have focused on the conservation of sharks, the abhorrent practice of fin-cutting and the stocking of sharkmeat in supermarkets. Obviously no one in their right mind would condone such practice, but are we too focused on sharks?
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that around 75% of fisheries are unsustainable, not just sharks. Halibut, tuna and swordfish numbers have dropped by 90% since the 1950s, when the global fish catch was 19 million tons.
We now take some 95 million tons. Trawling for deep species is now technically possible and the devastation seen in shallow waters is extending into previously pristine habitats.
The work of bodies such as the Shark Trust focuses our attention on these astounding creatures and I would not wish to criticise their work but, as divers who care about our seas and oceans, should we consider giving up on fish entirely?
Should tuna sandwiches, cod and chips or baked sea bass be off the menu for any considerate diver? I would argue that it should.
In recent decades we have seen the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fishery, the North Sea mackerel fishery and enormous drops in UK seabird numbers as the humble sand-eel is hoovered up on an industrial scale for animal feed. We can't continue taking fish on this scale without severe damage to many marine ecosystems, and all of us who eat fish are complicit in the plundering of our oceans.
Clearly divers are helping, working with the voluntary marine conservation areas, PADI's Project Aware and the Marine Stewardship Council, for example, but while what we're doing might help a little, in the grand scheme of things we're just weeing in the current.
Richard Aspinall, Huddersfield
Recent news of a conger eel attack reminded me of an encounter around 10 years ago, when I was diving the Bretagne with a friend.
I came across some pipes in the wreck that ran from left to right ahead of me, and looked over to my right to see where my buddy was going.
He was clear of the right end of the pipes and was about to swim past the ends. I noticed through a hole in one of the pipes the side of a conger, and thought it would be funny to scare my buddy by tapping the conger and having it shoot out in front of him like a torpedo.
With my crab hook safely attached to my wrist by a lanyard, I reached out between a another couple of pipes to tap the conger's side.
This is where the plan started going wrong. Instead of shooting out in front of my buddy, the conger backed up along the pipe and grabbed the end of the crab hook.
Ripping the hook out of my hand, it then proceeded to thrash its head about and bash my head and side off the other pipes between which I had reached - because I was still attached to the crab hook by the wrist lanyard.
When it let go, I collected myself and turned towards my buddy. At that moment he looked round and gave me an OK signal!
I was far from OK. The experience had scared the hell out of me and I have never messed with a conger eel since.
Feeding them is fun, getting beat up is not !
Chris Walker, Bristol