We very often get asked the question ‘How old can you dive to?’. I always answer that you can dive until you can no longer dive! Basically that means that there is nothing to stop you from Diving just as long as general health allows you to. It’s not like the generalisation of sport where a competitive edge can have an affect on participation. Scuba Diving is non-contact, non-competitive, age irrelevant and gender irrelevant. We recently had the great privilege of welcoming a very interesting and lovely couple, Frances (73) and Hamish (74) to the Soho pool venue who were going on a trip to Tanzania where they were going to do some diving. With this in mind they had booked onto one of our Reactivate courses to refresh their skills. Following the class I had a good chat with them both about their lives and diving, Frances kindly agreed to put pen to paper and give us a bit of an insight into how they have enjoyed diving and continue to do so. Here’s what she had to say, a fascinating read…………..enjoy!
Too old to dive?
So there I was, sitting up in bed in the African dawn beside my sleeping husband, in a beach hut on the Tanzanian island of Mafia. I was flicking anxiously through the excellent PADI Refresher course on my IPad, trying to remember how to enter the water from a boat and what the signal was for “My ears hurt”. We were about to have our first proper dive since we went to Cuba in 2002. And that was when we were in our 50s. Now, in the first half of our 70s, it all seemed much more alarming.
We began diving way back in the late 1960s, at what were then the Seymour Baths (now the Seymour Leisure Centre), on a course run by the British Sub Aqua Club. It was rigorous and rather military. I remember best the horror of the Buddy Breathing test, in which we had to swim up and down the pool, handing the mouthpiece back and forward to another diver as we went. But I passed, and went on several dives with the friendly folk who belonged to the Club, to places such as Chesil Beach where the sun rarely shone and the divers got excited if visibility was much more than a metre.
So it was a revelation when, in 1999, we had a holiday in Sharm el Sheikh and found that we could dive there. We hadn’t done much over the years when the children were growing up, but now they were old enough to dive too, and we found we could take our PADI qualification at the local dive centre. We still have our log books from the Red Sea Diving College, recording sightings of Moray eels, Scorpion Devil Fish, Sea cucumbers and Napoleon Wrasse. Our daughters passed too – the young one, a swot even on holiday, getting 100% in her written test.
Having realised that diving didn’t have to be about inky seas and chilly beaches, we got the bug. I recall particularly a trip to the Maldives in 2001, with an amazing shoal of 100 Manta Rays flapping in the shallows, and my first night dive, disturbing a sleeping parrot fish. The following year we were in Cuba, where night dives were the way the dive masters, poor as any of their fellow citizens, could make a little extra cash away from the watchful gaze of officialdom. I remember weaving in the gloom through a coral tunnel, exotic in the torchlight.
But then there was another long, long gap. When, last autumn, an anthropologist friend offered to accompany us on a trip to Tanzania which would include three days of diving, we suddenly realised that we had forgotten everything we ever knew. An anxious hunt online produced Oyster Diving, meeting at the Marshall Street baths – improbably close to Carnaby Street – and in the cold of a December evening, we dug out our old masks and yellowed snorkels, and went for a refresher.
Not good. The people were lovely, and endlessly encouraging. But we scored poorly in the written test (who would have thought, offered so many options, that “the most important thing for a diver to do” is just to keep breathing?) Worse when we got to the poolside. What was that breathing thing called? How did it attach to the tank? How did you inflate the jacket – oops, BCD? Which button let air out and which let it in? (“Just remember that ‘top’ and ‘out’ both have an O and a T,” whispered my husband.) The equipment all seemed so much more complicated than before. But slowly, things began to come back. “Righthand release,” my husband murmured to himself as he put on his weight belt.
We did not do well. We couldn’t remember how to clear a mask, how to hover, which signal meant what. Twenty-two years is too long a gap. We ended up coming back for a second try in January. But we had the luck to be coached very well this time, and Paul Gisby, our patient instructor, then passed us. We did the excellent PADI refresher course online, passed that too, and we were through the hoops.
So we set off for Kinasi Lodge on Mafia Island, where Asheli, a qualified PADI instructor who runs the dive centre, continued to boost our fragile confidence. We motored out in a lovely old wooden dhow, and the two crew members helped us into our kit, perched us on the side of the boat, reminded us to hold our mask and regulator in place and waved us off as we somesaulted backwards into the Indian Ocean.
And suddenly, having spluttered and splashed and hauled ourselves gingerly down the mooring rope, we were in that magical world of fish and coral, with that wonderful sensation of flying above the ocean floor and past shoals of infinitely colourful little fish. Over six dives on three days, we saw a turtle, I had a stand-off with a cross trigger fish, and a Moray eel glared out at us from behind a rock. After the dive, the crew dispensed hot tea and ripe mango, and rigged up the great triangular sail so that we could run back in front of the wind to the shore.
Too old? Not yet. No doubt a day will come. But with luck, we might manage a few more lion fish and manta rays first. What a wonderful sport it is!
Frances McRae (aged 73 3/4)