I have it on good authority that I was just two weeks old when I was first introduced to the ocean. Amazingly, despite nearly five decades of being in or on the water in some way or another, I’ve never learnt to scuba dive. It’s pretty much the same story for Debs. Since arriving in New Zealand nearly three years ago, we’ve done a fair amount of snorkeling at both Goat Island and around Hahei Beach, two of our favourite spots. But recently we’ve been yearning for something more. Seeing pictures of the incredible water around the Poor Knights Islands we figured it was finally time for us to go all in and learn to scuba dive so that we could finally explore the world underwater as much as we do above the water.

So where to start? As with most things these days, we turned to all-knowing Google and found New Zealand Diving who conveniently, are based just north of us in Warkworth. After doing some research and finding that Debs actually knew one of the NZ Diving Divemasters through work (small world!) we decided to pay the dive shop a visit and meet the owner, Neil Bennett. Neil asked us a few pertinent questions to ensure that we met some basic health requirements and weren’t going to be a hazard to ourselves, explained our course options and signed us up for the SDI Open Water Scuba Diving course before sending us on our way to complete the online eLearning.

We were really impressed with the SDI training material. It starts out fairly basic and introduces you to some key concepts before getting into the more detailed physiological aspects of diving and the equipment that makes it all possible. Everything was explained in a way that was easy to understand and prepared us well for our first pool sessions.

SDI Logo

The two nights of pool sessions were held at the Olympic Pools in Newmarket which, at 4.5 meters, gave us our first taste of diving and allowed us to get to grips with our scuba gear for the first time. The biggest revelation was just how easy it is to breathe through a regulator. We didn’t know what to expect and were surprised at just how little time it took to feel comfortable. The key, as with most things in life, was simply to relax, and after two nights in the pool and having successfully completed all of the necessary skills, we felt prepared and excited for our open water dives.

Our first open water dive on Saturday was planned for Goat Island with it’s usually clear water, abundant sea life and many large, inquisitive snapper. Unfortunately, nature had other plans. It had been raining fairly hard the night before and the small stream that usually ends as a puddle on the beach at Goat Island had turned into an actual river of mud that was turning the sea a nice shade of brown.

Regardless, we enthusiastically headed into the water, intending to swim a short way south along the coast in the hope that the visibility would improve. It didn’t, and after some time spent wondering around the channel (Personal lesson 1 – if at all possible avoid swimming on the surface in full scuba gear) we eventually found some reasonably calm water to complete some of our skills tests. First we did a mask clear and removal followed by regulator recovery which frankly, you should be able to do with your eyes shut anyway, thus making the total lack of visibility on the day a non-issue. In hindsight, practicing these skills in less than ideal conditions was most probably a good lesson and I’m sure will have prepared us well for the future.

After a quick lunch (Personal lesson 2 – diving makes me VERY hungry) we headed over to Mathesons Bay for our second dive of the day. Unfortunately the visibility was only marginally better but at least I could now tell the difference between my dive buddy and a kelp covered rock so it was good enough to complete our next set of required skills tests.

And that was the end of day one which, despite not being quite what we had in mind, still left us feeling like we’d at least accomplished something. All credit to our instructor Liana who managed to keep it all together and kept a smile on her face throughout. That night, we were both pretty exhausted, but couldn’t wait for day two.

Dive training
Today is going to be a good day

We woke on Sunday to another wet and dreary morning but were excited nonetheless as we headed to the dive shop. There we met Liana before heading over to Neil’s to assemble our scuba gear and pick up our wetsuits. Speaking of wetsuits, in hindsight, there’s no way our 3mm wetsuits (which were fine on our recent river sledging trip) would have been up to the task so the 6.5mm suits provided by Neil were an absolute winner. With all our gear prepared, we drove over to Omaha estuary where we launched Neil’s boat, Midnight Diver, before heading to our first dive spot of the day, the Outpost near the entrance to Leigh Harbour.

Looking a little windswept
Looking a little windswept
Photobombed by El Capitan
Photobombed by El Capitan

Thankfully, the visibility was much better this time, around 5 meters, and we couldn’t wait to get into the water, a rather chilly 14 degrees C.

Let's go diving
Come on in, the water's lovely (she said from inside her drysuit)

First off we completed some of our emergency skills, CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent) and Alternate Air Source Assisted Ascent, and with those checked off the list, we were ready for an instructor led dive along the reef down to 16.5 meters. This was our first real opportunity to experience a ‘proper’ dive, floating weightless in the water, feeling at one with the ocean and enjoying the newfound freedom of being able to stay underwater longer than one breath. For me, this was my ‘now I get it’ moment. Unsurprisingly, this left me feeling rather hungry again so it was a good thing that we soon headed back to shore to grab a bite to eat and get refill tanks for our next dive.

Our second dive of the day was just off Ti Point where we set anchor at a depth of around 8 meters. This was our opportunity to test another crucial skill, underwater navigation. Neil had chosen (by no coincidence I’m sure) a stretch of featureless white sand sea floor which meant that we were totally reliant on using our compasses. When it was our turn to complete the skill, Debs and I headed off on a bearing of 240 degrees for around 20 kicks. On turning around to 60 degrees there was no sign of the anchor and no recognisable indication of where we’d come from. Trusting our compass, we followed our line and headed back to the anchor line. Navigation skill, done… as long as we only ever go in a straight line. 😉 We’ll work on that in time.

With all of our skills completed, and mixed feelings of pride at having completed our course and sadness that the day’s diving was over, we headed back to shore and after some fun and games on the boat ramp, headed back to Neil’s to unpack and rinse off the days gear and complete our logbook entries as official SDI open water divers.

Ritual post-training self-dunking
Ritual post-training self-dunking
Celebrity photobomb
Celebrity photobomb
Seal fins
Is this the seal equivalent of a diver ok sign?

Despite Saturday’s weather, Debs and I had an unforgettable weekend with Neil, Liana and the rest of the team from NZ Diving who were all patient and extremely generous with their time and knowledge. We came away feeling that we hadn’t just gained a diving certification but we’d gained new friends as well. Needless to say we are hooked and can’t wait for our next dive.

If you’re based in Auckland and want to learn to scuba dive with a safe and well experienced team, we highly recommend Neil Bennett and New Zealand Diving.

Have you scuba dived with New Zealand Diving? Share your experience with us.