Society of Wildlife Artists blog: Learning to dive

Wildlife artist Esther Tyson takes us through her experience of learning to dive – overcoming her fears in order to get to grips with nature below the waves and start painting.  

Esther Tyson painting underwater


Part One: Learning to dive
Why am I doing this? Work? Recreation? To overcome fear? Yes, overcome fear sounds about right.
Togged up and in the pool, I begin the evening’s training. It’s a back-to-basics session to see how I react to the water.
“Mask on and half fill it with water,” says Damon, my instructor. I get a little in, but it’s very messy. Damon regroups and starts me off, like he does with the kids – I’m back to being spoon fed again!
“Tip your head to the side, let water in and get the feel of the water being in the mask – then tip your head the opposite way and hold it there.” As the water passes my nose, I don’t like it – but I deal with it.
Then we try no mask underwater. I breathe out through my nose and in through my mouth, getting the feel of water around my nose. Confident I can be underwater breathing without my mask, it’s decided we will go for a swim without the mask, and we circuit the pool.
I then kneel and attempt to put my mask on. I get a bit nervy and swallow, drawing water up my nose and into my throat. I have to surface spluttering.

We go back to no mask/replace the mask/clear the mask.


I begin to calm down and before long I am removing the mask – blowing out of my nose in the process helps – then replacing and clearing the mask. It’s not pretty the first couple of times, but I get the gist and before long I am taking the mask off, putting the mask on and clearing the mask.

Next, I have to let the air out of the buoyancy control device and fill it manually whilst propelling myself up with my fins. A bit messy, but I get the hang of it.
We return to the shallow end. Kneel at the bottom, remove and replace the mask, clear. Fin to middle and kneel on the bottom after equalising my ears. Remove and replace the mask, clear. Fin to the deep end, remove and replace the mask, clear. We fin back to the shallow end and come up.
I’ve done it, finally! It’s clicked! I’m wearing a huge grin. I think I can do this!
Part Two: Open water
It will be 51 minutes until my first open water dive is over. Swanage is not exactly the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean, but there is a certain macabre charm about the murky depths.
It is so alien down there; the light is a cool green and everything has a grubby feel, possibly due to the sand and the algae.
My first sighting is a crab; I usually only find the remains of these creatures on the shore at Studland. This spiny spider crab is covered in algae and it is huge! It’s walking along the sea bed below me.
The next is a cuckoo wrasse, although paler and a darker brown than I remember from books. This one had stripes from head to tail, with a little iridescence in the stripe under torch light.
My mind is concentrating on breathing rather than good observation. The visibility is poor, thick with sediment hanging in the water. From nowhere, a dark shape appears before us – it's a pillar.
Slowly we pass by, and before long the next ominous shape looms. At this depth I’m in limbo, neither able to see the ground nor the reassuring light from above. This is obscurity.
There is a shimmer of light caught in the flanks of bass and small mackerel, but no other life. I shudder and I am feeling the cold.
A five point ascent goes well and I surface, holding high my snorkel rather than the buoyancy control device with low-pressure inflator on my BCD. Fool! We flip onto our backs and have an agonizing swim from the end of the pier back to the steps.
I can see how exhaustion can kick in; we rest for a moment, then continue.
Back on dry land, I'm relieved that my first sea dive went well in the other divers' eyes. My strongest memory is thinking: “Keep going, just a bit longer; you’ll be back on land in 30 minutes.”
Does that sound bad? I was lost, had no idea of my bearings and felt claustrophobic, but it was an experience and I am glad I’ve done it.
Part Three: Passing the test
I'm in Swanage, Dorset, and taking my Open Water certificate. It’s 16º at the surface, 16º bottom temperature and 7.7 depth. All is going well and then I realise my mistake.
I’ve read not to eat fatty foods before a dive. Well, what harm could a cheeseburger and chips do? Halfway into open water and I’m feeling as sick as a dog.
Not only does instructor Faye have to assess my skills, but she also has to put up with a seasick diver who isn’t the easiest to work with. I misunderstand her instruction initially, but an extra briefing on the surface sees the compass skill carried out well.
Mask removal doesn’t go so well. My hood gets in the way and I start to inhale water. I quickly remove the mask again, hold my nose and get my breathing under control, replace and clear the mask. I would have enjoyed the dive, had I not been battling nausea.
30 minutes later and the last skill is complete. I am a fully qualified open water diver yet I can’t enjoy it – I get cramp on the swim back. Lou swims over and stretches out my leg, then forces my fin forward, massaging my calf. Boy, that was debilitating; I wouldn’t want to be out on my own when that happens.
We climb the steps up to the pier: "Don’t talk to me… I can’t talk yet."
By the time I’ve rinsed my kit and changed, the seasickness has subsided enough to string a sentence together. An hour later and after a cup of tea at the dive centre, they can’t shut me up!
Wow. I really didn’t think this day would come. I'm an Open Water Diver! How cool is that?


Born in 1973, Esther Tyson was brought up in a small town at the edge of the Lake DistrictCumbria. She studied in South Wales and the Royal College of Art, London. Esther currently lives and works in the South Peak District, Derbyshire.
To visit the SWLA's website, click here


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