Scuba Dive with Seals with Abyss Scuba Diving (4th August 2012)

After missing out on the Scuba Dive with Seals organised by PADI 5 Star dive centre Abyss Scuba Diving last year, I made it a mission to make sure Jono and I got ourselves a spot on the dive this year. I had probably drove the folks at Abyss Scuba Diving mad with my monthly emails since December asking when the seal dive was available for booking - couldn't help it as the season only runs from mid-June to mid-September with only one dive per weekend (weather permitting) which meant the dive gets booked out pretty quickly (and I REALLY didn't want to miss it this time!). Finally in early April, the dive centre released their seal dive dates and we had our dives booked in. Cost $175 per person for a double dive which included full gear hire. Yay, we're going diving with the seals!

Over the past few weeks, I started to wonder if it was such a great idea to book us in for a dive in August. Smack in the middle of winter and though Sydney doesn't get as cold as Wellington, I doubt the water temperature was going to be much warmer...I'm definitely wearing my thermals again...

The long wait has finally come to an end and we're going seal diving today! I was both excited and nervous as I usually am with scuba diving - I know, it is strange that I've a fear for water but love diving. Jono and I were up at 7am to have our breakfast and by 7.45am, we were on our way in our rental GoGet station wagon to Abyss Scuba Diving's dive shop in Ramsgate to pick up our dive gear. Adrian too was coming along on the dive trip and carpooling with us to Wollongong where the dive would commence. Known to turn up late to most events, Jono joked that we would probably still arrive before Adrian did. You know, I reckon Adrian would be on time today (seal dive = super excited = arrive early) and sure enough when I said that to Jono, we got a text from Adrian to say he was waiting for us at the dive shop. Haha!

The folks at the dive shop had called us beforehand to get our weight, height and shoe sizes so when we arrived, all we had to do was head to the reception to have our dive cards sighted and sign the liability release form (both normal procedures pre-diving), and then collect our gear at the back of the shop. "Hi, I'm Kane the divemaster and I'll be taking you guys on the seal dive today," said the burly man out the back with a smile, hand outstretched for a handshake. He pointed us to our respective boxes that were labelled with our names and got us to check that it contained all the equipment we needed. I went through my box to make sure everything was there, even checking that the mouthpiece for the regulator was in good condition (after a previous incident in Wellington where I neglected to notice my rented regulator had part of its mouthpiece chewed off and as a result had to hold the regulator in my mouth with one hand for the entire dive, this has become one of the first things I look out for). Boys Jono and Adrian loaded up the car with all our gear and tanks (mine were the stubby tanks - yes!), and around 8.30am, we were back on the road and followed Kane's jeep all the way to Wollongong harbour. Adrian, Jono and I were all very excited about our upcoming dives, chatting away happily and sharing dive stories on the drive.

I've always had the impression that Wollongong was a student city (my parents had initially thought of sending me there to further my studies) but it was more a seaside city and reminded me much of Mooloolaba in Sunshine Coast. It was about an hour's drive from Sydney and we arrived in good time for our 10am boat departure. "Where's our boat?" I wondered. No, it can't possibly be that small yellow boat arriving into the harbour...seriously?!! Much to my dismay, the yellow "Friendship" boat owned by 
United Divers Wollongong was our boat charter for the seal dive - the size of a small fishing boat that comfortably allowed eight people standing. Gulp, I hope the water's not choppy today...better take a motion sickness pill, just in case...

At Wollongong harbour getting ready for the seal dive

We put on our wetsuits at the carpark, got our equipment set up and loaded our gear onto the boat (well, the boys did the loading - I just carried the lighter stuff). There were two other divers (also divemasters) who were joining us on the dive. "The seals are on the south side of the island but it's a bit rough out there," I overheard the skipper mention to Kane. "How long is the boat ride to the dive site?" I asked nervously, and was told it would take about 15 minutes. Eek! I DID NOT enjoy the boat ride and fear was probably written all over my face as we continued to bump our way towards Martin Island where the seals were (damn those seals!). Jono and I told Kane about my fear for water and he got me to stand up the front where the skipper was instead of at the back of the boat. My knuckles were white from gripping so tightly on the rails and occasionally my legs went jelly as we sliced through another incoming wave. The boat slowed down as we approached the island but the water was still choppy from the southerly winds. Surprisingly, it didn't bother me so much now that I was distracted by the many Australian fur seals who were jumping off the cliffs of Martin Island and rushing into the water as the boat approached, as if to check us out and wanting to play. Oh, and the smell - there sure were seals in the vicinity!

Seals at Martin Island, Port Kembla

One-by-one we got kitted up and carried out our buddy checks, then awkwardly walked towards the back of the boat with our fins on and did a giant stride into the water. The water was cold but bearable however I still had a mild panic attack (hyperventilation) purely because choppy waters frightens me. Fortunately I had Jono around and he helped me out by resting me on my back for a bit to calm me down (a trick we learnt from the divemaster on our last dive in Mornington Peninsula to deal with my panic attack) while we waited on the surface for Adrian and Kane to jump off the boat. Once we were all in the water, we swam towards the anchor line, then Kane signalled for us to descend and we went down, following the anchor line to the bottom, some 15 metres below the surface. Visibility was about 5 metres which was understandable given the water conditions but definitely a lot less choppy compared to when we were at the top. I was pretty happy being underwater and all fears whatsoever went out the door. I followed closely behind Kane, checking every so often that Jono was nearby. Kane had a shark shield trailing from his foot - looked rather odd though quite inviting to tug at :P

Divemaster Kane leading the seal dive

The sea floor was a bed of boulders, littered with sea urchins in the crevices, with the occasional small schools of fish swimming by - not many interesting sea life at this dive site. For the first 10 minutes, there wasn't a seal in sight. Kane had a honker which he used to attract the seals (sounded more like duck quaking underwater) and very soon, the seals began to appear - one, then another, and another - we must have seen at least 10-15 seals swimming around us at one point. The Australian fur seals were amazing swimmers and divers, having such awesome control and agility in the water. They range from pups to adults (adult males can grow up to 360kg while adult females to 110kg - I felt quite small in comparison), some more playful than others - they swim up close enough for you to reach out and touch them (though touching is not allowed) but zips off at the last moment. It was SO much fun to dive with the seals and I took plenty of amazing photos :)

A good way to attract seals is to use a honker


Speedy seal

Jono all kitted up for the dive

Playful Australian fur seals

Catch me if you can!

Seal checking me out :)

We surfaced after about 35 minutes and the skipper took us away from the rough waters to a more sheltered area where he anchored so we could have our light lunch provided by the dive shop - plain buns with a choice of peanut butter and/or vegemite spreads, hot tomato soup from a flask served in paper cups topped with a few drops of Tabasco sauce, and some snakes (candy) and lemon cordial to finish off. The meal was meant to be quite light as too much would make you feel sick on your next dive.

I SO need to pee! There was no built-in toilet on board the boat so the only place to relieve myself was in the water. And literally IN THE WATER - guys just unzip their wet suit, stand at the back of the boat and do their thing but not for us girls. In addition to unzipping my wet suit and rolling it down to my ankles, I had to sink myself halfway into the water to pee. It was freaking cold but I couldn't hold it any longer. Brr...14 degree Celsius waters...Even with my fleece jacket on when back on the boat, I was still shaking from the cold...

We headed back to the same dive spot for our second dive, and this time even more seals were in the water. One of the seals was having a ball flinging itself out of the water and splashing back in - if it was trying to get our attention, it totally worked ;) As before, we kitted up and one after another, headed into the water. The current was much worse than before, making it rather difficult to stay in one spot. I was struggling to swim towards the anchor line with the current pulling me away. "Look, there's a seal next to you," said Jono, trying to distract me as I was beginning to freak out in the water. I tried to focus on the seal pup swimming by but the waves were just lapping water onto my face and all I wanted to do was swim towards Jono so I could hold on to his hand. Kane, Adrian, Jono and I all attempted to swim towards the anchor line but neither of us were making much progress so Kane just got us close enough together and signalled a descend. The visibility was a lot poorer and we couldn't see the bottom as clearly this time though the seals turned up much quicker than before. I didn't enjoy my second dive as much because my mask was leaking (water was filling up the mask and I had to constantly flush it) and I was being bashed around by the current, feeling less in control. It was only about 15 minutes in the water when Kane came towards me and signalled an ascent - what? So soon?? Kane got me and the boys to link arms and we slowly ascended together. I was beginning to wonder if it was my fault we were all heading up so soon (I didn't think I was struggling that bad in the water) but it turned out that the surge was drifting everyone apart way too much (thus the arm-linking ascend) and Kane wanted us to be safe so cut the dive short. 

The seals looked so in control despite the surge

Mosaic sea star

Jono and the seal

Gone so soon?

Labouring up the bank

"Hey, hey, the boat's tipping to the left!" shouted Adrian and everyone shuffled around the boat to redistribute the weight. Another minus of using a small dive boat, we always have to be aware and keep the boat balanced :/ 

The boat ride back felt a lot shorter (I guess we weren't going against the current anymore) - I was just glad we were getting back to land and out of the choppy waters! Back at the harbour, the skipper secured the boat and everyone hopped off. No immediate unloading required as the skipper was going to pull the boat up on his trailer so we headed to the car and quickly got out of our wetsuits and into the dry clothes we brought with us. There weren't any changing rooms or even toilets nearby which was very annoying - I was advised by the folks at Abyss Scuba Diving to bring bottles of tap water to rinse the salt off my own dive equipment (the camera casing, mask and snorkel). Both Jono and I really needed to pee - where on earth are the toilets around here??!

Everyone helped to unload the boat when it was brought up to the carpark area and we loaded up the car again with all the used gear and tanks. Around 2.30pm, we left the harbour in search of a public toilet and found one along the seaside drive some 5 minutes away by car (the local council really should build public toilets near the carpark area by the harbour). Ah, I feel SO much better now! We made the drive back to the dive shop arriving around 3.45pm - there weren't as much chatter in the car on the drive as we were all feeling rather exhausted from the dives. I was tired but happy - seal diving was such a fun and fascinating experience! I strongly urge you to give it a go if you haven't done it before :)

Post-dive photo op

We returned all the used gear and tanks to the dive shop, got our dive logs filled in and said our goodbyes before heading home for a nice, long hot shower. The rest of the evening was spent chilling out at home, ordering in pizza for dinner (I couldn't be bothered with the cooking) and having an early night. Diving always makes me sleep well - it may look like a slow-moving activity but boy does it zaps the energy out of you...zzz...


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