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Representatives from local government and staff from the Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Myanmar team recently faced their fears and learned to dive, forming the country’s first underwater survey team. Zau Lunn, FFI’s Marine and Coastal Programme Coordinator, recounts his experiences…
First of all let me say that scuba diving is a very new skill for the Myanmar team and everybody was very excited to learn at first. Actually, we were beyond excited, we were very scared!
The scuba diving training took place in Phuket, Thailand, and first we were trained in the swimming pool with just a mask and snorkel. Some in our group were not confident swimmers, so you can imagine what a funny feeling it was for us to close off our nose and just breathe through our mouths through a snorkel which is basically a tiny pipe.
This was not a normal situation for us, and we felt very insecure while we swam around the pool for over an hour trying to become accustomed to this strange sensation.
The other slight problem we encountered was that no one dared to swim into the deeper part of the swimming pool. We all turned back to the shallow end when we approached the downward slope. Not a great start, you might think, to the first day of two weeks of underwater training, and we all felt that there would be challenging times ahead.
After a few days getting used to being in the pool and breathing through our snorkels, we started to learn about the equipment we would use to dive.
We were given BCDs – buoyancy control devices – which are basically vests which you wear, and which can be inflated using air from your tank. At first none of us believed that the BCD would be able to support our body and help us to float on the surface once we had donned the heavy air tank and weight belt.
We were all very anxious the first day we used all the scuba equipment in the swimming pool – biting our mouth pieces very tightly and strapping our masks on to our faces as securely as possible because we did not trust the equipment. When we were this distrustful of the simplest equipment, you can perhaps imagine our shock when we were told we would have to practice taking these important pieces of equipment on and off as part of our qualification!
Once we had mastered the skills in the pool, we discovered our most challenging experience was still to come, and the first day we dived in the sea was very nerve-wracking for us all.
The dive site was very beautiful but somehow we did not feel like it was the time to appreciate the beauty of the environment.
Instead, we carefully and repeatedly checked, re-checked, and checked again all our scuba diving equipment because we did not want to encounter any problems while we were diving. After all the checking, we queued up for our turn to jump into the ocean with a growing sense of anxiety. When it was my turn, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and jumped into the water.
After landing in the water, I discovered that my equipment did work as I felt myself floating to the surface – which was a relief until I realised that I was upside down! I was really frightened for a moment and took lots of big, panicked breaths through my mouth piece while I got my head above the water. But at least I had discovered that my mouth piece worked and that I was indeed able to breathe underwater!
The sea was very different from the pool sessions we had already mastered, and we battled against waves and surface currents as we swam to the buoy line which we would descend down on our first ever dive. It may only have been 40 or 50 metres to the buoy line from the boat but it felt like we were swimming a marathon weighed down with all the bulky scuba equipment. Finally we were all together by the marker buoy and prepared ourselves for the decent into the unknown.
As we began to sink, we all struggled to equalise the pressure building up in our ears by squeezing our noses. It was a very strange sensation, and one of our team members was so terrified that he tried to go back up, but our instructor was able to calm him down. I was also very frightened when we started our descent, and I think we all felt the same because we stayed very, very close to each other, holding on to the buoy line very tightly.
Later on, our trainers teased us about this, saying that we looked like married couples in our buddy pairs as we descended because we were so close to each other we could have been holding hands. They had actually warned us that it can be very dangerous for everybody to stay quite so close, because if something were to go wrong, it would be very difficult to help, but nobody was thinking about that as we took our first proper breaths as scuba divers – we could only think to stay close together, as though we were walking through a ghost town.
Once we had all safely descended, we had to repeat the difficult skills we had tried in the pool, removing and replacing our masks, and clearing the seawater out of them. We also had to take out our regulators, throw them behind us, and then put them back into our mouths again. And we had to practise controlling our buoyancy on the bottom by adding little bits of air into our BCD.
The final challenge was floating at a depth of 5 metres during the safety stop on the way back up. That was one of the most difficult things we had to do on our first dive – everybody was floating at different depths until the trainers pulled everybody to suspend at the same level! It added a final bit of anxiety to our dive, as we had learnt about the importance of the safety stop, which helps prevent divers from getting decompression sickness (also known as the bends).
Anyway, after all the immense challenges: learning how to swim, how to breathe through our masks and what an octopus is (apart from an animal!) we have all become qualified scuba divers.
Soon we will begin gathering the first data on coral reefs in Myanmar’s remote Myeik archipelago. This work will form a very important part of the conservation work we are doing there, as it will allow us to get a better understanding of what the current situation is, what species and ecosystems can be found in this area, and how effective our work is.
We are very much looking forward to putting our training to good use as we start our underwater surveys.