Is it possible to scuba dive when partially sighted? We talk to GTS member Hayley Kennedy to find out more!
Scuba diving when partially sighted
I first thought about learning to scuba dive when I arrived in Singapore to start my new Insurance job. I was asking colleagues and people I met what sports they got involved in here. I'd played hockey in the U.K., but had stopped playing a few years before as I kept being hit by the ball and I was getting more nervous about playing. I suffer with Stargadts disease, which is a form of macular degeneration. It means that the cells in my retina which do the focusing at degenerating and it means that things most people take for granted are more difficult. For instance, I can't drive as I can't read the number plate at the set distance, I struggle to read books, magazines and newspapers unless I can enlarge the font and trying to read street signs is a nightmare. Because these focusing cells are damaged I also find that sometimes my reactions can be slower when objects move quickly, such as a hockey ball being hit. It's also difficult to recognise faces, because the details that define a person can be blurry. After chatting with a lady I met, through my new boss, she gave me the confidence to give diving a go. She also recommended a dive centre in Singapore that I could go and talk to so I gave it a go.
The dive centre were great. We talked through the bits that would be challenging starting with the theory. I would sit at the front of the class :( so I could see the screen and the instructor would describe what was on the slides as well as just going through them. I could also do the knowledge reviews on an iPad so I could enlarge the questions and answers and another instructor went through the RDP table separately with me do I could use my phone camera to enlarge and follow what we were doing. By the time we got to the pool sessions I generally had the same problems as everyone else - not wanting to take of my mask underwater so I didn't lose my contact lenses!!! I use contacts to see the bigger picture as only my Central vision is affected not my peripheral, but without my contacts in, I am still shortsighted and can only see around 10cm!!! So I was nervous. We discussed a tapping method, where the instructor would pat my arm when my mask was clear and I could open my eyes after clearing my mask.
I remember heading out for my first open water dives being really nervous when we got in the water and not really enjoying the experience of kneeling on the bottom at about 7m waiting for my turn to do my skills. I also struggled to stay down and stay in the same place. I guess this is the same for everyone, but you don't realise this at the time. I was glad I'd tried diving, but that never again was I ever going to take my mask off underwater!!! How wrong could I have been?
I signed up to do my advanced course on the same boat and just over a year after my OW course I did my Advanced Open Water. This came with its own issues of navigation - one of the compulsory dives. Also, as the one with the eye sight problems I got to buddy with the instructor. This is actually of benefit as you can't really not learn the skill as you will be corrected or stopped if you are doing it wrong, so after navigating in a square back to nearly the same point, the whole time hoping the current wasn't pushing me too far off course, I managed to pass that dive. The rest of the dives were fine and I realised I really like going to 30 metres, which used to terrify me before I'd actually done it!
After deciding to leave my job in a July 2017, I began thinking of all the things I wanted to do but couldn't with 21 days holiday. Whilst again on the White Manta, I was discussing where I could do a Divemaster course in Asia. Malapascua became the chosen place and before I knew it, I'd signed up to do my IDC as well. So off we go on the next adventure. Medical form signed and off i went.
The DM course was pretty intense, first I had to start by doing my Rescue and EFR courses, before getting into the skill sets and exercises. The rescue course was fun, but I was so bruised at the end of it. I was super surprised by what I'd achieved though, and it gave me confidence for my DM. the skills set, I didn't find so easy and spent a lot of time going out with an instructor to practise. It took me until the assessment to master the skills but I achieved a great score, so practise clearly pays off. The swims were ok and I passed the with ok scores.
The equipment exchange, I was dreading. The other DMT's had already done their's and I was the last. Some had told horror stories of doing the mask and fins first and sharing one tank etc. I had no idea what to expect, I just knew I still didn't enjoy taking my mask off, for fear of losing my contact lenses!
But by switching BCD's first, then find, then mask, everything went very smoothly. I got out the water feeling incredibly proud of myself. But the bit I enjoyed most was doing the boat management as it meant you were chatting with all the divers and sharing their excitement when you got out of the water. In four weeks, I had managed to do my Rescue, EFR and DM. In two days I was starting the IDC!!! Next challenge.
I hadn't realised the IDC was going to be a whole load of classroom presentations. This created a huge problem because I can't read the board or read the to screen to see the information. Also in an effort to be environmentally friendly we couldn't print all the slides off so finally with the not so great wifi of Malapascua we managed to download the presentations on my iPad so I could enlarge the view. This made things a lot easier and I started to make progress.
The next challenge came with the knowledge reviews where you had to present using the computer screen. This was a total nightmare as the screen had normal size font, but through memory and having kind assistants to press the buttons on the screen we managed to get through these without too much of a problem. The initial confined and open water exercises were not easy, but as you got used to looking out for certain things/problems/characteristics you find it easier to recognise. By the time it was the two day instructor exam (I.E.) I was incredibly nervous and went to speak to the examiners about my eyesight and how they could make sure I could fully participate. They were really good and promised to make sure that any signals they would make sure I could see and acknowledge and it worked really well.
Out of my group of seven I was first (not a position I particularly wanted to be in, but it turned out to be the best way. I got to finish first! Had no pressure from everyone else having performed super well and being able to get out the water earlier than the second set of candidates was a bonus. The first day I got a few answers wrong on the multi choice but still passed easily. The confined water went well and then we had overnight to prepare the knowledge review and two open water skills. Day two couldn't have gone better receiving full marks for everything. I was so incredibly proud of myself. To achieve a professional level in diving was way beyond the expectations I had of my own abilities, let alone doing so well!
My next challenge is to start my first teaching job and learning to adapt to being the responsible one under water!!! I have seen so many amazing creatures underwater - turtles, whale sharks, mantas, octopus sharks - I cannot wait to share in students first dive experiences and help them explore and enjoy the world of diving.
What an inspirational story!! Follow Hayley's blog here!