Plymouth Sound: The greatest lecture theatre of them all! Thomas Baston

Thank you to Tom for coming to see Aquamarine Medicals for his HSE Diving Medical and writing this blog about HSE dive training and studying at Plymouth University. The HSE SCUBA course is offered by Plymouth University as part of a degree course, and Plymouth is the only University to offer this as an option. Tom has been through the HSE SCUBA training and is now helping to teach on the course.

Having grown up in a relatively rural area in Cheshire my diving experience was to say the least, very different. I learnt to dive when I was 13 years old in a flooded disused quarry known as Stoney Cove, a popular inland dive site. This brings back memories of ill fitted drysuits, poor visibility and very cold water. All things considered, there was something about diving that was mesmerising to me… the ability to breathe underwater and see things that others have not is cliché but none the less thrilling.

I knew that this was something I wanted to pursue in life as diving is a large field and encompasses a large variety of activities and knowhow. Having found an interest in the scientific field throughout school and college I soon found myself looking into the field of Marine Biology. Now marine biology is a popular degree, despite what you may think. It involves the study of the ocean and how organisms interact with it and I soon found myself looking at the University of Plymouth due to its large reputation as a marine science and STEM leader. I distinctively remember visiting the applicant day and seeing the Marine Station: a brand new investment by the university into a waterside facility loaded to the teeth with labs, aquariums, teaching spaces and diving equipment as well as its very own fleet of scientific and diving vessels. So that was it! I was sold on getting a place at Plymouth and worked hard at college and come September that year was my first day studying Marine Biology & Oceanography at Plymouth University.

One of the main attractions for me on the Marine Biology & Oceanography course was the HSE Professional Scuba course. An intensive 4 week commercial diving course that was offered and run entirely by the university in the efforts of training qualified divers into commercially trained scientific divers for the use in scientific projects, and for greater employability and job prospects. The first stage of the process is known as the aptitude test. This is the first hurdle you reach a few months into your first year to get a place on the HSE Scuba course. It involves jumping into a quarry in a wetsuit and conducting various swimming tests and breathe hold exercises to see if you are confident enough in the water for the HSE course. It was a very cold November morning but despite this there was something fantastic about jumping into the cold water with my peers and almost a degree of competition between us all! The next stage is getting all your ‘pre requisites’ together, first aid, oxygen first aid, diving medical and diving experience. Luckily, I was off to a good start having some experience already in dry suit diving in the UK albeit in a muddy puddle up North… and having completed my first aid qualifications and kept fit enough to pass my diving medical I secured my place on the HSE Course in June of my first year at university. I was excited but there was no time for complacency, I spent my weekdays studying to pass crucial exams for my modules in fish biology and oceanography then my weekends diving throughout the sound with local charters attempting to get as much experience in my dry suit as possible before the course started.

Day one of the course is nerve wracking, others had far more experience than me but I was eager to learn and improve my skills. It is diving from day one. Split between a controlled quarry site for training and skill practice to diving in the sea doing further in water skill assessments and surveys. I had simply never dived this much in my life in such a short period of time and it was fantastic, it was one of the hardest and most rewarding months of my life. We would dive 2 to 3 times a day in all sorts of conditions and training scenarios and then spend my evenings reading the HSE diving manual back to front and making extensive notes in order to pass the HSE diving at work exams in the mornings and learning knot and after knot for the infamous ‘Knot assessment’. Soon enough the commercial practices you struggled to remember in week 1 were drilled in and became second nature. The course gave me a bounty of new skills in full face diving, comms equipment and construction tasks underwater. Surprisingly one of the more enjoyable aspects of the course was the night dive and lifeline dives. Both of which there is a certain degree of apprehension for in the brief as most of us had always considered diving alone to be very taboo in the recreational diving community. However, with the surface tender, communications and life line attached this experience was something I’ll never forget and a real eye opener for how I dive even now.

Once the course had come to an end I was now a qualified HSE Part 4 diver and was able to take part in a scientific diving module as part of my studies at Plymouth University. This module allowed me to put skills we all learnt during the course into practice and gain even more experience. There was a wide range of dives from lift bag training to underwater photography which really helped build up the skill base we already had. Seeing some of the photographs that came from the course was very impressive considering most of us had very limited experience to date.

The best part is that you get to go diving as part of your ‘studying’, whilst others on our course were in lectures we would be out on the boat photographing wrecks and wildlife in the Sound! Diving as part of the university opens more doors in terms of research also, allowing you to conduct diving as part of your final year research. Currently I am planning diving operations to create 3D models of shipwrecks using underwater photogrammetry all using skills I have learnt as part of my HSE diving experience. I was lucky enough to gain a place as a placement student with the Marine Station in 2019 which was a fantastic experience seeing how scientific diving team work. I now work freelance as a commercial diver on various jobs across the country as well as with the Marine Station team over summer and I love every minute of getting to go diving for work, even when the conditions are ‘bad’.

Spending much of my time in Plymouth I have met a wide range of very talented individuals involved in the diving scene here so a large part of my diving is recreation too, I dive recreationally just as much as I do for work even.

Diving in Plymouth is a very unique experience to say the least; it provides an insight into a completely different world that few have seen before. From staggering geological formations and reefs teaming with fish and colourful corals (believe It or not!), eerie shipwrecks that are hundreds of years old that give a fantastic glimpse into how historically important Plymouth was as a port. There really is something for everyone here from beginner open water divers to more advanced deep adventures. The most fantastic part about Plymouth is that you can go on boat charters miles offshore to exciting wrecks and stunning reefs, but you can also step outside of your front door get down to the shore and there is a bounty of well dived shore sites offering all sorts to see. Arguably the most popular being the famous Eastern Kings which when dived at the correct stage of the tide… unveils coral covered walls and colourful reefs, surfacing after this dive amongst the swimmers and beach goers often gains some confused looks and questions if you could “see anything down there” little do they know what lies just beneath the surface from the shore!

My favourite dive site to date is likely the wreck of the SS Skaala. She was a Norwegian steamer transporting coal briquettes from South Wales to Rouen when struck by a torpedo from a German U – Boat on boxing day 1917. The wreck now lies on the seabed at 47m and is fantastically intact, covered in all kinds of coral and animal life and you can still see the cargo of stamped coal briquettes resting in the holds, untouched for over 100 years!

The local BSAC club Plymouth Sound Divers have enabled me to dive all of these exciting sites and always provide happy divers and boats for whatever and whenever you would want, part of what makes the diving community here in Plymouth arguably the best in the country, and of course I cannot express the importance of being as fit and healthy as possible because safe divers are happy divers! The team at Aquamarine Medicals have been indispensable in ensuring I am fit to dive both professionally and recreationally and always have excellent advice to offer.


B + W title photo: Ben Whyte