After a relatively comfortable, sleepless eight-hour flight from RAF Brize Norton, the plane finally touched down on the Ascension Island and we emerged from the cabin into the bright and humid South Atlantic air.
Our 12-strong party, comprising Army, Air Force and (retd) Navy personnel had been brought together to conduct overseas Adventurous Training (AT) on Ex ASCENSION SERPENT, a sub aqua diving expedition on the remote South Atlantic Ascension Island, a long-standing UK overseas territory and home to some of the most challenging and rewarding diving experiences to be had.
Once the majority of the group were settled at the accommodation and allowed to catch up on their lost sleep, the small supervisory team headed to the expedition centre to conduct a 100% check of the diving equipment and to carry out a purity test on the compressed breathing air prior to the start of diving operations.
Once satisfied that the kit and equipment were up to standard, it was time to do the same with the divers and under the direction of SSgt ‘Daz’ Weller, the Expedition Sub Aqua Dive Supervisor (ESADS), the group underwent mandatory pre-diving first aid training and a rescue scenario. It is imperative that all the group are able to recognise and treat Decompression Illness (DCI), an illness brought about by excessive gas bubbles in the blood and commonly referred to as ‘The Bends’.
The following morning saw the day start with breakfast at 6am in the combined mess before collecting the packed lunches and making the 15-minute journey down to the centre. Once there, what was to become the daily routine; kit check, briefing and kit loading were carried out before heading off to ‘Guano Jetty’ where we would ferry divers and kit out to the moored dive boats before departing for the day’s dive site.
The first dive of the expedition, as ever, was given over to a skills review and buoyancy trim session, ensuring that the divers were able to resolve issues such as regulator retrieval and mask clearance underwater and maintain neutral buoyancy by ensuring that they are correctly weighted; once this was completed satisfactorily, it was then time to conduct a practical ‘in-water’ rescue scenario before heading out into the open waters of the South Atlantic Ocean.
Lunch was taken back at the expedition centre and consisted of the ‘packed’ meal of sandwiches, crisps, fruit and a chocolate biscuit that had been collected at breakfast; a hot tea or coffee and the chance to get out of the wetsuit for half an hour were a welcome addition to what was to become another daily routine. With the divers fed and watered and re-briefed for the afternoon it was soon time to set off again for the jetty.
The coming days the divers embarked on a series of two-dive days, one morning and one afternoon, returning to the centre only to eat, refuel and recharge air cylinders before heading back onto the open water. On a couple of occasions the group embarked on a third dive, a night dive, but only on sites that had been dived earlier that day, enabling the divers to undertake a site appreciation in daylight before diving it at night.
One such site was ‘Eddie’s Gullies’, a series of underwater tunnels, with ropes running through to enable the divers to transit through them safely. Challenging enough during daylight hours, the site was daunting during the night.
As a precaution, the site was marked with cylumes, military ‘glow sticks’, to enable the divers to locate the tunnel opening and safety ropes but this did little to ease the apprehension; with barely enough room for a diver and scuba unit to navigate through, this was probably the most challenging dive for all concerned.
Other dives presented other challenges, each one different; each day providing lessons in diving that, hopefully, have gone to making the participants better divers.
The highlight for most was ‘Porpoise Point’ where we were joined by a number of sharks in the open water. Inquisitive to say the least, they caused ‘alarm’ in a number of divers as they circled beneath them during their ascent, a breath-taking experience and one to remember.
The exercise provided many experiences and memories, too many to cram into 750 words. Hugely successful, demanding and rewarding, the exercise certainly put the ‘Adventure’ into Adventurous Training in keeping with the ethos of AT in the forces; thanks to all who provided support to the exercise, financial or otherwise, thank you!