In August 2015, 9 members of Birmingham University Royal Naval Unit (BURNU) conducted a major Adventurous Training Expedition to Ascension Island (ASI). Exercise BURNU Dive ASI as it was known had all the ingredients of a classic AT exped from the start, with the experienced diving supervisory team of a Royal Marine Colour Sergeant and Army Warrant Officer, contrasting a group of Novice divers from a University Armed Service Unit. The main aim was to train and qualify divers who had entry level beginner BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) Dive qualifications as intermediary BSAC Sports Divers, and this would involve a challenging diving program that developed leadership, physical courage, loyalty and confidence in a new environment.
The exped preparation was hampered by some late withdrawals due to unforeseen circumstances, and an initial difficulty in sourcing all the safety equipment required for such an expedition – and diving, is not a sport without a need for an excessive amount of kit! However, thanks to the Joint Services Sub Aqua Diving Association based in Plymouth, (JSSADC), all of the kit needed was sourced. After some serious packing and re-packing, it was safely stowed for a late flight via the RAF airbridge from Brize Norton (the only way on or off the island).
On landing, it was clear that we were a long way from home. An almost Mars like terrain, with volcanic formations everywhere, we were immediately struck by the sheer abundance of wildlife. From the wild donkeys, sheep and large land crabs which litter the roads to the shores, to the ocean triggerfish and huge Moray Eels that are everywhere in the water. The island also boasts an incredible history and long association with the U.K Armed Forces and Royal Navy in particular – something which we were very keen to carry on.
Without doubt, diving in Ascension Island is challenging, with tidal surges, swells and rip tides leaving all but two beaches on the island unsafe to swim at. However, it also has an abundance of world-class dive sites to explore. Running out of the bespoke RAF Sub Aqua Association Exped centre in a location called English Bay on the North of the island, the Diving increased steadily from a ‘shakedown’ dive to blow away some cobwebs, and advancing steadily to shore and boat dives, wrecks and night dives all while progressing the depth steadily.
Over the course of 12 days, numerous dives were amassed and recorded, mostly as boat dives from the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs). On top of the numerous dives per day, the BSAC Sports Diver curriculum involved a series of lectures, and training in buddy rescue techniques, dive planning using air and nitrox tables. The water temperature was warm enough to dive without a wet suit at times, and the visibility was clear to 30metres plus, which not only led to some very good photographs, but also increasing the safety element which is always paramount in any dive.
There was of course time for the group to let their hair down away from the diving, with a particular highlight being a social in the Island Community centre (where it seemed the entire Ascension population turned up) complete with live band, bowling and darts competitions. This also allowed some of the students to impress the Islanders with their dancing, carefully honed in the Student Unions of Birmingham and re-imagined thousands of miles away.
By the end of the expedition, all 9 BURNU members achieved the BSAC Sports Diver qualification, and all are now keen to continue and gain further skills underwater. The expedition allowed 9 divers of minimal experience to turn into more confident, safe and proficient divers thanks to some excellent instruction by the Dive Supervisor staff, and the equipment and assistance of the RAF Sub Aqua Association and Joint Services Sub Aqua Diving Club. Final thanks must go to the Ulysses Trust for their kind support, without which the expedition would not have been able to take place.