We met at 1530 on the 26th March at our Town Headquarters. At 1600 the transport arrived bringing with it the Boss as well the remainder of our diving equipment. We stopped quickly at a service station for a toilet and food break. On arrival at RAF Brize Norton we found out that our flight had been delayed by 15 hours. As a result we were all given accommodation in the Gateway House Hotel. The instructors (Misty, Pat, Sam and Zander) and Theo all arrived later that afternoon.
It was Will’s 20th birthday. We awoke for breakfast at 8am as we had to have our rooms cleared by 9am. On arrival at the air terminal at RAF Brize Norton, we checked in our bags. For several hours we then sat in the departure terminal during which time we also set up our dive computers. At 1510 we began boarding the flight on a Voyager aircraft which was crewed by an Air Tanker crew rather than an RAF one. We arrived in Ascension Island at 2300 local time; after completing the immigration forms and watching a compulsory orientation video we were free to go and collect our luggage. The staff collected the 2 x Landrovers which would be our only means of travel over the coming days. We drove from the airhead to our accommodation at Traveller’s Hill to unload and sort kit for the following day. The accommodation was sparse but adequate – 4-man rooms with an ablution facility nearby.
We surfaced at 0715 had breakfast and at 0800. Post breakfast the staff briefed us on activities for the day. We drove to the dive center (approx 15 minutes) to look at the facilities, practice using the compressor which charged the dive cylinders with an air/nitrogen mix. We then split into two groups to learn about nitrox mixes and to go over some diving first aid before heading back to base for a large lunch. After lunch the already qualified sports divers and the instructors went for an acclamatory dive – the Boss, Kierman, Zander and Pat during which Kierman’s fin broke repeatedly. While they were diving with George and Misty as boat cover; Barley, Paul, Theo and Sid all got their first dip in the ocean too as we swam off English Bay- one of only three beaches on the island where it is possible and safe to swim. Here we discovered the famous black fish which would be constantly with us in all our subsequent dives, everyone was amazed by the visibility. We those diving had finished, we returned to the dive center to ensure our kit was functional and ready for the following day. Then it was back to base for some well-deserved dinner. Everyone is slowly getting used to the heat (34 degrees C) and the mosquitoes.
Breakfast at 0700; collected our packed lunches and departed for the diver center; quickly picked up our pre-prepared kit and drove our first dive site – Comfortless Cove. Misty and Kierman drove the boat round. From Comfortless Cove we were able to shore dive which was an ideal location for the novice divers. Two groups went in first 1) Sam, George, the Boss and Barley 2) Pat, Zander, Theo and Paul. This served as a training dive for the untrained members and a drills refresher for the ocean divers. We returned to the dive center over lunch to recharge the cylinders – this is a time consuming task but we all rose to the challenge. Once the cylinders were done we headed out again back to Comfortless Cove and dove again in the same grouping – this time group one saw a beautiful peacock flounder which is cleverly disguised as the sand on one side and then multicolored on the other. Over the course of the afternoon we applied sun cream regularly (opting for factor 50+ due to the 11+/11 UV rating on the island). After again refilling the cylinders and sorting our kit, we returned back to the base for dinner. It was noted that there is a phenomenal amount of work to be done just to complete a 30 minute dive. It was essential that we (the students) were able to keep our equipment functional, tidy and ready to go at all times. Physically loading and unloading all equipment and safety gear to vehicles and boats is demanding and we devised a set of duties to enable us to keep on top of our tasks and share the workload.
We had a slick start to the morning due to our dedicated kit prep the night before and then headed to our first dive site – Red Rock. The dive pairs were Theo and Pat, Kierman and Sid, George and the Boss (Boat 1); Misty and Will, Sam and Barley and Paul and Zander (Boat 2). The dive site was amazing – two large arches one after the other leading to a large cavern with a blow whole at the top. You could feel the swell quite strongly and if your buoyancy was good enough were able to just hover in the water bobbing in and out of the arch in time with the waves with the fish. While the first group of divers were in, a pod of dolphins swam past and during his dive Paul saw a turtle and a trumpet fish. After dive 1 we headed back to the dive centre for lunch.
After lunch, we went the next dive site and our favorite location of the whole trip – Eddies Gullies, which had a highly anticipated lined pull through and loads of caves to be discovered. The pull through was amazing and acted as a home for several huge cray fish – or spikey lobster as they are locally known. Everyone managed to get through the cave despite the tight fit. The Boss spotted a 4ft reef shark which the rest of us were devastated to have missed but there were also sightings of turtles and many trumpet fish not to mention the plethora of Moray Eels. Overall it was an amazing dive site which we had hoped to return to. After dinner we went into Georgetown (the Capital) for our most enjoyable night thus far – We went for a walk round the town where we met some fishermen on the pier who told us that they had seen loads of sharks and that we would definitely see some later on our trip. Off the pier we were able to watch a turtle swimming. We then headed down to the beach to watch the large Green Turtles laying their eggs. The beach was teaming with turtles – a huge mother turtle digging her hole every 5 meters all hauling themselves across the sand, there must have been over 40 on the beach. We had taken red torches so we didn’t disturb them and after having walked around for a while we all settled in a semi-circle around one particular mother. We also witnessed 5 baby turtles crawling towards the sea and where overwhelmed by their cuteness. To top off this truly magical evening the stars that evening were perfect with the milky way clearly visible across the whole sky which was amazing.
Once everyone had assembled onto their respective boats this morning, Will realized he had forgotten his cylinder. Fortunately the Boss was able to pop back to retrieve it. We learned a valuable lesson from this and we now understand completely the direction and guidance given by the instructors. The dive pairs were Boat 1) Barley and Pat, George Paul Zander and the Boss as a 4 due to a shortage of DSMBs; Boat 2) Kierman and Sid, Misty and Theo, and Sam and Will. The dive site White Rock is named after the guano covered rock it surrounds. The second dive of the day was much more full of life for all involved and was just round to the left of guano jetty. The skills we learned today were excellent for the Ocean Divers under training. We conducted all safety drills including mask clearing, breathing from a dive buddy’s spare regulator and assisting a diver casualty underwater and bringing them to the surface in a controlled manner. The instructors were excellent at delivering this training under the water. It was hard work but great to see the theory being put into practice. Having sorted our equipment for the following day we returned to base, tired but exhilarated. After dinner we visited the US Air Force Base.
First dive of the day was a site called Triangles. Boat 1) Barley and Misty, Sid and the Boss, Will and Paul; Boat 2) Theo and George, Sam and Paul, Zander and Kierman. There were abundant fish and even a few swim-throughs if you went far enough round to the left but again the visibility here wasn’t as good as it had been in other places. Unfortunately, after the first pairs had gone in the second boat began to take on lots of water which had to be bailed out and so that boat went back with the finished divers to begin recharging the cylinders. On the way back the first boats engine also began to show warning signs so we had to axe the afternoon dive in favor of trying to fix both boats. Today the dive skillset was bolstered further with the additional training on leading a dive, use of Surface Marker Buoys and compass work. While the staff members repaired the boats the students to advantage of the spare time to catch up on dry drills and revising for the Ocean Diver exam. In the evening the instructors provided Barley, Will and Theo with 3 of their Sports Diver theory lessons. Later that evening we returned to the US Air Force Base where they were hosting a BBQ.
Mandatory Off-Gassing period where we were up for breakfast at 0800 (it was Sunday so mess times necessitated this slight lie in). Due to lack of diving the previous afternoon we planned to get two dives today – the late afternoon and a night dive. Taking advantage of the diving respite, we arranged an outing to hike up Green Mountain. The Boss drove the student’s part of the way up Green Mountain in the land drover and dropped us by ‘the residency’. This is a small cottage sat alone on the mountain where the Ambassador of Ascension Island lives. We then followed a path off round the mountain past a farm, water collection point and through the bamboo forest to the summit. We collected the stamp from the small letter box before beginning to retrace our steps.
At a viewpoint and picnic table we had passed on our way up we stopped to eat our sandwiches. We walked back a slightly different route going round to one of the lower peaks from where we got a great view of all of Wideawake Airfield and all of the inhabited part of the island. We continued to walk down the road where we met with the Boss in the wagon and returned to our accommodation. When we returned Misty told us that the sea swell was still too large to dive safely so we were unable to dive that afternoon. The staff had been to the Dive Centre and English Bay to assess the sea conditions and speak to the Met Office personnel – this was the largest sea swell Misty had seen in 30 years’ diving from Ascension Island. Despite the lack of diving the instructors continued with dry drills and more theory lessons throughout the afternoon and evening.
Unfortunately, the swell had not died down overnight so diving was impossible for safety reasons yet again meaning we had to find new plans for the day. The Boss and staff got together and planned an historic sight-seeing and cultural morning encompassing the historic significance of the island. After breakfast, we headed out in the land rovers to the Obsidian Hotel where we visited the gift shop and heritage museum, learned about the volcanic nature of the island and had the opportunity to purchase a selection of souvenirs. We then drove up one of the mountains next to Georgetown that had a satellite transmitter at the top and were able to look out over the island to view the extent of the original defenses put in place by the Royal Navy. Lower down the hill we visited the partially demolished Fort Bedford – an old Royal Navy fort which still had cannons and ship’s guns from HMS Hood as the defenses. After some obligatory group photos we returned to Traveller’s Hill.
We tried to be productive that afternoon and got in 3 more Sports Diver theory lectures and all practiced some land-based compass skills. The afternoon weather still had not changed, so we got back in the wagons and drove to the decommissioned NASA tracking station where Neil Armstrong’s words from the moon landing were first received. The view was amazing as was the drive there through the uninhabited north side of the island. Upon our return, we fitted in one more lesson and dinner before heading out to the Ascension Island Heritage Center. This was a small facility but was packed with amazing facts and heritage items from throughout the island’s history. Topics ranged from initial inhabitants; the Royal Navy presence on the island; how island life has transformed throughout the years; conservation aspects and satellite communications significance. Also of particular interest to us was the story of the island’s strategic importance during the Falkland Islands conflict. A truly worthwhile visit.
We planned an early start to maximise the day due to lack of diving in previous ones – we left for the dive centre at 0630. The Sports Divers were excited as this would be their first formally assessed dive to prove the skills they had learned over previous dives. The sea swell had calmed down somewhat although the forecast was for it to pick up later in the day; hence, we got kitted up and ready as fast as we could and then loaded the boats very carefully as the swell was safe but larger than we had experienced. As we headed for the dive site it became apparent that it would not be suitable due to the sea conditions; so we headed back to the protection of the White Rock site. The swell was felt below the waves but we were able to complete our lesson successfully and safely with a valuable endorsement going into the Sports Diver log books. As we headed back to the jetty to recharge the cylinders, the swell had increased and it became particularly tricky to unload the equipment from the boats. This increased climatic constraint provided a very useful team working scenario – all members had to work together with meticulous timing to enable us to complete the task and land all personnel and equipment on shore. We all worked extremely hard in the challenging conditions but we overcame and enjoyed a well-deserved round of applause afterwards. Whilst the students recharged cylinders, the staff took the opportunity to closely engage with the Met Forecaster and assess the following few days forecast. The sea state was due to increase with swell rendering diving unsafe for the remainder of the expedition. As a consequence, the Boss visited several personnel on the base to enquire about a slightly earlier flight back to the UK. His venture was successful and we managed to squeeze onto an earlier departure.
The remainder of the day was extremely busy preparing for departure. Every item of dive equipment was washed and dried thoroughly; compressor room, equipment room, outdoor areas, ablutions and dive centre cleaned. Oxygen and medical kit returned to the Med Centre, vehicles valeted, accommodation blocks cleaned. All before packing out personal kit. This process again was a huge test of team and personal leadership and followership. Post dinner, we enjoyed a final expedition debrief, presentation of awards and diving qualifications along with some diving anecdotes from the staff.
We arose early, had our final breakfast and then drove to the Airhead for a 0800 check in. While in the departure lounge Will, Theo and Barley completed the Sports Diver theory test and were delighted to all have passed. There was an opportunity to have the special Ascension Island turtle stamp put into our passports for a small charitable donation. The flight home was a quieter and far less productive affair though we were excited to be able to see the whole island as we flew out. On our arrival in the UK we split our ways from the instructors and Theo at RAF Brize Norton before travelling back to Cambridge on the transport.
Clearly there was a fair amount of post expedition administration that needed to be completed so the majority of members met again at Town Headquarters to finalise paperwork and ensure all dive equipment was for return to those we had loaned it from.
In summary, this expedition (despite loss of some diving due to weather) was a resounding success (3663 minutes underwater from a total of 99 dives!). 3 personnel qualified as Ocean Divers and a further 4 are well on their way to gaining the Sports Diver qualification. The invaluable skillset we gained outwith the diving will be of immense benefit. We all gained excellent experience of leadership, followership, team working, communication skills, coupled with tests to our ability to formulate and organise plans with continually changing parameters.
Our sincere thanks go to all those external agencies who provided much sought after funding to enable us to gain such immeasurable qualifications and skills. Without your superbly kind assistance this would simply not be achievable.
Dive statistics (minutes)
|B. Collier Harris||–||31||40||46||46||34||42||39||40||318||8|
|Total time (mins)||3663|
- Collier Harris, T. Heyman and W. Neville-Towle all gained their Ocean Diver qualification and their sports diver Theory.
- Hawker , B. Collier Harris, P. Bott and S. Janota all began their Sports diver practical.