March 17, 2016
Written by: Sophie Gaze
Dive Immersion Senior Divemaster
The finale of our rebreather training took place beyond the walls of Aquarium in the frigid bodies of water around north Atlanta. The Ocean Voyager exhibit was an excellent place for us to do our first rebreather dives after the pool, but it was time for us to descend deeper than 30 feet, which required us to log some dives outside the Aquarium. We all had mixed feelings about this considering the training happened to be scheduled in the dead of winter: January and February. Ultimately, it was our duty to put the needs of our program over the desire to stay warm, so our adventure began!
The first location where we would be diving in was Lake Lanier. Located northeast of downtown Atlanta, this man-made reservoir was filled in the 1950s. Trees, artifacts, and foundations of the structures that once existed in the area still remain below the lake’s eerie surface! The visibility was about 15-20 feet, until the bottom silted out, which would routinely drop the visibility to about four feet. Also, the deeper we went, the less light penetration there was, which doubled the trepidation factor for some of us! On top of the poor visibility we were also dealing with the cold. Some mornings the surface temperature was close to freezing and the water temperature was about 55°F. This was cold that most of us had never experienced before on a dive. We wore the appropriate exposure protection, but after long hours on a rebreather the cold definitely wore down our spirits!
Despite these obstacles, the lake days were definitely some of the most astonishingly comical moments of our training. We ended up endearingly naming some of our dive sites, such as “Wishing Well of Lost Gear,” “The Forest of Doom,” “Monkeys in a Tree,” and, my personal favorite, “Can I Trade My Rebreather Unit for a Beer?” Three people lost fins, some actually lost their fin and their dry suit boot together. One person accidentally became entangled in his own reel. We lost our dive buddies and then found each other again. We refined our compass navigation skills, and one day it was so cold that our hands literally froze to the boat as we exited the water. Retrospectively, we did face lots of challenges, but we took it in stride. The camaraderie during the hurdles was one of my favorite parts of the whole experience. One of the best lessons was that no matter how uncomfortable we were, there was no situation that we couldn’t just laugh our way through! We also got excited when we started finding treasures along the bottom of the lake: from old mason jars to lost Ray-Ban® sunglasses! One of our divers even recovered a fin that she had lost a few days prior.
Our instructor trainer, Devin Waddell, and our boat captain, Genette Waddell, have been diving in this lake for a long time and are definitely a very experienced “Mud Cats.” They were very helpful guiding us through the process of adapting to such unusual hazards and conditions. Although these dives were challenging, they were incredibly valuable to our training. We had to confront conditions that we would never have experienced at the Aquarium, and for that, I think all the instructor candidates were grateful. It also made us feel better to know that the visibility at the lake was the worst they had ever seen at this particular time of year – go figure!
The next part of our training took place at the Dive Georgia Quarry. This is a deep pit from which natural materials were once extracted, but is now filled with fresh water and used for dive training. The visibility in the quarry was better than the lake, but the water temperature was an almost unbearable 45°F. We would surface from our dives with our lips – some of the only parts of our body exposed to the water – frozen and swollen from the cold water. I appreciated the quarry because the water had a beautiful, mysterious green tint and the rock wall of the quarry actually looked quite pretty if you squinted and pretended you were on a coral reef in the Caribbean.
All in all, the training was a huge learning experience for the eight of us. Not only did we master the Poseidon Se7en Rebreather units, but we also practiced diving with a side mount tank and a dry suit, which were all new to most of us. Not to mention, the repetitive loading and unloading of all the equipment and safety supplies in the Georgia Aquarium van was a small achievement in itself! I was really proud of my coworkers for the teamwork that everyone displayed and, not to sound cheesy, but I think these days in the field forged some friendships that will last forever.
Our final field dives to complete the training took us back to Lake Lanier. After our last dive we were all so pleased and relieved to be finished with this demanding training that we decided to venture on to one of the clay islands and have a celebratory dance party in the middle of the lake. Now that I’m sitting in the comfort of my warm office and looking back on these days, I know that the memory of this training will be something I cherish for the rest of my diving career. There was definitely some well-deserved whining, but as a whole it was an awesome adventure and will make a great story in years to come!