Some fifty five years ago, I was seven, and while on a family holiday in Killala Co Mayo, my parents bought me, after much whining on my part, a full diving kit consisting of snorkel, mask and fins.
The memory of my first diving equipment is clear. Blue rubbery type plastic, but not modern pliable rubbery plastic, the old stuff, that was almost as unflinchingly non-malleable as the material used in the making of buckets.
However they became my key to the undersea world of Jim Nelson.
Marine creatures, sharks in particular, but also whales, dolphins and swordfish were my obsession for as long as I can remember, and of course how better to see them up close than to go diving.
The 6 inches of water in Killala Bay on the day I launched my diving life, could hardly be expected to be full of the marine creatures of my imagination, but with my flippers, my snorkel and my mask that leaked through the sides like a sieve, I explored the rippling sand, the drifting sea weed, the sea urchins and crabs in their rock pool homes, not catching them to watch as they died floppy and limp on the dry sand, I was looking at them where they lived.
By the time I reached my Intermediate Cert, I had set about fulfilling my ambition to number 1 be a diver, and number 2 be a Marine Biologist.
I joined the FCA, the reserve defense force, 3 years earlier than was technically allowed (I was tall for my age) By so doing, I had hoped to join the Curragh Sub aqua club which was run mainly by the army. I thought that, because I was a ‘brother in arms’ they would overlook my age, and allow me to train with them. They used BSAC the (British Standard) open water diver rulebook.
They wouldn’t even entertain me; eighteen was the minimum age at which one could be insured for diving. Anyway I was a sandbag, which was the pejorative term used by regular army personnel, to describe ‘comrades in arms ‘in the FCA. I was very disappointed but I continued to learn about the undersea world from library books and the shows on TV.
I did my Inter in 1973 and my Leaving Certificate in 1975.
In the interim I procured a better mask fins and snorkel which I used on family holidays, usually in the west of Ireland or Kerry, where I explored deeper water in tidal pools and off rocks, where I usually got scratched to pieces by barnacles and sharp stone.
Things like football, rugby and girls sort of took over my life after I did the Leaving Certificate, so the idea of diving went on the backburner temporarily.
However, about two years after leaving school, my friend Michael and I found ourselves with some extra money, after having done a’ nixer’ for my younger brother and builder, over three or four weekends. So we bought our first real diving equipment in the Great Outdoors, outdoor adventure supplys.
I did my course with D Scuba Divers, putting up with the po- faced imperiousness of its owner, just long enough to get my qualification. I bought a second-hand bottle and regulator from one of the members, and I already had my suit, fenzy, fins, weight belt and mask (this one made from lovely soft and malleable silicone which sealed to my face perfectly) so I had done my first open water dive a couple of months ahead of Michael. However as soon as he did his course we decided not to bother with the pomposity of the club, so off we went ourselves, Donegal, Kerry, Wexford and of course Dalkey. We dived all the good sites around Ireland, occasionally running into D Scuba Divers, he didn’t like us and we didn’t like him.
Michael worked in Mullingar so he dived with the local Sub Aqua club in one of the lakes thereabouts and I dived maybe two nights a week over the spring and summer, with whoever, except Gray et al, was taking divers across to The Mugglins beyond Dalkey Island from the car park of the Dalkey Island Hotel.
Oh how we laughed; hare arsing off where ever we felt like, on a spring or summer Sunday morning with hangovers from the night before, made in hell.
Throw the diving gear and sometimes my Collie dog Cuailain in to one-car or the other and take off.
Often we went for weekends to Hook Head, a great diving site, not three hours from Dublin at the time, on the old winding and twisty N 11.
There was always other diving clubs kitting up or diving around the lighthouse, so we found a quiet site on the seaward side, we had to suit up at the car and then carry bottles weight belts et cetera for about 800 m over the rough rocky ground at the base of the lighthouse.
It was worth it even with the remnants of a hangover; we always tried and mostly managed to catch the tide after it had turned, that way the water was deep and crystal clear, the swell was gone and the gullies running out to sea full of marine life.
The initial rush of cold water down the back of the wetsuit and the many Solpadine or other over-the-counter cures, washed down with cold Lucozade, Ballygowan spring water, coffee and Star Bars on the drive down took care of the hangover.
Now we could enjoy the underwater world, unencumbered by rules and dickheads poncing around in the Long John of their wetsuit with knife strapped to leg, telling ‘trainees’ what to do.
Michael and I were responsible for our own safety; our gear was good we both had a watch and a depth gauge. He had a contents gauge on his regulator and I had a built in 20% reserve bailout, which I activated when I felt my breathing becoming difficult.
So we were up for our Sunday or weekend underwater adventures, apart from a hangover issue we like totally had it!
Those gullies in Hook head were amazing.
We could fin gently, carried with the gentle water flow out toward the open sea.
There were cracks in the sandstone (that’s how the light gets through) actually that’s where the spider crabs lived. We could glide gently past, neutrally buoyant, that means we could float in mid water, and to stop we just needed the lightest of touches to the rock and we could shine our light in at these big crustaceans who seemed to be wearing camouflage outfits, so well were they hidden against the grey black rock.
When one got fed up with the huge crabs all you did was angled slightly downward and the soft current would deliver one too the sandy bottom and the fish life of the gully.
There were big ray and flatfish all stubbornly holding onto their bit of seafloor by flapping their wings to cover their bodies with a light sprinkling of tiny pebbles. I often wondered if I could stab one with my knife, and I often found out that I couldn’t, they were too fast. I decided that we needed a spear gun which could be used to spear the odd cod or conger eel that we saw on our travels.
When we had got to between thirty and forty feet water depth,, we usually knocked our dive on the head, and came up to about ten feet on the wall of the gully and then finning a little bit harder against the current, we would return to the sometimes sun-lit shallows of the gully, decompressing as we made our way back.
The dive took about forty minutes and was well inside no decompression time and sure even if it wasn’t we did more than enough on the way back.
It always gave me a thrill to look down at the dappled sunlit seabed ten feet or so below me.
In those years with all the diving that we did, neither of us suffered any decompression issues, so even though we were a bit cavalier and gung ho, we got away with it, and the things we saw.
Kelp fields, fronds 60 feet long anchored two rocks on the bottom and stretching up through the sunlit waters of the Atlantic in Donegal.
Underwater crags and rock pinnacles covered in spiny sea urchins, starfish, mussels and limpets.
Night dives where light could be generated simply by rubbing your hands together and disturbing the bioluminescent plankton in the water.