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Life of an Italian Scuba Instructor In the Time of Corona

Italy was one of the first countries in Europe to be slammed by the Covid-19 pandemic. We asked diving instructor Cristina Condemi from Reggio Calabria, to share her experience as a diver in lockdown. Cosa deve fare un sub?

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By Cristina Condemi, Translation by Fabrizio Schepisi
Header photo by Dario Condemi

Are these bad times to be talking about dreams, beauty and The Sea? And what about the realm of scuba diving, a term that opens up a wide range of meanings for its practitioners? It’s impossible to get the pandemic out of our thoughts, and the rising death toll, our inescapable fear, and common sense remind us to stay at home.

Nonetheless, by degrees, we have been able to set aside a few hours in our increasingly absurd daily routines to take shelter in the universe of our passions—whether they belong to the underwater world or to the land above the sea. Dreaming has proven to be a sound way to tackle this situation, a safe haven in such insecure times. Let’s try and dream then: it’s one of the few things we have left, and it won’t make us run the risk of appearing to be  superficial or seeming to be careless about  Covid-19 if we do so. 

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The Strait of Messina is known for bicolored Paramuricea clavata (Risso, 1826) gorgonians. Photo by Santi Cassisi

Let’s try and dream as best we can and whenever we can, even in this very moment: I, as I’m writing down my impressions, the dreams and feelings of an Italian scuba-diver quarantined  in her flat in a city in Southern Italy, and you as you read my words. Always keeping in mind that all storms must pass eventually, and then we will go back to sailing upon and  diving into our sea. Presently in Italy, as in most  other countries around the world, our days are marked by the news of how the virus is speeding up or slowing down its spread. Our hours are punctuated by attempts at finding something to do within the walls of our own houses and trying to take our minds off the tragedy.. 

Especially here in Italy. Especially in the north of the country, the opposite side of the boot from where I am, although distance has never been less of a divide than today. Our lives now revolve around a daily disease report, always hoping to hear the virus has passed its peak and waiting for the moment when we are allowed to start the slow reversion to normality, getting out of what has been defined as a kind of “war”. However, this is no war, and there will be no truce. Our will to “cease hostilities” just doesn’t seem to be enough to put an end to it. In fact, there seems to be but one thing we can do: we have to stay home! 

Facing the Onslaught of Covid-19

The beginning of March marked the onset of radical changes in our lifestyles, at least in the South of Italy. The most plagued regions, such as Lombardy in the North, were in dire straits for a longer time. In the beginning, many of us thought of Covid-19 as little more than flu; those who gave it serious  credit were deemed to be scaremongers. However, the virus soon revealed itself for what it really is, ending up in a pandemic, forcing everyone—none excluded—to an unexpected quarantine. Since then, previously high-valued items like power and beauty have lost much of their appeal. We realized that there were no borders or barriers to hold it back. The virus could hit anyone, and no amount of money or customs control could prevent it from spreading.

Scenes like these almost look unnatural nowadays. Photo by Maurizio Marzolla.

And how do we see the virus? Here in Italy, we learned to fear it. Our national health service made many cuts in funding over the past few years, and what really scares us is that in all likelihood some of us might lose the right to be treated if too many become infected. Intensive care units have been filled to capacity in some regions, and our front-line doctors and nurses are doing endless shifts. In many cases, there isn’t enough medical staff, and the safety measures in hospitals are totally inadequate.  We just weren’t ready for a pandemic, and we somehow hope the Covid-19 lesson will be a spur to improvements in hospital equipment. 

There are many theories of how it all started: conspiracy theorists think the virus was created in military labs first and then somehow got out of control. Green-collar workers are up in arms about our attitudes toward the environment and see it as a revolt of Nature revolting and taking revenge on humankind as retribution for  all the stress and suffering it has been subjected to. Similarly, some think that epidemics, being the by-products of unrestrained globalization and urbanization, could be construed as the result of unhealthy eating habits. They pin down the causes of Covid-19 to the consumption of meat from intensive breeding establishments—pork meat in this case. In their view, we should take up healthier eating regimes and give up the thought of going “back to normal”, as that normality is precisely what has brought us here.  Finally, there are those who read up on past epidemics and talk about the unavoidable cyclicity of history.  

Regardless of all the differing opinions about its causes, we are willing to admit that a tragedy of such magnitude is something new to us, something unexpected and overwhelming. Like anyone else, I find myself coping with it, especially as I am part of a generation that has been  through a lot of hardships here in Italy but has never had to grapple with a real war, real famine, let alone a worldwide spread of pandemic. It may be the evil of our times. I tell myself, ”And it will pass as all evils do.” At least, let’s hope it is teaching us something. 

Beautiful Country

The beauty of Italy and all it contains. Photo by Giovanni Cotroneo.

Italy used to be nicknamed the “Belpaese”, the “Beautiful country”, but much of its allure seems to have been lost now.  Of course, our architecture and artistic heritage, our history and landscapes are still intact, as are the favorable weather conditions we have been blessed with. But, as many tell themselves, what’s the use of it now if you can’t enjoy it? What’s the use of having museums full of precious items and impressive collections of enormous cultural prestige if you can’t visit them anymore?  

Of course, I’m not suggesting that they should be reopened  to the public, I’m only hinting at the temporary loss of significance of this heritage. Quite romantically, in my mind I can picture Caravaggio’s canvases piling up dust in those closed museums, losing some of the light that made them sparkle with life: works of art “saddened” by the lack of viewers’ eyes feeding on their beauty.

Quite romantically, in my mind I can picture Caravaggio’s canvases piling up dust in those closed museums, losing some of the light that made them sparkle with life: works of art “saddened” by the lack of viewers’ eyes feeding on their beauty

I also think of one of the very few positive aspects of this absurd situation: our planet is breathing again, recovering from the devastating impact of human activity. News of this kind  is consoling, especially to those who love nature in all its forms, in water and on land. There is hope that this will be a starting point for serious meditation on how we can change our destructive lifestyles. 

Whether we come out of this tragedy  torn apart and morally crippled or totally unhurt, the clouds above our heads will be blown away by a new wind someday. On that day, hopefully we will brush the dust off those works of art and look at them with fresh new eyes. We will rediscover how beautiful and fulfilling it is to nourish ourselves with the sight of art and natural landscapes and to let ourselves be kissed by the sunrays. 

Time for growth above and below the surface. Photo by Luciano Forti.

In our case, we will also go back to marvelling at the beauties of the underwater world, which it is hoped will be all the more powerful an experience after this forced break. For now however, all we can  do is wait. Let us not wait  as patriotic soldiers forced to a quarantine by governmental decrees, but rather as citizens fuelled by solidarity, well aware that isolation means safety in this case, for ourselves and others. 

Sharing Who We Are

Spending long days at home, many will run the risk of surrendering to psychotic fears or to the sadness that comes with feeling as if we are  powerless prisoners. To escape this sense of isolation, some  have started up a number of solidarity initiatives: some leave food packages in empty baskets outside supermarkets to help out those who can’t afford to go homeshopping; others sew homemade protection  masks – a very rare item these days – and hand them out to people who need them. 

Many of us are also finding strength in our passions, telling ourselves that we’ve got time on our hands now to do all the things we couldn’t dedicate enough time and care to during our “normal routines.” Even so, they’re all passions we must now pursue at home. Because we can only go out for what is strictly necessary. We can’t go for walks, not even by ourselves. And that includes, understandably, walks out to the sea.  

A time to reflect and focus on the hidden joys of life. Photo by Federica Siena.

It was particularly hard in the beginning: many of us had a sense of dizziness, and felt deprived of everything we cared about.  At that time, we were probably as yet unaware of how serious the pandemic was and would become, and all we could think about was the injustice of not being able to go on with our lives, see our loved ones and kiss or hug them. Such simple gestures that became as dangerous as weapons.  

We felt stuck in a brand new asocial universe, because life is all about sharing, just like diving is. What else is scuba diving but the sharing of magic? Indeed, certain didactic orientations to it inform us that having a “diving buddy” at one’s side reduces risks, and that is a thought I personally subscribe to (although it might not hold true for certain kinds of more “extreme” excursions). However, I am not talking about this aspect of the issue. 

What I actually mean is that we need to share the feelings and sense of adventure that make up our diving experience with others. Even those who are used to diving solo have a support team backing them up and always find themselves telling their diver friends about their experiences or maybe holding conferences, or writing books, articles, and posts to share their feelings and discoveries. 

Black Coral. Photo by  Santi Cassisi

Even for them, sharing is an integral part of an experience they apparently live in solitude. As for me, I am one who likes scuba diving with others. Whenever I chance to spot something in the distance and point to it, the joy of that vision is cut by half if I realize I’m the only one who has noticed it. When you see something worth spotting underwater, its beauty is always heightened by being able to share it with another pair of eyes. That’s what makes your enthusiasm bubble up, when your happiness is widened and doubled by the presence of a buddy.  In the end, sharing sums up the whole diving experience for me.

When you see something worth spotting underwater, its beauty is always heightened by being able to share it with another pair of eyes.   In the end, sharing sums up the whole diving experience for me. 

Divers’ Special Powers

I still remember the only time I went scuba diving alone, reaching a depth of 42 meters/138 feet. I had planned an excursion with three other divers on the ‘Mpaddata Shallows of Scilla, a 20-minute drive from Reggio Calabria, my hometown. I won’t take offence if you’ve never heard of it. When I lived in Wales, and someone asked me where I was from, most people had no idea where Reggio was, I resorted to the only description that always worked: “Italy is a boot, right? I come from its toe”. I can also tell you that Reggio, the Strait of Messina and especially Scilla are like my underwater heaven. 

Good buddies and true friends. Photo courtesy of Christina Condemi.

Well, on the day of that diving excursion we were just off Scilla. As sometimes happens, while we were sailing on a dinghy toward the starting point of our excursion, I suddenly had a hunch it wasn’t a good day for diving. For no apparent reason. Once we had reached the chosen point, I started fitting myself up and realized I didn’t have my computer with me, and that’s when I thought I’d better call myself out that time. I knew that wasn’t going to upset my friends: I know them, and they wouldn’t have forced me to do the dive or pressured me. Because what they taught me and—I’m sure—both my buddies and I thought on that occasion was that a good scuba diver is also one who knows when to say “No”.  So, the others dived, I stayed on the dinghy with that day’s support staff, and everything worked out smoothly. 

At the end of the diving expedition, the dinghy driver tried to weigh the anchor, but it was stuck. After a few minutes and several attempts, we thought someone should dive down to pull it loose if we wanted to get on our way again. As I hadn’t dived, had no residual nitrogen, and had lost my earlier reluctance to dive, I volunteered to go down. I put on my diving gear  and went into the water. After a last look at my friends on the boat, I released my BCD, exhaled and started my descent along the rope. 

When I got to the sea bottom, I saw the anchor was actually stuck in a rock spur. So I tried to pull the rope downwards to slacken the resistance and get the anchor unstuck. As I busied with the anchor, something that often befalls us divers happened. Though some might be less used to it, accustomed as we are to alternative ways of communicating when we are immersed in liquid and words are useless and undecipherable, it often feels like we are able to widen our perceptions. It’s as if we are endowed with a gift—being able to feel the presence and energy of things surrounding us while underwater. 

I promise I’m not going mad. Hasn’t it ever happened to you? You get the feeling something is behind you, prompting you to turn around. You do so and find yourself  face to face with a wonderful creature? At times, I have had the chance to discuss this idea with people who don’t view me as a lunatic and who in fact have agreed with me.I like to think of it as a “special power” that we divers have, a magic of our own. 

Going back to the moment at the anchor, I got precisely that feeling of something behind me, so I turned around despite how busy I was, and what did I see?  An eagle ray was moving in my direction, probably made curious by my presence and my awkward movements. It came very close, and I tried to keep still and hold my breath, so as not to scare it away. 

An eagle ray like the one that flew over me. Photo by Santi Cassisi.

It was as if it was aiming directly for me, though it moved very slowly. It “flew” past me, only a few inches above my head, and I followed it with my eyes. It was a magical moment, made all the more special by those unique feelings that we divers have—or by sheer coincidence, I’ll let you decide. However, in that very moment I thought to myself that I would have liked to have someone there with me. Seeing my joy reflected in the big, smiling eyes of my buddy behind his frameless mask, would have made this moment even more magical. 

We Are Social Animals

And that’s what life’s all about: we humans may need our moments of solitude, but we are still “social animals” and need other people to share our experiences with. We’ve never felt it more than in  these strange days. The time we’ve spent on the phone with other people, texting and video chatting with friends we might have not been in touch with for a long time, bears testimony to this need of ours. We live in a world of social networks —and this is no chance choice of words—following live broadcasts on an array of different themes and topics. 

In our case, these may involve free divers and scuba divers talking about records and discoveries. We use video-conferencing apps to talk about excursions in submarine caves, underwater photography, or more broadly about the sea and the feelings it gives us. Even people who weren’t used to communicating on the internet have had to give in to it, because that’s our main means for sharing now. As we can’t yet meet people physically, we must be  content with seeing them behind a computer screen. 

Something to look forward to.
Photo by Giovanni Cotroneo.

As is inevitable, much of the talking revolves around the virus and how we got to this point. We also discuss what the next phase will be like, how we will try to bring our lives “back to normal”, in spite of the fear we will still have of infecting and being infected, but still hopeful that the present crisis will bring about positive changes in our lifestyles. 

Our ability to think about what comes after is good. As is solitary reflection on what we have really missed–our loved ones, our work, and the activities we performed with others. And, since this is a diving magazine, I’m quite sure readers will understand when I mention how much I miss the sea. 

Whether the talk is about tropical waters, the temperate waters of my beloved Mediterranean, oceans, or lakes. We divers are all missing the underwater world.  But we also know the sea is waiting for us, and we will find it again sooner or later, as blue and strong and beautiful as it ever was. With a difference: when we get back to it, we will be more aware of the need to protect it with all our strength.

We divers are all missing the underwater world.  But we also know the sea is waiting for us, and we will find it again sooner or later, as blue and strong and beautiful as it ever was. With a difference: when we get back to it, we will be more aware of the need to protect it with all our strength.


Cristina Condemi is a RAID diving instructor and a staff member of the Scilla Diving Center. She was born in Reggio Calabria and the sea of the Strait of Messina has always been her natural environment. A DAMS graduate (disciplines of Art, Music and Entertainment) at the University of Bologna, she has lived in Spain and in Wales. A dive guide in Scilla since 2014, she brings divers of all levels to discover the extraordinary seabed of Scilla and its creatures, with special care for protecting its fragile ecosystem: a care she always tries to pass down to her students. An enthusiastic ecologist, vegan, and animal-rights supporter, she started technical diving in 2018, sharing the story of her experience as a diver on the web.

Cave

No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure

Suffering from Covid lockdown, young, poetic Italian explorer, instructor, and gear-maker, Andrea Murdock Alpini, decided to take social distancing to the max! He packed his specially designed cave-van and set out on a three-week solo road trip to dive the water-filled caves lying beneath the Slovenian soil. His report and must-see video log, dubbed, “No Direction Home”—an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan docu—will likely satisfy those deeper urges for adventure. Did I mention the killer soundtrack? Kids don’t try this at home!

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Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini

Ecco la storia originale così com’è stata scritta in italiano

Author’s note: I do not encourage other divers to conduct solo diving. The trip and the dives described in this article were conducted after significant training and experience.

Ed.Note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.

Freedom!

That was the feeling I had last June 2020 when I left my home to begin a journey alone. Caves, abandoned mines, alpine lakes, and a few wrecks—that was my plan for a great adventure.  

The first COVID-19 lockdown had been in place for a couple of weeks, and I was afraid of going out and meeting people. Social distancing left an open wound. I loaded my wreck-van with plenty of stuff to survive alone for a long month traveling amongst rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests, and I was ready to practice scuba diving. 

At that time, tourist travel was impossible in Italy or abroad—anywhere  in Europe—because the coronavirus had locked the borders. I asked an editor in chief from a magazine—one whom I am used to sending articles to—to prepare a couple of official invitation letters for customs. For my trip, I converted my wreck van into a cave van. It was fully equipped with a 300-bar air compressor, helium, oxygen, deco cylinders, twinsets of different sizes, gas booster, fins, mountain boots, tent, camp burner, and brand-new dry suits, as well as thermal underwear to be tested for my company PHY Diving Equipment. 

I remember the day well. I was thrilled as I crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia. I had been restricted to nothing but a 200 m/650 ft walk from my house because of the pandemic restrictions, but with an eight-hour drive, I was free to enjoy walking into wild nature all alone.

The mental switch was awesome, and unexpected. I did make just one phone call from abroad. I talked to an incredible Russian who was the first guy I met in a small rural village in Slovenia. He had emigrated some years ago, and now he welcomed travelers by sharing his farmstead. 

However, once I arrived on site, I was not very welcomed by  the weather; instead, I was met by heavy rain. After the storm passed, I went out walking and filming with my phone. I had decided to record all of the trip. As luck would have it,  the rain returned again, and it never left me for the entire duration of my trip (almost a month).

My tour was articulated throughout Slovenia, Garda Lake (Italy), Austria, and South Tirol’s Alps, Tuscany’s caves, and finally I reached the central part of Italy—Appenini mountains and their peaks. I planned to reach two mines, but heavy rains stopped my dream. Excluding Slovenia, where I slept in a traditional bed, I passed all my time living in my tent. Cold weather and storms were my constant companions. 

I managed to see  a ray of light for just a few hours, I never had any chance to dry my equipment, and I warmed up inside my van. Every night I slept only a few hours because of loud wind noise or strong rain storms. Day-by-day I grew tireder and more feeble. One day, three weeks after I left home, I was in South Tirol descending a mountain when I decided to conclude my trip, and I returned home safe.

The goal of my trip was to tell scuba adventures from the surface point of view where the water is only a part of the context and not the objective. I made a mini-series film composed of three chapters. Each one brings you inside the scene. What  follows here is the first episode of the trip.

Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil

The first day of cave diving in Slovenia was very tricky and full of adventures. I had no idea how the second day would go. 

I left my accommodations around 6 a.m., after a good breakfast of cereal, dark chocolate with black coffee, dried fruit, and tasty Italian Parmesan cheese. I could not see anything from my window because what had fallen was not simply rain; it appeared to be an awesome flood. My plan for that day had been delayed.

I think that most parts of dry caves are condemned for hundreds of kilometers. So, I decided to check the weather forecast and water level conditions in caves close to the Croatian border. It would mean driving about four hours to see for myself whether scuba diving was allowed. I didn’t have to remind myself, I was alone here.



Wheels were on the road and local conditions seemed quite good. I had checked the weather on my laptop and understood the risk. If I was lucky, I could dive; if not, I would have to drive back. I drove through Slovenia forest meeting no one. With less than an hour left to my destination, I came across an abandoned farm village, completely empty.

The dive inside Bilpa Jama was breathtaking. Now I was seated beside the cave shore preparing soup to warm myself. After a stunning solo dive, I was cold and wanted only to taste the peace of this magnificent place. While I was dipping  the spoon in my soup cup, I heard a faraway voice, a police woman calling me and asking me to stop eating and come quickly to her. 

After I did as I was asked, she started examining my passport, documents, and permissions. A few minutes later, a huge National Army truck reached us. The soldier had  an abnormal body shape, a man the size of a walking mountain in an Army uniform. Can you imagine how I was feeling in those moments?!

Well, in the end, everything went really well, and I now have a story to tell my grandchildren. 

Once the passport control was over, and they had checked that I did not cross  the border from Croatia to Slovenia illegally (customs was only a few hundred meters  from us), I had the chance to get back to my soup, which by then had turned cold. I warmed it up again, and I spent half an hour seated on a slippery stone covered with moss and lichens watching the beauty of the forest surrounding me.

On the way back to my accomodations in my cave van, I  played a new playlist. 

Four hours later, I approached my country lodge. I was really exhausted,  but I had to refill tanks and plan the next scuba diving days. Once I finished, I watched the forecast again. Unfortunately, it was growing worse, so I decided not to dive and instead get a surface break. Tomorrow I would drive, search, and catch info and GPS coordinates of caves. My tomorrow plans had turned into a sketching and surveying day. 

The Road To Suha Dolca 

I drove and walked for hours and hours, up and down the forest or on lonely roads in search of caves where I could return in winter or perhaps next year. During the last survey of the day, I watched a talented young guy playing a traditional concertina and thought, what a lovely atmosphere and a fitting way to close my hard-working day!


I decided to give a last gaze to Suha Dolca cave, my favorite one, on the way home. This was the third consecutive day I had arrived back at this spot. Observing it day-by-day, I tried to find the best moment to dive this cave.

Until now, it was inaccessible due to the strong flow. I wanted to dive here before leaving Slovenia. Tired and  driving slowly, I parked my van away from my accommodation. Since I had no lunch, I started feeling very hungry. A simple dinner was quickly served: dried fruits and a cup of hot noodle soup.

My ‘NO DIRECTION HOME’ trip was now at its peak. I had become a wanderer. I was alone in a wild country with, yes, an internet connection for historical research and checking the weather. That was the only technology I used. Aside from that, I lived simply. I walked, dived, wrote, and filmed my experience all with my mobile phone.

Rain was tougher than expected. I had hoped to stop for one day, not the two that it took. Following the surveys, the next day I started fixing my video equipment and saving photos and videos I had made on my hard drive.

I had too many ideas, no one clear till the end, and too many cave sketches and GPS points to reorganize; I needed a day to regroup. I just went out for a few hours to check Suha Dolca’s Cave conditions. On this day it seemed that the flow was getting more stable, and general water conditions were growing better. I had to be patient and wait one or two days more for the right conditions. I tried and failed to find a solution on my own, but the water always showed me the way. She told me to wait and to go back to where I came from. Step-by-step I walked the path again.  

The third video chapter of Slovenia Solo Cave Diving is the one I prefer, because I remember the indecision I felt, to stay or to leave. Solo trips are strictly linked to life’s decision.


The last day I was in Slovenia I left the accommodations and asked a new farmer, close to a different cave, if I could sleep inside his barn and dive the river hole on the following day. I was at the same place where I had dived the first day. He told me I could not stay in the barn due to the high risk of bears who live in the surrounding area. I jumped in my van again and I drove to the lake beside Suha Dolca’s Cave. 

I descended the path several times and brought all my scuba gear piece-by-piece. I decided to give myself a chance to dive my dream cave in the late afternoon. I had no other choice. Once I was inside the cave it was unbelievable, and I had a very nice dive even though I was really tired, and again I broke my light arms and camera housing. I resurfaced after the dive into a reed’s lake, which made me feel like a beaver.

I had conflicting feelings as I left Slovenia that same night after making a tricky and stunning dive. Bears, awesome forests, and rural areas were now all behind me. The cave-van played a new disc, I needed to shake off these feelings and look forward to my new goals: Garda Lake’s wrecks, South Tyrol’s stunning lakes, and finally Austria. In the country of green and wide grazing land I wish to dive surrounded by the amazing scenario of beautiful Alps mountains. 

At 9:30 PM I crossed the border again, and  Italy was straight ahead.


Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.

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