A few years ago, my dad decided to learn how to SCUBA dive. So when he and my stepmother went down to a Sandals resort for a few days, he got his Open Water certification, and has been obsessed with the underwater world ever since. He has expanded his dive training to explore deeper waters, underwater wrecks, and exotic coral reefs.
It pleases me to see my dad find something he is so passionate about, and to have courage to try something new. However, SCUBA is a very social activity – it is not something you do alone. Unfortunately, few people have the courage, money, or time to invest in it. So, he’s emphatically suggested in nearly every conversation I have with him that my brother and I get SCUBA certified, in hopes we’ll enjoy it as much as he does.
Over the Martin Luther King day weekend, my brother and I decided to “take the plunge” and go to Key Largo to get certified. My dad suggested a dive shop that offers a two day class to get the certification, provided you take the coursework beforehand. I could totally swing two days over a long weekend and miss as little work as possible. My brother had already taken the swimming pool portion, so he at least had some idea as to what he was getting into. I, on the other hand, had not been in any water other than a shower for over a year.
Before the trip, I envisioned calmly swimming in clear, tropical waters. I would easily master all the skills required — the online class made it look so easy and fun! And after the two days, I would beam proudly with my dad in a photo showing off my newly minted certificate. I’d post it on social media, get tons of likes, and people would think my life was amaze-balls.
Well, that didn’t happen…
We arrived at the dive shop bright and early to meet with our instructor and go over some initial paperwork. I was nervous and excited to get started and see what this SCUBA stuff was all about.
When it came time to fill out the medical authorization, they would not let my brother dive without a doctor’s note just because he disclosed he was taking prescription medication. Seriously, what the hell?! The vast majority of people take some kind of prescription medicine! However, they really didn’t want to get sued. We could either see a doctor, or watch the the $450 for diving lessons go bye-bye, so we spent the entire morning to find a local doctor who could do a quick check up to clear my brother to dive.
After that was handled, we were informed by the boat captains that the ocean was quite choppy, and they weren’t sending student divers out. Since we lost most of our pool practice time already, our instructor suggested we go to an “underwater resort” where they had a place for practice dives, as well as a site for open water diving. In my idealistic, naive mind, I thought it would be like the Atlantis resort, with exotic fish, a large swimming pool, and clear blue water. This sounded totally sweet, plus we’d get our training back on track!
However, the “underwater resort” was not what I envisioned. It was a converted underwater research laboratory in a saltwater lagoon, where people have to dive in 25+ feet of water to get to their hotel rooms. It seemed like an interesting place to explore for a more experienced diver, and there’s a lot of wildlife there (always a big plus for me). Tons of iguanas.
When we got there, the instructor took us to the platform near the lagoon, where we saw other people learning how to dive. The lagoon was was a murky green, I could not see the bottom, and more importantly, what was swimming in it (barracudas, apparently). It was like the ocean on a beach in the Carolinas, except with no waves. Where something brushes up against you, you wonder if it’s seaweed or a jellyfish.
Surely there was a swimming pool around…right?
Nope, we were going to practice right there in the lagoon! They had platforms near the ledge about 5′ underwater, where if you slipped off of it, you would drift into a green abyss. Since there had been a lot of bad hurricanes there recently, all the muck had been kicked up from the bottom, making visibility even worse. At one point, people noticed I was swimming just a few feet from a manatee, and I could not see her from where I was. Thankfully, she came right up to the ledge after I got out of the water, poked her head out, and said hello. She was definitely the highlight of the day.
The water was chillier due to the recent cold snaps, so our instructor suggested doubling up on wet suits. I wore a shorty suit layered over my existing one. That plus the salt water made me extremely buoyant.
When it came time to practice the underwater skills, I could not for the life of me stay sunk. Even when the instructor had me wearing 18 lbs of weights, in addition to the 30 lb oxygen tank. For reference, this is over a third of my total body weight. So when I deflated the buoyancy control device (BCD) to start sinking, what happened was the heavy tank would pull me down and I would land on the platform on by back, my legs wanting to float back up in the air, rather than sitting at the bottom of the platform so I could calmly watch our instructor teach the skills. Seriously, I felt like Kafka’s cockroach.
At around 2:30 – 3:00, our session time at the lagoon ended. The instructor seriously didn’t think I would come back for Day Two. I told him I would as long as we could practice in an actual swimming pool. The whole experience was incredibly disorienting since the water was not clear and I could not control my movement in the equipment. What’s ironic is that the instructional videos state that “You’ll always remember your first breath underwater.” Sure, I’ll remember it. Just not fondly…
Certainly Day 2 could be better, right?
Spoiler: it was, but there were moments where my anxiety was like a 20 on a scale from 1 – 10.
The swimming pool made things much easier. First, I was able to keep myself underwater still and upright . Second, I could actually…well…see clearly. For the first bit of the morning, we went through the skills relatively quickly. My brother, of course, needed little help since he had already done this. I struggled more, but nothing I couldn’t get after a couple of tries.
Then it came time to flood our masks. This is an essential SCUBA skill because this is how you clear a foggy mask underwater. If you are the kind of person who tends to breathes through your mouth naturally, this will come easier, but as someone who breaths mostly through my nose (except during allergy season), it required re-training my breathing.
The instructor insisted people cannot inhale from their mouth and nose at simultaneously, but I must be a freaking unicorn because I can! So, I basically had to practice mouth breathing in the water. Even when I tried to breath through my mouth, water still managed to get in my nose. It was bad enough doing it under 4′ of water, but when we had to do it under 12′ it felt like I was drowning and immediately went into fight-or-flight mode. I had panicked so much from the amount of water getting in my nose that my regulator (aka source of oxygen) nearly came out of my mouth. It reinforced how important it is to not get panicked while underwater.
When the instructor told us our next skill was to completely take off our mask and put it back on underwater, I flat out said that was not happening. I would do the rest of the skills, but not that. The last thing I wanted was finagle with a tight, rubbery mask getting caught up in my tangley mop of wet hair while trying not to drown. This meant I would not pass SCUBA 101, but snorkeling would suffice for any future close encounters with marine life…
Shortly after my NDE (near-drowning experience), the time had come to head to the boat for our open water portion. Which meant diving in the actual ocean. I’ve snorkeled before and loved it, but I had no idea how my body would handle being under 30+ feet of water. It was getting real. I was going to legit SCUBA dive!
On the boat trip over, I was stone cold petrified. The poor instructor tried to make jokes to help me ease up, but I was iced over with panic. I met his feeble attempts at getting me to relax with death stares.
Then, it was time. After putting on 45 lb of gear and schlepping to the edge of the boat, I took my first stride into the ocean water. There was a slight current, but nothing too crazy. After our safety check and weight check, it was time to descend. There was a mooring line at the back of the boat to guide us under, and I watched divers go one by one down the line, into the depths…
A major qualm I had about deeper water was the pressure on my ears. Seriously, my ears pop just going underground on the Metro. I definitely felt pressure as I descended. I was constantly equalizing, afraid to go further lest my eardrums explode. The divers behind me wanted to smack me in the face with their fins since I was so slow. The instructor grabbed me by my buoyancy vest to make sure I got my reluctant ass down there. He was also trying to get me to exhale since that helps with descending. And relaxing..
Once I reached the bottom, things started to get interesting. The water was not perfectly clear (thanks, hurricanes!), but a major improvement from the lagoon. The instructor pointed out a school of spade fish and a parrot fish. On my second dive, I got to come within a couple feet of the sweetest sea turtle, who was taking a snooze in an alcove in the coral. This dive was a lot better than the first, as I had much better control of my buoyancy and did not feel so disoriented. I could focus more on exploring the underwater.
Sadly, it was time to go back. Time flies when you’re having fun when you’re weightless and finally getting the hang of things.The boat ride back was much better. I really do like being out on the ocean, seeing the sunset and feeling the breeze. Definitely a different person than the one on the trip over.
While SCUBA was the main focus on the trip, what I enjoyed most was spending quality time with my dad and brother. They’re both busy dudes, so it was great that the three of us could do this together. And the seafood down there is amazing, since everything is caught fresh.
TO BE CONTINUED?
Even though I didn’t complete the certification, I can start where I left off if I continue lessons within a year. There are dive shops and places locally that offer it. Plus I’ve already invested a lot of money in this, so I should try to see it through, knowing what I know now.
I truly needed more than two days to adapt to SCUBA diving. In retrospect, I should have given myself more days in Florida, prolonging the return to our frigid, windy winter. Though on the day we flew back, I fell sick with that flu chest cold bug going around, so that would have cut my SCUBA lessons short regardless. But at least I could enjoy the healing salty air and delicious seafood and laid-back atmosphere for a little while longer…
I hope my account does not deter anyone who wants to try SCUBA diving. Like any skill, practice and experience are key. If you’re a perfectionist like me, have grace with yourself if you can’t get something right away. But wow, I felt raw and vulnerable, constantly messing stuff up as a complete newbie! It makes for a funny story, anyway. 🙂