After months of reflecting on my previous (and failed) attempt at learning how to SCUBA dive this past January, I decided to give it another try. If you don’t want to read further, spoiler alert: I got certified!
I could go through life and never learn how to SCUBA dive and be fine viewing marine life through aquarium glass or through a snorkeling mask, but I didn’t want to add another line item to a list of things I gave up on because they didn’t come naturally to me.
Activities requiring some degree of athleticism and/or physical coordination primarily make up this list. I have immense strength in many things book-smarts, but when it comes to street-smarts and sports-smarts….I am lacking. When I tried ice-skating and rollerblading, I could not even stand up, much less move in a forward direction. When learning how to ski, I was so uncoordinated maneuvering in the skis that one caught in the snow while trying to catch the bunny slope pulley lift. This resulted in it nearly ripping my arm out which scared the crap out of me, so I decided enough was enough.
Even more embarrassing was struggling to learn to ride a bike as a child. I repeatedly fell, neighborhood kids laughed, and I was afraid to get hurt. I did not have the courage to try again until right before college. Now, I couldn’t care less if I ever skied again (I hate the cold), but I was not going to be a grown ass adult who couldn’t ride a bike. Especially since I loathe driving in the God-forsaken traffic cesspool where I live. Speaking of which, driving also does not come easily to me, but I learned out of sheer necessity. I seriously considered moving to New York City after failing my first road test in high school.
My dad, who has always encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and get me to try SCUBA in the first place, said something on my wedding day that will always stick with me. He said if there was one word to describe me, it was “resilient.” It was interesting that he used that word…I figured “intellectual” or “nerdy” or “neurotic” were more appropriate. But “resilient” implies one has strength and courage, which I feel I lack. I wanted to own that word, so I told him I was willing to try again.
The beginning of the hero’s journey is anything but glamorous
Since my dad owns his own SCUBA gear, he suggested that I meet him at his neighborhood pool to practice getting over the part where I got stuck last time – clearing water from my mask and feeling like I was going to drown.
Being a glutton for punishment, I agreed to meet him at 6 AM on a Thursday before work and knock it out. The hope of coffee with my dad afterwards made this more agreeable to my night owl self. We rigged a set-up where I wore a a hoodie with pockets for beanbag weights so I could sink, and I’d breath out of my dad’s alternate air source. The lifeguards weren’t exactly thrilled with this, since this is not something people normally do in a community swimming pool.
My first attempts removing and replacing the mask underwater felt like torture. My dad was getting frustrated. I was tempted to stop. When I finally figured out how to manipulate the mask correctly to purge the water, I found that I was able to clear it. Seeing the water leaving my mask bit by bit was a game-changer. Any water in my nose felt less like a full-on panic situation and more like an inconvenience. I felt more at ease after several additional successful attempts, but not completely sure I could finish the open water certification if I tried again. As a TMI side note, I’ve never felt more clarity in my sinuses than after that….
A leisurely day at the pool…not really
With a bit more confidence, I decided to take the plunge (har har!) and schedule a certification course with my dad’s favorite local dive shop – Atlantic Edge. They do courses at pools around the local area, and they had one close by I could take before summer was almost over. I was still on the fence, so I was not about to go somewhere more than 10 miles away – did I mention traffic where I live is baneful? I went ahead and booked it, knowing that if I effed up again, they’d let me take refresher sessions for a lot less $$ than re-taking the class in its $400 entirety. Given my history, I was fully expecting to panic and not finish. They allot half a Saturday to finish five pool-diving sessions, and I only got through maybe one pool session while in Key Largo in the same amount of time.
As the date got closer, I slept less. The morning of my pool-dives happened to be the ONLY one this summer below 70 degrees (and the pool was outdoors), so I arrived teeth chattering from nerves, insomnia, and cold. On top of that, I was going by myself to join a class of 6 strangers. At least in Key Largo, it was just my brother and I. What I quickly learned after meeting the people in my class was that several were just as nervous as I was, if not more so. At least I knew what it was like breathing underwater.
I don’t know if it was having just a little bit of extra confidence going into this class, or the fact that the class moved so quickly I didn’t have time to overthink how vulnerable I felt, but this experience went a lot better. There were enough instructors and divemasters to provide adequate personal attention to help if you were struggling, but I was surprised that being in a bit less personalized of a learning environment worked better for me. The instructors and divemasters were encouraging and told a lot of jokes to ease the tension. I could tell they enjoyed working with each other. And no one told me “It’s not that frikkin hard, Laura!!!” as if there was something wrong with me when something did not come easily.
We flew through the five pool dives. The instructors noticed I struggled with the mask removal parts at first, but was “a pro” at it by the end of the session. Like, the parts where I had to breath underwater for a whole minute with no mask (just the regulator), and then swim a certain distance without the mask.
At the end of the class, the instructor mentioned that she was doing open water dives the following month at a local quarry, and some of the people in the class had already signed up. Since summer was almost over, I seriously considered it, since I liked the instructors and people in my class. While I had a year to do the open-water training dives, I figured if I did not do them soon, I would not do it. So, I signed up.
A Weekend at the Lake
Even though the pool dives went well, I was just as much a basket case leading up to the open water dives. First off, the visibility in the local quarries are not as good as the pool and the ocean, bringing me back to my first underwater foray into the green lagoon. I would be in deeper water. And the dives were over a period of two full days, with the quarry being about 45 min away, starting at 9 AM. After just a half day at the pool, I was beyond exhausted and so sore I could barely move. Would I make it through two full days (plus the driving to and from the quarry) and not want to die?
Hurricane Florence was scheduled to hit that weekend too, so I secretly hoped the open water dives would be cancelled and I could get my refund, but as luck would have it (for us at least), the path of the storm meant any bad weather would not hit us until Monday. So we were still on, and the 45 minute drive gave me plenty of time to ruminate about the many situations in which I would panic and quit.
The staff at the quarry where we did the training dives (Juturna Springs) were very nice. This is a brand new local dive site that just opened this year, so the experience was quite rustic. As in, porta-potties, no changing rooms, and a quarter mile hike from where you park to the docks. With all the rain we had, plus the wet SCUBA gear, the ground was muddy as hell. I know they plan to add amenities (and pavement) in the future.
Like the pool sessions, the instructors were clear that they were going to move through the dives quickly. They wanted to get through 3 dives in the first day, leaving one more for Sunday (meaning I could leave early and take a nap afterward), so I was on board with this. Another nice surprise was that the person I was partnered up with during the pool dives also decided to come, since we were both not sure after the pool dives that we would. Like me, she said if she didn’t do it now, it would not happen. So there we were.
After a pre-dive ritual blasting Motley Crue’s Kickstart my Heart, we were ready power through.
The first dive was uneventful. It was similar being in the pool. There was a submerged dock about 20′ under water so that we did not have to practice our skills on a slimy lake bottom. The second dive was more interesting. After more skills practice, we did a “real dive.” The owner of the dive shop was at our sessions, and he gave my partner and I an underwater tour of the quarry. Before the quarry was submerged, trees had grown in it, so it was like swimming in an underwater forest, which was pretty cool. We saw a few fish, but the underwater ecosystem was also in development, so in time there will be more fish.
The third dive was a more difficult for me. Aside from the no-mask stuff, the biggest struggle for me is anything related to fiddling with the equipment. One thing you have to learn to do is remove and replace your SCUBA gear at the surface and underwater. At the pool, I actually found it easier to do this underwater, where the 40+ lb of gear is weightless and akin to just putting on a jacket. At the surface…different story. Getting out of the gear is easy, but I had a hard time wiggling my way back in. Luckily a very patient instructor walked me through submerging the suit and lying on my back so I could get into it. Otherwise, I was a dog chasing my tail trying to get back into that thing.
Another of the many counter-intuitive things with SCUBA is that it can be very hard to sink through the first 5 feet, even after deflating your vest and exhaling during descent. I noticed that the instructors would sink like stones, while all us newbies were slow to descend, not being used to equalizing and not breathing properly. I needed additional weight to a SCUBA kit that’s nearly 1/3 of my body weight, which was not something I was happy about. Extra weight is irrelevant underwater, but since I do not have gills, I have to come out of the water and stand in it at some point.
At the end of Day 1, I was tired, but not as wonked as I was from the pool. Since there are less skills to demo during open water dives and more time enjoying diving underwater, there was not the component of mental exhaustion.
For Day 2, I was less nervous, and knowing we’d be done by noon was also a plus. There was only one more thing we had to learn: following a compass heading at the surface and underwater. After we did that, the dive shop owner led us to the platform and had us all raise our hands. I was wondering why he was having us do that, but it was just so he could high-five all of us for getting our certifications! We then did another fun dive, where we went down past 30′ (any more and we would hit the “thermocline” where there was a sharp decrease in temperature, which was too cold for the exposure suits we had).
We logged our dives, and after the paperwork, it was time for the social media bragging shot!!
So what now?
Of course my dad was thrilled with the news. Since my brother was in the area due to a job training program, we did do a short day of diving at another local lake last weekend before it started getting cold.
So now, I have to see if I want to drop the $$ on getting my own SCUBA gear, and more importantly, figuring out when and where I can complete my personal bucket list item of diving with manta rays.