I have just received an email from PADI, a scuba diving association, congratulating me and stating
that I am “among the best trained scuba divers in the world”.
This is surprising to me as only days ago I
was 60 feet underwater off the coast of Belize looking for my mask and hoping
not to get bitten by the giant sea turtle lumbering nearby.
The guy that fearlessly strapped on a tank
and dove into the school of six to eight foot sharks while hoping not to freak out?
Yes, that was me and I am very pleased to
learn I am now considered so well trained via that email.
I didn’t feel
Frankly, I barely felt
like I knew what I was doing…
It started as many things often do, on a whim.
I decided I enjoyed a snorkeling trip off of the Hol Chan marine reserve in Belize so much I should look into diving the reef.
How hard can it be?
You breathe into a snorkel, you can breathe
out of a tank, right?
I can do that.
I learned there were two options.
I could become a “recreational diver”, which
means that someone teaches you enough not to drown after they toss you off the
boat into about 20 feet of water.
was to become a “PADI Certified Diver”, which meant I would get some sort of
card of legitimacy and make four dives of increasing difficulty.
Buoyed by multiple local Belikin Beers, I
opted for the complete course.
It should be pointed out that I probably like the idea of
being a “certified diver” much more than the actual effort it would take for
I liked the idea of
swaggering around saying things like “Well, you probably wouldn’t understand
because you aren’t a certified diver, but when I was diving the Blue Hole and had
to switch to my alt respirator while equalizing, I knew that blah blah blah”.
I figured I would have to immediately go out
and buy an enormous dive watch to put on my skinny little girly wrist, wear
t-shirts from obscure dive shops in third world countries, and swim around with
a knife fighting angry octopus.
Plus I figured
I might look cool diving off a boat backwards in a wet suit while holding my
It was all quite alluring.
I didn’t really plan on the large amount of
written material I needed to cover. I was handed a surprisingly thick book and told to get cracking for my first written exams. I
have always been weak in science as I have had so little interest in the
subject. When would I ever need to know
about how pressure effects air density? When would I ever have to know what "negative buoyancy" means? Oh… Now? Fuck… So there I was sitting at a ramshackle dive
shack for seven hours getting one on one instruction from an irritated Belizean
dude named Everett. Hippie expats,
reggae band roadies, groovy South American jet trash, and purposeful workers walked by me without giving me a
glance as I struggled to understand things like the Recreational Dive Planner. While I would have loved to have dismissed
the Recreational Dive Planner as a nuisance, the down side to not understanding
it is decompression sickness (i.e. The Bends) and dying some horrible death gulping
for oxygen on a wooden dock. I clearly
had gotten into a situation way over my head. Generally on vacation I look for "relaxation", not "horrible death". Still, the promise of stomping around confidently with my giant dive watch was larger than my fear of making a terrible panic induced error at depth. I forged on ahead.
While we are on the topic of panic, let me say that is the key to scuba. As long as you don't freak the fuck out you will probably be OK. It is definitely counter intuitive to go through drills with your instructor at 30 feet like "take out your respirator and try to find it, re-insert it, and clear it so you can breathe". My thought process was more along the lines of "how about I keep breathing here in this deep water because it seems to be working pretty well". You want me to take my mask off here at sixty feet, have me find it again, and then clear it so I can see? Hmmm. That seems like a bad idea... Oh, you want to turn my air tank off so I know what it's like, and then I swim 15 feet to the surface while saying "ahhhhhhh" so my lungs don't explode from the air expanding? Oh, OK. Let's do that! I really had to trust I could do these otherwise bad ideas in the correct way instead of doing what the back of your mind is saying, as in "Get to the surface, climb into the boat and stop this madness!".
Here's the thing though. It's all totally worth it when you get in the ocean. Belize is blessed with the second largest barrier reef on the planet. I have been fortunate enough to snorkel in great places like Cancun, Acapulco, Turks & Caicos, Bermuda, Barbados, Jamaica, Puerto Vallarta, Grand Bahama, etc. No place I have ever been can touch Belize. The first time I hopped in the water I almost jumped on top of a 5 foot sting ray. The first time practicing scuba skills I was distracted by a four foot sea turtle swimming just to my left. While to my instructors the sea turtle is probably like me seeing a squirrel, it's a big deal to me. Dude, that's a friggin sea turtle two feet to my left! Don't you see that! Aren't you stoked? On my first two dives I saw probably every kind of reef fish you could imagine. I saw giant rays, barracuda the size of dogs, a grouper that had to have been forty pounds, wild colorful coral of every size and shape, a spotted eagle ray that was six feet across and trailed a fifteen foot tail, and a king crab as big as a basketball. Tiny schools of electric blue fish swim around your head. An eel pops out of a tiny cave. There's movement and life everywhere. There's so much color and shape. It's an embarrassment of riches.
Our next stop was this spot called Shark Ray Alley. This has been so named because of the local fisherman's tradition of cleaning their fish and tossing the scraps in the water which has led to an amazing amount of lazy nurse and bull sharks, stingrays, and yellow tailed jacks that wait to be fed. They are all like big koi at a Zoo pond that cruise over to the boat as soon as they hear the engines. Luis chopped up some chum and started to attract even more sharks when Everett said, "OK, they will be on this side of the boat. You jump out on the other side." Hmm? What's that? You want me to what? It is odd to place so much confidence in a man you have known about 30 hours from a flimsy dive shack and dive into water filled with six to eight foot sharks, giant rays, and big wiseass yellow tail jacks in a feeding frenzy. No worries. Clearly this man is a professional and knows what he is doing. This is Belize. I'm sure there are regulations. Right? I dove in.
You want to feel really small and clumsy? Float around 15 sharks that outweigh you while rays five feet across swim underneath, each of them coming close enough to occasionally brush up against you. You have to go back to the "don't freak out" scuba mantra and stay there. You know that they are all essentially big catfish, but still, these fuckers are really big. They are easily the biggest animals I have been that close to in the wild. Add into the mix that they are coming from all directions and you can't possibly see them all until they are almost on top of you, and it gets pretty intense. Eventually Luis ran out of fish heads and they all swam back to their sandy bottom homes to wait for the next boat. It was really awesome.
I woke up on the third day of my diving certification quest with the beginning of a cold. This is generally a bad development as you constantly have to pressurize while you descend. If your sinuses and ears are filled with gunk, you can end up with a "squeeze". This means you can't get the pressure out of your head and it hurts like a mother. It's quite unpleasant. I was having a great deal of difficulty getting my left ear to cooperate as we started on a planned forty foot dive. It took forever, but I finally gave the OK to Inez my guide and we descended to the bottom and swam around this beautiful area beyond the interior reef with majestic peaks and valleys that dropped a hundred feet or more. Swimming over those is like flying. It's unlike any feeling I have ever had while looking down at teeming sea life at a depth I had never reached before. I was totally jacked.
When you start going down to depths like this, you need to make a safety stop on ascension at 15 feet and hover for three minutes. This is to avoid that ugly nitrogen sickness or having your lungs explode because the air in them expanded too quickly. Either one of those events would definitely dampen your vacation plans. My left ear was starting to feel pretty funky by this time, but with one more dive needed to be completed before getting my certification I was "all in". Three minutes seems like forever as you are surrounded by blue on all sides like you are in space. When you finally ascend into the direct sunlight you can feel the temperature increase rapidly, even through your wetsuit.
There's a lot of shit to remember in a brief period of time the way I attacked this diving certification thing. Release this air while you ascend. Inflate your jacket when you hit the surface. No! Not like that! Like this! Get your respirator in! Go to your snorkel! At any one given time I was doing the wrong thing somehow. Not enough to kill me or my dive partner, but it was pretty obvious that the Belizean Dive people had enough of my nonsense by the time we were ready for my last dive. I was the American asshole tourist that had worn out his welcome. We had spent a little too much one on one time together I think, especially for Inez. Of course, my tendency to not really listen to anyone probably didn't help. After consulting the Recreation Dive Tables, we figured out I could stay up top for 45 minutes and do a 35 minute bottom time dive at 60 feet. My left ear was pretty dodgy by this time, but I was going to do what was necessary to see this thing through. One dive to go.
It took forever to descend to 60 feet. I couldn't keep my left ear clear and I had to keep ascending and descending, blowing and pinching my nose trying to find the relief of the squeak of air escaping my skull. At last we got to the dark sandy bottom, passing a monstrous sea turtle on his way to whatever business a monstrous sea turtle has on a Friday morning. Let me tell you what it's like being sixty feet down. The boat is very very far away, a tiny little arrowhead in the distant watery sky above you. You look up and realize there is no way possible you can get to the surface unless you follow all the steps you learned in the last two days. If you fuck up, you could die. It becomes clear that you really aren't fucking around and you better take this shit seriously. That was when I had to finish my last skills challenges, taking off my respirator and finding it again. Clearing a mask full of water as I looked up to the distant boat impossibly far away. Hell, I even know how to navigate the ocean floor with a compass now. I passed and now all that was left was to enjoy the dive itself.
We started off to check out an unreal section of reef, massive crevices and caves hiding bigger fish I have ever seen anyone catch in person. This is when my head cold really kicked in. Something you should know about breathing through a scuba tank. It dries out your mouth and throat really badly. Let's say if you have a cold and maybe some post nasal drip starts up on the driest throat of your life. Then maybe you start thinking about how badly you have to cough. Then all you can think about is how badly you have to cough. Then maybe you are actually coughing while trying to make sure and not lose your mouthpiece and it all comes crashing down that you are sixty feet below the surface of the ocean, maybe a mile away from shore and you have a real problem on your hands.
I would like to use this forum to personally thank Everett and fellow chill Belizean "Shorty" (a man maybe eighty pounds that had to stand on an ice cooler to see so he could steer the boat). Both of them said to me at separate times over the last few days, "Hey man, if you have a problem, just relaaaaax. You have everything you need man." I'll tell you what, I'm glad they told me that. I was able to mellow the fuck out, get it under control, and really enjoy being in one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen on the planet, a place most people would never get to see with their own eyes. The fear passed and it was all good once again. After another fifteen minutes Inez and I did a slow controlled ascent, and the three minutes at 15 feet felt like a half hour. The wind had kicked up, and the boat's engines roared to life directly above me. Really Shorty? You have to move the boat around now? I would prefer not to be chopped up by the propellers my friend... We broke the surface, and struggled onto the ladder on the rocking waves. I did it. Time to get that enormous diving watch and jump into the water via helicopter or whatever it is "certified divers" do.
My ear never really cleared after that last dive. The multiple flights home were a drag with my ear making crazy rattling squishy sounds. The good news is the ENT Doc told me today that I didn't burst my eardrum. I just had "a trauma" to something I had never heard of before. I got some pills. They told me it would probably get better in a few days. If it didn't, come see them again and they'll see if they can drain that bloody fluid from my ear. I didn't complain though. It's not something we certified divers do... Excuse me. I gotta go stab a giant squid. As I learned today I am "one of the best trained scuba divers in the world", and with that comes tremendous responsibility.