Saturday, February 8, 2014

Nurse the Hate: Cozumel Scuba Dive

As the boat skipped out to the dive site, I realized I was in completely over my head.  This was a familiar feeling.  I recall being called out to the blackboard in 9th grade algebra with no idea what the answer was or how to possibly get to the general idea of the answer while all around me other classmates toiled easily in producing the desired results.  With a self-defeating mix of pride and self-sufficiency, I don’t want to ask others for help for fear of looking weak or foolish.  This has minimal negative effect while doing freshman algebra.  While scuba diving it can result in your death.  So there’s that. 

I was in a small group with a couple from Canada working on advanced diving certification, a retired Navy officer that was spending his autumn years scuba diving and allowing his second wife to buy things she didn’t need, and an English diving instructor from Florida.  Me?  I had been diving on three separate occasions for a total of five dives with a ridiculous amount of supervision.  Not wanting to disappoint anyone, I answered in the affirmative when Luis our dive master briefed us on this morning’s dive.  “Okay… Today we are going to go to a drop-off in the reef at about 85 feet.  Greg?  This OK with you?”  Um… sure… “Then there are some swim throughs… Greg?  Is this also OK?”  Ah… Yeah, I guess…  The others in the boat looked at me with expressions conveying, “Don’t let this rube ruin our kickass vacation.  Why is this guy even here?”.  Frankly if Luis had said, “You will need to drop down to 120 feet almost immediately because of the angry Great Whites and Giant Squid, but be careful of the horrible undertow which has dragged dozens of people to their deaths.” I still would have said, “No problem.”.  It was pure foolish pride.

We readied ourselves as the boat stopped.  The water was a brilliant light blue, so clear it seemed manufactured like a Disneyworld landscape.  English Diver and Retired Guy talked equipment.  “Yeah, I was using 22 pounds of weight, but then I switched over to these slotted flippers and…”  It makes no difference if it is swimming, making music, or a golf course, men will ultimately immerse themselves in gear.  Me?  I showed up in a pair of flip flops and a tattered baseball cap.  I don't know what anything is called or really how it works.  Set me up boys.  Let's go diving!  I struggled on my rental gear and tried to remember how the hell it all worked.  I flipped backwards into the ocean and hoped it would all come back to me.

While getting my certification in Belize last year I had totally screwed up my left ear.  It’s called “barotrauma”, which for the layman means it sounds like you always have water in your ears.  It lasted for two months.  It really sucked.  It had also been my fault 100%.  I had done it to myself by not pressurizing as I dropped into the depths.  The key is to blow on your closed nose, allowing building pressure to pop out of your head.  Otherwise it seems like a vise is attached to your head and it hurts like a mother.  As the others easily dropped to 85 feet, I slowly worked my way down as I fiddled with my gear and tried not to blow my head up.  Then it all sort of came back.  I joined the group and started to explore the reef.

I’ve always loved the ocean.  I am fascinated by looking around in this secret world of colorful crazy looking creatures dashing around completely uncaring to our presence.  The colors and shapes.  The exotic corals.  The rugged landscape.  The possibility that some enormous wild ass sea life will be around the next corner.  I find it to be adrenalin inducing and calming at the same time.  I could stay down in the water for literally hours at a time.  There is always something worthy of inspection, something you’ve never seen before.  The phrase “teeming with life” definitely fits for this reef.  All kinds of creatures are moving in all kinds of directions as I clumsily pass through.   

At 85 feet on a reef next to a drop-off, there are plenty of big fish.  Butterfly fish the size of trashcan lids pop out of little crevices in the rock like angry neighbors.  Crabs with bodies the size of basketballs work down rocks like window washers.  Grouper 100+ pounds look at divers with total indifference.  It’s all a lot to take in.  That was when Luis made the “shark” signal to me with his hand on his head like a fin.  Hmm?  What?  He pointed out a rocky shelf to me where a 6-foot nurse shark lay on the sand.  I was pleased to see it was a glorified catfish and not a cranky bull shark.  This was at the opening of the “swim through”, which you or I would call a “cave”.  This is what is called "advanced diving" and something for which I was woefully underqualified.  The game plan appeared to be for me to follow Luis into the cave, over the shark, take a quick left and somehow squeeze through a small opening that allowed 8 inches of leeway in either direction.  As discussion would have been impossible, I followed Luis.  What the fuck was I going to do?  I’m at 85 feet with nowhere else to go except to follow this Mexican guy I just met 22 minutes ago.

I was almost certain that I would rip myself to shreds going through the jagged coral opening of the “swim through” and in the process kick up enough sand to foil the attempts of my fellow divers.  Through sheer luck and a newfound temporary ability to control my buoyancy, I somehow slipped though.  Suddenly, as if cued by the Disney people that must have built this water park, an enormous sea turtle flapped by, his shell an easy four feet across.  I fixed in on the turtle and let the drift take me out of the cave.  That’s when we hit the sheer wall drop off.  It’s hard to explain what it is like to float out from an underwater cave and float over a 5000-foot drop off.  Below you is absolutely nothing, pure blue that fades to black.  It is like flying, or when Superman hovers next to a skyscraper in a comic book.  It’s pretty awesome.  Shortly afterwards, I got the signal.  Time to surface. 

The fact that I didn’t kill myself or anyone else I took as a great success.  I no longer felt like I was in over my head with normal dives.  This is what is called "false confidence".  Obviously I needed to overextend myself once again.  I had decided earlier that one of my goals for this trip was to try a night dive, as the idea of jumping into the pitch black ocean really seemed like the scariest thing I could imagine.  I arranged to do a dive with English diving instructor and the Canadian couple about 45 minutes after sundown the next night. 

The sun had already set when I reached the dock, and the sky had turned a weakening auburn as we set out of the harbor.  The game plan was to hop out of the boat, drop ourselves down to 40 feet, and let the current drift us along the reef.  Ideally we would spot eels, crabs, and the grand prize, octopus.  With only weak flashlights, the four of us plus our guide backflipped into the new pitch black sea.  The technique is to point your flashlight straight down as you descend, avoiding flashing the light in others eyes.  The artificial light makes the water pale green.  Slowly the descent is made into the pure green, no bottom in sight, no landmarks.   It’s a wild experience.

I had expected to be pretty freaked out.  Not being able to see at any great distance does allow your mind to conjure up horrible sea monsters that could appear at any second to devour you, but in the words of the guy from Belize that taught me how to dive, “Relax mahn… You have everyting ya need mahn…”  I found myself surprisingly very comfortable in the totally foreign atmosphere, playing a game of seek-n-find with eels and octopus.  The drift pushed us along slowly, my breathing shockingly relaxed.  Large fish floated in and out of my peripheral vision.  Lobsters… crabs… rays…. Eels… but still not the elusive octopus.

Towards the end of the dive I was the one that actually spotted the octopus.  He was scrunched up on top of an outcropping of coral, a light tan and brown color making him blend in almost imperceptibly.  If not for his crawling the moment my light hit the spot, I never would have seen him.  I waved the light back and forth to alert the others.  We all floated in as the octopus moved across the reef, changing color to match his background.  It was then we spotted a second larger octopus only a few feet from the first.  Eventually they tired of our staring and lights and with a surprising quickness darted off under some rocks leaving stains of black ink in their wake.  It was clearly the grand finale, and we completed the dive.  We had been under for 65 minutes, though it seemed like 10.  I was jacked up from adrenalin for hours afterward, wishing I had shared the experience with someone I could have talked about it over Dos Equis at a dodgy seaside bar until we were kicked out.  It was probably one of the coolest things I have ever done.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.


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