Saturday, February 4, 2012

Do You Want to Scuba?

I’ve always been kind of curious about scuba diving. I guess there is something about entering into the underwater world that seems magical in a way. It has fish of every color, creatures that react in surprising ways and a general peacefulness that cannot be experienced on land where humans take over. Snorkeling and scuba diving in the Virgin Islands seems to be a big attraction for people, since the water is clear and warm and there are several reefs that provide beautiful scenery and great wildlife. While I have snorkeled a good amount since my move to St. Thomas and seen some pretty amazing things, recently I have felt ready for the next step, so today I took my first scuba diving lesson at Coki Beach.

Upon arriving at the beach around 9:00 am, I was told to fill out some paperwork and sign a waiver form. The instructor mentioned that if I answered yes to any of the health questions on the waiver form, then I would need a doctor’s approval before diving. The form included a laundry list of everything from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, mental illness, etc., etc. I hemmed and hawed over the one question about having sinus surgery. When I was 15, I had my adenoids removed, which was sinus related, but that was 18 years ago. I haven’t had one sinus issue since, so I lied and put ‘no’ under that question, hoping that there wouldn’t be some unforeseen issue with this. I then briefly contemplated signing a bogus name on the form, but in an effort to be a good sport, I signed the form appropriately.

I was then told by an extremely young, possibly prepubescent, man (?) to ‘strip down’ into whatever I was going to scuba in, at which point I immediately asked for a wetsuit. Granted, the water has gotten colder down here since the summer, but I also felt more comfortable covering up for this event, rather than prancing around in my green polka-dot bikini. After helping me step into the right size wetsuit, he then told me to zip it up and head on down to meet my instructor.

My instructor had already begun filling in the other student on some things by the time I arrived. However, he paused so we could all make introductions before moving on. The instructor's name was Rick, and he was probably in his early 40s. By the looks of his curly, sun-bleached hair and tanned skin, I could tell that this wasn’t his first rodeo and felt as though I was in good hands.

The other person in my class was an older, European man…can’t remember his name, but we’ll call him Hans. Hans was practically bald and spoke with a thick accent. He was wearing 2 wet suits, one down to his ankles and the other down to his knees. Hans mentioned that he knows a professional diver in Barbados that had motivated him to get certified as a scuba diver – after he learned how to swim. Apparently, as a fifty-something man Hans had just learned how to swim and was ready to jump right into scuba diving. After telling me all of this, he continued to repeatedly express nervousness about some sort of sinus pain that he had experienced during another scuba diving or snorkeling occasion, which of course made me think twice about my sinus surgery answer on the waiver form.

Thankfully, Rick ended all of this small talk with firm instructions on what we were about to do. He explained how to breathe, how to swim only with our feet, how to clear our masks, how to check our air valve, how to clear your ears, and on and on. He was careful to tell us not to touch any wildlife while in the water. “Remember”, he said, “99% of all animal related incidents in the water are provoked by humans.” He also showed us some underwater signals like how to signal if you were okay by making an “O” with your thumb and index finger, how to tell him something wasn’t right, how to explain that you needed to go up to the surface, how to let him know that you just saw and eel and several other hand signals that I swore I would never remember should something happen to go wrong. However, I took solace in the fact that if this guy couldn’t read the signal on my face of all out panic if something went wrong, then he probably wasn’t capable of helping me out anyway, so I’d be better off fending for myself.

After receiving these instructions we geared up and headed into the shallow water so that we could test out everything we were just told. I’ll admit that I was a little uncomfortable breathing in and out of the mouthpiece. It seemed really unnatural to me, and after only a short bit I was so uncomfortable that I had to go up to the surface to regain my composure. Once I got that nonsense out of the way, I was fine. Hans, however, wasn’t fine from the get-go. For whatever reason, the instructor couldn’t get enough weights on Hans to hold him down under water. He kept calling out for his assistant, the prepubescent, to bring more weights. Yup, Hans was one buoyant European. Once that was finally settled, we moved on to dive by a reef not far from the shore.

As instructed, Hans and I swam behind the instructor with me to Rick’s left the whole time, and Hans all over the damn place. At first things seemed to be going well. There were vibrant fish all around us, and after a while I wondered if they were following us. Then, Rick found an interesting jellyfish that he picked up and showed us. While this seemed interesting to me, and I went along with it, I couldn’t help but remember what Rick had said about 99% of animal incidents and wondered what I would do if something happened to Rick, since relying on Hans was out of the question. I remained hopeful that Rick would take his own advice and stop touching things.

Shortly after seeing the jellyfish, things went south for Hans. Since scuba diving is completely foreign to me, I couldn’t begin to tell you what his problem was. I will say that there was a lot of back and forth between him and the instructor, and I could only imagine the incoherent sign language that was going on at the time. Hans was constantly floating back up higher than we were, and at some point I believe he may have latched onto a rope that Rick was towing. 

I tried to ignore this ridiculous distraction and enjoy my surroundings. There was pink, orange and purple coral everywhere and big tropical fish I had never seen before. I looked around me to take it all in. It felt peaceful and the thought of what else we may see was really exciting. We continued on to find a lobster hiding in a shell and a spotted eel curled up under some coral. As we swam on, Rick intermittently looked back at me to ask if I was okay several times, and I gave him the signal that told him I was fine each time. 

Before I knew it we were back at the shore, taking off our gear. We had gone 41 feet under water and our dive took about 30 minutes, but it felt like we had only been down there for half as long. I realized that I wasn’t satisfied – I was ready for more. Without hesitating, I bought the materials needed to get certified as a diver and completed all the necessary paperwork to move forward.

I can’t wait to get back in the water!

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