Breathing Lessons

After 3 years in the Caribbean, I’m finally learning to scuba dive.

I know, I know. 3 bloody years? I blame my intransigent workaholism. It precludes any sustained period of time spent incommunicado from my Crackberry-equipped customer base. A bit of an exaggeration, but essentially correct. I am an enabler for the technophages.

Maybe I never bothered to learn to scuba dive because I already spend a fair bit of time in the water. Swimming, snorkeling, sailing, floating about on a noodle on a nice sunny day with a bevy in hand. You can see a lot of fish and other reef life just by snorkeling on the surface of the ocean. There is a certain peaceful satisfaction to this type of exploration. Like an alien spacecraft suspended over an Iowa cornfield, wistfully watching the distant livestock chew cud.

Snorkeling is convenient. No complicated gear required. Just your mask, snorkel and fins. A bit of sunscreen, some board shorts that come with the requisite bottle opener /slash/ wax comb attached on a bungee cord, and you’re set. See? Simple. Most summers here, I can come home from work, change out of my work clothes, grab the snorkel gear and be at the beach within 15 minutes.

With scuba diving, there’s an entourage. Need the same equipment as you do for snorkeling, plus a tank of air, buoyancy control device (BCD), regulator, a weight belt and maybe a wetsuit. Need a bit of training too. That’s a time investment right there. Time I could be spending at work, or studying. Or obsessively seeking absolution for the sins of a misspent youth in the OpenBSD CVS commits at the Neohapsis archives. But I digress.

In the spirit of self-improvement (and as an attempt to restrain myself, Odysseus-like, from the siren song of endless servers waiting to be deployed), I recently joined a local dive club and started taking basic scuba lessons. The course is a mix of classroom lectures and dive lessons.

Ancient slides on an overhead projector. There’s a wet bar in the dive club and everyone nurses a beer or a stiff drink in class. That really helps information retention. The instructor uses a shaken bottle of Perrier to demonstrate nitrogen bubbling in the veins after a too-rapid ascent. We take a theory exam that you’d, frankly, have to be comatose to flunk. (That was a bit worrisome from a quality assurance standpoint.) But the practical portion of the course seems sound, so far. We’ve been doing progressively more difficult dives. A process meant to facilitate acclimatization and skills acquisition.

Learn how to assemble your dive gear. Learn how to enter the water safely. Learn how to achieve neutral buoyancy. Clear your mask underwater. Try to survive the most common equipment failures. Practice contingency plans. Learn the hand signals. Like a colonist dropped into an unterraformed planet, isolated in your own spacesuit.

This Sunday, we did a shore dive. Our second open water dive lesson. Vast blue sky full of lazy Cumulonimbus clouds (the sort you see in Miyazaki’s Laputa or NausicaƤ), clear blue water below. Moon faintly visible in the afternoon sky, slung low in the heavens like an plainclothes detective’s badge clipped askew to his belt. Soft sandy beach that rolls gently into the surf. In the middle distance, darker blue water with dancing whitecaps, indicating reef just below the surface.

Got kitted up on land and walked in. Mask on, regulator in mouth, BCD fully inflated. Just in case a wave knocks you on your ass, you want to be able to breathe. The gear’s somewhat heavy. Pull on your fins when you’re waist-deep in the water. Sun’s hot on the face. Water’s nice and cold.

We start finning out to the reefs, floating on our backs. I sneak a peek at the sea floor along the way. The water gets deeper, but the clarity is amazing. The seabed looks like the dunes of a great desert, seen from a great height. When we reach the reefs, we deflate our BCDs and sink down.

In the nearly-silent underwater world, you look up and see distinct rays of sunlight filter down from the surface, like a bluer version of the light that streams into St Peter’s Basilica in the autumn. You believe there might be a supreme being at the source of the light. Possibly with a bevy in hand. The reefs are full of fish. Brightly-colored teal Parrotfish drift by lazily, lips puckered for a kiss. Tiny yellow fish of unknown genus frisk about the coral. A gigantic shape, possibly 10 feet long and mottled brown and white, slinks into a distant canyon of the reef. Under a shelf in the reef, 30 big shiny silver fish with angry lower jaws are suspended, napping in the shade.

We fin through arches of rock and descend into valleys of waving anemones. It’s what i imagine terrain-mapping flights to be like. Our dive leader is using dead reckoning to chart our course. It’s geometry. Swim east for 3 minutes. Turn north and swim for 4 minutes. Swim southwest for 5 minutes. You might be pretty close to your starting point, if you’ve swum at the same pace and haven’t drifted too much with the current.

There’s this thing called underwater pilotage. Another underwater navigation method. Recognizing landmarks underwater. I’m too busy looking at the fish to keep track of where we are going. But towards the end of the dive, as we approach the shallower waters, I remember something from a lecture slide. The rippled sand dunes on the sea floor run parallel to shore. Shaped by wave action. And throughout the dive, the motion of the waves inexorably pushing us to shore like the ebb and flow of a giant heartbeat.

There’s an aspect to scuba diving that I had not anticipated before I started: You need to dive with a buddy or a group. Seems to be mostly for safety and logistical reasons. The lone astronaut does not get shot into space alone. Behind every Major Tom is a busy little pit crew at Ground Control. And whereas the group experience can be enjoyable, it also limits you to diving only when everyone’s schedule permits. And there are other attendant inconveniences that come with any group activity versus lone-wolfing it.

I’d like to do a solo dive someday.

Back onshore, I am happier than I have been all week. Euphoric. Almost giddy. We’ve only been down to 12 meters, not likely to induce nitrogen narcosis (whose symptoms include euphoria.) I’ve noticed something on every dive so far, no matter how shallow:

I like being in the water. It makes me happy.

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