Sun 6 Mar 2011
I’ve wanted to learn to SCUBA dive for a long time. I figured I’d just go on a vacation to Sharm el Sheikh or something (that was much more feasible when living back in Amsterdam) and do a short course to get certified. Boy am I glad I didn’t do that. As the OU SCUBA t-shirts say, “Don’t just get certified, learn to dive!” I think there is a big difference: learning the skills and information over a period of several weeks – as opposed to a weekend – makes me feel much more comfortable and safe. Plus it gave me a little bit of time to get in sufficient shape that I wouldn’t drown from exhaustion.
Speaking of drowning, there was a swim test on the first day of class. The first portion of the test was to tread water for 3 minutes with our hands above our heads. I knew I was in trouble when people watching started pointing at me and the lifeguard slowly made her way around to my side of the pool. I only went under briefly, though, and managed to get through the middle portion of the test ok. Then the final 12-lap (width) swim was just mind-over-matter – and patience. But the good thing about pushing your personal limits – no matter how lame they are compared to people who are actually in shape and know how to swim – is knowing that your limits are actually pretty far out there and until you get to them nothing really bad is going to happen.
I spent the next few weeks learning how to clear the pressure in my ears, learning how to do surface dives, clear our masks, and other basic skills. Once I was able to deal with the pressure in my ears, dive efficiently, and hold my breath for a little bit, it was really awesome. Laying on the bottom of the deep end, gazing up with all that water and people floating on the surface…just cool stuff. And it got better once we were on air and I had more than 10 seconds of bottom time to enjoy things.
After completing the course and taking the final written and swimming exams for the class we had several options for the actual certification check-out dives. One was pretty cheap – only $45 – to go swim in a quarry in, of all places, Circleville (the town where I grew up). No thanks. Option three was to spend a week on a sailboat in the Bahamas… for $1500 or so. Probably a great deal, but even I couldn’t figure out a way to justify it. So I took the middle route: about $300 for a long weekend trip to some clear water springs in Florida.
After a crazy 15-hour drive south we pulled into Devil’s Den campground and SCUBA diving spot. Set up camp in the dark, which was fine for me, until I discovered in the light of day that I was apparently the only one who didn’t group their tents all together in a nice social bunch. Well, the nice social grouping was in the bottom of a ravine that filled up with water the next night, so I don’t feel so bad up on my small hill.
The first morning of diving was a load of fun – it was great to be in the real world instead of a swimming pool. Also very nice to be wearing a 5mm wetsuit (and therefore not be shivering constantly). One new lesson learned, though: eating baked beans for dinner could result in an uncontrollable air space the next day. During the first checkout dives I was trying to equalize my ears by holding my nose and blowing, damn near equalized something else.
Unfortunately on one of the dives I managed to get stuck under a rock and then screw up control of my buoyancy and went up a little too fast into rocks that were a little too sharp, but the panic was manageable and I have a hard head, as I’ve been told many times.
After the morning checkout dives we spent the two afternoons snorkeling in various super clear waters around our part of Florida. The first day we headed into the Crystal River network of rivers, in part to see manatees. Unfortunately we were not allowed to wear any weight belts, so in our wetsuits we were more buoyant than corks bobbing on the surface – couldn’t dive or get close to things much at all. Considering in the 5mm wetsuit I normally wear 19 lbs of lead not having that makes a big difference. At least I didn’t have to worry about getting tired of swimming – I couldn’t sink if I wanted to.
We did see a few manatees in the muddier river we were in after that, but right as one was swimming in front of me some big old guy swam between us and kicked me in the face with his fin, so I left the area – he was fat enough I figured beating the snot out of him might be mistaken as harassing a manatee by a passing park ranger.
The second afternoon we drifted down the Rainbow River, which was cool as hell. It’s this good-sized river that is very nearly crystal clear – and very fast moving. If it weren’t for the other students swimming so (too) fast it wouldn’t have been necessary to swim at all, really except to get closer to something you wanted to see. We were allowed weight belts, too, so diving down and swimming with the fish was a hoot. Who would have thought we would voluntarily strap lead weight on to get in water – and be mad when we weren’t allowed?
One of the highlights of the trip – and some of the better photos I managed with my little point-and-shoot – were of a school of alligator gar that swam by me at one point. I probably spent 10 minutes lazily swimming interlocking loops around them as they made their way around and down the river.
Now to do something really cool, like the Red Sea or Belize or something. And with real camera gear. Stay tuned.