I’ve spent the past two weeks getting scuba certified — and the past 20 minutes trying to determine if those two words should be hyphenated. Dictionary.com says, “No results found for scuba-certified. Did you mean sex-starved?”. No, that is not what I meant but thanks for trying. Let’s move on.
Scuba certification is achieved by reading the Open Water Diver Manual and passing several exams, learning and demonstrating an array of skills in the pool, then getting out into open water to do the skills again and actually start scuba diving. It’s an interesting process — fun at times, challenging at times and always requiring full focus and concentration.
Having passed the written exams and the pool session, I went to Tioman Island, Malaysia over the weekend to complete the open water dives. Tioman Island is beautiful but I have some history there (six attempted landings by plane), which I wrote about earlier this year. This time I went by land — a bus to Mersing followed by a ferry to the island. The journey was longer but much less terrifying. There were eight students in my open water group (including my scuba buddy, Mr. Producer) and two other groups of certified leisure and advanced divers.
We arrived on the island at 3:00 a.m., slept for several hours and arose for breakfast at 8:00 a.m. I was nervous. I had a feeling in my gut that took me all the way back to sixth grade when I experienced a prolonged bout of daily stomachaches. The pediatrician never found a specific cause for them, finally deciding they were the byproduct of stress. Stress in sixth grade? Maybe. Here I was nearly 30 years later, under stress with that same old stomachache. Perhaps his diagnosis was accurate.
Finally out on the boat, we suited up in our scuba gear. Scuba is an acronym for self-contained (SC) underwater (U) breathing (B) apparatus (A). Apparatus is kind of an understatement to a new diver — it seems more like a big contraption but I guess scuba works better than scubbc. There are lots of pieces and parts to get comfortable with — the buoyancy control device, inflater hose, purge valve, regulator, octopus, dust cap, weight belt, submersible pressure gauge and more. Everything has a purpose and everything is important.
One by one, we approached the side of the boat and did a giant stride entry into the water while holding our masks, regulators and weight belts. I jumped in, surfaced and gave the “OK” symbol. The pleasantly cool water helped my stomachache subside as we floated together and readied for individual descent along a rope tied to the sea floor. Our instructor gave me the okay to descend. With my mask on and regulator in, I held up my inflater hose, deflated my BCD and disappeared underwater. So many thoughts filled my head as I descended on my first dive: Deflate! Breathe! Pressurize! Stop kicking! Don’t let go of the rope. Look down! Look up? No, don’t look up. Where am I going? What? Okay, I’ll keep going down. Is this safe? I shouldn’t have had that second piece of toast at breakfast. Wow — I am at the bottom of the freaking ocean. Where’s my buddy? Okay, he’s coming down — and doing way better than I am.
The rope extended along the sea floor where we all knelt down and held on as we individually demonstrated our underwater skills for the dive instructor. With eight students in the group, there was a lot of waiting around and watching — plenty of time for lengthy conversations with the demons in my non-diving head. Am I enjoying this? Am I ever really going to like this? Everyone else seems fine but I kind of want to just breathe some air at the surface. Can I go back up to the surface? My knees are getting scraped. I’m getting cold. What if something terrible happens? This sucks. I think I kind of hate this. Oh jeez, I’m next.
I started my skills — regulator removal, regulator retrieval, partial and full mask clearing, all successfully demonstrated. The easy stuff. Moving on to full mask removal, the whiny, scared voice in my head started to weigh in again on what was about to happen. This sucks. I think I kind of hate this. STOP IT. Shut up. You did full mask removal easily in the pool and you can do it again now, I said to myself in my biggest, baddest, most confident voice. (I recently got in touch with my inner nasopharynx, learning to close it off so I don’t have to use my hand to plug my nose underwater anymore — a major breakthrough for me.) Just take off the mask, feel for the nose pocket, put it back on and blow. GO. Mask off! Water in the face! It’s blurry! Keep breathing through your mouth! Close your eyes. Concentrate. You can do this! Fumble, fumble, nose pocket, back over the head. Inhale from the mouth, up to the nose and… BLOW! I think I did it… mask off, mask on and cleared.
I opened my eyes and was greeted with the happy “OK” sign and a handshake. If the dive instructor had been privy to the melee of expletives (not included here) and suppressed instincts that had just polluted my head and body in the previous five seconds, I’m not sure she would have given me that okay. But she couldn’t see or hear any of it and moved on to the next student. Woo hoo!
With the worst of it behind me, I sat and waited for the rest of the class to pass the skills. Better, more pleasant thoughts began to fill my head as I relaxed and looked around. Wow, look at the fish! There’s so much stuff down here along the bottom. I wonder if mom is, like, shopping at Target right now and has NO IDEA that at this moment her daughter is ON THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN IN MALAYSIA. Is dad safe on land, tucked into bed, watching a movie as he breathes normal air and drifts off to sleep? While I’m TWENTY FEET UNDER WATER kind of freaking out. This is nuts. But I’m okay! No, I don’t need to surface. I can just breathe slowly and look around. Oh, we can surface? We’re done? Cool! I did it! I think I kind of like this.
By the next day, I was scuba certified (no hyphen necessary).
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