If you missed the last, information-soaked installment of “Learning to Dive,” in short, I learned a lot about depth and time and was humbled by the rigor of the dive test. The pool training was fun and informative, and it seemed pretty much as instructor John Brazau said: “The dive certification is about learning problem solving.” Indeed, as we took to the water on the Phoenix this week, Southpoint Divers’ boat that is docked behind the Hyatt, I observed folks of a wide variety of abilities and experience hop in the water with tanks on their backs. But learning how to stay cool, calm, collected and oxygenated? That requires some training.
The boat was helmed by Drew, our captain for the day, along with crew Emily, John and Mike, my instructor. Mike (last name: Jackson) was patient and clear in instruction, with a good sense of humor (if his knowing smile indicated, yes, everybody makes a Michael Jackson comment, though based on physical attributes, family relation is unlikely). Mike was charged with instructing me while also guiding a curious couple, Cindy and Bill, from Tennessee (Go Vols!) who were new to diving.
As we approached Rock Key, Mike gave us the run-down on hand signals, reminded us of basic equipment knowledge, and got us fitted in fins, masks, tanks and BCDs (buoyancy control devices, aka, Aquaman-style inflating vests). We were ready to take the plunge! Er, awkwardly waddle to the end of the boat, where some of us stepped, and some of us face-planted, into the ocean. Once in, we gave the “okay” signal (fist on top of head) and were ready to descend.
You know that feeling when you are going up in a plane, and what first is minor popping in your ears then increases to icepick-stabby pain? So that happened. Pretty quickly. But part of training is learning to clear your ears, by pinching your nose and lightly blowing, jiggling your jaw or swallowing. Experienced divers all have their own tricks to clear the Eustachian tubes, and shared them with me. John described the inner ear as like any muscle, one that you train and eventually cooperates. I was able to wiggle and blow (get your mind out of the gutter!) efficiently enough to get comfy and descend with my group, albeit a little slowly.
Once we got going, it felt fantastic. Trailing Mike along the ocean floor, being careful not to hit any coral, we glided along with fish and other marine life. Beautiful many-hued parrot fish (we saw blue, “stoplight,” and rainbow varieties) chomped on the coral with their oddly human-like teeth, and barracuda, clownfish, and even a ray or two glided around the group. Underwater, it was super calm, even if there was a little chop on the surface. The 35 minutes flew by, and before I knew it, Mike and I were on the surface practicing skills. We practiced sharing a regulator (the breathing piece), taking the gear on and off in the water and emergency towing. In a flash, the Phoenix was off to the next dive site.
We pulled up at Eastern Dry Rocks, another reef site only about 20 to 25 feet underwater. By now, my ears were popping, and my stomach was churning. The combination of the keel of the boat and swallowing some saltwater had me a little queasy, but I was eager to get back in the water. Our foursome (remember, everyone has to have a buddy — Mike was mine for the dive) headed down and once my ears adjusted, we were down for more adventuring. Cruising between coral heads, spying schools of fish and funky marine creatures (I saw a slug-like thing I want to call a “sea cucumber”) is transfixing. Truly, it’s easy to forget time and any difficulty as a human moving through such an otherworldly environment. It seems diving is akin to yoga in that way: learning to remain calm in potentially adverse circumstances, focusing on relaxed breath instead of strain. I felt relaxed and comfortable.
Until we surfaced! Mike was helping me practice a few skills—I was about to manually inflate a surface marker buoy or SMB, and I said:
“Mike, I’m about to puke.”
“Okay, I’m going to swim upstream,” he said calmly, ever the professional.
He swam upstream, and I lost lunch, and breakfast for good measure, in the next few minutes. The sunny side? The fish seemed to be pleased, and there was no puke-shaming on the Phoenix! It seemed as regular an occurrence as in the women’s room at the Green Parrot. John recommended ginger chews; Mike encouraged lots of water and looking at the horizon (a tried and true method my dad has encouraged since my bygone days of hurling on the cat to the Dry Tortugas. Memories!).
The even better news? I’m ready get back in the flippers! It’s rare that a person pukes and then says “That was super fun,” but perhaps diving is the exception. If all goes well, Friday will be my last dive as a student, and then I may have the opportunity to try something more adventuresome as a properly certified diver. I’m planning to bring the newfound knowledge, enthusiasm … and ginger chews.