August 05, 2003
Swimming With The Fishes
The cold, salty water shocked me. The waves were choppy and I had trouble keeping my head above the surface. Why was I surprised? I had 20 kilos of scuba gear strapped to my back and waist - I certainly wasn't going to bob like a cork. I felt like a gangster in 1930s Chicago who just snitched on Al Capone and whose payment was cement booties and a one-way trip to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Except I voluntarily paid for this privilege. My sanity was definitely in question.
"Learn to scuba dive in the beautiful Great Barrier Reef!" the brochure had said, tempting me with pictures of tanned men and women smiling benevolently beneath a bright sunny sky. Pictures of candy colored fish swimming around gorgeous coral formations. The sky and sea a beautiful warm blue. After a few weeks in chilly Sydney I needed no arm twisting - sign me up and take me away!
Still struggling in the swirling water, I switched to my snorkel - like I learned in the warm, waveless and shallow dive center pool. I promptly swallowed a mouthful of saltwater. Coughing, I spit out the snorkel in time to see my instructor signal it was time to go down.
I inserted the regulator into my mouth and stuck my masked face in the water. All I could see was a murky blue bottomless expanse of ocean. This was not in the brochure.
Most of the group was already underwater, so I forced another shallow breath and followed the masses down. Releasing all the air in my BCD (air vest), I slowly sank down into the dark, cold waters of the Great Barrier Reef. A meter or two underwater my brain woke up in a panic - this was a mistake - a HUGE terrible mistake. God had given me lungs that breathed air for a reason. If he had meant me to breath underwater I would have been born with gills. Water was leaking into my mask, I was sucking on my regulator like a woman possessed. Suddenly, it became clear. If I kept going, this was going to be my last earthly vision - masked humans pretending to be fish.
Self-preservation instinct kicked in as I wildly signaled to my instructor, Joe, that I was not doing ok. Without waiting for his response I kicked up to the surface. I wrenched the mask and regulator from my face and began gasping for air. Within seconds, Joe was by my side.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"GASP! Water...mask leaking...salty...GASP!...cold...can't do it...COUGH!"
He grabbed me by the shoulders, inflating my BCD so I could float unassisted and put his face inches from mine. In all honestly, I can't remember exactly what he said, but something to the effect of "calm down...it is just salt water...we can fix your mask...breathe...you ARE ok...you CAN do this."
I stared into his calm eyes with panic in mine. Something in the sound of his voice - sympathetic, yet using the slightly amused tone normally reserved for children scared of monsters in their closets - calmed me down. I don't know how. At that moment I decided that maybe I wasn't going to die. That MAYBE I would consider going back under the surface of the water.
I put my regulator back into my mouth and adjusted my mask I CAN do this, I thought. At least once. If I hate it, I never have to go back in. Realizing I had control of the situation, I signaled - rather unconvincingly - that I was ready to go down.
Five minutes later I was under several meters of water and concentrating with all my might to keep breathing regularly. The number one most important rule of scuba diving is to never hold your breath - to keep breathing evenly and slowly. The best I could do was suck air in and out like Darth Vader with an asthma problem. Breathe in...bubbles out....breathe in...bubbles out. Every few minutes, Joe would turn to me and flash me the "Ok? Ok!" signal - which I would dishonestly return, terror in my eyes.
Breathe in...bubbles out....breathe in...bubbles out...suddenly a brightly colored fish darted in front of me, looked me in the eye, then swam off. Cool! Look at that fish, I wonder what kin...SHIT! Breathe in...bubbles out...breathe in...bubbles out. Concentrate idiot!
But, the damage had been done - I'd glimpsed a taste of the wonders of the underwater world. And, even though I wasn't ready to admit it then, I wanted to see more.
Two days later I was a PADI certified diver. I'd made 7 more dives, including one creepy crawly night dive (another story completely!), seen multiple sharks, three sea turtles, and hundreds of parrotfish, damsel fish, and butterfly fish - not to mention dozens of different types of coral, giant clams and sea stars. On our first dive sans instructor I was even chosen to lead our graduated group of three.
To be honest, I'm not sure what got me in the water the second time. Maybe it was being afraid to look foolish in front of my group. Maybe it was because we'd already had two people drop out of our group and I didn't want to be another. Maybe it was the type-A inside me refusing to give up. Maybe it was because I had paid good money to learn how to swim with the fishes. I don't know. But, after that second dive, I realized that maybe - just maybe - I could get through the course. And, maybe - just maybe - I would actually be able to enjoy it.
In life I usually maintain a philosophy of trying almost anything at least once. After all, how else will you know if you like it? Scuba diving taught me that sometimes you have to try something more than once - or twice - to really give it a fair chance. That first impressions, while often unfamiliar and scary, aren't always the impressions that stick with you.
It is too soon to tell what I will remember most from this scuba education adventure. But, I can almost guarantee that it won't be choppy water or leaky masks or swallowing salt water.
On one of our final dives, my two buddies and I hired a digital camera to take photos underwater. For 30 minutes we swam around the Great Barrier Reef - turning somersaults, chasing fish and taking silly pictures of each other underwater. It wasn't until we climbed back aboard the boat that I realized I hadn't once worried about breathing regularly or choaking on water. I had been completely mesmerized by the water, the animals, the coral and the moment. I was just swimming with the fishes.