When I was little, I really enjoyed nature shows. One of my favorites was watching the adventures of Jacques Cousteau… and the thought of scuba always seemed so exotic. It never seemed like something that *I* could do. It required swimming skills, money and time that I never had. However, for winter term I saw that scuba was a course offered at PSU. And considering the direction my life is heading, suddenly it seemed like a very real and very good idea. So, I signed up.
The first thing I realized on day one, is that my swimming skills were NOT up to snuff. I could not pass the swim test, which required me to be able to swim a particular distance in a certain amount of time, to be able to glide underwater a certain length, and to dive and retrieve a 15 lb brick. Throughout the term, I tried to spend some time practicing my swimming. Aside from getting a bit stronger at swimming, I made little progress. The dive instructor actually didn’t really worry so much about my swimming skills, so the fact that I was never actually able to pass those tests did not prohibit me from continuing on to my certification. It was a hard class though. Not hard as in difficult to understand, hard as in challenging myself to do things that were difficult or even beyond my physical capabilities.
This picture illustrates how round my face is. 😛 The rest of me reflects this.
One of the things I struggle with in my life, is my weight. And while it is something I am beginning to figure out a way to possibly start to manage it, I’m still at the baby steps stage and the problem is significant. I weigh 235 lbs. While a lot of this is muscle, because I am a naturally muscley person when thin, *a LOT* is just plain fat. This causes a lot of problems in the water.
Because I do have a lot of muscle I used to be so dense, I would sink. It delayed my success in learning to swim when I was a child because I could never get beyond the floating exercises. If I couldn’t float, how could I possibly do any of the rest of it? I managed, through my own mechanisms to figure it out to a certain degree and could get around, but not using proper strokes… I was never an excellent swimmer.
Adding an extra 100 lbs of fat to the body changes the dynamics of how my body behaves in the water, I float. I really float. I had NO problem with the treading water portion of the test… I imagine I could tread water potentially indefinitely. I float like a cork. This seems great, until you’re wanting to dive 10 ft to the bottom of a pool and pick up a 15 lb brick. Then, suddenly it doesn’t seem quite such a benefit.
There’s also the aerodynamics of such excess weight. Creatures in the water that are round in the middle and pointy at their ends, are also extremely narrow. I’m not… I’m just round like a sphere… like a jelly fish. And you know, jelly fish don’t really try to maneuver themselves. They don’t pretend that they are graceful like dolphins, leaping from the water and diving deep. No, they just sit there and pulse, content to let the waves and current bring them where it will. So, if I was a jellyfish, this would all be fine, but indeed, I was really going more for the dolphin. Kicking, thrusting and the movement of my arms and legs did not bring me graceful strokes of elegance and beauty as the water parted before me. No, it was more like the thrashing of a tangled beast caught in a line who makes some small momentum as she struggles.
All this being said, I managed. The instructors told us that diving is really not about swimming… you go slow. I got through the pool sessions and honestly I didn’t feel like it was beyond my abilities. I did fine with the tank and the buoyancy control. I had to wear a little more weight than most to help keep me at the bottom, (I wore 10 lbs to the average person’s 4) but it really wasn’t bad. The BC vest and tank were heavy and it was hard for me to handle them, but it was okay and as the course progressed, it became simpler for me to do all the things I needed to do.
But this was just the class. In order to finish it, I had to pay extra money for the certification dive, which was not part of the package offered by the school. I wanted to be certified… after all, I’m going to Saint Croix in about a month and a half. So, I paid the money and traveled up to the Hood Canal in the Washington Olympic Peninsula. I have to admit that I was nervous about the certification. I knew we’d be going in the icy cold water of the Pacific Northwest. I was going to have to wear a wet suit – that may not keep me as warm as I’d like. But honestly, that’s about all the nervousness I felt. Getting into that cold water was going to suck.
I really didn’t have a clue. If I’d had any idea exactly how hard it would actually end up being, I don’t think I’d have paid that money and done it. Indeed, after the first day, I wanted to quit so bad. The certification dive was 5 dives over two days. I had done three dives and I really didn’t want to do two more.
The interesting thing was, for me (it was different for other people) the cold was one of the minor problems I ended up dealing with. It was there, and it certainly added to my discomfort – mostly when we had to sit around either under water or above water, several times I got extremely chilled. But the other things I had to deal with (much of which involved my weight) made the experience far more challenging.
The first difficulty was maneuvering my body into the wet suit. I’d no idea it would be so hard, because in the dive shop when I’d tried it on, it was one piece at a time. I didn’t realize how hard all that neoprene makes it to actually move. It was referred to as a Gumby suit, and that’s because it makes you feel like the wire plastic figurine that I lovingly knew as Gumby when I was a child. I could hardly move. How can you put boots on, when you can’t bend over? Not only that, my suit didn’t actually fit me correctly. I had a good extra four inches of length in the arms, the bunched up and pinched and made me awkward and between 8 and 12 inches of extra length on my legs.
Gumby – if only I’d been this flexible
I didn’t think this would really be a problem when I tried it on in the dive shop, I thought it would just roll up and be okay. But actually – because my calves are exceptionally large, and most men’s calves are not (it was a man’s suit) I found it extremely difficult to get the legs up high enough to get the edges of the boots underneath. There was no rolling – only pulling wedges of wrinkles up and down the body. Everything I did required so much effort, I had to stop and catch my breath after every attempt to do anything.
Once I’d maneuvered myself into this giant foam beast, and walked around stiff and barely able to move – I then had to deal with my BC vest, tank, and the weight belt. The weight belt I’d constructed earlier before I was so awkwardly assembled. The rule of thumb was 10 lbs plus 10% of your weight. So, I estimated that I needed about 33 lbs of weights on my belt. I decided to add an extra lb and make it 34. It was heavy. I don’t know why it seemed so heavy – but trying to maneuver that weight belt was an amazing burden. I could hardly lift it. I found the easiest way to carry it was to sling it over my shoulder.
The first dive was not actually a dive. We didn’t bring a tank of air or our respirators. We were to practice and test on skills at the surface of the water, so we only wore our weight belts and BC’s, masks etc. (A BC is a large vest which the air tank attaches to – it inflates with air to help keep you floating and allows you to maintain buoyancy at different depths.) We walked down to the water – until it was about waist deep and then we had to put on our fins. This was hard because my fingers felt like sausages in those gloves. My legs are not as flexible as they were when I was younger, due to some back problems, and now I had this gumby suit on, that made it harder to bend. I managed to get my fins on – and tighten them to a certain extent.
A good view of all the gear I had to wear.
So – we started doing the exercises – and it was okay – except I couldn’t do the pike dive. It was still hard for me to dive down. My mask kept filling up with water and required clearing a lot. It was cold – especially being bounced around on the surface. My BC leaked, so even though I’d inflated it a little, to keep me upright, the air I’d blown in as the waves were splashing in my face and choking me with water – quickly leaked back out, leaving me neck and sometimes nose deep in the water. Midway through the exercises, one of my fins fell off. It floated, so it was easily retrieved, but in the deeper water, I needed help getting it back on. Then my weight belt began to slip off. I tried to tell someone, but in all the splashing it was hard to gain attention. By the time someone finally saw the problem, my weight belt had slipped so that it was around my knees and only held in place by my awkwardly splayed position. One of the instructors put it back on and tightened it well, for me.
This was a troubling start, but the problems didn’t really seem out of the ordinary. Uncomfortable, but to be expected. I changed out the vest for one that did not leak and then we commenced to the second dive, which was actually a dive with an air tank. The cold of the water wasn’t that bad – except that for portions of the dive, we had to sit there while other people did things. Then, I got a bit cold. Early on in this dive, my weight belt began to slip again. I notified the instructor early when I felt it moving. He pushed it back into place a bit… but before we even started moving again, it was down around my knees. He removed it and we replaced it with him tightening it for me, very well.
Add to this, that my mask was now leaking severely. I would have to clear the water from it, and almost immediately it would start to fill again. It was exceptionally distracting and made it hard to focus on other things going on around me. The things I saw under the water, didn’t even seem that cool, because I could hardly look at them, for all the mask clearing I had to do.
By the third dive of the day – I’d given up on my mask and asked for a different one from the instructors. It’s hard for me to find a mask that fits, because none of them do. In other words, to fit a mask you’re supposed to put it on your face, inhale and push and then let go. The mask should stick to your face by the suction. None of them do this for me. Add to this that I am extremely myopic and require a -5 prescription – it’s really really really hard for me to find a mask that works for me. They had another and I tried it. It improved things minutely. I only needed to clear it every couple of minutes, instead of it immediately filling with water.
The third dive found me still clearing my mask repeatedly. So much so, that I paid little attention to the creatures around me. I’d gotten very chilled in the afternoon waiting for my turn to go in, so the cold now seemed unbearable. I was disheartened by my previous two dives and I just wanted to quit and go in. I didn’t enjoy the dive and it was made worse, when I (for the second time) lost a fin. This time, we were under water and I had to stay with my buddy – who hadn’t noticed and was continuing on with the group. I was afraid to take the time to turn around and look for my lost fin and lose the people important to me… so I left it behind and let people know I’d lost it. It was not retrievable.
My instructor gestured for me to wait at the bottom with the rest of my group while she went to get me a new fin – plus, in the ensuing confusion, my buddy got lost and accidentally joined another group – and one of their group accidentally joined ours – all at once. My instructor came back with a new fin (swum out by one of our shore component) and my buddy. But by this point I’d been sitting so long I was extremely chilled and shivering and constantly clearing water from my mask. I was ready to cry and just wanted to go in. We continued to explore and I didn’t enjoy any of it. As soon as I could get the instructors attention, I notified her I was cold and she shortened the dive and we went in.
Although I did it, I did not feel positive at all, about the first day. I could not imagine why ANYONE would want to dive in cold water. As far as I was concerned it was horrible – nothing but misery and discomfort. Oh – I forgot to mention the part when I tried to dive with my tank for the first time on the second dive, my weights pulled me over and I could not get upright. I was forced into a fish belly position floating at the top of the water, unable to maneuver at all. They added 6 more pounds of weight to clip onto the front of my vest. On the surface skills, they’d checked my buoyancy and decided I needed an additional four added to the back of my BC – all this increased my weight carried to 44 pounds.
Getting out of my wet suit did not improve my disposition any. I needed help to get my arms out – and I tried to take the overalls off without getting my boots off first, because I didn’t think I could get them out from under the wet suit I’d maneuvered over the top of them. After trying unsuccessfully and managing to get my suit completely inside out and all the way off except it was stuck around my ankles, I sat by myself in the gross pool of water in the shower and worked the suit back on enough to get my boots off and finish removing the suit. I brilliantly hadn’t brought any sandals, and walked barefoot over the dirty road, up to the “drying room” for the wet suits, where there was no room left anywhere for mine, aside from in the nasty pool of water on the floor I was slogging through in my bare feet. I decided instead, to double up and put all my stuff on top of someone elses on a plastic chair. Thus ended my first day of scuba certification. Did I really want another?
I debated this all evening. I thought about how utterly miserable I’d been. How hard it had been… how much easier this would be to do, in a tropical place. I wouldn’t need a wet suit, or so much weight. Not only was I less maneuverable with that wet suit, but the combined added weight, plus the BC, plus the weight of the wet suit, plus the weight of the tank meant I was carrying over a 100 pounds in weight. I have a bad back, was this really a good idea? I was not having fun. Wasn’t this supposed to be cool and fun? Why was I even doing this, if I wasn’t enjoying it? What was the point of it all? I questioned it all deeply… and there were several reasons that kept me going through the second day.
I’d paid a lot of money for that certification dive. I didn’t have the money now, to spend getting certified in St. Croix. I’d be more of a badass, because I got my certification in some place challenging like the Pacific Northwest, instead of someplace easy – like St. Croix. I’d already done half of it (and admittedly by the instructors, the first day was the worst half) and I knew I COULD do the rest of it (I just really didn’t WANT to.) Finally – the real turning point and what pushed me into actually doing it, I’d carpooled up there. Which meant if I quit, I’d have to sit around like a loser, by myself. I couldn’t just give up and drive back to my comfy home.
When morning came, I sucked it up and brought my moldery smelling wet suit down to the shower and put it on. Amazingly – it was actually easier the second day. Not to say that it was easy – because it wasn’t. It still required frequent rest breaks between the efforts of squeezing myself into it. But I did it and I knew which order to do what and my lack of mobility afterwards, wasn’t such a shock.
I also knew that there was another prescription dive mask – so I found out who was using it and convinced him to trade me. (It didn’t leak on him, the way it had on me – so don’t feel bad.) I thought maybe this one might work better, it was one I’d tried in the pool and it’d worked pretty well. I was used to all the weight. I knew to get help tightening my belt and my fins. I knew the water would be cold, but that it wasn’t so bad if you don’t go in chilled to your core and you aren’t left sitting for an extended period.
I went in for my first dive and it almost makes me cry to think on it. It was amazing. My mask didn’t leak, at all. Everything went the way it was supposed to. Because I wasn’t constantly trying to clear my mask, I was able to pay attention to my buoyancy. I adjusted the air – so that I wasn’t dragging on the bottom at depth. I was able to SEE things – the fish with their beautiful colors, the clams with their valves sticking up, the worms with the fronds sticking out – the sea slugs, the star fish – everything was AMAZING – and it was so awesome. I even found the only octopus of the trip. It was admittedly – a small one, but *I* found it. It was hiding beneath some algae – and it was incredible… I had it crawling on my hand and watched it ink as it tried to escape. At the end of this dive, I felt reborn and as though all I’d endured was worth the trouble and pain. I felt competent.
I saw these and a lot more too!
I will say that the final dive didn’t go quite as well, because the mask started leaking again, I really don’t know why as nothing was trapped in a way that would have changed it. I guess I just didn’t have it seated right. This distraction made it hard for me to enjoy things as well and diminished my pleasure in the final dive. I had a little trouble getting down to depth – too buoyant again, briefly lost my buddy – but we found each other. It was an okay dive… but the highlight for me, and the best part of the trip was that 4th dive on the second day. One nice thing – getting the wet suit off the second time, was a lot easier since I knew what to do, and what order to do it in.
After my final dive, I had the pleasure of knowing that as hard as it had all been, *I* had done it… I am now a certified open water scuba diver. And I’m bad ass, because I did it in the Pacific Northwest, with a wet suit in icy cold water. I really feel a strong sense of pride and accomplishment, because it was not easy. I really feel like the extra weight I carry, made this harder than it was for the average person there. It was hard, uncomfortable and often not fun at all – but I persevered, and I did it. I’m proud of me.
I am a scuba diver.