My first exposure to underwater settings was the ‘50s TV show “Sea Hunt,” starring Lloyd Bridges, seen in reruns during the ‘60s. I was fascinated by the sea and what lies beneath the surface. Those Sea Hunt adventures where so much fun, even in black and white. Perhaps it was the adventure and battles against bad guys that was present in every episode. Admittedly, it was not the science of diving but the adventure of diving that drew me in those early days. Even though I loved the idea, I never had the opportunity to pursue the sport.
I lived on an island (Jamaica) for the first 10 years of my life but not close to the sea. As a matter of fact, water was always associated with some fear or frightful event. We never went to the water and I never learned to swim. The fear of water held tight in my mind because encounters with water were always scary, real and imagined. When the opportunities came to learn how to swim, I somehow managed to bluff my way through without gaining the benefit. Although I was given a pass on those occasions, I never fooled myself into thinking I could actually swim. Luckily, each incident where I was in literally over my head, I managed to pull myself out. While in college, I took, at the time what was the mandatory swimming course as a necessity for graduation. I got a B grade, but in my heart, I knew that I was not very good and would not trust myself to survive in any watery situation.
Years passed after college and I struggled with the idea that I did not know how to swim. As I began to travel, I found myself in more and more open water situations where my pride would not allow me to miss out on fun while I knew the risks I was taking. The numerous times I flirted with disaster forced me to make a concerted effort to at least get the basics right. Between the National Capital YMCA pool and a DC public pool near work, I took informal lessons. These instructions came from knowledgeable lifeguards who saw my plight and taught me fundamentals. I grew more comfortable in the water but I still struggled. However, my effort to learn the basics soon paid off.
It was the summer of 2000 and a group of us went camping along the Shenandoah River in Virginia. We all went tubing along a 2 mile stretch of the river. We negotiated gentle flows and mild rapids along the way. We had such a grand time that we decided to repeat the trip. At the end of the second run, I found myself on the opposite bank from where I wanted to be. In an attempt to cross the river laterally, my tube was pushed further down river and was caught in a larger rapid with swift churning water. I was overturned and pulled under repeatedly as I fought to orient myself in the righted position. My fellow campers all watched helplessly as I struggled against the river. I lost skin from both my big toes where they dragged against the rocks in the rapids. I also lost some personal possessions, all of which could be replaced, but fortunately, I pulled myself out and saved my life. It was sheer strength and the knowledge gained from my recent swimming lessons that saved me that day.
A few years prior to the swimming lessons, I had traveled to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. On one of my excursions off the coast of Cairns, I took a resort diving course for the opportunity to try scuba diving! What an eye opening experience this was for me. Perhaps I should not have gone because I had some congestion from the remnants of a head cold. This was dangerous and I saw some of the side effects such as blood in the phlegm I expectorated later on the surface. This was a direct result of the pressure and my attempts to equalize as I dropped down to 33 feet. But I was determined and saw this as a perfect opportunity. I was totally out of my element skill wise as I huffed away a full tank of air in less than 20 minutes. There is video of my actions underwater and they are almost comical to watch. Besides the blood, at the surface, I was totally exhausted but happy for the experience.
In 2001, about 4 years after the Australian adventure, I decided I would vacation in Dominica, and while there, become a certified scuba diver. I signed up with Dive Dominica. I was introduced to my instructor, William Lawrence (Billy). I told Billy that I could not swim. He then explained to me that swimming is not necessary for being a certified scuba diver and that he had certified other divers who were not swimmers. Because I was prepared to abandon my quest if swimming was a rigid requirement, this was really good news to hear. Without going into great detail, the class room instruction, the underwater sessions and the constant encouragement from Billy, served as a great confidence builder. Working with Billy one-to-one made the learning process so much easier. The skills necessary to become a certified scuba diver were all new to me but I grasped the concepts through the science and practiced execution. As I would later come to realize, Billy had taught me so much in those several days of classroom sessions and the “pool.” The pool in this case was the Caribbean Sea.
The first rule of scuba diving is, “Never dive alone!” Because so many small or large things can go wrong on a dive, your chances to overcome problems can be helped by having one or more divers close by who can offer assistance. Once you begin diving, one of the biggest challenges in learning to dive is to overcome certain fears. Acclimatization to having the regulator in your mouth and a mask on your face is some of the many things, but buoyancy is the key. Achieving neutral buoyancy or being seemingly weightless in the water takes time. In the beginning, I kept hearing things from other divers that it gets easier after 20 dives; then I heard 40, 50, 80, and 100. I cannot say exactly when it got easier, but on each dive the skills improved: comfortable or effortless breathing, controlled breathing, maintaining neutrality or buoyancy, gauging the minor adjustments throughout the dive, being a considerate diver (don’t stir up the bottom, awareness of fins and gauges), looking out for your buddy and others and just a host of things that begin to become second nature after approximately 250 dives as I write this summary. And as recreational divers, there are times when we forget to put on the weight belt or forget the mask, just to name a few glitches when practicing a sport that we participate in once or twice a year for a week if we are lucky.
A typical dive trip lasts about 8 days and consists of 6 days of 2 tank boat dives. This means that each day divers board a boat that typically leaves the dock near the dive shop around 8:30 AM. Depending on the locale, the ride to the first dive site averages 20 minutes. By the time we are briefed on the dive site and a dive plan is explained, divers gear up and everyone is in the water, maybe more than an hour would have passed since we left the dock. A typical dive lasts anywhere from 45-60 minutes depending on skill, conditions, depth and when the first diver gets back on board. There is a mandatory surface interval of about 60 minutes between dives. This includes the time we travel to the next site and go through a new briefing routine. During the surface interval, tanks are switched either by the dive outfit’s personnel (dive master(s) and/or boat captain) or by the individual diver. In some dive operations, there is “valet” service in that the diver just sits at the edge of the boat before entering and exiting the water. Your gear is handled by staff in each instance. In other operations, the responsibility for gearing up and down is left to the individual. I am fine either way.
If one is in a locale that offers shore diving, it is more advantageous to go this route, especially if you enjoy diving. On the boat, you will get in two to three dives per day. The third dive would come from diving with the afternoon boat. But typically, ample shore diving like in Bonaire, five dives per day is not that unusual. On those long days, we start early and finish by dusk or include a night dive. There are adequate surface intervals between dives. And as diving goes, the first dive of the day is the deepest and the succeeding dives are planned for shallower depths. A typical five dive day would consist of, if desired a 90-120 ft first dive. 120ft is safe limit set for recreational diving. The later morning dive(s) would take into consideration a maximum depth of 60 ft. Subsequent dives would typically level off at around 45 feet, with most of the bottom time being spent at around 30-35 ft. With a repetitive diving schedule, bottom time (the actual dive time) would typically be 45-50 minutes per dive. One point of clarification, the term “shore diving” only refers to the fact that the diver enters the water in a manner other than from a boat. Shores at many dive sites are tricky to negotiate the entries because most are not beach and sand as the term shore connotes. In Bonaire for example, entry to the sites Karpata or 1000 Steps require climbing down steep flights of stairs at the respective sites. At some other sites, you are likely to encounter "iron shores" (limestone fringes with numerous marine fossils). These are sometimes sharp and steps have to be carefully taken. In addition, some shore dives require navigation on the water’s surface before reaching the “drop off” or area where the reef begins. Some of these drop offs are a long way from shore and water is maybe 10-15ft deep but it is wise to conserve the air going out so that when returning you can remain submerged until you are closer to the exit point near the shore.
I started out by lamenting my lack of swimming skills and fear of water. My skills have vastly improved in that the fear of water has dissipated while gaining a great respect for the environment. My body has adjusted to the water and does not struggle or panic thus boosting my confidence. I still know my limitations, but I trust myself more now when I am in the water.
Like many subjects of interest, diving is to be experienced as much as it could be written about. The paragraphs appearing here are but a synopsis of my journey to this point in the adventure. Follow my trips in pictures from the beginning by visiting “Links to Photo Galleries” page by clicking here or above.
Good bottom times to you!
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