Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Adventures of a Failed SCUBA Diver

I come from a long line of worriers. If worrying were a sport, my grandmother, mother and I could be the first three-generation family to represent the US in the Olympic Games. We’re such worries that we actually debate whether or not to drive with the car doors locked. Locked car doors are better protection from car-jackers, purse-snatchers, and other deviants. But unlocked doors provide easier access to EMTs responding to a car accident. It’s a Catch-22 that would make Joseph Heller proud.

I’ve been working hard to fight my own personal fear-factors and leave worrying along the roadside while I drove quickly past with the doors unlocked. So when it came time to decide whether or not I was going to take SCUBA lessons with Cliff, I swallowed the grapefruit sized ball of fear in my throat and handed the instructor my money. “It’s a $100 experiment,” I told Cliff: worth it just to see if I could do it.

To be honest, I’ve always had some hang ups about water. I like to swim, and feel confident about keeping myself afloat, especially in salt water where pretty much everyone floats with little or no effort. But there’s something about the deep end of the ocean that is a wee bit scary. You can’t actually see the bottom, first of all. And if you could, there might be things there – moray eels, sharks, the bad kind of snakes, jelly fish, etc. – that could cause genuine concern for both me and my grandmother. Plus, I have this thing about my nose. Ten years of swim lessons and 14 summers at the lake, and I’ve never been able to shake the need to hold my nose when I go under water.

So, you can see why I considered this SCUBA diving course to be an experiment and not the guaranteed return on investment that it was for Cliff.

As an outsider, diving always looked like a complicated and risky activity. Especially the equipment: the buoyancy control unit (BCU), the first stage, the second stage, the tank, the computer. It turns out the most complicated thing about the equipment is actually walking while wearing it. (It’s so heavy that at one point I bent down to pick up my snorkel and discovered I couldn’t stand up. The instructor actually had to come and lift me up by the back of my BCU.)

The buoyancy control unit turned out to be just a life jacket that you can inflate or deflate depending on whether you want to sink or float. It attaches to a pipe that runs into the tank. That pipe provides your air, which goes directly into your mouth through a little mouthpiece that looks vaguely like a football player’s mouthpiece attached to a big hose. There’s an extra mouthpiece and hose, as a safety precaution, and a little computer that tells you how deep you are, how long you’ve been underwater, and how much air you’ve got left in your tank.

Operating a VCR is actually more complicated than SCUBA diving.

The above statement should come with an asterisk on the end, and a notation that says *for most people. I, however, am not and have never been “most people.” There are a rare number of us who have some little complication. Mine happens to be my nose (which some people might argue isn’t so little, right Logan?). My nose and I have a co-dependent relationship. It likes to breath. It’s had 29 years of activity, and doesn’t quite understand why I would ask it to stop breathing and let my mouth do all the work. My nose is an independent thinker and a take-action kind of guy, and pretty much nothing I do can stop it from doing its work.

Now the mask you wear is pretty water tight, so my free-breathing nose isn’t too much of a problem when I’m diving. I take most of my air in through my mouth, and my nose just chugs along happily at a somewhat reduced rate of inhalation. So diving wasn’t a problem. However, to be certified you have to pass skills tests, which involve filling your mask full of water and flushing it, and taking your mask off underwater and putting it back on. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this wasn’t going to go well for me.

Joseph, our Zen-like dive instructor, was patiently insistent that I could get past this hang up. “You’ve just got a little man in there what wants to do all the breathing for you, and what we have to do is just keep trying until eventually that little man gives up,” he told me. Unfortunately, stubbornness is as dominant a family trait as worry is for me, and my little man wasn’t about to give up. He also wasn’t too fond of choking on salt water, which is what he spent most of our underwater sessions doing.

Our final day of the course arrived. Joseph agreed to let me do the day’s dives, and then come back for extra sessions to practice the skills. So, with my skills tests un-passed and my anxiety level reaching Himalayan heights, I boarded the boat and promptly got seasick. Now the little man was not only breathing, but nearly hyperventilating.

In what I consider an act of great courage, I strapped myself into my gear and jumped overboard. The motion sickness was immediately better, and I had a brief glimmer of hope that today was my day. The little man might just agree to take a sabbatical and let my mouth do the work, allowing me to get through the dives and skill tests.

With the instructor, Cliff, and the two other students at my side I deflated my BCU and slowly descended to 6 meters. The water was an amazing crystal blue color, like the shade of transparent blue glass, and in just the few minutes of initial swimming I saw a jelly fish, starfish, coral, and a rainbow’s worth of little fish. (I’ve come to refer to Tongan fish as “fish in prom dresses” because of their colorful scales. Some even have polka dots that sparkle like sequins. I also like to joke that the fish prefer strapless dresses, because you know, they don’t have shoulders.)

Three minutes in I was doing great. We swam a bit and then Joseph had us drop to our knees on the rocky bottom to practice our skills. And that’s when it started: the little man started kicking. He also started making up stories, which because of his convenient position in my nose he could feed directly into my brain, about how my mask could fill with water and I’d be 18 meters underwater and choking and unable to come up for air. He started making up stuff about pressure in my ears, my sinuses, and headaches. Somehow he even got my heart to start pounding in irregular rhythms that brought a quick return of the feelings of motion sickness. And I panicked. I flagged Joseph down, gave him the international SCUBA signal for “get me the freak out of here,” and made a beeline for sea level.

Back on the boat I unzipped myself from my wetsuit (which, of course, made me look just like a Baywatch actress), took my SCUBA equipment apart for the last time and wondered if I’d made the right call. Could I have gotten the little man to shut up? Maybe I should have at least finished the first dive before I quit. What was I missing down below?

These are questions the little man and I will never be able to answer. What I do know is that some people just aren’t meant to be SCUBA divers. We’re meant to enjoy the ocean from the safe confines of a sturdy boat, preferably with a life jacket handy in case one of those big waves gets a little out of control. Occasional excursions from the boat in order to snorkel or swim are permissible, as long as the life jacket is still handy, the water is calm, and no morai eels have been sighted in the area.

Possibly the moral of this tale is that I am my grandmother’s daughter, but I prefer not to think of it that way. I like to think of myself as an independent thinker and a take-action kind of gal, just like that little man in my nose, who knows her limits and isn’t afraid, on occasion, to test them. So I’ll drive with my doors unlocked, swim in the deep end of the ocean, and try to use the international SCUBA signal for “get me the freak out of here” as infrequently as possible.

Postscript: if you want the real story on SCUBA diving, ask Cliff, our family’s only certified diver.