Sunday, October 4, 2015

I can breathe underwater, and that’s pretty cool! Part Three.

Part Three. (Part One is here, Part Two is here.)

Into the Deep Blue

Gearing up for adventure.
Turns out I worried for naught. There was an issue with his passport and he couldn’t join us for the trip to Pula, Croatia, for the open water dives that would lead to our certification. I spent the weekend paired with either Ed or Popeye, meaning I had only myself to worry about and not a buddy bolting for the surface whenever a bit of saltwater leaked through his regulator.

We stayed in cabins at Camp Stoja along the edge of the Adriatic Sea. There were dire-looking weather systems rolling in during the first half of the weekend, so as soon as we arrived we dropped our bags off at the cabins and drug our dive gear to the water to start the first of the four required certification dives. The plan was to get at least two dives in that afternoon, then hopefully squeeze two more in on Saturday so that Sunday was free for a boat dive after we had been certified and could enjoy ourselves.

Next to the dive site was a natural rocky outcrop that the German vacationers were using for sunbathing and swimming. We used the shallow ramp shaped side to wade into the water and to exit, or the steep side for Giant-Stride (walk right off the edge) and Croatian Twist (jump and twist mid-air to fall in tank first) entries.
Buddy checks before another dive.

The dive site was hardly a stone’s throw from the shore, and with the hard blade fins I’d bought for myself, a few kick strokes was all it took. Ed swam to the site and tied our dive buoy and flag to a rock at the bottom before each dive. Here we practiced buddy surface tows, descending and ascending, mask replace and clearing, regulator recovery, shared air, and other basic skills required for our certification. Everything we’d already done in the pool we were now doing 7 meters under the water.

It doesn’t sound like much, but floating inches above the bottom staring up at the surface, it sure looks like a long ways to go. The pressure was a surprise, too. My first descent seemed to take ages. I had to stop every few feet to slowly work my jaw, ears, and finally try to dry swallow to clear my Eustachian tubes. Each dive was incrementally easier, but it was sobering to think how much a single extra atmosphere of pressure could affect the human body.

I swam amongst them all day, time to see how they taste.

We completed the first two dives that afternoon, then headed to downtown Pula for food, weary but excited at having our first open water experience behind us.

The next day we found a break in the weather and knocked out the last two required dives.

The last dive of the day started uneventful. The water was so calm that we waded out using the rocky ramp along the shore but were surprised when we started to descend that the chop was already picking up. At the bottom of the buoy line the current was tossing us back and forth like a plastic bag in an eddy of wind. The visibility was less than 5 meters in any direction and our compass navigation test was even more challenging when the navigation markers laid by Ed earlier were drug away by the current. We struggled to take a single group photo before calling it quits.

At the surface the conditions were much worse. There were five-foot swells and our exit ramp was a nightmare of crashing and foaming destruction. To the left was a small cove, slightly sheltered from the onslaught and full of German vacation goers jumping into the maelstrom. Crazy Germans. Popeye swam into the cove and enlisted the help of some of the onlookers to help him out. He returned with a rope and we each took turns swimming with the swells into the cove where we removed our equipment to be hauled out and then followed on the rope.

Charla and I were the last two to go. We swam in together just as the swells increased in energy and height. We looked straight up to the towering crest and then slid down the backside into the trough. 

Inside the cove we struggled to slide out of our equipment and tanks. The waves crashed into the cove, slamming us against the rough razor-edged rocks.

In that moment I remembered a story from a coworker about married couples panicking in the water during SCUBA classes, placing each other in danger when their self-preservation instincts took control. I also remembered watching the Guardian, my go to inspirational flick for anything swimming related, and the scene where the husband tries to push his wife out of the rescue basket. I was determined not to be “that guy” but also knew that I was not in a situation to act the hero.

For one, Charla didn’t need one. She’s always been stronger and more confident in the water than I can even hope to aspire. Second, I was wearing a 12lb aluminum tank on my back, strapped to it by a nylon vest, in a water logged wetsuit with fins while greater than five foot swells smashed us against the rocks. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do that wouldn’t make it all worse.

So, I grabbed the rope in one hand and wrapped my arms around Charla and became a human punching bag for the rocks and waves. At one point I’m pretty sure we were upside down, lost in a white frothy world of turbulent water, but with regulators still in our mouths there wasn’t much cause to panic. We still had the rope, we had each other, and we had plenty of air.

Eventually, our classmates helped us doff the gear and hauled us out of the foaming mess, just as the swells died off and calm returned to the bay.

Tired, bruised, and elated, we were certified SCUBA divers.

Mandatory class graduation photo taken the next morning.
Note the lack of  5-foot swells and crashing waves.

Underwater Sunshine

We scheduled two boat dives with the local dive shop for our last full day in Croatia. We rode the rubber Zodiac-style speedboat out of the bay and into the blue waters surrounding Croatia. It was all very exciting and yet very relaxing. We weathered truly terrible weather during our certifying dives and this day was nothing but warm blue clear skies and smooth waters. We dropped off the side of the boat and descended almost 10 meters to the bottom.

And that’s when we lost Ed.

The tagalong diver that had certified earlier in the summer had some sort of equipment malfunction once on the bottom. It might have been a bad regulator, and I don’t know if she tried her octopus back-up, but at some point she headed for the surface with Ed in tow. They went up too fast and his dive computer shut down, a built-in safety feature to let him know not to dive anymore for at least 24 hours. What I’d failed to do to Ed in multiple attempts to demonstrate surface tows and diver rescue, she accomplished with one break for the surface.

The rest of us continued on, following the local dive master, Micky, in a scene right out of Life Aquatic. I even had the whimsical synthesizer beat playing in my head while we followed him along the sea floor. He guided us down to a max depth of 17 meters and then through stone arches, along coral, and then into a dark cave where we surfaced to watch bats flitter along the ceiling. It was a unique and unparalleled experience, and no one considered that we were floating in bat guano until much later.

Photobombed! I have nitrogen narcossis, what's your excuse?

I had been breathing heavy all weekend and both Popeye and Ed were keeping a keen eye on my tank pressure during each dive. When we exited the cave, Popeye even offered me his octopus to try prolonging my dive time long enough to avoid the surface swim back to the boat. I tried it, got mostly salt water and handed it back. He stuck it in his own mouth, and immediately pulled it out. We each shrugged and he signaled for the surface. Safety is safety, and not something to be toyed around with just for the sake of a few extra minutes underwater.

Might have forgot the sunscreen again.
Our second boat dive and last dive of the weekend was with a much smaller group. We’d lost Ed and the tagalong, and two other divers were not feeling recovered from the last dive. We dropped down alongside a coral reef and easily cruised along spotting jellyfish, scorpion fish, a giant starfish and sea cucumbers swaying in the gentle current. Once again I was sucking down enough air for two people but we finished the entire dive without having to surface early and rode back into the bay having just finished the first six SCUBA dives of our lives.

Popeye took us to the Safari Bar, a local family friendly restaurant and recreation area, to celebrate. 

Some of the class jumped off the cliff into the crystal blue waters, rode the giant wooden swings, climbed up a wooden tower to watch the sunset on the Adriatic, and sampled the local Sangria made with cheap red wine and canned fruit. It was easily the worst Sangria I’ve ever had, but tasted like the finest champagne after the exploits of the last three days.

As the sun finished setting behind the ocean waves, and the stars and moon took over the sky, our adventure in Croatia came to a close but our SCUBA adventures had only just begun.

Before, I trembled at the thought of what might be lurking under the waves, but now I know what’s down there.

It’s Charla and me, and we can breathe underwater.

I can breathe underwater, and that’s pretty cool! Part Two.

Part Two. (Part One is here.)


When first registering for the SCUBA course, each student was issued a textbook, accompanying workbook, cd, various stickers and swag, and access to the online course of which completion was mandatory before the first day of class. Char and I both managed to procrastinate much of the online course until the day prior where we spent a majority of the day reading, studying, quizzing and swearing. There were nine chapters, each with an online quiz required before moving on to the next chapter and one of these chapters was wholly dedicated to the functionality of dive tables.

Dive tables allow a diver to plan dives to safely off gas the excess nitrogen in their blood accrued by spending time underwater at various depths. The charts are supposedly designed to simplify these calculations and to be intuitive in their use.

I pride myself on my ability to pick up new material, especially anything math or formula related. My job demands that I be able to learn new things, not so much to master them but at least to apply the concepts in new situations under duress.

I had assumed that SCUBA would be no different.

Somehow the dive tables eluded my comprehension for several hours. The ensuing yelling, swearing, and throwing of objects across the room did not bode well for my ability to figure out how to breathe underwater without killing myself.

So far, still not going well.

Into the blue

The first day of class was spent reviewing the online course and previewing the week’s academic and pool sessions. We learned about the horrible ways to die by descending too quickly, ascending too quickly, playing with the local wildlife and ignoring our dive tables. I paid close attention to the all the horrible things that happen when you rise too quickly: reverse blocks, burst sinus blood vessels, air embolisms, and decompression sickness.

JD explains dive tables to the class in the hopes that we
won't accidentally explode underwater.

A true child of the 90s I was already familiar with decompression sickness having recalled a particular Baywatch episode from my youth when the Hof rescued a SCUBA diver and then spent a good portion of the episode in a hyperbaric chamber watching flashbacks roll by. Everything I know about saving lives I learned from Baywatch or Rescue 911.

We discussed the alcohol-like effects of nitrogen narcosis, caused by being too deep for too long. 

While this typically doesn’t happen above 24 meters, and we weren’t planning on any dives deeper than 18 meters, it still sounded like an easy way to put yourself in a bad situation very quickly.

We were also assigned our dive buddies. For safety and liability reasons most husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, groom/bride, father/son, mother/daughter teams are banned. Apparently, being underwater with minimal guidance makes for a great place to hide the body and previously hidden subconscious desires or tendencies sometimes reveal themselves in “accidents.”

They also don’t allow students to wear a dive knife, bring spear guns, or carry harpoons. Go figure.

We were introduced to our cadre of instructors, who would hold our hands through the process of learning to dive and help us survive our first open water experiences in the coming weekend.

There was JD, a retired military officer turned kept man volunteering with ODR to teach SCUBA to first timers. He would be with us all week through the classroom and pool sessions but miss the trip to Croatia for a family obligation.

Popeye would be our main instructor, a former soldier and current adventure sports guide for ODR. 

As his nickname suggests, he’s intimidating in the weight room at the local gym and seems right at home under about 10 meters of water. I’m not sure about any actual affinity for spinach, but he definitely has a penchant for smashing unguarded sandwiches. Whatever you do, don’t leave your sandwich alone.

Finally, Ed was the assistant trainer, current soldier and volunteer with ODR. He would suffer multiple failed attempts on his life by my poor ability to wrangle another body through the water during rescue dive training while burdened with a steel tank. Who knows how many gallons of saltwater he must have swallowed while I foundered alongside during surface tows. Good sport, really. Though, the final attempt on his life would come from another diver tagging along with our small crew for the weekend during one of our last dives.

We finished off the first evening at a local dive shop, procuring the personal gear to augment the gear issued to us by the Outdoor Recreation MWR shop hosting the SCUBA course.

The second night of class was our first night in the pool, and where we demonstrated our comfort in the water with basic swim skills. My own history with swimming is long and sordid and not something I will delve too deeply into here except to say, I was intimidated.

We settled our gear in buddy teams and got our first of many safety briefs from the instructors. They demonstrated a few acceptable swim strokes and lined us up alongside one end of the pool with a simple instruction: swim to the other side and back.

No goggles, no noseplug.

I hesitated for several seconds before pushing off, thinking about the water that was sure to shoot right up my nose, the fact that I could barely see without my goggles under the water, and how embarrassing this whole adventure was going to be after everyone saw me swim half the length of the pool, diagonally, before sputtering and coughing until someone pulled me out to sit soggy and crying on the sidelines for the rest of the evening.

Instead, I managed to keep most of the water out and could even, though just barely, follow the black line along the bottom of the pool to the other side. Once there I struggled to resist jumping out and doing a victory dance before swimming back.

The rest of the skills testing passed relatively uneventful. Even the 10 minutes of treading water was only approaching dramatic once the Taco Bell I had unwisely consumed a couple hours before began an apparently eventful journey through my digestive tract. Each prospective burp became a roll of the dice as to just what was going to come out, and no one wants to be the guy puking in the pool during SCUBA class.

We spent the rest of the evening with fins and snorkel masks learning to surface dive, swim with fins on, and basic rescue surface tows.

"Shark Bait" ready to try breathing underwater
for the first time.
The final two nights of class incorporated the tanks and wetsuits and we spent a lot of time at the bottom of the pool. We took our masks off and then put them back on and cleared them. We took our regulators out then recovered them. We pretended to run out of air so our buddy could share their alternate regulator (the “octopus”) with us. We did more rescue training and learned how to control our buoyancy to keep from sinking too deep or rocketing to the surface.

The basic skills training was simple and confidence building. I began looking forward to the weekend of open water dives for the first time. That is, until I my buddy started breaking for the surface every time something didn’t go quite right. A little water leaked into his mask, poof, he’s gone. Trouble putting his regulator back into his mouth, he’s up, up, and away. Couldn’t equalize the pressure in his ears, at 12 feet in a swimming pool, and the next thing I knew I was staring up at the bottoms of his fins.

Maybe the weekend was going to be more difficult than I thought.

To be continued...

I can breathe underwater, and that’s pretty cool! Part One.

A couple weeks ago, on a warm Labor day weekend afternoon, I was floating a mere inches above the floor of the warm Adriatic Sea just off the coast of Pula, Croatia. Sea cucumbers, urchins, and schools of tiny colorful fish, all blissfully ignorant of my intruding presence, surrounded me. I looked up and could see the distorted rays of sunlight filtering down through several meters of clear, blue Mediterranean water. I took a deep breath and exhaled, bubbles flowing across my mask as I breathed underwater for the first time in my life and, also for the first time, with no sense of panic or fear of being eaten alive.

Just a preview and maybe spoiler for the end of this story.
How did I end up here?

Char and I made the leap a few weeks ago and signed up for a NAUI basic open water SCUBA certification course. I don’t know what I was thinking, but somehow, in the back of my mind, I was pretty sure it would never happen. The course would be cancelled due to lack of participation or funding or weather or natural disaster or alien invasion. I believed this because for my whole life I never truly believed I would ever actually go SCUBA diving and would never enjoy it or be able to do it.

Part One.


As a kid I dreamed about growing up to be a marine biologist. I gleefully watched Jacques Cousteau effortlessly swimming along the bottom of the sea pointing out the impossibly colorful and varied life and narrated by his calm yet enthusiastic and accented voice. I was glued to the television weekly to experience the newest adventure of the crew of the SeaQuest and Roy Scheider as they explored the deepest depths of the unexplored oceans.

But as I grew older, my own relationship with water, especially open water, turned sour. Maybe I watched Jaws one too many times. Somehow Roy Scheider both motivated to get in the water, and terrified me of it.

That's a big pile of nope for me!
By the time I was an adult, I could barely swim across a pool and had an irrational fear of the open water. What was swimming underneath me? What just touched me? What was about to eat me?

Over the last couple years I’ve worked hard to overcome that fear. I’ve spent countless hours in the pool relearning how to swim and even competed in a few sprint triathlons, but almost suffered a panic attack in my first open water event. I’ve gone snorkeling several times, and almost always have to quell the sudden urge to flee the water and make a break for shore at the first shiver of anxiety.

When Char informed me that we’d signed up for the SCUBA class (we?) that same sense of panic that I usually experience when chest deep in water that I can’t see through gripped me while I was safely ensconced inside a hotel room on a work-related trip. Char ensured me that I’d agreed to this plan some weeks before, however, in the moment of commitment I had no recollection of making any such life-altering, and assuredly life-ending, decision.

I think you're right, Roy!

Treading Water

Less than two weeks before the class began, Char and I were in the pool where I had just struggled to finish a solid mile of lap swimming. In preparation for the upcoming SCUBA lessons she informed me that we’d need to tread water in the class and that we should begin training now. Remembering my swim training from Boy Scouts I assumed the requirement wouldn’t exceed more than a minute or two, which was good because that’s probably all I could manage. My body was built for sinking, not floating. Regardless, I side stroked down the pool to the deep end, lolled along by Charla’s irresistible siren call. With legs and lungs already exhausted from swimming I began treading, watching the clock on the wall deliberately. When a full minute elapsed I glanced over at where Charla sat perched, on top of the water, bobbing along effortlessly, naturally buoyant and relaxed while I strained against the pull of the deep, my pained face barely clearing the gently lapping waves of the indoor pool.

Another minute passed before I finally asked her, “so… how long are we supposed to do this?”

“For about ten minutes, babe.”

Fortunately for us both, I was too tired to reach out of the water and shake her violently. Instead, it was all I could do to maintain the motion of my cramping and burning and exhausted legs and arms and keep from drowning only four feet from the edge of the pool.

I managed a full five minutes before I was too spent to keep kicking and was tired of staring angrily in her direction.

This was not going well.

To be continued...