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.

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