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On Learning How to Scuba Dive

It’s been a busy summer, friends. In the space of just a few short months, I set foot in thirteen states. We jumped out of a plane. And for good measure, I learned how to scuba dive. Why not? You only live once.

Before skydiving, I was nervous. Jumping out of a plane just didn’t feel natural. In fact, I hardly saw the point. Why strap a parachute to yourself and hurtle to the ground at 9.8 meters per second squared? It just didn’t make sense, not until I actually jumped out of the plane and felt the utter exhilaration. The view was amazing, but the adrenaline rush was something that I’ll chase for a long, long time. Now I get it.

Scuba diving, on the other hand, made sense to me. It was something that I’d always wanted to try. I love water – being in it, around it, on top of it – and I love marine life. Diving is the best way to experience all of that, with the additional benefit of feeling weightless and floating underwater.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – you’re not just allowed to don a scuba mask, strap on a tank, and jump into the ocean to swim with the fishes. Before the fun stuff, you have to get through scuba school. For me, scuba school was one long weekend divided between the classroom and pool time. Like a good neurotic student, I read the textbook in advance, endured the teacher’s ramblings and rape jokes, then rocked the test with a 96. The pool sessions were much more enjoyable. After getting hands-on experience in assembling scuba equipment, we learned “skills” like what to do when your mask floods with water and how to control your buoyancy.

After scuba school, you must complete four “checkout dives” in an open-water environment. For me, these dives took place at Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. We went through The Scuba Shop and I’d recommend those guys to anyone. The staff is incredibly awesome. They went above and beyond in getting my paperwork from the original scuba school, even when that owner (see ‘rape jokester’ above) proved to be less than helpful. And when we finally got out to dive with them, both Xavier and I had a blast.

Getting suited up for scuba diving is no joke. The first thing to be concerned about is your temperature. Your body loses heat up to 25 times faster in water than in air, so you want to be sure you’re wearing a thick wet suit to ensure comfort. Since we’d be doing a lot of floating around in cool water, the instructor gave me a 7mm neoprene suit for my checkout dives. Putting that thing on was the most challenging part of the whole weekend, requiring maneuvering and contouring like the sassiest music video you’ve ever seen. After the suit is finally in place, you’ve got a BCD: a vest that fills up with air and allows you to float. This vest has a little hose with a button that adds air and another that deflates it. You depress the deflate button to descend underwater for a dive. The descent is aided by the weights that you wear, strapped to your waist by a thick webbed belt. And of course, you’re carrying your tank, your fins, and the regulator hose that winds around your shoulder and allows you to breathe underwater. It’s definitely awkward, adjusting to wearing so much bulky equipment.

I was incredibly excited for my first open-water dive. When my class and I clustered around the buoy and obeyed our teacher’s instruction to sink, mine was the first index finger to deflate its BCD. I waited to sink with bated breath. Nothing happened. I released the breath and its buoyant properties. Still nothing.

Three minutes later, my first scuba experience took place after my instructor hauled me down the rope by my ankle, imploring me with a raised palm to stop flailing. Apparently, my little kicks had no effect in helping me swim down to the bottom – I was supposed to wait patiently and allow the fifteen pounds of weight strapped to my hips to sink me. But finally, I made it. I was greeted by a cloud of lake silt, 20 feet below the surface.

Lake Jocassee is gorgeous from above. But underneath, everything looks golden-brown and muddy. For a first dive, it was awesome. The lack of scenery gave me a chance to focus on the task at hand: performing my skills so I could earn my certification.

In clouds of silt, we demonstrated “skills:” removing our scuba masks, replacing them, and clearing them of water. We swam to the surface without air, simulating an emergency ascent and exhaling lots of little bubbles the whole way up. We breathed from our buddy’s alternate air source, pretending we had run out of air. And after we’d demonstrated that we could handle emergencies, our instructor led us through fun swims in the underwater world.

Breathing underwater with scuba gear is really one of the coolest things you can ever do. I think it’s the closest most of us will ever be to the weightless environment of space. Imagine what it feels like to effortlessly hover above the ground. If you want to rise a little higher, simply take a deep breath and feel yourself float and glide. It’s simply amazing. I can hardly imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to do dive.

(On that note, the biggest concern I’ve heard is that people are afraid of underwater life. To that, I say: that is the other amazing part of diving! Do you love going to the aquarium and watching the fish interact? Imagine being a part of that. As long as you don’t act like a jerk and intimidate the big guys, it shouldn’t be a concern. [Provided you’re not diving somewhere like Australia, where a thumbnail-sized jellyfish can kill you in three seconds with its venom]).

Anyway, despite Lake Jocassee being cloudy and less than ideal for seeing amazing fish, it was still a great experience. I saw a sunken boat (with ‘Dive Naked’ written on the window) and practiced swimming through a little field goal. Also, the lack of external stimuli allowed me to focus on adapting to the whole experience. The lake wasn’t completely lacking in life. I did see the occasional sunfish, and remembered myself as a kid, fishing them out of the lake at camp.

How funny to be on the other side of the fishhook.

Earning my open water certification was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It literally opened up an entire new world for me. The next weekend, we would explore that world for the first time. Stay tuned!

(All photos are mine – if you want to use them, just ask!).

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