Generally speaking, cut tags can bite me. I don't skim. When I find a new blog that interests me I almost always go through all of that person's archives, reading every word. Having to click through cuts just slows me down. But in deference to the fact that this is easily three times longer than any other entry I've ever made, and that you might be reading this on somebody's friend page, I've grudgingly added a cut this time. You're welcome.
My mom and sister and I were looking for some kind of trip we could go on together. The first thing that came up was a cruise, but I read a little about them online and to me they seem over-planned and confining.
I saw an article on the Wired website about a recent around-the-world sailing race. It mentioned Donald Crowhurst in passing, a guy who nearly faked his way into winning the very first such race way back in 1968. I found myself so intrigued by the guy that I bought two books about that race, one specifically about Crowhurst and another about him and all the other participants. Quite engaging.
I wrote up a brief history of Crowhurst's fateful race, bristling with URLs and pictures, and e-mailed it to Mom and my sister, trying to convince them that where we really needed to do on our trip was go to Cayman Brac. Crowhurst's boat was sold to a fisherman. In the early seventies the boat was blown ashore on Cayman Brac during a hurricane and it is still there to this very day. Nobody wants it, I guess. Very strange, and I want to see it. Mom was intrigued enough to borrow the book about Crowhurst and read it herself.
It's my sister who has all the money in the family so it fell to her to make the reservations. Since Cayman Brac is not a common tourist destination, she couldn't find a travel agent that knew anything about getting there. Not having the same laser-like focus on the topic that I do, she put it off long enough that the trip I had proposed became impossible in the time frame we were thinking about. (Incidentally, that's not going to stop me. One of these days I'll make that trip myself and I'll be posting about all the strange things I saw there. Just you wait.) So our backup trip ended up being two days in Coral Gables, where I used to live, then four days in Key West, the southernmost tip of the U.S. It's closer to Cuba than it is to Miami.
My sister and I were planning to get SCUBA-certified here in Tennessee so we could dive in the ocean. SCUBA didn't appeal to me all that much but it did to my sister, and she's WAY too sedentary, so what the heck, I thought I might be able to help get her into some exercise. That was another thing we dawdled over and never completed in time for the trip. She suggested we make backup plans to go snorkeling but I pooh-poohed that. It sounded to me like a pussified half-measure. You should all know how I feel about THAT, Dear Gentle Readers.
When we got to the hotel in Key West my sister saw something at the front desk that said you could SCUBA dive with only a few hours' practice, so long as you were accompanied by an instructor. This of course struck her fancy. I still wasn't keen on the idea but for reasons already mentioned I felt like I should do it.
BOY was I dreading it, the night before. The very idea of being completely enveloped by seawater and its attendant pressure sounded like a prison sentence. I tried all sorts of mental tricks to keep myself from thinking about it so I could go to sleep.
I think the one real-world skill I've learned from climbing is fear management. When you're climbing in a gym you know, logically, that there is absolutely no real danger, so long as you're careful. But it's difficult to stop your lizard hindbrain from being fearful anyway. For the first time in my life climbing made it possible for me to cope with fear totally separate from something making me fearful, since in this case it's absolutely nothing.
It was Wednesday, February 12, four days after my fortieth birthday. As soon as I woke up I started applying the fear management techniques I learned from climbing, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, razoring away the fear into a box to be dealt with later.
Mom drove my sister and I in our rental car to the appointed place, a boat dock. We arrived at ten in the morning. We found the tiny dive shop. We were to be their only two students that day. We got a really cool instructor, an Israeli kid named Lior. He's got a stringy blonde mane of hair that looks like natural dreadlocks. He asked us our weights and shoe sizes and filled up a dolly with a whole bunch of dive gear. We walked the short distance to a nearby hotel pool where we had our first lesson.
I'm not sure how we got on the subject but Lior mentioned he hadn't been off the island in five months, which is coincidentally how long he's had his job. He's here on a green card, he's planning to return to Israel eventually. We sat at a table next to the pool. Lior lit his first cigarette of the day (pity, that) and explained the fundamentals of diving to us.
We walked to the edge of the pool and started strapping on all that gear. First the weight belt. Very heavy. So much so that it had momentum of its own. I would turn one way, stop, and the weight belt would keep right on going. You wear it right about where you start getting a "rubber tire" if you gain weight. Hey, this is what it would be like if I was fat, I thought. Imagine if you could never take this thing off. It was amusing how quickly the extra weight came to seem natural and I'm sure that happens to fat people as well.
Next the tank. They're not very big so it's surprising that they weigh as much as a field pack. I'm guessing I was up to about fifty extra pounds by now. And the fins. Now it doesn't matter that I'm so heavy because I can't walk anyway. Then the mask and attached snorkel. Now I've lost my peripheral vision, I can barely see.
Oh my god, I am now totally unsuited for life on land. Lior has turned me into a sea creature. This must be what it feels like being a beached whale. He had us jump into the pool and try the respirator in our mouths, which is next to impossible to breathe through if you are not submerged, and the transformation was complete.
He had us stick our faces in the pool and convince ourselves that it works. For some reason it is much easier to suck air from the respirator when you are submerged. Against all instincts, you can breathe underwater.
Normally you take breathing for granted but with SCUBA equipment it is a big hairy deal. You have to pull a bit harder than normal to get a lungful of air, all the while hearing a "swoosh" sound I associate with hospital machinery in movies. Exhaling produces a big wash of bubbles. And you can't use your nose, of course. In fact, the more air you let travel through your nose the more fogged your mask gets.
Thus began our underwater "skills training." Lior had us practice "losing" the respirator, sticking it back in our mouths, clearing out the water, and starting to breathe again. Then we tried it with the backup respirator hanging off of our tanks. Then we tried it with each other's backup respirators, in case one of us should run out of air.
Next step. Clearing your mask. Lior made us break the seal and let some water in, almost up to our eyes, then blow it all out by exhaling through our noses. We both flubbed that one repeatedly before getting the hang of it.
All the rest was details, I guess. Various hand signals you use underwater, since you can't talk. Checking your tank to see how much air you've got left. Letting air into your BCD bladder to make yourself more bouyant, and letting it back out to make yourself sink. Swimming to the bottom of the deep end and noticing the pressure change in your ears, and practicing holding your nose and blowing to get some air in there so you don't bust an eardrum.
That was the end of the lesson. It had taken about two hours. Lior loaded all the gear onto the dolly and took it back to the shop.
Nothing all that hard really, and occasionally it was kind of cool, I have to admit. I used to swim a lot as a kid and was always frustrated that I couldn't stay underwater any longer than I could hold my breath. But I certainly didn't let my guard down for the entire two-hour lesson. I was focusing really hard on learning the techniques involved. Occasionally I'd try to get my sister to stop with the "oh wow, this is so cool" stuff and focus hard herself.
We went next door to eat at a place right on the dock and had the best seafood of the whole trip. Too bad Mom wasn't with us. My sister was talking only about all the cool stuff we were going to see: fish, a coral reef, maybe other strange things. She had bought herself a disposable waterproof camera to document what she saw. Personally I was focusing 100 percent on the dive itself, the technique, the equipment, remembering what to do.
I was assessing what I thought would be the biggest challenges. The worst, I feared, would be my ears, which have always been very sensitive to pressure changes. I usually suffer minor discomfort and a small loss of hearing for at least a day after a flight. I figured the second worst would be breathing through the respirator while on the surface. The way Lior had mapped out the dive for us, it sounded like we'd have to swim a ways before getting to the dive point. He said we should breathe through the respirator the whole time because we'd get pummeled by waves.
At one o'clock we got on a boat, manned by a guy who introduced himself as "our captain," and a woman who was his assistant. Lior had brought along a co-worker, a new instructor learning the ropes. There were also another three divers, all fully certified, so they didn't need a den mother like we did.
They said it was going to take forty minutes to get to the first dive site, and if it did, it flew by like nothing. Before we knew it Lior was having us get into wetsuits. Wetsuits! I hadn't thought about that. It wasn't as warm as it could have been, the water was about 70 degrees. A medium as dense as water can really suck the heat out of you at that temperature.
Did anybody besides me not know that wetsuits are really incredibly tight? You pull and pull and pull and pull and hey, it's gone up my arm an additional inch! Yay! I'll have it on any week now! Once I got it all zipped up it was more difficult than usual to breathe. As if that wasn't already going to be a problem.
Weight belts, tanks. The boat was pitching and yawing on the waves, making it that much more difficult to manage. It was common for even the experienced divers to nearly fall over wearing all that heavy equipment and being helped upright by the captain's assistant.
Final instructions. Stand at the edge of the platform, right hand on your mask and respirator to keep them from working loose when you hit the water, left hand on your weight belt, and "take a big step."
Standing on the edge of the boat, I sure didn't feel like taking that "big step." I felt like I weighed eight thousand pounds. Between the tight wetsuit and the uncooperative respirator I could barely breathe. The rolling of the boat made it worse. It was taking every iota of mental management I could muster to not let the fear and loathing swallow me whole. One step at a time, I kept telling myself, one step at a time.
Landing in the ocean wasn't as bad as I'd feared. At least you don't feel so heavy anymore. I was afraid I'd be cold but I never was. All that pitching and roiling in the waves sure wasn't helping any, though.
I simply couldn't keep the respirator in my mouth while I was on the surface. I already felt like I was fairly close to succumbing to panic, having to suck that hard to breathe was just too much additional strain. I ended up getting a lot of seawater in my mouth as waves crashed into me, just as Lior said I would, but I considered that a fair price to pay.
I paddled on my back to the anchor line at the front of the boat, as I was told to do, along with the second instructor. I was spending about 90 percent of my mental energy trying to stay calm.
The second instructor and I bobbed in the waves next to the anchor line, waiting for Lior and my sister to show up. It seemed to be taking a long time. Eventually we saw one shape on the surface slowly making its way to us. Just Lior. He told us that my sister had bailed. Too stressful for her, I guess.
So, here we go. I'd been told to hold onto the boat's anchor rope as I made my way to the bottom, which I did. As expected, my ears were promptly trying to kill me. I had to back up a few feet several times, making the appropriate hand signals to indicate why. I tried holding my nose and exhaling in an attempt to blow air into my ears but it had only minimal effect. The main thing I had to do was wait. In two or three minutes I finally made it all the way to the ocean floor, about 25 feet down.
That's when it started to seem bigger than life. I had more sensory input than I could deal with. It was making me feel like an observer, that this must be happening to somebody else. Another way to put it would be that it seemed like I was reminiscing about something that had happened years ago, even though it was occurring right that second. In my twenties, I used to get ga-ga enough over girls to get into a mode like that. The most recent occasion when it happened was during my first trip to the climbing gym.
We got underway in earnest. I was no longer close to panicking but I was far from being out of the woods. Yes, we were over a coral reef. Yes, there were thousands of fish, many of them huge, some close enough to touch, all of them supremely uninterested in our presence. But all that scenery was having less of an effect on me than if I had been watching it on TV. Because if I had been watching it on TV, out of the water, where land creatures such as myself are supposed to be, then I wouldn't have been continually assaulted by profound disorientation. Merely breathing was a major effort. A depth change of only a few feet up or down made my ears attack me all over again.
What I really wanted to see was some MOVEMENT. I started swimming, trying to figure out how to get the most forward motion with the least effort, and the least change in depth of course, so I wouldn't have to keep readjusting to the pressure in my ears. I discovered later that I was going too fast, I was supposed to hang back and follow Lior, but I didn't know that at the time. Full steam ahead! Eventually Lior led us up to the surface and it was all over. Supposedly we were down there for 30 minutes but it sure didn't seem like that long.
Once back in the boat I took off the tank but not the weight belt. You get used to it pretty easily and I noticed that's what all the other divers were doing. My sister and I talked briefly about why she'd bailed and predictably she was simply overwhelmed by it all, as I almost was.
The captain drove us to a second dive spot. We talked my sister into giving it another try, promising to go slowly this time. I mentioned I thought it had all happened a little fast for me as well. That's when Lior mentioned that it was me who had been going to fast for him. Ooops. I had to apologize for that. But he was talking about my swimming too fast once we got down to 25 feet, what I was talking about was that all the transformational phases from land creature to sea creature had happened too fast for me.
Aw man, I REALLY didn't want to go on that second dive. I was tired, dissipated, and disoriented. But I felt like I should go anyway. I wanted to give my sister a reason to try again, and I wanted to prove I could be a good boy and follow Lior this time instead of the other way around. So I went.
Same exact sequence of events. The second instructor and I waiting at the boat's anchor line. Lior shows up and announces that my sister bailed. "She still needs a little more time." Slowly down the anchor line, my ears killing me. We got to the bottom and I did my best to be a good boy, swimming slowly between the two instructors.
I'd thought I'd have a simple escape plan if things started going horribly wrong: swim for the surface like a madman. Hardy har har har. You just can't believe how much different your body feels at 25 feet down. It's like you've got big piles of bricks pushing on you from all sides. If I had tried to swim full-speed to the surface I have no doubt that I would have ruptured both my eardrums.
We'd only traveled a few feet when Lior found a small octopus. It was sitting on top of the coral reef, balled up and camouflaged the exact same light brown color and texture as the reef itself. Lior removed his snorkel and used it to very gently prod the octopus, trying to get it to realize that it had been spotted. The octopus would try hard to not react at all, then assume a more recognizable octopus shape just long enough to skitter away a foot or two, finally resuming its balled-up stance.
Later, back in the boat, Lior told me he was trying to get the octopus to wrap itself around his arm. Incredible as it sounds he's apparently been successful at it in the past. "I guess that octopus wasn't very sociable," he said.
Lior claimed I was lucky to have seen the octopus. Since starting his job he's been on maybe 250 dives and has seen only three of them. Yeah yeah yeah, very lucky. Again, it had less of an effect on me than if I'd seen it on TV.
We'd only been submerged for about ten minutes when I couldn't handle it anymore. I signaled I wanted to surface, and without even trying, I guess I did. According to reports from people on the boat it looked like I surfaced unnaturally fast. The captain speculated that I might have lost my weight belt. (I didn't.)
Tossed around by the waves on the surface, I got seasick. I feel stupid having to report this but I actually puked a little bit. Maybe it was all that seawater I'd swallowed. Yikes, that would have been a real disaster if it had happened 25 feet down, wouldn't it.
I REALLY wanted to get out of the water, but we were a long way from the boat. I was as close to freaking out as I've ever been in my life. Lior asked "Do you feel sick?" and I answered with an emphatic "YES!" The second instructor grabbed ahold of my tank and started swimming towards the ladder at the rear of the boat. It took a Herculean effort on my part to escape to my own special little quiet place in my head. My seasickness subsided through sheer force of will. I managed to get back into the boat mostly under my own power and fell into a heap.
I couldn't get out of the damn wetsuit. The stupid thing acted like it owned me. I'd pull on it with all my remaining strength and it would budge like maybe half an inch. It took so much effort that I was on the verge of being seasick again. I had to stop and not think about it several times.
We got back to port at 4:30PM. I have seldom been so happy to be ANYWHERE as I was when I set foot on the dock in my own dry clothes. No more pitching and rolling. Alas, this was the point at which I had no choice but to start dealing with all that suppressed fear I had carefully filed away for later.
Everything looked wrong. I felt like I was seeing the world through tiny slits. Colors were washed out. My hearing was, naturally, shot. I couldn't concentrate on anything anyone said, I'd lose comprehension after two or three words. I couldn't hear or understand myself, and subsequently I suspect I was talking far too loud. My peripheral vision wasn't working. I didn't trust my lungs to breathe for me involuntarily, I felt a pathological need to do it all "manually," just in case. I could barely walk, I was dizzy, on the verge of falling down. I felt unnaturally heavy.
Mom came and got us. I had her drive me right back to the hotel. I announced that I wasn't doing one single solitary thing for the rest of the night, including eating. The very idea made me want to throw up.
We got back to the hotel. Slimy with salt water, I had no choice but to take a shower. Alone at last, I had my chance to weep like a baby. I felt like my dog had just died.
I fell into bed, exhausted. Remembering the bad dreams I had the night after my first climbing experience, I feared the worst. When I woke up it was around 9:00PM. I had slept for four hours and had no dreams that I can remember, thank god.
The pool at our hotel is huge, about four times bigger than the ones most places have, a waterfall at one end, surrounded by lush vegetation and palm trees. Very relaxing. I went out there and laid on a chaise lounge, trying to get my equilibrium back. It wasn't really working.
I went back to bed after a few hours. I had only one dream I can remember. There were only fleeting visuals, nothing I could make out. It was about nothing but breathing. It was hard for me to draw breath, each one accompanied by that hospital-like "whoosh" sound. Hold it, wait, exhale. Lots of bubbles, all around my face. Repeat, ad infinitum.
As I write this the dive was five days ago. My ears still aren't back to normal. I have the worst possible sort of "suntan," very uneven. The back of my right hand is as good as burned, my nose is peeling, my lower arms are about right, most of my body is as white as the day I was born. The white areas on my chest show where the straps for the SCUBA tank went, that must have happened when we were practicing at the hotel pool.
As horrible as it was, I'm not sorry I did it. It was a peak experience. I'm only going to have a limited number of those in my entire life. Everybody needs to be jolted out of themselves every now and then.
Will I go again? I honestly don't know. It will depend on how I feel about it weeks from now, months from now. If I do it certainly won't be for "recreation," but because I feel a need for another good freak-out.
My first time climbing was pretty unsettling also, but nothing like this. At least when climbing you get to stay the same old weight you've always been. Your lungs are still your own. You don't have to try to exist in a medium 800 times more dense than the one you're used to.
Climbing was a small, sharp stab to my psyche. Diving is a big, dull ache.