Scuba Diving

(Scuba Diving Magazine commissioned this article in February 2006.)

By Jarrett Bellini

Humans weren’t meant to fly - notice that we seem to lack feathers and wings. Similarly, humans also weren’t meant to survive underwater. No gills. No fins. Yet, somehow we’ve managed to find ways to both soar through the air and glide through the currents of the ocean. Go humans!

Speaking of the former, I’ll admit that I’m still rather scared of flying. Of course, I occasionally have to do it – it’s a way to get somewhere. I climb aboard that giant metal tube, close my eyes to the clouds, and hope to end up somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix. So, it only makes sense that I attempt the latter – securing a smaller metal tube to my back, opening my eyes to a strange new underwater world, and hoping not to end up in the vicinity of Phoenix... for doing so might suggest that we have a minor problem with the polar ice caps.

I first attempted scuba diving off the Turks & Caicos Islands in the north Caribbean. My family was having a little reunion at one of those all-inclusive resorts where the only thing we had to worry about was whether or not we wanted lobster, sushi, or both. It was exhausting.

My dad and I decided to try diving. Hey, it was all-inclusive! This involved a short resort course on how not to drown. Basically, it was just enough instruction to keep us alive, but not enough to give us any actual diving credibility. It’s sort of like learning three guitar chords. It sounds like music, but it doesn’t make you Jerry Garcia.

Limited as it was, I still enjoyed the warm, turquoise sea. My dad, on the other hand, seemed profoundly moved by the serenity of being alone with the fish. Or, perhaps, it was the fact that my mom was temporarily out of earshot. Whatever it was, he went back home to Arizona and earned his diving certification.

Not to be outdone, I figured it was time I caught up with my old man.

Getting Started

Unlike soccer, where, in the absence of a ball, some rolled up duct tape might suffice for a game of pickup footy, scuba is a gear intensive sport. You could try to breathe underwater without it, but you’ll likely wind up terminally waterlogged like Virginia Woolf. Of course, she didn’t really make much of an effort. She also left a good-bye note and filled her pockets with stones. Bad example.

So, before you begin your certification, it’s a good idea to get your hands on, at the very least, the essential non-air equipment. My essentials were purchased at SeaVentures in Atlanta, where I would also take my classes. It’s actually not a bad idea to gear up and study at the same place, for if the shop owner is anything like Wyatt Foster, you’ll be able to make any immediate adjustments and exchanges on your equipment as you test them out in the pool. Comfort is key.

The first, and most important, item you’ll need is a wetsuit. This is the only necessity I did not purchase at SeaVentures, opting, instead, to have it custom made by Waterproof Diving International – even a not-so-incredibly-sexy man deserves a perfect fit. Upon receiving my personalized wetsuit in the mail, I was pleased to learn that it was a perfect fit… which is to say that it squeezed the bejezus out of me. Fortunately, once I got in the water, things loosened up a bit.

The other essentials to go along with the wetsuit are a mask, snorkel, writing tablet, knife, booties (yes, “booties”), gloves, fins, and a dive bag. Each of these varies in price and efficiency, and I was more than content to slide by with average-grade equipment. I’m a novice - not Jacques Cousteau. Yet.

Back to School

After a short, one-hour orientation at the dive shop, where I filled out various forms and received my manuals, I had a week to go home and study before the first class. Amazingly, this wasn’t as painful as I remember it being in college. Of course, I also wasn’t staying up all night playing beer pong.

Each chapter of the Scuba Diving International textbook clearly explained the science and basic procedures of enjoying your self contained underwater breathing apparatus (ahem, S.C.U.B.A.), and did a remarkable job of both whetting my appetite for adventure and informing me on all the fun and exciting ways I could wind up sick or injured. However, while I pondered the possibility of nitrogen poisoning and decompression sickness, I would soon learn that these conditions are both extremely rare and, generally speaking, reserved for nitwits.

My pre-open-water instruction was spread out over the course of a weekend, and each of the three seminars was split between a classroom and a 90-degree pool. By the end of the third day, six other students and I were assembling our own equipment, breathing underwater, and gliding around the deep end with complete confidence in our safety and ability. Even more, I was pleased by the fact that I could successfully explain the basic science behind compressed air, pressure, and their coexistence within the respiratory system. Sadly, however, the portion of my frontal lobe earmarked for science is now full.

During these pool sessions, I was also introduced to some other essential equipment I had not already purchased, but would later rent. Among these items, the regulator, PDC (personal dive computer), and weight-integrated BCD (buoyancy compensator device) are the only items one might realistically want to buy, though they do account for the greatest cost in personal scuba diving equipment. That being said, unless you plan on spending a lot of time dealing with airport security, you likely won’t ever need to purchase your own air cylinders.

“What do you mean I can’t take this giant, metal tube filled with dangerously explosive compressed air on board?”

Chilly Water

About 380 miles south of Atlanta sits Crystal River, Florida. This is where, a week after my classes, I would perform the four required open water dives necessary to earn my certification. With a great group of students, seasoned divers, and instructors gathered for our trip, I learned that scuba is often more than just staring at fish. It’s a great way to meet new people… and then destroy them in a late-night game of Hearts while cruising down the freeway in a custom bus.

I also learned that my new head cold was turning out to be much worse than I had anticipated. Needless to say, diving and sinus infections are hardly the greatest combination, but I was determined to carry on. All I needed was a good night’s sleep.

Our group’s wake up call came the next day at 6 a.m.. By eight, I was standing outside our bus along the shore of Rainbow River, fully clad in my diving gear, staring at my own breath, and preparing for our first two dives. All my training and classroom study was finally about to be put into action. Flawlessly, I assembled my BCD to the cylinder, and the cylinder to my regulator (or, in more simple terms, I attached my vest thingy to the metal air thingy, and then the metal air thingy to the tubular hose thingy that makes me not die). Time to dive!

Finally, after a short boat ride, we entered the 70-degree river. Mind you, that’s pretty cold water. Fortunately, my sexy, custom wetsuit seemed to be doing its job. Now, with hypothermia firmly avoided, I could concentrate on pinching my nose and equalizing my head cold, seeing to it that my face didn’t explode as I started my descent to 20 feet (where one is required to spend 20 minutes at this depth).

After our pleasant morning session and lunch, we were free to enjoy the rest of the day. I chose to nap like an old man so I could defeat my cold and possibly check out the live band playing later that night at the Day’s Inn. Though I had no proof, I was secretly convinced it was going to be Lynyrd Skynyrd. I never bothered to find out.

My final two dives came early the following morning at a large spring-fed, James Bond-like sinkhole known as Devil’s Den. Though the water was a little colder than Rainbow River and I was still tired from the previous day, I was pleased to find that my sinuses had either cleared away in the night or the infection had simply moved on up into my brain. I’m not really sure if that theory holds any scientific merit. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed my second day, completing the remainder of my skills with ease.

Emerging from the sinkhole, I was unofficially a certified diver. On the bus home, I completed the last of my paperwork and received my certificate… which was promptly Dr. Peppered by one of the other students.

In the end, having breezed through the classroom sessions and the open water dives, I walked away from the certification process with a very positive attitude. If I could have this much fun diving while feeling under the weather, I know I’ll love it even more when I take a clean bill of health to the warm, turquoise waters of the all-inclusive Caribbean.

Flying out there, on the other hand, is still an issue. If only I could grow some fancy wings to go with my new gills.

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