The first breath is, to beat a dead cliche, something you'll never forget. It's like equal parts anticipation, fear, nerves, excitement, wonder... with a little detached amusement at the rush of other feelings coursing through your body. I'd already tested the equipment, repeatedly, at the dive shop as part of the assembly ritual I'd just completed, but.... That first breath through the hoses, that metallic, almost sweet flavor, the cold, condensed quality, even the texture of the air. It's just so freaking cool to be breathing. Underwater. Even just thinking back on it now I'm getting chills.
The waves on the beach make things much more difficult than I'd expected. I learned later that when you're out in open water, you're really pretty stable on the surface, and much more so when you drop even a couple meters. But close to the shore, it's difficult to stay close to the instructor, the movements of the water shove your body around and make completing our required skills an exercise in frustration. We have to practice removing our weight belts and putting them back on. Now, you don't think about it much, but when you're floating in the water with just your head above, your center of gravity can be changed quite easily. Taking 5kg of weights and holding them away from your body, even just a few inches, throws you completely sideways and threatens to drag your head underwater. Just trying to hold onto the weights is hard, but trying to maneuver a belt of them around your waist while staying upright in the water is seriously complicated the first time. Then we have to leave the weight belts on while taking off our BCD's, the jackets we wear that fill with air and allow us to control our buoyance: Buoyancy Control Devices. This is actually a little easier, because once you get it off you can use it like a little life preserver and hold onto it -- it still floats, obviously. Then you flip it underneath your butt, and sit on it while getting the shoulder straps in place. Finally, you just kinda slide off it, letting it ride up your arms and settle in place on your back. No worries. =)
Finally, after proving ourselves (relatively) proficient at these tasks, which are necessary in case you become tangled or caught under the water and need to be able to remove your equipment to get free... after doing that, we got to make our first (small) descent to the shallow sandy bottom. Now, years of experience teaches you that if you want to go down into the water, you flip over, go head first and swim downwards, right? Well, it turns out that's the suckers way.... In scuba, you do just the opposite; you descend completely upright, and just relax. No swimming necessary. Instead, you deflate your BCD and slowly exhale; as the volume of air in your BCD and your lungs decreases, you become less buoyant and you start to descend. It's this sort of creepy, smooth feeling as you slowly feel the water slide over your face, your ears, and finally close over the top of your head. My first reaction was to begin breathing, immediately, quickly, almost panicky I guess. This is ... counter-productive. When you do that, your lungs fill rapidly and you just rise back to the surface... thanks for playing! please try again! So you have to make a conscious effort to take normal breaths and exhale completely, always getting rid of all the air in your lungs so that when you next inhale, you get fresh, oxygen-rich air. This is more efficient for your body and greatly reduces the amount of air you'll go through when you dive. Needless to say, this takes constant self-reminding, not to mention some practice.
When you're descending into water, as I'm sure you've all noticed, the deeper you go the more pressure you feel in your ears. This can get really painful quickly, and cause serious damage if you don't listen to your body. I was worried about this at first, because I've always had trouble even going to the bottom of the deep end of the pool; flying is often a problem for me. When you dive, you deal with the pressure changes by adding more air to your nasal/ear passages to "equalize" the external and internal pressures. Basically, you pinch your nose, close your mouth, and blow. You're supposed to do this every meter as you go down and start more or less immediately, before you feel any discomfort. It's just hard to remember to start immediately when you've got so much other shit that's pressing on your mind. So, after some starts and stops and a little discomfort, but nothing too serious, we eventually made it down to the bottom, I think about 4-5 meters deep.
The first thing I noticed was that the force of the water moving around down here was much less than the surface, but still noticeable and still making it difficult to remain in one place. At least, for Greg and me it was; Walter, our instructor, seemed to have no problem just kneeling on the bottom all calmly and shit. It's sort of like meditation, in that internal stillness has to come first and then the body sort of finds its own motionlessness. The more you move, the more you change your center of gravity and the more likely you are to have to move the other way to counter the first movement. What you need to do, I think, is find a center and trust that you'll stay there without extraneous or unnecessary small corrections. Once you believe that, and tell your body to stop doing things of its own accord, it becomes much easier to manage. This is true, not just when you're dealing with surf and currents, I found out later; even in the most peaceful still waters I'd still get urges to use my arms to move or turn, when in a more or less weightless environment any slight extra motion gets magnified and leads to a lot more motion trying to correct and overcorrect and recenter yourself. It's a real balancing act to become still in the water, but a helluva lot of fun to practice.
The second thing I noticed was that even though this was our skills training, and we were on a public beach, and not far from the shore, and yada yada yada, there were tons of amazingly beautiful tropical fish swimming all around us, over us, between our legs, everywhere! Most of them were pretty small, with vivid iridescent stripes running down their backs and sides; my favorites were bigger (but still only 6-8 inches long) and bright lime green. They reminded me of those hypercolor shirts we used to wear back in like 5th grade; I had one in lime green the exact color of these fish. Anyway, it was really beautiful down there, almost mesmerizing. It was kind of a shame we were practicing those required skills the whole time. But, as I found out the next day, it was nothing compared with the sheer knock-you-on-your-ass beauty just a few meters below the surface at the reefs around the other islands.
Then we had to do more skills -- the weight belt again, which you drape over your knee to keep you from floating away; the BCD again, which you have to hold on tight to keep it from floating away; letting your mask fill up with water and clearing it by tilting your head back and blowing through your nose. Taking your mask off and swimming around to simulate getting it knocked off underwater, then putting it back on and clearing it again. Walter said I didn't have to open my eyes underwater, because of the contacts, but he also said they wouldn't go anywhere if I did; only moving water actually causes contacts to come off underwater. So, I figured what the hell? If I actually did lose my mask underwater, I'd have to open my eyes to see it and put it back on, right? So, I gave it a whirl, and no problems! I mean, the salt water stung like the dickens the first time, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Then we practiced "low on air" and "out of air" scenarios, where you find your buddy, communicate via hand signals, and then grab his secondary air source to breathe -- easy stuff, as long as you don't panic and remain calm. We also had to practice a true out of air situation; Walter shut off our air one at a time, and made us breathe until the pressure went all the way down to zero, then look at him and make the proper hand signals while blowing a small stready stream of bubbles (you never hold your breath while scuba diving -- this is very important!) before he turned it back on. Again, no panic, no problems. We did "fin pivots." This is a fun little exercise where you lay flat, face downward, on the bottom, spread your legs wide to maintain stability, and then use your breathing to move your body up and down, pivoting on the tips of your fins. Inhale, your head begins to rise while your feet stay put, thanks to your lungs being located where they are; exhale, you begin to sink back to the bottom. It takes some practice to not hit your face on the bottom... you have to finish breathing out and begin breathing in quite a bit before you get to that point. I enjoyed this one... I was cracking myself up, thinking I was in control until I kept exhaling too long and landed (gently, of course) on the sand. Good times... then we practiced the controlled emergency assent, where you take a big breath and swim up from 6 meters, slowly, while making an "ahhhh" sound to allow the ever-expanding air to escape from your lungs and ears. This prevents, you know, air expansion injuries, ruptures and shit. Very important. It should take, I guess, about 30 seconds if you do it right, which is a long time to be looking up at the light through the water and saying "ahhh..." Finally, we did some "tired diver" tows and then packed up and headed back to the shop. Where, after lugging all that heavy (now soaking wet) stuff through town, I was indeed a tired diver. I showered, ate some curry :) and laid down to rest. But it was certainly an exciting, exhilarating, exhausting experience! Thanks for sharing it with me.