The Adventure Begins
In the summer of 2003 I visited Hawaii for the first time, on one of several working trips around the Pacific. I worked for a defense company, and they sent me out to install our radios on military aircraft. I was overwhelmed by the strange beauty of the islands, and when I wasn’t working, I tried to experience as much as I could. I hiked mountain trails and ate strange food and visited the flowing lava. But I wouldn’t enter the ocean. I was afraid of it.
Afraid, but fascinated. Some of the guys I traveled with were scuba divers, and they were shocked that I didn’t dive too: “We’re in Okinawa! We’re in Guam! How can you not dive?” That was all the incentive I needed. Having stopped for gas across the street from a shop called Surf ‘N’ Sea, I wandered in to ask about dive lessons, and signed up the next day. Lessons began at the end of the week.
In Order To Get Ready
As someone who lived in the desert, with a sensible terror of the ocean, I set out to discover whether scuba lessons were actually a good idea or not. I figured, “If I can’t snorkel, then scuba’s not for me.” So I marched down to the beach, borrowed a mask, snorkel and fins, and asked some guy how to use them. I had never worn fins before.
We were staying at the Turtle Bay Resort, on the northern tip of Oahu. It’s got a small bay that’s mostly protected from the surf, and it’s a good place to learn to snorkel. I backed into the water, stretched out and carefully started swimming. I quickly got the hang of it, and by the time I got out a couple of hours later, I had learned some important lessons.
- Don’t try to fight the waves. You will never control the ocean. You can only control yourself. Move with the waves, and around them.
- Always watch where you’re going, so you don’t split your head open on the sharp lava rock that suddenly looms out of nowhere.
- You can in fact float in 1 foot of water, so as not to impale yourself on the “fire coral.”
Only Three Days
The guy at the shop told me I could be scuba certified in three days. I took him at his word and scheduled my return flight on the fourth day. There was a snafu over a doctor’s permission slip, so I didn’t even crack a book until the night before my first lesson. This gave me three nights to read the entire Open Water book, complete all the exercises, learn the tables, and answer the exams; three days to listen to the lectures, watch the videos, and do all my training in the water.
It was an aggressive schedule, but no more aggressive than what I had been working for two weeks, when I would get up at 2 AM to catch a preflight briefing, install equipment on the airplane and work desperately to troubleshoot it, while they were delaying takeoff, the crew was staring at me and the Lieutenant Commander was on the phone demanding answers. We worked around the clock, removing the gear late at night to get ready for the next day.
There was one other student in the class, a kid of 15 or so. We met our instructors Richard and Heidi (“HAY-dee”) in the comfortable little classroom and set quickly to work. There was no time to waste.
The First Dive
Many scuba facilities start their students in the shallow end of a pool, to comfortably ease their transition to the undersea world. Surf ‘N’ Sea has no such luxury. What they have is ocean, and that’s where they started us. Heidi drove the kid and me, and all our gear, up the coast to Shark’s Cove on Oahu’s North Shore. There at the beach we assembled our gear and walked out into the water.
When you train with PADI, you watch a video that recaps the study materials for extra reinforcement. The video showed a smiling lady kneeling in 3 feet of water, blowing bubbles and gleefully signaling “OK!” The narrator enthused, “This is your introduction to a whole new world!”
My introduction to a whole new world was when Heidi signaled us to go down, and suddenly I was descending through 20 feet of water. I did not feel gleeful; I was terrified. But within seconds I forgot my terror as I became aware of what was around me.
All my life I had read about the life in the sea, but here were the fish and invertebrates, urchins and eels and coral, right there in the water with me. The lovely underwater films I grew up with had exaggerated nothing, in fact, they had understated the beauty and the wonder. In my delight I felt like an 8-year-old.
All I had to do now was complete my certification. Piece of cake!
“Were you ever in the Navy?”
Staying safe in the ocean is a serious business. It’s crucial to develop good habits and procedures early and follow them consistently. Beginners haven’t had time to develop good habits and procedures, but their instructors have to keep them safe regardless. It’s hard on the beginners, and it can be very hard on the instructors, each of whom must find their own way to handle the stress.
Richard’s was to chew us out. He replaced Heidi in the ocean after the first day, when Heidi told him she “couldn’t handle” the 15-year-old. The kid was unmotivated, and inattentive. But Richard would have none of that, and he chewed the kid up one side and down the other, and me too when he thought I needed it. Which was often.
For example, there was the CESA exercise (“Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent”). All open water students must simulate an out-of-air emergency by swimming to the surface without inhaling, exhaling all the way to avoid lung injury, and orally inflating their buoyancy vests at the surface. The trick at the surface is to kick hard enough to keep your face above water so you can breathe in and blow out into your vest. But I had only worn fins for the first time three days ago, and I didn’t really know how to kick; I kicked from my knees instead of from my hips. Inflating the vest was an ordeal for me. Listening to the ensuing tirade from Richard was another.
But I was used to tirades. I had spent the summer working under the loving attention of a Lieutenant Commander – the one on the phone – who chewed out everybody who worked for him. It just rolled off me, although I asked Richard once if he had ever been in the Navy.
One Minute to Spare
On the third day I earned another tirade when I took off along a compass heading and didn’t watch my air consumption. I burned through the tank and we ended the dive after 20 minutes. Richard was apoplectic. Had we come up one minute earlier, he said, the dive wouldn’t have counted for training and I wouldn’t have finished certification*.
So there we were with a few hundred yards to swim back to shore. As I plowed my way back along the surface, I dreaded what I was certain would be the chewing-out of my life. Instead, once we got back, Richard said, “Congratulations. You just passed the swim test.”
An Instructor’s Perspective
At the time I thought nothing of Richard’s harshness. I had fairly low self-esteem, and figured I had it coming. But my instructors at the professional level were very explicit about treating students with kindness, compassion and understanding. An instructor’s hostility or indifference adds another obstacle to an already demanding undertaking.
But by now I know how terrifying it can be for the instructors, who see just how much danger students put themselves in with their innocent blunders. Scared for our students’ safety, and sometimes for our own, it’s tempting to try to yell some sense in their heads. We must not.
Richard made a scuba diver out of me, and regardless of his teaching methods, I had an exhilarating time of it. I had adventures I hadn’t dreamed about just two weeks before.
But I look back on some those adventures now with horror. On one of our dives, Richard asked if I was claustrophobic. No, I replied. He led me through an underwater lava tube. At the time I was enchanted – I remember particularly a school of fish hovering motionless against an alcove – but the thought of what might have happened if I had lost my head makes my skin crawl. I found out later that PADI standards expressly forbid instructors to conduct classes in a location where there is no clear path to the surface.
On the other hand, Richard and Heidi were sharp and knowledgeable, and (usually) fun to be with. I admire their steadfastness and skill at improvisation. With experience I’ve learned how critical to successful teaching that particular skill can be.
*Poppycock. PADI standards say that a dive also counts for training if the student breathes 50 cubic feet of gas. I surely breathed more than that.