In September of 2003 I received my Open Water certification and I wanted to start diving as soon as possible. Ah, but where? As luck would have it, my best friend Dan was a diver and he lived in California near the ocean. I called him up and he joyfully agreed to take me on my first dive from a beach near his house.
Perhaps we should have given the location a little more thought.
Bonds of Friendship Renewed
Dan and I grew up together in Las Vegas, but went to colleges in different states. He went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. As an undergraduate he took a scuba class, and learned to dive in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oh, how he wanted me to dive with him. But he knew better than to try to take me in the water unless I was certified. 17 years later, he was thrilled to receive the news that I was a diver, too, and we could finally dive together.
So I flew to California and we drove to a local dive shop called Liburdi’s where I received my first rude surprise.
“I thought you said you rented complete sets of gear.”
“This is a complete set of gear.”
“But where’s the mask, fins, gloves, snorkel and boots?”
“You have to buy those.”
Throw in a gear bag to carry it all, and I was out a couple hundred bucks. So what! We were going diving!
Incidentally, that gear bag is the only piece of original equipment I own. I use it every time I dive.
Check Conditions First
It was November, the time of year in California where the weather starts to turn toward winter. It was a grey, blustery day and the surf was fairly active. Not to worry: being responsible divers, Dan and I asked the shop staff where a good place to dive would be, given the conditions, and what to see when we were there.
“Whatcha wanna do,” they said, “is go to Crescent Cove. Follow such-and-such reef, take a heading of thus-and-so, swim through a notch at the top of the wall and you’ll find the sea lions. Maybe they’ll get in the water and play with you.”
That was good enough for us. So we drove to Laguna Beach, assembled our gear, marched down to the water, and beheld what awaited us.
Getting In Is Half The Battle
Hawaii was nothing like this. Back there, the water was clear, warm, and blue, and most of all, flat. Out here we were looking at cloudy grey skies and angry waves. Though the waves were maybe 4′ high, to me they looked like vast, angry destroyers of the earth.
“Whatcha wanna do,” Dan said, “is put one fin on. Shuffle backwards into the surf. When you get to where you can float, do a ‘Figure-4’ and put your other fin on.” He demonstrated. It was easy.
But as I shuffled back, the water retreated and twisted my fin up and to the side. I put all my strength into forcing it back down. That meant I wasn’t watching the wave that slammed me to my knees. I ended up crawling back on the beach.
Meanwhile, Dan bobbed effortlessly in the water, calling encouragement, showing me how easy it was.
Getting Out Is The Other Half
We found ourselves in a strange and alien world. The water was shockingly cold. The rocks and reef were covered with hostile poky things, purple sea urchins and anemones with fat green tentacles. The surge — the back-and-forth motion of the water — was at least six feet, and more than that near the wall.
Neither of us was quite sure where we were, or even if we were at the right cove, but we were determined to visit the sea lions. We found a notch at the top of the wall, so, true to our directions, we swam through it.
As soon as I entered the notch I realized I had made a terrible mistake. The six-foot surge outside was magnified within the notch to a hideous, unstoppable force. I had a couple of seconds to think about what was coming before I was shot through the notch like a cork from a champagne bottle.
At least I had the presence of mind to keep my regulator in my mouth. But I was completely helpless and disoriented as the ocean tumbled me to the shore. I got tossed around in the surf, and washed up on the rocks. To my amazement, I was completely unhurt.
Meanwhile, Dan, who was close behind me, knew what was coming, and hid from the surge in a little alcove. But when he saw me swept away, he shrugged, and jumped in after me. He went for the same wild ride, and washed up a fair distance down the beach. He, too, was completely unhurt.
Shaken, scared, and trying to balance 60 pounds of gear on my back as I stepped among treacherous rocks, I was amused to remember the scene in Lilo and Stitch where the squishy alien thing got washed up on the shore. I knew Dan would be amused by it too. So in Agent Pleakley’s squeaky voice, I wailed to Dan across the beach, “I HATE THIS PAH-LANET!”
Take that, ocean. I ain’t afraid of you.
What Have We Learned?
I tell my students that most diving accidents are the result of not one, but several mistakes in a row. Here are just a few of our mistakes that day:
- Turning our backs on the ocean. (Mine, anyway.)
- Not being aware of our surroundings, especially our location.
- Attempting to dive in conditions that were far too challenging for my skill level.
- Bringing a camera along, when another distraction was the last thing I needed. Nice pictures, though.
We covered all this in my Open Water class. It was such a textbook list of mistakes that I use it to give my students a vivid example of What Not To Do. It still amazes me that neither of us was injured.
But unhurt and suitably chastened, Dan and I simply got out, swapped tanks, and got back in again. The next dive had its own set of adventures, like low air and an endless swim back. This time I quoted Finding Nemo. But our new association as dive buddies was off to a great, if bouncy, start.