It is no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am not the Sportiest of Spices. As much as I sometimes think I would like to be a runner, I have no stamina and I definitely do not have any rhythm for Zumba or the like. (Heck, I can’t even get an elliptical to run smoothly!) So, it may come as quite a shock to those same diligent readers to learn that I am now officially a PADI SCUBA certified diver! That’s right. After two days of closed water courses as the embassy pool (click here for those details), I headed to the scenic Tioman Island last weekend to do my open water courses for final certification. (Look for more on the travel itself in an upcoming blog, tentatively titled “From Marsing to Mersing”!)
Finishing my certification required four open water dives, each of which turned out to be a bit of an adventure in and of itself; luckily, I had a good group of colleagues/classmates (and, of course, my dive buddy for life!) who braved the journey at the same time. I had been dreading this weekend for months, not sure if I would be able to actually complete the course without total panic setting in. As a matter of fact, for the entire week before the trip, I felt like I used to feel during finals week in college. I just wanted it to be over, for better or for worse. Good grades or terrible grades, certification or no certification, just let the stress end.
We made it to Tioman by midmorning on Friday, dropped our stuff in our rustic (clean, but low on amenities, like a flushing toilet) cabin and headed directly to the dive shop. We were off and running with no time to fret. This was smart planning.
Open Water Dive #1
This dive is meant to be just a dip of a toe into ocean waters. After becoming comfortable in the pool (not an easy task to begin with in my case), it can be a huge jump from knowing the surface is always just a few feet overhead to being in a much less controlled situation. Because this was a shore dive, we had to suit up at the dive shop and walk to the ocean, a few hundred meters away. Let me just remind you that I am about the wimpiest person on the face of the earth (I’ve never been able to do a single pull-up and I could do maybe three pushups if my life depended on it), so hauling that tank about did me in. Picture Quasimodo in a bathing suit. Once we reached the water, it was a literal weight off of my shoulders.
For the first dive, we only went down about five meters and I don’t think I even realized we were that far down, though my ears screamed we must be at the bottom of the Marinas Trench. This session was mostly about passing off skills that we had previously practiced in the pool and it all went well until we had to change from our own regulator to the spare one our dive buddy was carrying. (Thad has been my dive buddy throughout this process. If you want to send him condolences, I can provide you with contact information! He definitely got the short end of the dive-buddy stick.) I took my regulator out and grabbed his spare one, only to have the mouthpiece of it fall off! Luckily, our dive instructor was there and handed me back my own regulator before I even realized what was happening. Before I knew it, I was back breathing my own air, Thad’s spare was fixed and away we went.
The biggest issue for this first time out to sea for me was my ears. They just wouldn’t equalize! I’ve never had a problem with them when we fly, but for some reason the water pressure really got to me. My ears would not pop! (I also realized on this trip that I apparently do not know the difference between my nose and my mouth. I would try to hold my nose and breathe through it to pop my ears and each time, air would come flowing out of my regulator. Or, I would take a deep breath in preparation for clearing my mask, only to realize my entire breath went out my mouth instead of my nose, leaving me with salt water to the eyebrows. After three plus decades of life, how do I not know the differences between these two parts of my respiratory track?!?)
Since this was a shore dive, it meant surfacing and wading back to shore the way we had come, which was fine until a wave crashed me into a bit of coral, leaving a rather nice scrape on my right leg. My first (but surely not my last!) SCUBA injury! (Can I be on the SCUBA DL?)
Dive #1 was only about twenty minutes and while we didn’t see a whole lot worth reporting home, it was nice to have some fish to look at while my classmates checked off their skills, rather than staring at the pool tiles like I had done in the past. Watching bright little fish flit does a much better job keeping my mind calm than smudgy blue tiles.
Open Water Dive #2-
This is where the poo hit the fan. Dive two was another shore dive, but rather than wading in from the beach, we all did the “giant stride” off the end of the jetty. I did a much slower ascent on this dive, hoping my ears would take care of themselves, which they did, kind of. They never fully equalized and while they weren’t killing me like the first dive, there was definite pressure as I went lower and lower.
Once I finally reached the bottom with my classmates, we were all just floating in a circle, waiting for another round of skill checks when I felt a nip on my leg. Already a bit freaked out about the possibilities of hostility beneath the sea, I looked at my instructor, wide-eyed, only to see him laughing (as much as is possible through a mask and regulator.) He pointed at white and yellow fish and then made a biting motion with his hands. Not a second later, I felt the nip again. That dang little fish was biting me! Apparently, I had invaded his territory and he was having none of it. Jerk fish! (To be fair, maybe I was the jerk by stationing myself right on top of his house, but still…)
Dive two was going swimmingly (yup, I went there!) until the end, at which point it the whole thing went a bit south. We were all supposed to head back to the jetty, but a strong current kicked up and no one could make any progress under the water. Some divers made it back to a rope as a meeting place, but others of us were hauled in the wrong direction. Soon, we all surfaced, but fighting the current on the surface was no easier than below. For every foot of progress I made, I lost the same amount of ground. Using a brightly colored fence on the shore as my gauge, I quickly realized that I was getting nowhere, quickly.
After nearly half an hour of paddling (remember, I am a terrible swimmer and super wimpy) I pretty much thought I was going to die. With the shore just 100 meters or so to my right, I had pretty much resigned myself to death at sea (or at least the need for a boat rescue.)
Instead, though, I gave up on the jetty as a goal and just headed inland. It didn’t matter that I still had two more skills to check-off; I was done. I aimed my body for shore and paddled like mad. Before long, I realized most of my classmates had done the same thing. No one could fight the current any longer and we all just wanted out of the water at that point.
To shore we headed!
Meeting up again on the beach, the general agreement was to call it a day and to finish our skills during the first dive on day two. Even the instructors seemed surprised at the strength of the current! (Neither of them made the jetty either, both making for shore with the rest of us.) Friday evening, as we sat at the dive center, filling in our dive logs for the day, one classmate succinctly and cheekily summarized the dive in his log with a single sentence, “We damn near died.”
Day one was done. I had a nice battle wound; I provided a bit of nourishment for an angry fish; I bobbed at sea like a tropical Titanic survivor. I finished.