I am squeezed into six millimeters of neoprene like a rotund sausage, thirty pounds of lead hanging around my waist, and an aluminum tank strapped to my back that will be the difference between life and death. I waddle towards the water, staggering under the weight of my scuba equipment, clutching my fins and mask, running through a mental check list…Buoyancy Device… Weights… Releases… Air…! My scuba buddy, crunching along the rocky beach beside me, is my husband Larry. When he married me, I’m not sure Larry had a full grasp of all he had signed up for. But he has shown remarkable pluck and fortitude as I’ve dragged him to the far-flung reaches of the globe to hike mountains, ride horses, raft rivers, and now, perhaps, dive reefs.
“Air temperature… 65 degrees,” Larry reads off his gauges. “Water temperature…” A dramatic pause and wicked grin. “45 degrees.”
“Brrrr!” I let out a whoop, bracing myself for the jolt of chilly water. “Let’s do it, scuba buddy!”
We lurch forward into the murky green bay of Alki Cove and sink into the cradling buoyancy of the water. I shriek as the freezing water gushes into the neck of my wet-suit and runs down my back in a frigid stream. Constricted by the bulk of the neoprene, BC and weight belt, I roll around struggling to pull on my fins and fit my mask under the edge of my hood. I am clumsy and fat-fingered in my thick gloves. Larry and I help each other tug and tuck and tighten all the belts and buckles and straps. I lay back in the water, breathing hard.
“Whew, this is hard work!” I exclaim. The dive master, bobbing comfortably nearby, looks on with amused patience.
Larry and I are swimmers. We love the water. We met at a swimming pool. Our wedding cake featured a bride and groom perched on a diving board ready to take the “big plunge”. We both boogie board and snorkel, and love to swim in the sea. Scuba diving seemed like a natural extension to our love of water. To make sure, we attended an Introduction to Scuba class at Underwater Sports in Seattle. The instructor runs through the basics, shows us a short video, and then throws us in the pool with a mask and a tank of air.
“The hardest part is trusting that you can breathe under water,” she cautions us. “Some people find it difficult to only breathe through their mouth, and can feel very claustrophobic”.
Claustrophobia is a concern for Larry, who has an aversion to tight places, dark rooms and closed spaces. I watch curiously as Larry pulls on his mask, places the regulator in his mouth, and drops underwater. When he pops to the surface, his eyes are bright and twinkling inside his mask.
“This is totally cool!” he exclaims.
I grin giddily, pull on my mask and regulator, and join him underwater. We wave at each other and do a watery high-five. We descend to the deep-end, where we swim around in circles, toss the underwater Frisbee, and try to outdo each other performing slow motion summersaults. We are thrilled. We sign up for a Scuba Certification Class the next day.
“Ready for your first open-water dive?” the dive master asks.
“Yes!” we chirp.
We flip onto our backs and kick out to a buoy with a red and white dive-flag flapping in the breeze. The dive master gives us final instructions.
“Remember to stay with your scuba buddy at all times. Follow the buoy line down, and then kneel on the bottom and wait for me.” He makes eye contact to confirm we’ve got the message. “And try not to kick up too much silt,” he instructs with a noticeable lack of hope.
Larry and I peer at each other through the ovals of our masks, and in unison, release the air out of our BC’s, letting the gravity of our weight belts pull us underwater. As we sink below the surface, we are enveloped in an algae-green haze. The rays of sunlight become increasingly muted and weak the farther we descend. The water is cloudy with suspended particles of milfoil and silt. As we drop deeper, we sink faster and, unskilled at controlling our buoyancy, thump ungracefully onto the bottom, sending up clouds of silt and mud. We clumsily tuck in our legs, dragging our fins through the silt, reducing the visibility even further. I look around nervously, hanging on to Larry. I can’t even see the dive master. So we wait, fiddling with our gauges and compass, repeatedly signing, “You okay? I’m okay”, with a pudgy glove-encased thumb and finger formed into an approximation of a circle.
The dive master appears out of the murky depths and hovers effortlessly in front of us. He guides us through the various skills we need to perform in open-water before we can be certified to dive. Churning up mud with every movement, we demonstrate that we can remove and re-attach our weight belt, clear our masks, signal for and receive emergency air from each other. In a swirl of silt, we pull off our masks entirely, squatting blindly in the liquid blackness. I focus on my breathing, listening to the mechanical hiss of the regulator delivering life-sustaining oxygen, as I inhale and exhale deeply. I fumble with fat, frozen fingers to pull on my mask, position it so it won’t leak, and tilt my head back to blow air through my nose to clear the water. I open my eyes. I can see! The dive master is grinning at me, his face mere inches from mine. I grin back, the loosened regulator shooting an unexpected blast of air into my cheek. I turn to find Larry. His eyes are crinkled in a smile and his fingers form an emphatic “okay!” circle.
The dive master beckons us to follow him. Leaving the churn of mud, the visibility clears, and an unworldly landscape unfolds before us. Gliding weightlessly, propelled by the steady beat of my fins, I feel like I am flying. We swim over a rich, colorful array of sea-life. Purple and red sea-stars creep along in a five-pointed grasp, white and yellow anemones sway slowly in the currents, and schools of fish dart around in silvery clusters. We are captivated by the baleful gaze of a giant octopus, curled up in a crevice, its suction-cupped tentacles intertwined around its fleshy, bulbous head. Multitudes of intricate creatures scuttle amongst the sea grasses and kelp. I’m told the waters of the Puget Sound are some of the richest in the world. The water might not be crystal clear, like more tropical locales, but the cold currents are teaming with food and life.
I am startled by the huge gelatinous form of a Lion’s Mane jellyfish, its silky tendrils trailing in a sinister snare. I wave frantically at the dive master, unable to recall the official signal for danger. He calmly acknowledges my panicked gestures and directs us to swim in the opposite direction. I’m already swimming away. My fears of a painful, convulsive death are allayed, when I later learn that, while it might sting, the Lion’s Mane is not poisonous like the deadly Box jellyfish of my Australian childhood.
Back on the surface, frozen hands cupped around steaming mugs of hot chocolate, we prattle excitedly through chattering teeth. That night, as we drift off into an exhausted slumber, our dreams are filled with watery scenes of strange and shimmering creatures swimming in the ocean depths.