August 7th, 2003

Sierra Night

SCUBA!

Today was our scuba diving day, so we had to get an early start. Sadly, Jeni and Bob were too sick to go (besides feeling awful, congestion is a very serious problem at depth). That left me and Tyler, Devon and Dee, and Laina, who is one of the few non-Morrisons certified for Scuba (that I know of). We headed out to the dive shop together (we’d been fitted for gear a few days before), filled up plastic bins with our scuba gear, loaded the stuff in their trailer, piled in their van, and drove out to the docks. There were about 12-15 of us, counting the divemasters (one out for an underwater photo session) and a few other people we didn’t know. One was a Japanese couple that had some of the most new, high-tech gear I’d ever seen (not that I’ve seen much).

The boat (Blue Wing) had an enclosed bow, while the middle and stern were open, with waist-high sides, roof, and clear plastic awning roped down between the gap. At the stern, there was a small divider in front of a platform with two sets of ladders. You jumped in off this part, over the ladders, and climbed back up after the dive. The center of the boat had a long bench in it, with a tall rack in the middle for our air tanks to be strapped in. We’d be doing two dives, so we slid our gear boxes under the bench, each strapped in one air tank to the bench rack, and the rest of the air went below.

We would be diving in the Solitary Islands that day, which you can just barely see in this picture (faded, just directly above the spit). This picture was taken from Helen and Lynton’s front balcony on the second floor, which gives an idea of the kind of view they had to put up with.



The ride was great. We even saw bottlenose dolphins leaping in the wake from the boat behind us. Still, I was really nervous. The waves were high and so the boat was pitching, the loud motor made conversation impossible, the sky was cloudy and looked like rain, but I think I was mostly having a relapse of anxiety from the last time I had dived, which aren’t happy memories. Plus, I was getting ready for a good 60-foot dive, which was 3 times as deep as I’d ever been. Even knowing how to scuba dive, spending a lot of time 60 feet under water would probably make most people nervous.

When we arrived, the captain saw that I didn’t look happy and talked to me for awhile (I was pretty honest about it, and he was really professional…I bet he deals with that all the time). We’d started getting our wetsuits on some time during the ride, but I was one of the last to get in. I was a little shaken up. We were all planning to mostly stay as a group, but partner off and explore a little. I was going down with the divemaster, Mike, while Devon and Tyler stayed together and Dee and Laina stayed together.

I got my BC and air tank on, spat in my mask, got everything straight, and jumped in the water. I was still really nervous on the surface, but once Mike and I went below, everything was better right away. The waves were gone, the noise was gone, everything was calm and peaceful, and I was able to breathe just fine. The visibility was also very good…at least 20 meters, where Puget Sound had been less than 1…which helped a lot. I feel claustrophobic when the visibility is so low.

The dive was wonderful. We went down 18 meters for 43 minutes. This first dive was in a place they called the Shark Gutters. We saw big Grey Nurse sharks ( a threatened species of shark, much larger than me, and they were beautiful), blue-lined surgeon fish (Dory, from Finding Nemo), clownfish (the dadfish in Finding Nemo), featherfin bullfish, painted flute-mouths, lionfish (poisonous!), a 1.5 ft blue grouper, cuttlefish (some of the others saw an octopus eating one), moon wrasse (rainbow-colored), fusiliers (half blue, half yellow), colon bullseye (yellow and pointy), blue tings, kingfish, blue damsels, goatfish, trumpetfish, a school of tarwain, and a little wobbygong shark.

This is one of the lionfish we saw (one of the divemaster emailed me the picture when I asked her about it). Its expression is priceless.



We went through a rock tunnel into a narrow rock alley near the side of the island, and got to feel the surge from the waves crashing on rocks above us. It was amazing to be holding perfectly still, and suddenly be fluidly and rapidly moved 10 to 15 feet forward or backwards, without any noise or effort.

We came up at this point for lunch and decompression.*2 We all ate a little and then got ready for the second dive, on the South Boulder Wall. Devon had been feeling seasick, but felt better once he was back underwater. Tyler was seasick too, and ended up sitting out on the second dive. The water was really choppy. I was nervous about my CESA.

The first task on this dive was for me to do my CESA. In Seattle, I’d been taken down to about 25 feet with 32 lbs of weight (SEVERELY overweighted), and had had to ascend to the surface, 1 foot per second, on one single exhalation of air (which is supposed to work because the air in your lungs expands as you ascend to lower pressures). Here, Mike deployed a line hanging from a float. I was wearing 6 lbs of weight, and we went down to 18 feet for the ascent.

I panicked a little and didn’t breathe right, and ran out of air about 6 feet from the surface, which is what had always happened before. Mentally, I freaked. I was never going to get certified. Mike just took me down again without saying anything, I got a good breath, and on my 10th total attempt at CESA made it to the surface with air to spare.

Which means this:



I would have felt like I was flying, except diving makes you feel that way already. I was utterly ecstatic for the rest of the day, both from happiness, pride, and relief. This completed my PADI Open Water Diver certification.*1

The rest of the dive was fantastic. We saw the same wildlife as above, only this time, we had a very special addition: an gigantic loggerhead sea turtle. He was enormous, but swam and hovered more gracefully than we ever could. We sort of surrounded him in a wide circle. He lived in that area and I suppose he was just curious about us.

I motioned to Mike to ask if I could touch it, and Mike pantomimed the turtle biting my arm. But we were so near it, when it swam away from us, Mike took my wrist and I got to stroke the back of its shell. It was rough and lacy from all the barnacles and seaweed. I can hardly express what an amazing experience it was.

Here he is:



Evidently, there was a second turtle about (a smaller green sea turtle), but I didn’t see this one. We swam around a while longer and finally came to the surface, where Mike announced loudly to the whole boat that there was a newly-certified diver on board. I got lots of applause and felt gooey. Mike later commended me for my buoyancy control and underwater dive maneuvers (which was somewhat of a surprise), but also said I had to work on using my arms less, which I knew. It’s hard to get out of the habit of flailing your arms around to steer.

We returned to the docks and disembarked*3, met Bob and Jeni back at the dive shop, and drove back to the house. Dee and I soaked in the Jacuzzi for a while (we were both pretty cold), then returned to the dive shop later that night to fill out some paperwork. I got my diver card taken care of, I grilled the divemasters about all the fish we’d seen (which is why I knew their names), and filled out my dive log. Then we got Vietnamese take-out for dinner, hit the store for groceries (more mint slices) and the Apothecary for some medicine, and went back to the house.


1. I got my card in the mail pretty rapidly. I had gotten my picture taken for it in the dive shop after the dive, and the only, only good thing about that photo is that it makes my Driver’s License look good by comparison. The neat thing is that the card also says where you were certified, which in my case, was New South Wales. Awesome.

2. I was one of the first people back on the boat. While I was resting there, somebody left their tank on the bench rack without strapping it in, and a pitch of the boat sent it tipping over onto the hard floor, valve-first. The captain made a terrified grab for it, and wasn’t quite in time, but we were lucky and the valve didn’t break off. If it had, it might have wrecked our boat. The divemasters also hadn’t had us wet our BC straps before strapping the tanks in (which I should have done anyway), so my fit wasn’t as tight as it should have been and my tank started slipping underwater. Luckily, Mike noticed and fixed it.

3. As we were getting the air tanks out of the boat, people were carrying them to the trailer and leaving them upright while waiting to be loaded. Eek.
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    Waves lapping at the boat