One of the first things that we noticed when we entered the scuba shop was the map- it was MASSIVE, stretching from the floor to the ceiling, covering two walls and was almost entirely blue.The second thing that we noticed was the smell of chlorine coming from beyond the classroom, reminding us that in addition to online modules and classroom instruction we would be spending at least an hour and a half in the pool every night as we learned to SCUBA dive.
Our logic in taking time to learn to dive was twofold- we didn’t want to travel the world and limit ourselves to terrestrial exploration during our trip and the opportunity to take a guided SCUBA class minutes from home seemed too good to pass up. I have been an open water lifeguard and Rosie has spent months at sea but despite this time near the water neither of us had thought of SCUBA certification as either attainable or accessible. Luckily, the folks at Choo Choo Dive (named after the nearby Chattanooga Choo Choo) were very helpful and extremely supportive when we called them with all our questions about travelling and diving. After going back and forth for a week they eventually informed us that the SCUBA certification is good for life, and we were sold!
After making the initial deposit and signing up for classes, our next step was to get geared up. It’s just a tank and a mask, right? Well, apparently in order to SCUBA dive you also need an entire snorkel kit, fins, a weight belt, multiple mouthpieces, neoprene booties, an oxygen tank, a buoyancy compensator (vest) and regulators (mouthpieces)! There was no doubt by now that this was going to be a very gear-intensive sport, especially considering our plan to only bring small packs on our trip. We explained our situation to Steve, the shop owner and he was great in helping us pick out cheaper deals and rentals for the class. It also became clear to us that our ability to make good decisions about rental gear abroad would be a big factor in our success, since none of the gear we were buying would be coming on our travels with us.
We also discovered quickly that while the online modules were going to be required, they were ultimately just filler from the certification organization (in our case, Dive SSI). Short informational videos of pretty people on beach resorts carefully washing their wetsuits and filling out their dive logs were entertaining, but not nearly as informative as the time we actually spent with the instructors.
Our main instructor was named Malu, and when she learned of where we would be taking our skills she did an excellent job of helping us learn what to look for in rental shops and dive resorts around the world. We peppered her with questions about damaged O-rings, rental computers and what to eat before diving her knowledge proved to be invaluable. On our first night of class we did a practical swim in our snorkel gear around the pool to show that we were fit enough to SCUBA (12 laps, I think, really boring..) but by the second class we were hooked up to our gear for the first time and learning to use it.
At first Malu just had us practice breathing through our regulators above the water while standing, and after we became familiar with the sensation she instructed us to try it with our faces held in the water. That first breath with my head fully submerged was a sensation that I think I will never forget- both terrifying and exhilarating and entirely counter-intuitive. We then practiced with the regulators while we slowly circled the 3-foot depth end of the pool.
I practiced the steady breathing that Malu had taught us and as the reality that I could now barrel roll, somersault and generally play porpoise-like in the shallows without having to hold my breath became apparent, a new sensation of freedom washed over me. Rosie and I both came out of the water that first night elated with the new experience and more excited than ever to explore this new environment that we now had access to.
Over the next few weeks we would become more adept at assembling our gear and learning to control our BC’s, or ‘Buoyancy Compensators’, the air-filled vest that allows a submerged body to ascend, descend or float with ease. We would learn to watch our ‘dive computers’, which are worn on the wrist and used to guide your time underwater. We learned how to switch regulators, remove our masks underwater and conduct emergency maneuvers such as rapid ascents. One unexpected byproduct of all this time spent underwater is that Rosie and I learned how much time we spend talking to each other: with regulators in our mouths and only our hands to communicate we found ourselves with a vastly limited vocabulary for sharing our ongoing thoughts. As such, we ended up inventing a variety of hand signals and gestures to communicate necessary expressions such as, “DUDE, what is that thing over there?!”, “This is freaking crazy!”, “I could use a snack”, and “Check out this sweet underwater handstand!”. Malu was spotted silently laughing through her mask one night as she noticed us signing to each other in the deep end during a long dive.
For those who have not experienced it yet, SCUBA diving is a strange sensory experience. Sounds are muffled and distant, it is difficult to touch or feel anything and the view through your mask is your main experience of the underwater world. At the same time, there is a pressure all around the body and constant coldness as the heat is slowly drained from your limbs and core. You become acutely aware of your equipment’s constant functioning, the pressure of the mask and the taste of the bottled air in your mouth as gripping the mouthpiece makes your jaw sore.
At the same time the world dances and sways in unreal patterns, conducted by unseen currents and the sense of having transcended some natural law is hard to shake. It feels both unearthly and inhuman, but at the same time the constant monitoring of your life-support equipment makes the fragility of one’s body that much more palpable. Just as it seemed like we had gotten comfortable embracing these new sensations in the pool, our indoor sessions were complete it was time to take our final certification dives! So with six classes under our weight belts over a month and a half we loaded up our car with rental SCUBA gear and headed to Loch Low Minn Quarry for a weekend of diving!
The scene at the quarry on that first Saturday morning was an entirely different one than we had expected. A long gravel road led down to the edge of the still quarry water, and all along the road were families setting up tents and camp showers, children eating pre-dive snacks and tattooed men in their seventies corralling their own classes together.
It was a little like a tailgating scene except that about once every hour, half of the people up top would disappear off the end of a dock and not be seen about 45 minutes.
Our first dive in the quarry was exhilarating in several ways- led by Malu our group descended farther than we had gone before (25 feet below the surface!) to a murky submerged dock where we all practiced our basic regulator retrieval skills, taking our masks on and off and checking our air pressure.
Then, in a group we all set off (about 8 of us in total) for a swim at depth, over waving duckweed beds, past jet skis sunk and moored to the bottom, through practice hoops and by steep quarry walls. The water was murkier than in the pool and much colder, but Rosie and I practiced swimming together and maintaining an even keel. We spent most of the weekend like that- descending to a submerged dock, checking our equipment and then practicing navigating in the challenging conditions. Eventually, we had accomplished the mandatory guided dives and Malu instructed us to try one on our own.
In a fashion true to our pattern, we used our new freedom to explore all the most fun submerged attractions (Greek statuary! A tree inhabited by catfish! A sunken jet ski!) and took turns swimming in and around the practice hoops. We took pictures of each other playing on the jet ski and practiced our new underwater sign language. Visibility was only about 15 feet, and so on one of our last dives we were surprised to be swimming along and suddenly see a massive shark moored on one of the far quarry walls! Since this was likely the only time we would be excited to see a shark while diving we took turns doing our best bull-rider poses before departing.
Upon finally surfacing, Malu signed off on our solo dives and certified us as SCUBA divers, now eligible to dive worldwide! It was both thrilling and terrifying to be at once so independent and free to dive, but to now also be solely responsible for ourselves underwater. With so much possibility before us it was not unlike walking out of the DMV with a drivers' license for the first time! But instead of dreaming about highways stretching out before us, our minds went back to our first day in the dive shop and the big blue map that stretched from floor to ceiling.
Until next time- Ever Further!