(Open Water Certification)
December 15-19, 1995
Dive - Site..................Depth - Time
Sometime during the summer of 1995 I was driving along Delk road in Atlanta and happened to pass a local dive shop. "You know", I thought to myself, "I'd like to learn how to do that someday." I had thought about diving before but had always thought of it as something I would do "later".
A few days later, as coincidence would have it, a friend of mine called. It seemed that Georgia State University was running diving classes through its continuing education division. She was interested in taking the class and was looking for others to join her. Once again I thought "Yeah, I'd like to learn how to do that." Except this time I asked myself "Well, what's stopping you?"
And so it was that I found myself a few weeks later in a pool with a dozen other people learning how to perform such previously unheard of tasks as "mask clearing" and "doff-and-don". Our class met once a week for 8 weeks with two hours of class and two hours of pool work each night. One of the more "interesting" classes took place the night hurricane Opal roared through Georgia. As we floated in the dive pool, we could see lightning flashing through the skylights. At one point the lights flickered, and as we students looked nervously upward the instructor called out "Don't worry. If the lights go out we have flashlights."
The classes went very well, especially compared to some of the others I have since heard of. Since we had 8 weeks we did not try to cram everything into a weekend like some classes do. This gave us plenty of time to go over everything in extreme detail. Also, using the Georgia State facilities was a bonus. They have a special pool used for diving practice (as in Olympic-style high diving, not SCUBA diving). This pool is 12-15 feet deep, which is enough to give a real feel for pressure as well as having enough depth to actually practice. I can't imagine doing pool work in a typical 6-8 foot pool now.
After eight weeks we took our written test and did a final pool checkout. About half the class had dropped out (one of them the friend I had signed up with). The rest of us started making plans for our certification trip to Marathon in the Florida Keys.
The trip was several weeks later, timed to coincide with Christmas break at Georgia State. We met at the campus late Thursday afternoon for the trip. We were all traveling by GSU commuter vans except for two people who were flying down (they were the smart ones). We pulled out of Georgia State at 5 PM and drove through the night.
14 hours later we pulled into Marathon and stopped at an IHOP for breakfast. None of us had gotten much (if any) sleep so we were all very interested in the prospect of coffee. Staggering off the vans, the first thing we saw was the morning edition of the local newspaper with the headline "DIVER DROWNS OFF REEF". Just the thing you need to see the day you start your open water certification.
Our instructors handled it well; they got a copy of the paper, read the article, and explained to us what the diver had done wrong (stayed down when her buddy went to the surface, swam away from the area, ran out of air and surfaced in 4 foot seas away from the boat with no air) and how all of us knew better than to make the same mistakes. Still, not the most inspiring start to the trip.
We next proceeded to our hotel (the Continental Inn) and, after dropping off our luggage, we grabbed our gear and headed down to the beach to go through our skin-diving skills. Dealing with surf was a new addition and everyone's weight was wrong for salt water. But after a while everyone went through their routine with no trouble. It was then back to our rooms for about an hour's rest before heading for the dive boat and our first true open water dives.
We were using The Diving Site as our dive operator. They have been working with Georgia State for several years and so know the instructors well. They were going to be taking us out even though most of the other dive operations in the Keys had shut down because of rough seas.
It was a little rough. We were running 4 to 5 foot seas the entire way out to the reef. I knew we were in trouble when one of our instructors yelled "We will now demonstrate the use of barfing station 1!" and ran over and leaned over the side of the boat. (This lead to one of the mottoes for the trip -- "We don't leave until everyone heaves!").
I did pretty well until the boat stopped. The rocking of the boat increased after we stopped moving and the fact that I was having to concentrate on setting up my gear did not help. This, combined with fatigue from the trip and a little too much coffee at breakfast had me feeling a little queasy as I entered the water; one of the last to do so.
I did not get much more comfortable in the water. There was a roller-coaster effect as I floated on the surface riding the waves up and down. Looking around, I could see other members of the class hanging on the line and one drifting away behind the boat with an assistant swimming after him. Below me, I could see part of the class kneeling on the sandy bottom with others scattered at various levels in the water column. This was certainly a lot different than the dive tank back home! Several species of reef fish swam leisurely through the area and at the edge of visibility (about 40 feet) I could see the edge of the reef.
I made my way along the trail line to the end where my buddy was waiting and we both attempted to descend. I say attempted because we were both under-weighted for salt water and could not get more than a few feet below the surface. Returning to the trail line we were approached by an assistant who asked if we needed more weight.
Here was where I made my first mistake. I pulled my regulator from my mouth so I could answer. I promptly got hit by a 4 foot wall of water. Coughing, I managed to get the reg back in my mouth and cleared. Then, looking up, I noticed that 1) I had let go of the trail line in the process and was drifting away from the boat and 2) there was a jellyfish attached to my mask.
Well, I managed to get back to the line and to lose the jellyfish along the way (learning in the process the desirability of dive gloves). The assistant brought me another weight which I stuck in a pocket of my BC and down I went to join the others fighting the surge on the bottom.
I made it through my basic routine (remove and clear mask, remove and clear regulator, recover dropped regulator) then we returned to the boat. At this point, lack of sleep, the motion of the boat and my last encounter with the water took effect and I decided to sit out the second dive and feed the fish instead of joining the others. Several of us stayed on the surface and hung over the sides while the rest of the class went through their second routine.
It was a long trip back to the marina. I think everyone on the boat got sick eventually except for the crew and the two students who had flown down (and who were sitting on the deck eating lunch watching everyone else hang over the edge). I kept asking "what have I gotten myself into?" Today's trip had most certainly not been fun.
Back at the motel we cleaned out our gear and rested a while before dinner. Then, it was back to the rooms for an early nights sleep.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear but with the winds still up and the seas still in the 4 foot+ range. The next boat trip was scheduled for that morning, which would be the last two certification dives for those who had made both dives the day before. Those of us who had missed the second dive stayed behind. We lazed around the beach and enjoyed the sunshine until the first group of jubilant students returned. After a quick lunch, the instructors then joined the rest of us on the beach. Our second dive would be a shore dive in front of the Continental Inn.
This time everything went much better. I was rested and less stressed. Plus, there was no boat trip to make me seasick. Unfortunately, there was nothing to see. We waded out until the water was deep enough to submerge then followed the bottom down to around 20 feet. Visibility might have been three feet (if that much). We had to hang onto each other's BC straps in order to not get separated. What we could see wasn't much; a sandy bottom covered with sea grass and the occasional bit of trash. We went through the rest of our basic skills (BC doff and don and buddy breathing) and covered again mask and regulator clears and recoveries. We also did our basic navigation exercise. (The conditions were perfect for that.)
The funny thing is, despite absolutely awful conditions, I loved it! The excitement was back. Any concerns I had had after the previous day's dives were gone and I was looking forward to the rest of the week.
That evening we went over to Key West to celebrate. We got there in time for the sunset ceremony, then split up to visit the various shops, restaurants and bars. I cut my celebration short and left with the first group returning to Marathon. I had already experienced diving while totally tired out and had no desire to repeat Friday. The rest of the group stayed out until the wee hours of the morning. (I understand that they actually got thrown out of a Key West bar for being too loud so they must have had a good time! ;-)
Sunday morning a few of us gathered at The Diving Site for our last trip. The few remaining students were there along with a few of the recently certified out for their first "solo" dive. The rest of the group stayed at the hotel to sleep off the previous night's festivities. Our trip today was to Samantha's Reef.
This dive was completely different than the first. The students and instructors settled onto a sandy patch of bottom while the pleasure divers went to investigate the reef. The small number of students turned out to give us an advantage over the group from yesterday in that we were able to finish our exercises in a much shorter time. After reviewing the skills we had already accomplished we covered ascents, rescues, tows and navigation. Then, it was back to the boat for our second tank.
This time there were no more skills to go through so the instructors allowed us to explore the reef under their supervision. Finally, I got to do something besides demonstrating basic skills! We swam over to the reef and started to swim parallel to it.
At first I was majorly disappointed. This was a reef? Where were all the colors? I knew about the loss of color underwater but had not expected to see a mostly brownish looking mass. As we got closer I started to see the life teeming around the reef and started watching it.
My first thought was of being inside an aquarium. There were fish everywhere . I had never realized how much life there was under the surface. I could not identify most of what I saw but that really didn't matter. I was impressed none the less.
Some other divers in the area saw a ray but I missed it. My big encounter came as we were swimming along the top of the reef. I was watching a pair of what I thought were barracuda (I later found out they were gar) swimming along the reef when my buddy grabbed my ankle and jerked. As I turned, I saw him pointing frantically down into a crevice in the reef. There, lying on the sand bottom of the crevice, was a nurse shark. Yes, I know they are harmless, but they are still an impressive sight.
Back on the surface we found that the sea conditions had worsened. There had been other dives planned but the captain didn't want to take the boat out again. We returned to the marina and then to the motel for the traditional GSU dive trip hamburger cookout.
Monday dawned with the seas still too rough for the boats to operate so we went back to Key West for a leisurely day of shopping and exploring. It was cooler than it had been and raining slightly but some of us took a tour on the famous Key West Conch Tour Train. We passed by most of the famous Key West landmarks like the Hemmingway house, mile marker zero for US 1 and the infamous "southernmost point" marker, marking the southernmost point of the continental United States. This being only a few days before Christmas, someone had set up the southernmost Christmas tree next to it.
The next day we were to return to Atlanta. The dive boats were still not operating but a few of us tried another shore dive off the beach at the hotel. There were some breakwaters extending out from the beach and we thought that maybe we could find something near them. In actuality we couldn't even find the breakwaters! Visibility was less than two feet. At one point I tried to read my depth gauge and, while bringing it closer and closer to my face to try to read it, hit myself in the mask with it. Later on we heard a boat coming and so the three of us swam downward. I ran face first into the bottom before I saw it!
Then it was time to leave. Rain started falling as we packed the vans and then, after a quick lunch, we headed back for Atlanta.
Both of the instructors apologized to us. They insisted that these were the worst conditions that they had ever run a certification trip under and that anything we did after this would be better. But, to me it didn't matter. Even those lousy dives off the beach were something special. Someone else on the trip said it the best. As we were driving across the bridges between the Keys she pointed at the ocean and said "You know, it looks different now, somehow."
One of the assistants nodded. "It isn't a barrier anymore. Most people just see the surface. Now you know that there's another world down there, and you aren't cut off from it anymore."
Which says it all better than I ever could...
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