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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Dive

(This blog is dedicated to my mother.  Thanks mom, you are the best!)

This week I embarked on one of the most amazing experiences of my life: my PADI course (this is a SCUBA diving course, for those of you not in the know...)

Now, some of my very old friends will be laughing at this because they know I have several bizarre phobias, the strangest and strongest is of sharks.  Seriously, at times I refused baths as a child because I thought Jaws was going to come out of the fosset and munch me. I feared swimming pools.  When I went snorkeling last year, I asked Tessa to hold my hand.

I’m not confident in the ocean environment, so taking a diving course was a huge step for me.

So why did I do it?

Well, this ties in a bit with Mother’s Day.  It was my mother who inspired me to do it.  While this might surprise you, as mothers are usually the ones who caution their kids against risk, this wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows my mother.

My mother was the one who inspired me to face my fears and conquer them.  As a little girl, I would wake up in the middle of the night, crying about a monster in my closet. My mother looked at me and said, “You have to face the monster and call it out of the closet.”  One night I called out the monster and when it never appeared, I told my mother that the monster was a chicken to not come out and face me.  The monster never bothered me again.   

It was my mother who encouraged me to travel, to explore, to take on new challenges and never back down from anything.  She taught me to value myself and never let the brothers or boys to treat me badly.  It was my mother who encouraged me to take this role in the Solomons, to go back to Christchurch for the earthquake and to return back here when my job was done.  Mom always pushed me forward, to do the unexpected and to be constantly evolving as a person.

My mother suggested I go scuba diving.  After months of humming and hawing, I did it.  And again, I am forever grateful to my mom, because it was AWESOME.

Myself and the Greek Doctor make it down to Tulagi Dive for the course.  The two nights of theory go by quickly, with Gabe as our instructor.  The books arrive on the second day and we have to cut short the Friday night tutorial due to the hosting of a poker night at Casa Turchese (by the way, the night was great, we had 24 players at one point).  

Anyway, on Saturday, the Greek Doctor and I are nervous.   Neither of us feel prepared for spending the better part of the afternoon under metres of water.

When we arrive at the Bonege for our dive, it is overcast and rainy.  Not the best diving conditions.  While on our course, we only had one other person, a lovely older gentleman name Fred.  Now we are accompanied by nine army boys.  Now, settle down ladies, this would turn out not to be as sexy as one might think…

The first challenge: putting on all the gear.  Now, there are several important items you need to have when scuba diving.  The first is your buoyancy control device (BCD) which is basically a black vest that inflates to keep you floating and helps connect all the important stuff together.  Then you need your weight belt, to keep you down.  Mask, snorkels, regulators (to breathe) control gauges, scuba fines, dive tables, slates, a knife and an air cylinder are also included.  While these seems like a lot of stuff, it all fits together nicely around the mid section of your body (except the fins, of course).

It takes us a bit to get it all on and, as the only two girls on the course, myself and Greek doctor get special attention from the instructors.  The cylinders are heavy but both of us have enough muscle to lift it up and help each other out.

We walk down to the water.  We get in.  It takes me the longest to get on my fins…by the time I get on my fins, the army boys are way out, and metres down.  I hate them. And I would hate them most of the course.

The first decent feels weird, as we go down to three or four metres.  Holding the inflation/deflation hose above my head, I feel like I am parachuting out of a plane.  I look up and the water looks like a glass ceiling above me.  I look below and I see my classmates calmly sitting at the bottom.  I struggle to sit at the bottom.  I would struggle the first dive with getting down; it seems to take forever.

We go through drills like giving our diving buddy (mine was the amazing Greek doctor, who was ever patient with me) air, clearing our masks, getting on a vertical plane and other basic skills.

At the end, we go slowly around the wreck and I get a moment to actually observe the marine environment. The wreck is from World War 2 and the sea has covered it with coral and other reef material.  Fish swim around the reefs and I spot clown fish and tiger fish.  I take slow, calm breathes and enjoy my role as an observer. 

The experience is so amazing, I use the two thumbs up signal to show my enthusasim at Gabe...luckily, he knew that I didn't want to go up (that is what the thumb up signal is for) but that I was really impressed with the sea friend Frank, who joined us on the dive on Sunday, came up with a whirly finger thingy to show how impressed we are.  Frank also managed to do the hokey pokey and turned himself around in the was most impressive...

Back to dive number one...we head up and I am buzzing.  I take off my mask and realize that because I had the end of a slight cold, my mask was full of snot.  Not the sexiest of looks.  However, the dive was pretty amazing.

The next dive would not be as fun.

This one had us taking off our masks.  Now, I’m a nose breather, through and though.  I only breathe through my mouth when I am singing or am sick.  For some reason, the idea of taking off my mask in the water freaked me out.  My long hair got in the way and Gabe had to keep brushing it out of the mask.  I bolted to the surface.  Gabe grabbed hold of my BCD and helped me make a more controlled ascent. 

That was the last time I had an underwater freak out. Tobias, a local dive master, stayed with me in the surface and said simply:

“Don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s only your first day diving, Sara!”

His words were a great relief; I didn’t have to be perfect, the dive instructors were looking out for me and my safety, always.

The next hour is spent doing more drills.  As Gabe turns to watch me do my exercises underwater, he gives me the “Okay” sign and gives me a little clap.  The girl swat in me secretly delights at getting a round of applause underwater.

After our drills, we tour the wreck again, this time going through the middle of the boat.

Its very easy to get disoriented in the water.  When you are midway between the surface and the ocean floor, its really difficult to tell directions.  It is very easy to lose people and I am constantly looking for my buddy, the Greek Doctor.  

As we go through the boat, an army boy, who I am following, picks up a shell and shows it to me.  This wouldn’t have been so bad except that there were ten people behind me and this caused a bit of a traffic jam, causing the Greek Doctor to get a small cut on her leg. 

At the end of the dive, I just sit on the sand, playing with the grits between my fingers, marveling at the textures, sounds, colours, shapes and tastes of the underwater world.  I come up to the surface to laughing; one of the army boys vomited through his regulator, feeding the fish.  Thanks guys.  

We get out of the water, exhausted.  We go home and go to bed early; our next dive starts at eight in the morning.

The next morning is partially sunny and the water is flat like a lake.  The Bonege 2 boat is rusting out of the water. I’ve snorkeled the wreck before and know that the ocean life is pretty spectacular. 

We start with drills in six metres of water, finishing with our emergency ascent in one breath.

At the end we go around the wreck.  As I watch my dive computer hit 18 metres, I realize that if anything serious happened, I was trapped under heaps of water and couldn’t just bolt up to the top.  We round the tip of the boat and I see dark blue down below me.  I calm down and simply look at the fish, trying not to think of what creatures lurk below me or what would happen if I get caught in the wreck.

Gabe takes me through the wreck, dodging rusted rigging and jutting pieces of wreck.  He plops a multi coloured slug on my hand.  The slug (Gabe called them a nuddiebranch or something like that; he is Aussie and therefor difficult to understand) has wonderful nubby tips of neon orange and white. It is beautiful to hold and I fall in love with this new, strange environment.

I sit back, surprised that diving gets such a perception of being a very hardcore sport.  You always see muscled supermen in black dive suits going backwards from a boat, wrestling with fish underwater.  But it couldn’t be further from the reality.  The environment is very calming, almost meditative and I have to remind myself several times that I am actually underwater.  I simply observe calming and let the current move my body around.  This is hardly the sport I perceived it to be.

As we go through the wreck, I touch sea creatures that live on the wreck.  My favorite is one that feels like pockets of soft silica gel.  We leave the wreck behind and go to the sandy bottom, where Gabe points out grass like creatures that point up and around.  I swim closer and the small eels slip quickly into the sands.
We end our dive and head back to the dive shop for more learnin’. 

We finish the course early because I have to Skype my mom on mother’s day.  I show her my face for 20 seconds (all the memory we can afford) and she says it was exactly what she wanted for Mother’s Day.  It seems a poor gift to the woman who not only gave me life but also encouraged me to get a real life, one full of adventure. 

Like diving.

I end the day exhausted but when my head hits the pillow, I have a big smile on my face.

Note: I HIGHLY recommend that if you want to learn how to dive or take a more advanced course in the Solomon Islands, chose Tulagi Dive.  They are great, professional, fun and they take you to interesting places.  When we were practicing with our compasses underwater, the water clarity was very poor and I thought that I had been forgotten in the fray and up popped Gabe to make me do my test.  Someone was always watching out for me and I felt very well looked after.  Thanks Tulagi Dive and the Tulagi Dive team for helping me on my way to becoming a diver.