It doesn’t matter who you are, the first time you put a regulator in your mouth and go under the water more than a snorkel length, every fibre of your being tells you that it is not a good thing.
We are not meant to breathe underwater. We gave that up a long time ago. But you put the regulator in your mouth and you say to yourself that you can do this, that this is natural too – it’s still air. It just comes from a heavy little tank under high pressure, through the first stage of the breakdown in the valve on the top of the tank where the pressure is released. And then it goes through the hose to the second stage — the regulator. It’s the device you hold in your mouth that allows you to inhale air when you need it, and allows you to exhale it when you are ready for a fresh breath.
And if you really concentrate, and focus on your breathing, especially on long, slow exhales, you can breathe easy.
I have lived on the surface for most of my life. Born in Vancouver, a city wedged between the mountains and the ocean, water is present in my earliest memories. I first learned to swim with my sisters in my parents’ frugally-heated, chlorine-clear, ancient plaster pool. My four sisters and I would frolic like seals, swimming over and under, twirling and spinning and calling to each other in a never-ending game of marco polo, our black bathing suits sucking up the heat of the sun when we crawled out of the water to warm ourselves on the warped painted pink planks of the deck.
There were many excursions to waterfront parks and beaches where I fell in love with the scents of the sea: the pungent, funky smell of a low tide or the sweet and salty essence of cleansing high water that erases the scars of a day of play. There were family trips to camping grounds on warm murky lakes with beautiful beaches and quick to flare tempests that could whip up the water and stir up the sand in a heartbeat.
And then, later still, there were summers spent on the seashore of the beloved little gulf island. There, I would venture out over the shadowy bottomless ocean on wooden water skis, skimming over the surface of the water in quick terrifying circuits. I was fearful of falling and being snapped up by some monstrous sea creature. Or of being caught and held captive by the long, rubbery fronds of the massive floating kelp forests that migrated through the channel in front of our cottage, and over which my father would unwittingly drive his boat as he kept his eyes on the daughter he pulled, instead of on the obstacle-rich water.
But, mostly, as a child, my experiences in the sea were limited to brief, chilly dips in the cold, un-welcoming waters of the Pacific on rare, baking hot days. And to magical moments on warm humid nights when my sisters and I would dance in the dark water in front of our family cottage, our movements lit by a million sparkling stars of phosphorescence. I never dreamt of the life that bloomed below the surface. Instead, I was always afraid of what lurked there.
I don’t think I had ever really given thought to diving. I had done some snorkeling in Fiji when I was twenty-three and I ran away for a month or so to the South Pacific. It scared me. There were big shadows, real or imagined, that I could sense lurking off the edge of the reef out to which I would snorkel, alone, a hundred or more yards away from the sanctuary of the shimmering shore. But the edge of the reef was where all the action was — where the fish would congregate and co-exist, at least for the most part. There, there were little fish eating bits of coral and plankton and even littler fish. And some of those fish got eaten by the bigger fish that arrive from the deeper blue depths to feast and then retreat. Those big fish were of concern to me. Maybe some brazen barracuda, or worse, I imagined, sharks. But still, I went to the edge every day, just to be there.
One day, someone spotted a fin slicing through the aquamarine water, just off the shore, up on the reef. It was entirely possible, since the Fijians were dumping perishable garbage into the ocean every day. Come to think of it, some of it wasn’t so biodegradable. You could go out for a ride in a handmade, glass-bottomed boat in the afternoon and watch them feed the fish with the leftovers from lunch. Every day, right on schedule. No doubt, not too many minutes later, the big, lurking fish who were on to the free lunch would catch a whiff of some action and come and partake. I always took care to snorkel on the other side of the islet, and always in the morning. But, when the presence of sharks became a probability instead of a possibility, I stayed on shore. I had been there, done that. The shadows won.
Thirteen years, three babies and a lifetime later I went back to the edge, quite unintentionally. It wasn’t something my husband Dave and I had ever planned, or even talked about doing. We both liked watching Jacques Cousteau’s marine adventures, but we weren’t fanatical about it. The only things we were passionate about were our three daughters, then aged nine, eight and three. They had become our life.
Then one day, while I was away on a weekend escape with some girlfriends, and he was remembering how good a few days away could be for me, for us, he called up a local dive shop and registered us for a PADI scuba course. Just like that. No what do you think if? Or is this something you will do with me? He surprised me. This is a guy who does cheques and balances for a living. He had measured the risk, and if it was acceptable to him, then it was for me too.
So, I became a diver because of my husband. My buddy. The guy who called up and then went and visited the dive shop and interviewed the instructor and signed us up. And then went ahead and booked the babysitter, before I came home. When he did that, I realized how important this was to him. We went together, glad to be on a date. We studied pretty hard and got in the pool after every classroom session of our certification course and learned how to breathe.
I got pretty good at breathing underwater in a swimming pool. I learned that when I exhaled I would sink a bit and when I inhaled I would rise. It was a strange thing to discover that my ability to hover, to stay suspended in water, going neither up or down, relied on how deeply I breathed. I learned to breathe underwater when I didn’t have a mask on my face. You have to be able to do this to get certified. It taught me to be a mouth breather when I am diving. And, we learned how to share air with our buddy — how, in the unlikely event of an out-of-air experience or a major malfunction, I should get his attention and signal to him and ask him to share his air supply. All in underwater sign language. I don’t know about him, but I won’t be asking, I’ll be grabbing that extra regulator carried by all good dive buddies, and that will hopefully be marked with a neon billboard on the middle of his chest, and I’ll be talking about it later :^)
I became an ace pool diver as the final leg of the certification course loomed. We were required to do four open water dives to complete our course. In early April. In forty-five degree water. Fahrenheit. In wetsuits. I think my strategy was to avoid all thought about what was coming. I didn’t want to go there. It really wasn’t until we were layering on wetsuits on the edge of the abyss at Deep Cove in the pummeling rain that I got it — I was going into and under that slate gray, murky, bone-chilling water. Oh God.
It was only the prospect of a trip to Club Med in Mexico that got me into the water. We had booked a trip that was leaving two weeks after the course ended. It would be our first real trip in almost a decade — after ten years of hard work and babies, we were going on an adventure, just the two of us.
With that in my sights, I gritted the regulator between my teeth, buckled down my fins, girded my 8 mm neoprene-covered loins and I got in the water, four times in the next two days, in the horizontal rain and the wind-whipped whitecaps, buoyed between numbing dives by miserly measures of warm water being ladled into my wetsuit by our instructor — the best he could do to thaw me. On the second day, we dove from a boat into the frigid waters of Indian Arm in chowder visibility. I couldn’t see my hand if it was too far from my face.
On the first dive of that fateful day, it was so dark forty feet under the surface that we needed a flashlight to see what little I saw: the tubular white anemones growing on the bottom of the sea, a few scuttling crabs scurrying sideways that would careen from out of the gloom, their claws at the ready, and which would then disappear just as abruptly, and the occasional lurking ling cod that would saunter away when we got too close. Not that I was noticing much. I was just trying to control my breathing and stop myself from having direct contact with any of the other-worldly creatures by crashing on the bottom.
On the second, the last dive of our course, our instructor led us along a sheer wall that unhinged me. Up until then I had held my panic in check. But here, there was nothing up, nothing down, nothing to see, no bottom to fall to, just a gloomy, unearthly cliff face to cling to as we wended our way along the stony outcropping. Then he turned, offered me his light, and indicated that I should go first. With no concept of how deep I was, with no point of reference, with everyone behind me and out of my peripheral vision, I felt truly alone. Disoriented. Terrified. Panicked. I could taste my fear as I sucked quick shallow breaths of metallic air from my regulator. I shivered and crept along the wall, the sinister shadows below and above closing in on me. I was sure that if I lost contact with the wall, I would be free floating in the blackness forever, like an astronaut who loses his lifeline.
I forced myself to take some deep, slow breaths. When I finally felt that I had my demons and myself under control, I turned back to the group, handed off the light with great relief, and snuggled in beside Dave. I had battled the cold fear and the panic and the dark shadows that had always lurked just below my surface, and somehow I got beyond it.
Even in Mexico, in the dirty aquarium clarity of the still-a-bit-chilly-in-April waters two weeks later, it was a little out there.
On our first dive we were taken down in a group. There were five men, including Dave, plus me, following a dive instructor through some rocky canyons. We had to fly in tight formation in order to keep each other in sight. I got kicked and jostled and separated from my buddy as I tried to maintain neutral buoyancy in the group. And then, a diver lost his poorly fastened tank and it slid down his back. We all settled on the bottom while the dive instructor worked to re-position it on his jacket. I counted the divers standing in the circle on the sea floor. Six. I counted again. Six. We should be seven. I looked at each diver more carefully, searching for my buddy. We all looked the same, clad in black Club Med wetsuits and hoods and masks and regulators. In my mounting panic, I remembered that he and I have the same fins. I looked at the divers feet carefully. None were like mine. He was not there. I gestured wildly to the dive instructor: My buddy. Where is my buddy? He signed to me to stay put. Wait. The seconds ticked like centuries as he finished strapping on the truant tank. And then he led us as we all ascended slowly. I had a lot of time to imagine the worst. But when we surfaced, Dave was waiting for us there. He had lost his weight belt, and had drifted helplessly up and away, unnoticed by me.
It wasn’t until the second or maybe the third day of diving that I really started to get it — to get beyond the equipment and the possibility of it or me screwing up. I had been noticing but not really seeing — fish, stingrays, crabs, barracuda. And there were sea lions. I noticed them, of course. They would startle me — zoom from out of the gloom and buzz by and roll their big bulbous brown puppy dog eyes at us, and then swoosh out of sight. Kelly, a Club Med divemaster, had told us about them, about how we shouldn’t be afraid. They were playful, she said. They might even nip at the brightly-coloured tip of your snorkel.
As the days slid by of our first-ever holiday away from our children, we grew our gills in the cobalt blue sea. We dove on a big ferry wreck that the Mexican government had sunk for divers on the gorgeous desert-rushing-into-the-sea mainland coast of Sonoran Mexico. We did a kelp forest dive and I lost my buddy, again. I was looking all around, spinning and tangled in the long sinewy strands of sea weed that stretched for the surface like ethereal trees searching for the sun. I looked everywhere but up. He was hovering above me, watching me problem solve, ready to rescue. I love this man.
It is the last day that I remember best, though. We went back to the island of the seals. It is a big, hulking rock that sticks up in the middle of the Sea of Cortez. No people live there, but it is the home of many birds, the sun-washed pigments of their stone-tattooing guano marking their long tenure. A colony of sea lions recline on the hot rocks, snoozing and courting and fighting on this huge, isolated hunk of stone. They bark deep throaty excited sounds as the boat approaches. The old timers know it s just those bubbling blunderers again, and go back to sleep. But the young ones are curious, and their mothers are protective, so there are big animals sliding into the water as the boat draws near.
We descended on that last dive, on that last day, in a weightless, wafting freefall down to the jumble of rocks that we could just make out from the surface forty feet above. Instead of heading right, the way we had been on several dives before, along the sloping bottom, close to shore, we went left. We moseyed and poked along the reef, looking into crevices and crannies, searching for little reef inhabitants and admiring the brightly coloured yellow and black striped, blue, and multi-coloured dotted and speckled fish that flitted and filed past us. Ahead of us we could see a shimmering mirage of crystal clear, sapphire water. It was a thermocline — a place where the warmer, turbid, land-hugging currents meet with the cooler, deeper blue ocean. Like on the edge of the reef in Fiji, I could see the schools of fish parading past in colours, contrasts and communities. Only this time, I felt no fear. I was there, seeing in all dimensions. I was interacting instead of just spectating.
We stayed and settled on a sandy bottomed ledge where we perched to admire the scenery for a while. And then the sea lions came to play. This time, anchored to the bottom, we tracked them as they did their fly by. When they rolled their eyes back to see if we were still watching, we were. They returned and performed a ballet above us, around us. Several. Many. Awoosh. They were twirling and swishing and darting and soaring, and every now and then one would shoot to the surface for a suck of air before speeding back down to join us in another dance, for by then we were dancing too, spinning clumsily in our cumbersome, comical, mimicking way, our awkward attempts at grace outshone by their poetic, lithe movements. There was such joy in this connection with other beings, in another world.
At one point in the celebration, the big bull sea lion hefted himself off his stony throne in the baking sun and came down to see what was causing the hullabaloo. He was a mammoth, gnarly-looking character with many battle scars etched into his weathered skin that we could see clearly as he sidled past us suspiciously, giving us the once over with his bulging, unwelcoming eye. His huge, dark form swam by us so closely that we could have touched him, and we sensed his menace, his awesome power. But, when he saw that it was just a couple of the bumbling bubble-blowers communing with the grandkids, he languidly sauntered away, back to reign on his rock.
We stayed as long as we could, and then reluctantly ascended back up to our noisy world. The beauty and the wildness and the quiet of what I had seen, experienced, lived — wowed me, changed me, bettered me. I had lost my fear of the big dark shapes. I began to see life at depth. I fell in love. It is why I dive. It is why I go to the water’s edge.
Since those early days, I have logged many dives in many locations around the world. And I have come face to face with many more dark shapes, including swarming manta rays, stampeding spinner dolphins, and hammerhead, nurse, silver tip, Galapagos, white tip and whale sharks.
The magic of the experience resonates in me still, and leaves me longing for more.
Post Script: I wrote this story quite a few years ago, when I first sat down to embark on what had been a closet, lifelong ambition – to write. The photography thing has truly been a happy accident.
This story is deeply buried in my original website (which can be accessed by clicking on the black bar with the Awoosh.com link just below the header image on the blog), but I thought I’d republish it here, where the clean format should make it easier to read. The shark picture is an early shot I took, as well. I think I could do a little better now 😉