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URBAN ADVENTURE: Learning to Scuba

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By Danielle Charbonneau

I’ve been known to keep a pretty exhaustive bucket list. Two activities on this uber-long, idealistic list of mine include scuba diving and setting a world record (for anything). This June 16, I will have the opportunity to complete both of these simultaneously. Dixie Divers in Deerfield Beach is hosting an underwater pier cleanup day during which they will attempt to set a Guinness Book of World Records for longest underwater human chain. Hundreds of divers from near and far gather at Deerfield Beach pier, take a cue number, and assemble in order to form a giant chain of flipper-wearing, fun-seekers underwater.

Dixie Divers set the record last year with 241 divers, breaking the previous world record of 182 divers that had been set in Thailand in 1976. I heard about last year’s record attempt and was struck with raw envy that, at the time, I was not scuba certified. I promised myself then that if the event were to happen in 2018, I would be a part of it.

So this March, when I confirmed Dixie Divers would indeed be attempting to break last year’s record, I set out to get scuba certified. I was a bit nervous at first — imagining disastrous drowning scenarios and bloody scenes from Jaws — but I also remembered the bright tales of my grandfather who started scuba diving in his 70s and fell so madly in love with the water that he dove into his late 80s. He traveled the world to visit the most exotic reefs — from Bonaire, to the Blue Hole in Belize, a WWII wreck near Bali and the Great Barrier Reef. I remember as a little girl, playing with his flippers and wetsuit, which he stored in a dusty basement closet; and sitting on his lap as he flipped through his photo albums of underwater photography — tropical fish, fantastical coral and seemingly deserted islands. His eyes brightened as he told me of the wonders under the sea. He described scuba diving as I would imagine an astronaut explaining space — of unseen universes and colorful foreign creatures.

So while I was slightly apprehensive about scuba at first, I reminded myself of such potential treasure. A friend of mine also reminded me that living in South Florida and not learning to scuba dive is like living in Colorado and not learning to ski. As a native Coloradan, I know that’s plain sacrilege. Thus, I quieted my reservations and pushed myself through the doors of Dixie Divers where owner Arilton Pavan helped me sign up for the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water diving course. Tony, a longtime employee at Dixie Divers, helped me pick out a mask, snorkel, fins, booties and course materials.

The process at Dixie divers is to participate in two classroom sessions, two pool dives and two days of open water dives, consisting of four ocean dives total (each about 40 minutes long).

In the classroom sessions we watched videos about air density, pressure and the effect of ocean depth on both. We learned about compressed air — its makeup of nitrogen and oxygen — and the potential for decompression sickness. We learned about buoyancy control and planning dives, accounting for different variables. We learned about equalizing our ears and preventing lung over-expansion. The classroom sessions and cheesy DVDs took me right back to high school science class (as did the practice quizzes and 50-question final exam). Of course the DVDs also included plenty of disaster scenarios, including the image of a balloon (meant to represent your lungs) violently exploding underwater. It was kind of like those television ads for new medications that list all horrid possible side effects — they do not exactly evoke confidence. Nonetheless, I pressed on.

The pool dives were rather fun. I felt like a kid playing tea-party on the bottom of the pool. Chad, my instructor, would play rock-paper-scissors underwater between lessons. The pool exercises ranged from easy to hard, including things like removing and clearing our masks, sharing air with our fellow divers, removing and putting back on our weight belts, practicing buoyancy control and emergency ascents. Two different exercises tested our physical fitness, including swimming 19 laps continuously and treading water for ten minutes. In the pool I felt safe and confident, knowing that the surface was never more than ten feet above my head and easily accessible.

In the ocean, however, this was not the case. Realizing this messed with my head. I had told myself the ocean would be just like the pool, only a bit deeper. I tried to psyche myself up and keep a positive mental chatter, but when the time came to descend to the bottom of the ocean at a depth of 35 feet (which is measly for a diver), I panicked. I got about six feet underwater before my heart started to race and my breath got short and fast. I felt as if I was inhaling through a straw. Breathing underwater suddenly felt like a terrifying prospect. I quickly bolted back to the surface where my instructor Chad joined me smiling. “You’re fine, you’re fine,” he said. “Just breathe. In and out. In and out.”

Chad had warned me and my classmates that there’s almost always one person who panics on the first dive. Well, this time it was me. I was that girl. After some deep breaths at the surface, I pushed through my anxiety and descended back underwater where my fellow classmates were kneeling on the ocean floor, cool as cucumbers. I tried closing my eyes to focus solely on my breathing, but I felt frozen. Unfortunately my anxiety never quite faded, so while my classmates practiced the series of exercises we had already completed in the pool, I developed a sort-of tunnel vision.

Unbeknownst to me, in my nervousness and disorientation, I had started to hum while exhaling. Some part of my brain must have snapped back to childhood blowing noisy bubbles in the bathtub. I was so in my head, I didn’t even realize I was humming for almost the entire duration of the first 35-minute dive. At the end of the dive, Chad laughed and poked fun at my underwater musicality. I now am embarrassingly known by the nickname “The Hummer.” Apparently, however, humming is a great way to conserve air; I used only about 300psi for the whole dive, which thoroughly impressed the other instructors aboard the boat.

On my second ocean dive, I was a bit calmer. I was able to catch up on the exercises I had missed on the first dive and complete the day feeling I had progressed. By my third dive, I felt as if I belonged in the ocean. I began to enjoy the scenery — the purple coral swaying in the current, lobsters tucked between rocks, blow fish floating aimlessly and hundreds of diverse colorful fish. I began to float effortlessly and to imagine my fins as a mermaid’s tail. I started to understand the allure of scuba, which, to me, felt like watching Disney’s Fantasia or taking LSD. As a sidenote, I learned Jerry Garcia was addicted to scuba diving, which now makes a whole lot of sense. I see why my grandfather was so hooked on scuba and why South Florida is such a destination for divers — its abundant marine life, wreck sites and coral reefs.

On April 7, I officially completed my fourth ocean dive and passed my scuba certification. I am now ready to participate in Dixie Diver’s Guinness World Record attempt on June 16.

The world record, however, will just be icing on the cake. The real prize is my newfound ability to explore the vast magic of the ocean. The Dixie Divers pier cleanup day and Guinness Book of World Records Attempt will take place at Deerfield Beach Pier on June 16.

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