What It Feels Like to Scuba Dive
I’ve been standing for a couple of minutes, waiting for my dive buddy to finish getting geared up. I’m weighed down by 25 additional pounds of lead, 3,000 PSI of compressed air, a steel tank, and a dry suit that makes me feel like I have no mobility. Even though the outside air temperature is 55 degrees, I’m sweating. I know I’ll be grateful when I get in the water, but right now, the dull body aches due to the weight and the difficulty moving with my gear cinched tight around me are making me feel slightly irritable.
Finally, my buddy is ready. We do a quick “BWRAF” check on each other to make sure our gear is in working order—straps are done up, air is on, regulators are working, and so on—before wading into the water. We inflate our BCDs when we’re knee deep and then help each other put fins on.
Waist deep at last, I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. I can feel my body relax as the salt water takes all the additional weight, and as the coolth puts an abrupt halt to my sweating. With the pressure compressing my dry suit, some mobility returns and I switch to spitting in my mask to defog it.
I run through the dive plan one last time with my buddy before putting my regulator into my mouth, looking to my compass to get my bearings, and then giving him the thumbs down sign to signal I’m okay to descend. He does the same and we both hold our inflator hoses skyward as we press the deflate button. Slowly, we sink. We’re better at sinking now that we used to be. Now we know to breathe out, relax and keep our fins still. A bigger challenge than you’d think.
Because I’m diving a drysuit, I let all of the air leave my BCD. When I hit the bottom—maybe just ten feet at this point—I kick up a small storm of sand. Yes, I have not yet mastered neutral buoyancy. My visibility is immediately reduced to a couple of feet. I give the button in the middle of my chest a press and some of the pressure on my dry suit is alleviated as air seeps in. I still feel like I’m wearing a freezer bag, but it’s a whole lot easier to move in it in the water than out.
Next to me, my buddy is trying to get his own buoyancy in order. I can see him inflating his BCD just enough that he is hovering off the bottom. Because he’s diving a wetsuit, he will use his BCD to control his buoyancy during the dive, whereas I will use my dry suit.
I give my buddy the “okay?” signal. He returns it and we are good to go. The only sound now is the sound of our breathing as we inhale and the bubbles as we exhale. All of the things I was worried about on the surface have entirely vanished, as though squashed out by the pressure. There is only the present: the sounds we make—Darth Vader-like breathing; what we can see around us; our buoyancy.
Right now, visibility is poor. An algae bloom has settled in the first 20 feet. Once we get below that, we know it will clear up. So, we start swimming down the slope in an easterly direction and immediately I start concentrating on taking deep, slow breaths.
We both know the area well so we will not be counting fin kicks. My buddy will be navigating and I will keep an eye on our time. We will both independently watch our pressure gauges. The first person to hit half a tank will need to signal it is time to turn the dive and head to shore. I check my gauge to get a quick read on my air. I’m currently at 2,900 PSI. Considering I’m diving a steel tank with a 100 cubic feet capacity of air, and my buddy an 80, I know that he will likely be the one to turn the dive. He is newer to diving that I am and also uses his air a little faster.
My air consumption has improved drastically since I conscientiously made an effort to slow my breathing, take deep breaths, swim slowly and stay calm. I do not fancy getting dizzy or blacking out because I’ve over-exerted myself, as unlikely as it may be. By necessity, scuba diving facilitates calm under pressure. There is no better activity to partake in to teach you to hold yourself together.
My wrist-mounted computer is now showing we’re at 30 feet. Visibility is starting to get a little better and I can see crabs, small fish, lots of starfish and the start of metridiums—giant, orange and white, cauliflower-like anemones. I take this all in, my mind blank. There is only the present.
I continue equalizing as I descend, one eye on my buddy to ensure he is doing okay. Whenever my drysuit starts to feel like it’s squeezing me a little too tightly again, I add a bit of air to it. The trick now is keeping my left arm down so that I don’t accidentally vent too much of the air I’ve added. Dozens of dives in and I still don’t feel I’ve mastered neutral buoyancy. I’m certainly better at it, but it truly feels like a form of art I just don’t get yet.
I pinch my nose and blow against it again to equalize then check my computer once more. We’re at 40 feet. Sure enough, the algae bloom has dissipated and I have about 15 feet of horizontal visibility—practically clear for a Pacific Northwest diver, though nothing on the 150 feet feet that tropical divers enjoy, and which honestly, I don’t know what I’d make of. We both slow down now and take in everything we are seeing. Crabs moving beneath us, shrimp scuttling over the ground, a starfish eating something, even a bright, yellow nudibranch. If you’ve never seen a nudibranch, picture a giant slug, and then add a number of out-of-this-world colors, patterns and frills. Granted, they don’t all look like this—the one I’m starting at now looks more like a slab of butter—but they are probably some of the most startlingly beautiful and diverse creatures in the sea.
I fumble for a while unclipping my GoPro from my BCD—a novice mounting system that has previously resulted in me almost losing it—and snap a couple of pictures that I know are going to turn out green and a whole lot worse than I’d like. I check my dive watch again and note we are at 52 feet. I tap my buddy on the shoulder and gesture into the deep. Our plan was to head out slowly toward a boat where we know we will have a good chance of seeing an octopus. And not just any octopus, a Giant Pacific Octopus.
As we swim out further, over tire wreaths, sunk purposefully to encourage the growth of marine organisms, I settle into the almost erotic pleasure of being encased in water, of being in a different world, of not knowing what we will see. It is the most present I can be these days.
Soon we have come upon the boat. A lingcod lurks nearby, watching us from one eye. It doesn’t bother swimming away and I will it to sense my good intentions. Hey buddy, I’m not here to spear you. I don’t do that shit.
In the Hood Canal, the GPOs can usually be found under the boats. Some of them have squeezed themselves through almost incomprehensibly tiny gaps. We switch on our flashlights and peer into the gap. Sure enough, a cow-like eye peers back at us, a huge reddish head nested in a pile of enormous tentacles. I swallow. I have a newfound respect for these creatures ever since reading “The Soul of an Octopus,” I know, that unlike that cabezon, they may well be able to sense our intentions, or feel our emotions. And, you don’t want to mess with these fellows, not when each enormous sucker has the ability to lift 30lbs.
Outside of his den, he has made a welcome mat of crab shells. A real mess revealing his many meals past. We spend a couple more minutes eyeing him, contemplating the sheer size of those tentacles and the suckers, wishing longingly we could see him in action, hunting. Nighttime is supposed to be the time for that, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be so lucky. Afterall I’ve only been up to dive the Hood Canal twice, and the chances of me seeing an octo hunting when I do go up, well who knows what they are.
Right now we’re at about 65 feet. I check my own air and notice I’m down to 1,700 PSI. I get my buddy’s attention and tap my hand with two fingers, asking him for his air pressure. He holds up the fingers that illustrate what he’s got left in his own tank. I’m still abysmal at processing everyone’s different version of relating their air pressure so I peer over and look at his computer. He has an air-integrated hook-up so I get an exact readout of what he’s got left. 1,300 PSI. Time to turn the dive.
We swim back the way we came, occasionally stopping to follow a fish, or play with a crab. When we’re at 15 feet, we change the direction of our dive, swimming parallel to shore so we can do our safety stop. Yes, visibility isn’t great but staying in one place isn’t either. As long as we stay at 15 feet we’ll be fine. When my watch beeps to let me know I’ve off-gassed enough of the nitrogen I’ve built up during my dive, I give my buddy a thumbs up to ascend. He does the same and we head slowly for the surface. I focus on longer exhalations out and keep an eye on my watch which tracks the speed of my ascent. I really don’t like it when it shouts at me for ascending too fast, and I don’t fancy getting any sort of decompression injury, so I obey it.
Our heads breach the surface and we inflate our BCDs so we’re floating. The future and the past return instantly, as does the longing to descend again. For now, I’ll need at least an hour before I can dive again. A surface interval to ensure that all that nitrogen leaves my system.
Although there are many risks associated with diving a rebreather (a closed-circuit system), I can see the appeal: longer dive times, quieter dives. I can only imagine what this would feel like. One day. For now, this is enough.
I’ve wanted to write about scuba diving for quite some time now. In fact, I’ve had a couple of friends actually asking me to write about it. My hesitation has only related to the difficulty I feel it will take to convey the feeling. What order of words will do it all justice?
You may notice above that much of what I relate during a dive is about the equipment, breathing and air management. That’s because this is what diving entails. Monitoring all of your equipment and enjoying that sense of presence. To me this is the definition of Zen. Above water mediation? Yeah right. It’s nothing on diving.
Because the underwater world opens up a new universe of senses and experiences it is easy to become obsessed, even addicted to the sport. Comparing this activity to trying a mind-altering drug for the first time simply does not do it justice. You wouldn’t compare an LSD trip to space travel, would you? Well, that’s true of scuba diving too.
It’s hardly a surprise that so many non scuba divers are fascinated by scuba diving and indeed, what you see scuba diving. After all, the feeling of being in, breathing and exploring the underwater world is one that many have never and may never get to experience.
In the time I’ve been diving—about 7 months—I have experienced a range of emotions. But, the one that keeps me coming back, week after week, is also the one that defies being bound into a single word. It’s the feeling of losing time.
When you dive, the past and the future vanish. There is only the present. Something about being in an environment so wholly different than the one we are used to living in entirely takes away surface worries.
I don’t say this as though it’s just a personal experience, it is an experience I know many, if not all of my fellow divers have. Even when I have been at my most anxious, with a bit of concentration on calming my breathing, that immersive experience is all-encompassing.
Another of the incredible things about knowing how to scuba dive (and owning a dry suit) is that you will never again look at a body of water the same way. The heebie jeebie feeling I wrote about on my personal blog? Well that’s something that disappears when you start diving. Today, I look at bodies of water and find myself wondering, “can I dive that? What’s the viz like?”