January 26, 2017

Scuba Open Water Certification: Notes from a Runner

So, E & I came to Koh Tao with the plan of getting our PADI Open Water Diver Certification.

After a bunch of research (there are several dozen dive schools on the island), we enrolled at Simple Life Divers, and as promised, they picked us up at the super chaotic stereotypical Southeast Asian crowded pier landing from our ferry and got us to the dive-center lodgings.  Our bungalow was basic, but with AC, and a separation between the toilet and shower (the last lodging had the classic "shit-and-shower" no separation 3rd/2nd world configuration. Exactly why shower curtain technology is so difficult, is something I have been continuously trying to understand since my first international travels 20 years ago).

Day 1 was videos and quizzes.  PV=nRT (ideal gas law) study in high school physics and undergrad finally resurfaced and made it easy for me to ace the knowledge reviews and quizzes.  Day 2 was more technical videos, followed by a half day of pool skills. 

The pool skills section SUCKED.

I am used to being one of the more physically oriented, comfortable, talented, okay people in any given athletic situation that I choose to put myself in.  I mean, I'm short, so sometimes stuff is harder for me because of that, but generally, I'm fairly physically adept and I just generally feel comfortable.

The half day of pool skills for scuba was *humbling* -- I felt like it was obvious that I was the *worst* of all of us.  I couldn't get orientation in the water.  I was scrambling, kicking, just generally looking like a fish out of water.  My weighting was off, constantly.  I was regularly struggling against the pool bottom (I scraped the shit out of my pedicure and knees).  My deep breathing (thanks yoga and running) made it difficult for me to hover, because I'd fully inflate and deflate my lungs on each breath resulting in multiple feet of travel up and down in very shallow or only partially deep pools (apparently, I should have just been "sipping" air but they don't give this instruction generally because most people hyperventilate and need to be told to breathe deeply to counteract this instinct -- Runners, note -- SIP, watch your elevation in the water and use it to advise your breathing if you aren't doing anything that actually requires oxygen -- baby breaths are *fine*).

I went to bed last night committed to doing my best to getting my open water certification but wondering why people do this for fun.

In particular, so many of the safety skills were like torture.  Filling your facemask underwater and then clearing it was particularly difficult for me, for some reason.  Others seemed to be able to do it in 1 move, but I took 3 or 4 clearing efforts (until I learned a different technique, if you are me, one hand against the top of the mask and a quick tip of the head up and back and semi-harsh full exhale is best). 

During the pool skills section, at multiple times, because I couldn't manage where I was floating/sinking, etc., my stress levels sky-rocketed and I had trouble reminding myself to breathe through the regulator  (the magical thing that allows you to breathe underwater but counteracts *all* of my previous life experiences as a diver and swimmer that say you can't breathe underwater, and you should hold your breathe and *definitely* you should not breathe when there's water in your nose -- spoiler alert, thanks to regulator technology you can totally breathe underwater when there is water in you nose.  CRAZY.). 

At one point during the mask clearing exercises in the pool, I developed a sudden and very severe headache in the back of my neck/head.  It was bad enough that I came up to the surface from the pool (aka, admitted failure and opted out of the class for a while) and the training master diver followed, asking me what was wrong.  I explained the pain I was having and he suggested that perhaps I didn't have enough weight and was straining my neck during some of the skills.  This seemed reasonable, so I reentered the pool, tried to relax my neck and finished the skills, albeit with a headache that never went away. 

When getting back to the room, I looked in the mirror and realized I had very red and swollen eyeballs (if you've never seen fluid filled eyeballs where the eye matter moves as you blink like a water-bed, you are lucky), clearly in a full-on allergic reaction to how chlorinated (or whatever) the pool was. 

Turns out, all of the safety skills we'd been practicing required my eyes to be open in the water (clearing 1/2 full mask, clearing full mask, swimming with regulator and no mask, etc.). The headache was almost certainly a combo of the stress of breathing through the regulator while underwater, often with water in my nostrils, and the allergic response my body mounted through my eyeballs.  Good times.

One of the most important skills they want you to demonstrate when getting scuba certified is hovering.

If you are a big lunged, deep-breathing trained (hello yoga, running, stress control) person, hovering is a difficult thing (or if you are me, just straight up impossible).  The trick is, if you are like me, despite what the videos and training tells you, don't take anywhere close to full breaths to hover.  When people on scuba training videos say you need to breathe deeply, for hovering, they don't mean running/yoga deeply, they mean something more like, take a small breath.

And then, the next day we headed out for open water dives 1 and 2.  It was *very* choppy.  Of the 5 students in our group who went out that day, only 1 didn't puke.  It was a rough day.  And yet, thanks to support from E (who is the best diving buddy, previously certified years ago, but going through the motions with me now) I got through all the assigned skills of the day, and even spent just under an hour under water over 2 dives plus a bunch of surface skills.  It was pretty great, despite the chaotic day of all the sick classmates.

That night, after only 1 day of diving in rough conditions, with 1 day left before we finished. I think I surprised E when I asked if he wanted to consider staying in Koh Tao and getting our advanced certification.  We had already planned to do some fun dives after our open water cert, but I had come to recognize what a great instructor we had lucked into.  I also recognized that I was *definitely* still facing down some serious fears while diving, which were totally different from the traditional fears I know how to face (the, it's all my own fault/control fear of I'm scared of this dive/vault/skill, but my coaches say I am ready and I have no one but myself to blame if it goes wrong, vs. the this-is-totally-out-of-my-control fear of oh-shit, weather, water, current, etc).

We agreed that given how great our instructor was, it made sense to continue our training and focus on improving skills (even though they would be more work and less fun than just fun diving).

So, my friends, this is how this very non-natural scuba diver is signed up for an advanced certification.  Wish me well!


Angela Knotts said...

This post is timely as we are hoping to 1) take a diving trip to Hawaii in May & 2) get ourselves certified before then. Also I'm kind of terrified of swimming and especially open water, so I'm not exactly chill about the whole thing. D:

bt said...

@Angela we should definitely chat before then, but long story short, after finishing our advanced cert today, including a night dive and 2 dives down to 30m, I can tell you that it is totally awesome and worth it, just different than any other physical efforts I've ever made. Also, once you're certified, apparently there is awesome diving in Carmel/Monterey and we're definitely looking for diving buddies!

Jen said...

You are my hero. Seriously.

Biting Tongue said...

@jen -- that's hilarious.