Full fathom five

Growing up on the coast of southern California, I had a close relationship with tide pools, tracking hermit crabs, sticking my fingers in every anenome, and arranging swirls of shells for classroom projects. Maybe that intimate view of these miniature seas warped my perspective on the ocean, somehow preventing me from looking out and appreciating its vastness.

Of course, I spent lots of my childhood in the water, on the boogie board and inside the breakers, not to mention in any aquarium I could find. As an adult in San Francisco, though, I never ventured into the freezing, gray ocean and rarely even made it to the beach. Honestly, I’ve never been quite as actively oceanic as someone with my coastal history should have been.

Despite my fascination for marine life, scuba diving was only a fanciful tickle in my brain, never something I thought I’d actually pursue. No one in my SF circle of rock friends dove or even acknowledged that foggy ocean was there; life occurs on the east side of the city in its urban corridors, and the shore (though only about five miles from downtown) was like another country. When I moved back south, though, the ocean came back into focus and I wondered how I’d ignored it all those years. Maybe to make up for lost time and push myself into the unexpected and unknown, I decided to learn how to dive.

I know most people get scuba certified in a couple of hours on some exotic island while they’re on vacation. Not me. The course I signed up for had six 3-hour sessions, with a textbook, educational films, lots of written homework, and skills tests in the pool at the end of every class. Although I impressed the instructors every time with my dorkishly perfect homework assignments, in the underwater breathing and equipment repair tests where it really counted, I barely scraped through; it’s hard to get used to inhaling down there! I’m a little bit the chicken type, and not that great of a swimmer; in the swim test, I was lagging so much that they waved me through to get my ten laps over with. Despite this seeming security breach, the formality of the rest of the class really appealed to me as a schooly nerd; when I got certified, I wanted to have earned it, like a degree. I wanted to be a REAL diver.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the comfort of being with other losers in my diving class. Instead I had a couple of young surfer dudes; some OC boaty types; a super jocky hot chick; a girl whose boyfriend was a dive instructor and was sort of privately TAing her through our class to make sure she could dive with him; and, in case all of them didn’t make me insecure enough, a famous ocean swimmer who swam the Bering Strait, the English Channel, the Cape of Good Hope, and from Argentina to Antarctica, and was now learning to dive so the LA Times could write a feature story on her experience. Yeah, not a lot of aquatic underachievers there. There was only one other person in the class who was even remotely lame, so I glommed onto her pretty quick so I wouldn’t be guilty about dragging someone else down (or, in this case, back up) when we went on a real dive.

The certification dives, of which there were four, were the true markers of whether we could cut it; many people apparently complete the course only to freak out once they hit the surf. Our first dive was a beach dive, which I don’t recommend to anyone, ever, ever, or ever. We were in Crystal Cove in Laguna Beach, which is gorgeous and thankfully deserted at 7 am; we lugged our equipment and tanks (feeling all very official and athletic and butch to have so much equipment—another plus) down about 50,000 steps to the beach. We were already wearing our wetsuits, sportily peeled off to the waist, and our inflatable vests (ahem, “buoyancy control devices”) and our weight belts. We secured our breathing devices (to those of us in the Biz, that’s “regulators,” which are connected to an “octopus” or set of tubes that draw from the tank). Oh yes sirree, I am suddenly super athletic and equipmenty. I even have to enter all the statistics of my dive into a special log after each descent and do the math to make sure I have enough “surface interval” in between dives. I am hyperspecialized and gearheaddy. I am loving this new world!

But now came the walk-the-walk part. The water was waiting. We strapped on our heavy tanks and inspected to make sure the air was flowing. We double checked our backup breathers. I looked at my depth gauge—check me out doing something where you have to look at a special dial! Yep, I would have been feeling pretty chuffed with myself if I hadn’t been half terrified of what was going to come next.

We put our fins on and walked backwards into the ocean, about 12 of us. This graceless waddle is even more awkward than you’re already imagining it is. It’s a relief to get deep enough where you can just lie down and let the water unburden you of all that weight. But since it’s a beach dive, meaning you just walk in from the shore, the sand is completely stirred up and you aren’t deep enough to see anything. My fins were too big, and the minute we all got down deep enough for anything to happen, one of mine fell off. I managed to catch it and put it back on, but in the 45 panicky seconds that took, since there was zero visibility, I had lost the whole group except my dive buddy (the other lame girl, who was way less lame than I was, by the way). We had no choice but to surface, then wait for the instructor to notice we were missing and come up for us, which meant bringing the entire class back up just as they had gotten down into their first dive. Yeah, I was THAT person.

That whole dive was really stressful, and never became rewarding. I considered quitting because the next one promised to be about a billion times scarier: the boat dive, which I had feared because of the immediacy and depth to which you are plunged when you jump off a boat in the middle of the ocean (often with nothing in sight in any direction besides, say, a plastic bottle tied to some sort of anchor that serves as the landmark). Contrary to my expectations, though, this method was much easier and felt infinitely more diverish and legit. That’s because there is no sand and silt being kicked up by all of your fins as you drag all that extra weight in; you just jump in the water, and you’re so far from the bottom that everything around you is clear right away—you’re in the biggest tank at the aquarium, except it’s not a tank. Now THIS is when you begin to get the payoff for all that sturm und drang. I passed my certification test and got my official Open Water dive card, which is a nice thing to whip out “by accident” when fumbling in your wallet for your credit card, by the way. Yeah, that’s right; I dive.

In case it isn’t obvious, though, I can’t say that I’m a natural diver. I’m still pretty anxious when I do it, and I generally prefer to stick close to an authority figure, relying on him or her to be in charge, which is a fairly foolish way to approach a situation that’s always potentially deadly. Intellectually I know that I should be completely in control of my equipment so that if anything goes wrong, which isn’t that unusual, I am totally self-sufficient if I need to be. That’s not how I’ve approached it, though; I find I much prefer to turn over the reins and the responsibility to someone I trust more than myself.

I have, however, managed to overcome some of the fear that comes at the beginning of every dive. The first several minutes, no matter how I psych myself up, are terrifying, and I spend the whole time promising myself that I will never make myself do it again. I can tell you exactly what makes it so uncomfortable for me. It’s not a fear of sharks (at all). It’s not a fear of depth (I’m fine at 100 feet). It’s not low visibility, though of course it’s more comfortable and enjoyable in sunny clear waters. It’s not navigating the pull of the current, or keeping my balance with the tank on my back.

It’s the breathing. The breathing is so uncomfortable for me that the last few times I’ve gone, I’ve had to keep one hand on my regulator because I was afraid I would panic and pull it out of my mouth in my desperation for a real breath. The air going into my lungs feels so unsatisfying it’s almost indescribable. It’s so dry, and my lungs feel so thirsty for the real, mixed, moist, juicy air I’m used to, that on some dives I spend a good part of the time just imagining how that breath will feel when my head finally breaks the surface of the water. The deeper we go, the further my delicious atmosphere recedes, the more elusive that tasty earth-breath becomes and the more I must convince myself that I’m not going to get one anytime soon, so I need to relax into these airless, thin, ineffectually deep-sucked, and deafeningly loud simulations I’m living on. In. Out. In. Relax. Listen to the bubbles and slow them down. Look, behind that school of Moorish idols, a little leopard shark.

See, there’s usually a turning point about twenty minutes into my dive. At that point, I’ve panicked (this extreme is a new development in my last couple of dives, which troubles me), talked myself through it, contemplated begging the divemaster to take me back up, forced myself not to give in to that desire, and begun to regulate my breaths in hopes of not sucking down the whole tank in 25 minutes instead of the full hour that real, relaxed divers can coolly ration out of one tank because they’re not hyperventilating like freaks. Once I pass that point, or get distracted by something so cool it makes me forget about my crushing air-thirst, I suddenly love diving. I love the floating, I love the color of everything down there, I love the secret close-ups of everything without the barrier of the smeared aquarium glass I’ve been fogging up with impatience and desire since I was a small child. Divemasters like to show off to beginning divers by catching something, a little fish or a squirting squid or a starfish that will eat out of their hands, and let you touch it or feed it. I lap that stuff up. Here I am. I’m in the OCEAN. I’m not floating on the surface, which I also love. I’m OF it. I have arrived in the great beyond. I am not afraid!!!

I only have about 20 dives under my weight belt, but I’ve been lucky enough to see some really varied spots. Underwater California is famous for its kelp forests, where I had my first certification dives and have returned several times. It’s a destination for some divers the way the Great Barrier Reef is because the conditions are so unusual. In the kelp forest, everything is golden. You are swimming through a cathedral of tall plant vines that reach so far below and above you, you can’t see either end. They sway back and forth more fluidly than trees, but still maintain the verticality of a forest. You swim through the biggest openings and sometimes have to thread your way through the narrower ones, moving the kelp aside. Fish dart away when you move their hiding places. There is the small matter of not getting caught on a rope of seaweed—in my case, the anxiety centers around the fear of getting my octopus caught and having my regulator yanked out of my mouth. I keep my hand on it, and the other hand in front of me to part the magical willowy kelp. In the kelp forest you feel safe.

I have also dived in Fiji. California diving is cold; even with a full wetsuit you feel it after half an hour or so. Not so in the South Pacific, obviously. There, a thin shorty wetsuit is plenty, and as a result you need much less weight on your weight belt to make you sink: warm-water diving was so much easier after learning in the dark chilly Pacific. I went on six dives in Fiji; on the first, a shark dive, I hadn’t been down in a year and was so panicked about the mechanics of my mask that I barely acknowledged the swarms of black-tipped and white-tipped reef sharks we were visiting. I wish that dive had come later in the trip, because by the end (after six dives in one week), it felt exhilaratingly natural.

My last dive there was a shipwreck dive. I have taught Adrienne Rich’s beautiful “Diving Into the Wreck” so many times I can recite it, and how could I not when I was finally living it? Her words swam through my head as I watched my gauge register more depth than I had ever attained before and saw the looming form in the distant blue begin to take a more concrete shape, and then there it was: “The thing I came for:/ the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth.”

The wreck had three decks, and the hull had holes cut in it on each level for easier access. Of course, I had imagined a fully outfitted pirate ship, left intact after its sudden sinking: parrotfish weaving among the doubloons and starfish wrapped around the captain’s telescope, the ship’s furnishings having suffered a sea-change into something rich and strange. Nope—it was empty. I guess most dive resorts have a sunken boat somewhere that they completely gut for the thrill of novices like me, just to say we’ve been in one; this one was stripped, just the shell of the ship, but we did have to swim through holes in its body to get from one floor to the next. At one point the divemaster beckoned me to a doorway inside the ship, then moved so I could swim up and look inside: in this three-foot space, a rusty but intact toilet bowl. Now the wreck was real!

I know that most divers, and probably many of you readers, are much more accomplished and experienced at this than I am. But when I think of what I’ve seen that most people have not, and that some are too afraid to imagine, I find a new corner of myself. In Fiji, I stroked a guitar ray. I watched a “Christmas Tree coral” that seemed monochromatic break into small red, green, and yellow blossoms on the end of each finger when I waved my hand over it. I fed a garibaldi with a sea urchin. I went on a dive where one supercool college girl from La Jolla was being dragged by her dad onto her first dive; she was sullen and aloof as we went out in the boat, but after we jumped in the sea I realized that was because she was petrified. When I gave her a piece of advice and helped her adjust her mask while we were in the water, I finally was no longer the most helpless person in the ocean; when we descended I reveled in one of the most comfortable and confident dives I’ve ever had.

In the Sea of Cortez, under the famous Arco de Cabo San Lucas, I saw a moray eel. I swam through a rocky cave formation. I chased two spiny lobsters back into their crevasse. In St. Maarten, after days of searching fruitlessly, I finally saw a turtle, though it was swimming away from me. In Catalina I’ve seen octopi, squid, lobsters. I saw the barnacly underside of a boat for the first time. I learned how it feels to have a panic attack. I saw myself go back under anyway because I want this so badly. I finally felt dismayed instead of relieved that a dive was over. I saw the secret inside of the world. I saw me on the bottom of the ocean.

dive 1

14 responses to “Full fathom five”

  1. lane says:

    was the famous swimmer diana niad? (i’m from a swimming family, that’s the only famous ocean swimmer in know.)

    great title btw.

  2. lane says:

    wow, this sounds so fun, i’ve snorkled in florida, which was amazing, but i would love to tank dive.

    more photos!

  3. Rachel says:

    This was exhilarating, Steph. I felt like I was right there with you, both for the excitement and the fear. (A bit more of the latter, perhaps, since diving seems to combine two of my biggest irrational fears: drowning and being buried alive.) But the manta rays! And the kelp! Wow.

  4. g.a. says:

    I loved every bit of this narrative, but especially the lists of what you’ve seen: “In Fiji, I stroked a guitar ray. I watched a “Christmas Tree coral” that seemed monochromatic break into small red, green, and yellow blossoms on the end of each finger when I waved my hand over it. I fed a garibaldi with a sea urchin.”

    It made me want to do something I’ve never even considered before!

  5. Dave says:

    This sounds so great. When I was a teenager I was really interested in diving but lived in a landlocked state. You make it sound pretty great, despite the freakiness.

  6. Dave says:

    Great great great.

  7. Tim says:

    So cool you made your dream happen, despite the barriers. I wish I could say that it fully inspires me to learn to dive, too, which it does, but only partially. The anxieties you describe, I fear, would crush me, especially because I have never had as powerful a fascination with the ocean as you do, so at the first feeling of losing my breath I’d just swim right to the top to breathe real air (amazing description of that, btw).

    Also, yes, please more pictures. Do you take photos when you dive?

  8. J-Man says:

    I LOVED this post, Stephanie ! Your descriptions are fabulous, especially of your fears and panic attacks. I was panicking along with you as I read. I have long been fascinated with diving and swimming amongst the fishes, but I, too, have fears that I’m not sure I could overcome. (That, and also not wanting to blow out my eardrums).
    I find it admirable that you’ve continued to dive despite all the tribulations you’ve described – I think you are the gutsy-est one because of that.
    As I was reading, I kept wanting to see real pictures to accompany the colorful ones you were drawing with your words, and I kept reading, down, down, down, until finally, we see the picture of you at the bottom of the sea. Clever, that ;)

  9. LP says:

    Swells – I agree with the cheering throngs. This is is an awesome post. So evocative, and a complete delight to read.

    Lane, we’ve actually met Diana Nyad – she’s doing standup comedy in LA now. I’d say that if her swimming was comparable to her standup, she wouldn’t quite have made it across the Channel. But she’s pretty funny, and very sweet.

  10. Natasha says:

    Thanks, Steph! What a great post! I really enjoyed reading it! It’s amazing how big the world around us is and how seldom we look around to actually see it. Thanks for deciding to experience it and writing about it for all of us to see.

  11. LT says:

    a bit late to the table– but here we are, back on an even playing field, swells: though you’ve commended me for being able to handle blood and stitches and all sorts of medical emergencies, i could never, never, never hang out 100 feet below sea level breathing through an “apparatus.” i envy your bravery.

  12. Rogan says:

    A fun post. There are just tons of things I imagine I will never get around to doing, and diving is one of them, but it was nice to read through your experiences to get a taste.

  13. bmaury says:

    Steph, my sister just pointed me to this post. So awesome! I felt the same way when I first started diving – well everything except the breathing thing. I always kind of liked the way you breath down there. I like that you’re breathing despite being deep under water. I get anxious when I’m really deep or have something between me and the surface (like being in a cave or a wreck). But I love it! FTR – if you want to see tons of turtles go to Hawaii. I saw numerous diving off the shore of Maui.

    B

  14. farrell fawcett says:

    Hey Steph, I just read this article in the latest New Yorker about women’s diving competitions (albeit without any breathing gear) and I couldn’t stop thinking about your fantastic post. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it if not for this post still swimming around in my brain. It’s a really interesting article. I’m a retard and can’t figure out how to link this, so here’s the URL: http://archives.newyorker.com/#folio=024.