" . . . so I figure, how hard can it be to catch one of these things? So I grab it, and I'm trying to motate on out of there, but it gets one tentacle wrapped around a rock, and now it has hold of me, and I mean those things can develop some suction, so I'm thinking, whoa. . . ."
I should stress here that this type of anecdote does NOT form the basis of the diving-course curriculum. When you take the course, you start out with some classroom sessions wherein you learn basic diving theory, including a lot of information concerning how Pressure relates to Volume. This is of course exactly the kind of thing that put you to sleep in high school, but you find yourself paying very close attention in scuba class, once you realize that the volume they're talking about is the air in your own personal lungs, and that if you take a deep breath from your tank at a depth of, say, 40 feet, and then, while holding your breath, you shoot, missile-style, to the surface, your little air sacs could start exploding like defective condoms, a situation which, as Lang put it, can be "very fatal."
Fortunately, there is a very simple preventive measure: All you have to do is keep breathing. That's it. You'd think there'd be no way you could forget it. But it turns out that's the biggest danger you face underwater -- not eels or s***ks, but the failure to perform an act so simple and natural that you have presumably been doing it on a routine basis since early childhood. Yet it was stressed so heavily in scuba training that I found myself writing it repeatedly in my notes, as if it were some kind of radical new science breakthrough. "IMPORTANT TO KEEP BREATHING, " I would write. And: "NEVER STOP BREATHING!"
The highlight of the classroom training, for me, was when we learned about the equipment (or, as we scuba veterans say, the "gear"). Your basic diving outfit is a mask and flippers, plus the breathing apparatus, which you can rent. But there are all kinds of other neat gear objects you can get, the neatest one, as far as I'm concerned, being: a knife. All my life I've wanted an excuse to wear a knife, and here I have found a sport where it is actually encouraged. "Diving knives are practical tools, " states the PADI course manual, "providing you with a means to measure, pry, dig, cut and pound under water." But the REAL advantage, which the manual fails to note, is that you can wear your knife strapped to your leg.
There's something about striding around with a knife strapped to your leg that makes you feel exceedingly James Bondlike. If you can keep a little secret, I will confess to you that right at this very moment, as I write these words, I have my knife strapped on. Just in case somebody comes along and, for example, tries to cut my word processor cord. As Ray Lang put it, during one of his colorful diving anecdotes: "You never can tell when the inevitable is gonna happen."
Speaking of the inevitable, there comes a time in your scuba training when you leave the classroom and get into some actual water, usually in the form of a swimming pool. This was where I encountered my first major diving challenge, namely, putting on the wet suit. The wet suit does an excellent job of protecting you and keeping you warm even in cold water, but putting it on for the first time is like trying to get into a giant foundation garment that has been possessed by an evil spirit. You wind up lying idiotically on your back, legs in the air, tugging and straining at this malevolent piece of rubber, fearful that if you let go, it will leap to its invisible feet and start dancing around you, laughing silently and making invisible but unmistakable hand gestures.
My first scuba exercise was equally exciting. Lang and I were standing in about five feet of water, and all he wanted me to do was kneel on the bottom. That was it. So, bearing firmly in mind the Two First Rules of Scuba Diving -- Don't Panic and Never Stop Breathing -- I put my air regulator in my mouth, ducked my head under water and immediately, with a natural effortlessness that suggested I had been doing these things all my life, I (1) panicked and (2) stopped breathing. My feet started inexplicably drifting upward of their own accord, my mask started filling with water, I started choking and flailing my arms ineffectually around and the lone thought I could summon into my brain was: "Yikes!"
So I thrashed my way back to the surface, a failure. If you want to feel like a complete dweezil, the best way I know to accomplish this is to stand in front of a guy who has swum down into the depths with no air tank and speared a 10-foot hammerhead, and explain to this guy why you seem to be unable to accomplish the mission of kneeling on the bottom of a swimming pool in five feet of water.
But Lang, who's used to this, was patient, and before long I was motating around the pool like a regular frogperson, making all kinds of astounding underwater discoveries. When you consider that approximately 0.0000000000003 percent of our planet is covered with swimming pools, it's shocking how little we really know what goes on beneath the surface of these mysterious bodies of water. It turns out that there's a whole world down there: cracks, leaves, the occasional dead worm and -- for those with the courage and skill to challenge the deep end -- a drain.
In between my ground breaking exploration, Lang had me practice various skills, such as removing my mask and air regulator underwater, then getting them back into place. This is not difficult if you simply remember what you were taught, although at first your instinct is to yell, "Time out!" and make all the water go away while you get yourself straightened out, which of course would not be a practical solution if you were 50 feet down.
Another skill I learned, I'm pleased to note, is "buddy breathing, " which is when two divers share one air tank because one of them has run out of air or had his hose cut. I had no trouble with this skill because I had seen it so many times on Sea Hunt. As Lang and I swam along the pool bottom, passing the regulator back and forth, I could almost hear dramatic horn music.
But the true drama came the day I dove in the ocean. We went to the John Pennekamp State Park/Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary complex, which is one of the world's most popular dive sites because of its spectacular and accessible reefs. These are made up of several jillion living and deceased little creatures called "polyps, " whom we might think of collectively as nature's own enormous halftime marching band because of their ability to form themselves into amazing formations. The reefs, and almost all the life forms that thrive on and around them, are protected by strict laws, as Lang explained to me in detail before we went out.
"You may not spear or possess any snook, " he informed me. Frankly this had never crossed my mind, but I wrote it down anyway, because the last thing you'd want to do is to wind up in prison and have the other inmates ask you what you were in for, and you'd have to answer: "snook possession."
Lang said I could take a lobster if I found one big enough, but I figured there was no chance of this. I hate lobsters. As far as I'm concerned, lobsters are large underwater insects. I don't like to be in the same restaurant with them. Unfortunately, I failed to mention this to Lang.
(Sound of horn music starting to play quietly but dramatically in the background.)
I will spare you a gushy description of the dive itself, except to say that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you've been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent. At first Lang had me practicing my scuba skills, but after that I basically just motated along, very relaxed, grooving on the scenery, the fish, the comical marine contraptions. Even the giant ray, even the barracuda, merely served to heighten my enjoyment. The whole thing was going perfectly.
A little too perfectly.
(The horn music gets louder.)
OK. So I'm swimming along, and suddenly Lang gestures for me to swim down to where he's crouched in the sand, next to a coral ledge. He is pointing to something, but I can't see what it is. Suddenly his hand flashes out.
(Very loud music now.)
And now Lang is thrusting something into my hand, and it is, as you have deduced, the dreaded Big Bug of the Deep. And I am holding it. And it is gesturing violently with all 758 legs, clearly conveying the underwater message: "HEY! Let GO, dammit!!" Which of course I do. Instantly the lobster motates at very high velocity in reverse gear back under the ledge, causing bmoogles of chagrin to erupt from various watching divers, who were hoping to eat it.
That was the only upsetting thing that happened. Although I did see an eel. This happened near the end of the last dive; I was following Lang back to the boat, and as he went by a cave, he casually gestured for me to look inside. I did, and there, maybe 10 feet away, was Mr. Moray.
I looked at Lang, and held my arms way apart, the international diver gesture for, "Hey! This is a BIG eel! Right?"
Lang shrugged, the international gesture for, "Nah." Maybe six feet, he told me later. Nothing to gesture home about.
But I am here to tell you that this is one bad-looking creature. You could barely see his body -- just his whitish head, hanging there, mouth open, a grinning skull floating in the gloom. Not that I, personally, was nervous. It takes more than a moray to scare a man who has made a lobster back down.
Now Lang is drifting in front of me. He makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger, the sign for, "OK?"
I make the OK sign back. But that isn't enough, not for what I'm feeling -- the adrenaline, the elation, the high. This is way more than merely OK.
"Bmoogle, " I inform him. It comes from the heart.
© 2010, Dave Barry
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