Fifty-two degree water rushed over my ears and into my neoprene hood. My hand flew to the zipper at my clavicle to draw it all the way up and over my chin to close off the flow. Chilled, I bit my teeth down hard into the regulator’s silicone mouthpiece as I exhaled, sending a stream of bubbles rushing out and up to the surface three feet above me. A squeezing sensation suddenly grew in my forehead, yielding when I pressed my nostrils shut with my right hand and blew gently into my pinched nose, equalizing the pressure. When I un-scrunched my eyes, I could see the rest of my classmates’ big yellow fins flapping in the water a few feet above me, waiting their turn to descend on the first of four check-out dives we would do to earn our open water SCUBA certification.
Keeping my fingers pinched over my nostrils, I sunk further away from the sea surface, equalizing the pressure in my sinuses often. The water darkened as I descended, though beams of sunlight shined down gloriously through the kelp. I focused on the yellow line in front of me for reference, a rope connecting the float on the surface to the sandbar eighteen-feet below where we would soon be demonstrating the skills we had learned in the safety of Anchor Dive Shack’s twelve-foot swimming pool. I was now hovering ten feet above the sandy bottom, greenish blue water between it and me. The local divers we had passed on shore had told us how lucky we were to have such unusually good visibility—or “vis”, in diver lingo—today, for Monterey is known as the toughest place in the world to dive not only because of the cold temperature, but because of strong currents and churning waves, which consequently kick up sediment, clouding the water. To certify in Monterey, they say, means you will be able to dive confidently anywhere else in the world.
Breathing slowly and deeply to conserve my tank of air, I finally landed on the bottom, sending plumes of sand rushing up to my elbows, defying gravity with buoyancy. I dropped to my knees and felt the squeeze in my forehead again. I took a breath from my regulator (or “reg”) so my body would rise a foot from the inhale, pinched my nose, and equalized again. I headed along the tag line, a yellow rope stretched out along the sand, to make room for the next descending dive student.
When all eleven of us were lined up on the tag line our two instructors knelt facing of us, holding their thumbs to their index fingers with their three other fingers held up like a peacock’s tail, signaling “Okay?” to each of us in turn. I mirrored the signal, replying, “Okay.” The moving water swayed my whole body to and fro, and I could feel the cold water a little more noticeably. I had been the one who got chilled in the eighty-six degree training pool (granted, I was in a swimsuit, it was nighttime, and we were in the water for forty-five minutes) and I was glad I had a seven millimeters of squishy black neoprene hugging my core. But there was far too much distraction here now to really mind the cold. Semi-translucent fish about three inches long posing on the sand, unconcerned of my presence until I moved towards them for a better look; a yellow-orange starfish sitting a few feet in front of me; spurts of sand puffing out of a hole suggesting a clam was down there digging; shell fragments and smooth rocks scattered around in the sand; and a tiny hermit crab scuttling around a fallen blade of kelp kept my mind highly engaged. Electrified (but calmly so, as I breathed slowly, deeply, and continuously, following the number one rule of SCUBA diving), I couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually out here, submerged in the marine environment rich in flora and fauna that people came from all over the world to see at the Monterey Bay Aquarium only a few blocks away from our dive site.
Someone was tapping me on the shoulder and I lifted my face from the sand to see my instructor, Dan, signaling “Okay?” I had been studying a sanddab, a small oval-shaped flatfish that camouflaged seamlessly into the sand, given away only by its beady eyes. “Okay,” I signaled, and he briefly communicated the skill I needed to perform. Mask clearing. “Okay,” I signaled. Eyes closed, I lifted the top lip of my mask to let seawater fill it all the way. I drew a breath from my regulator, closed my mask, lifted the bottom margin, and blew air out of my nose for a few seconds until my mask was clear of water. “Okay,” Dan signaled that I had demonstrated the skill adequately, and moved on to the next student. I moved back down to the sand to look for the sanddab, swaying in the motion of the water.
We would do a couple more skills in that first check-out dive, then break off into two groups to do follow an instructor on a short tour around the kelp forest. On the tour I saw more sea stars, purple sea urchins, a foot-and-a-half-long black rockfish, and California sargo, silvery fish with a yellow tail fin and a black stripe on its side. Though the total bottom time of that first dive was only about thirty minutes, when the instructors signaled that it was time to ascend I was not very sad to end the tour and leave the open water, because I knew SCUBA diving was going to become a regular part of my life from there on out.