My parents have been scuba divers for just about as long as I can remember. They have travelled the world, diving the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Blue Hole off Belize, the warm waters of the Caribbean, the chilly waters of Puget Sound, and just about anywhere else you can think of. They have hunted for abalone, participated in body recoveries, swam with whale sharks, and have encountered pirates. Writing this, it occurs to me that my parent’s scuba diving stories are much more interesting than MY scuba diving stories, and they should probably have their own blog. However, now that I’ve started, you get one of my scuba diving stories, whether you want one or not!
My parents wanted their children to share their love of diving and adventure, so my older sister and I were signed up for scuba lessons while we were still fairly young – I think I was probably around 13 or 14-years-old. Our scuba instructor, Neil, had also taught my parents (and they continued classes with him for several years, getting higher and more specialized certification). He was a rather odd man – I remember once being quite shocked when he came to our house for a party and, in the course of relaxing in our hot tub, decided he would be much more comfortable naked. I saw no naughty bits myself, but did witness his swimming shorts being lobbed from the hot tub and towards the pool deck. At that point, I decided that perhaps it was time to exit the pool and make my way back into the house. That was probably a wise decision.
Neil was focused on safety. As part of our instruction, we were often asked to participate in drills so that we would know what to do should the time ever come where we ran out of air or had our mask dislodged. From day one, it was also made clear to us that, should we ever get into trouble while diving, we were NEVER to bolt for the surface! If you held your breath as you ascended, any air in your lungs would expand and this could cause an air embolism, which could be fatal. Neil told us on more than one occasion that, should he ever witness someone attempting an emergency ascent in a panic, he would grab their feet and hold them down – because it would be safer to resuscitation them after they had drowned rather than risk an embolism. Instead, the correct move was to approach your scuba diving buddy (divers are always in pairs) and request assistance. So, for example, if you were to run out of air while at the bottom of the deep blue sea, you should swim to your buddy and motion to him that you would like to breath – preferably sooner rather than later. Then, if your buddy was so inclined, he would take a breath, remove his regulator and pass it to you, and you would take a breath and pass it back, etc. This is called “buddy breathing” in scuba diving lingo.
The first drill took place in the deep end of the local high school’s swimming pool. Neil explained that the time might come when my buddy might kick me in the face with his fin and knock my regulator out of my mouth (I’m not sure I would consider that person my “buddy” after that kind of move – but I was willing to go with the scenario). So that I could find a lost regulator, I was instructed to remove mine, toss it behind me, and then roll with my head down until the regulator came into view (at which point, I could grab it, shove it in my mouth, and resume breathing). I had already observed several other students participate in the drill, so I wasn’t terribly worried and I confidently tossed the regulator behind me – apparently with too much gusto. Instead of just going over my shoulder, where it would easily fall back into view when I rolled, my regulator actually went behind my head, with the hose lodging itself between my back and my oxygen tank.
I rolled…and rolled…and rolled, but no regulator appeared. Becoming short of breath and starting to freak out, I practically stood on my head, searching frantically for my regulator, which was nestled happily somewhere near my neck and had no immediate plans to come of out hiding. With Neil’s warning about holding someone down until they drowned echoing in my head, I considered and then ruled bolting for the surface. My “buddy” was not watching me and was instead engaged in blowing air bubbles. Neil was nearest to me, but was watching another student who was currently doing the drill. I lunged for him and grabbed his arm, wildly making the gesture for “out of air” (disturbingly enough, this is “clear slitting motion of the throat” with one’s hand. What morbid idiot decided that the gesture for “I’m going to kill you” is the sign to use when informing someone who you HOPE likes you that you are in desperate need of assistance?). I’m sure Neil saw the panic in my eyes, because he did not hesitate and immediately shoved his spare regulator in my mouth – nearly taking out my teeth in the process.
I let out what little air remained in my lungs and then took a deep breath as Neil turned me around and pulled my regulator free. He handed it to me, took his regulator back (as you can imagine, I was not thrilled about letting it out of my mouth) and then after giving me the thumbs up, turned back to the group to demonstrate the next drill…taking our face masks totally off, putting them back on, and clearing the water from them so we could see again. As I was nearest, Neil turned to me to start – and when I hesitated, he demonstrated again and gestured at me to go ahead. At that point, the LAST thing I wanted to do was to take off my mask – my heart was still racing from my near death experience and my hands were shaking uncontrollably. I looked at him with despair in my eyes, shook my head, and started to cry, letting out a long wail as I blew out my next breath. I don’t know if anyone actually heard my bleak moan, but Neil apparently clued in to the fact that I was hanging onto what little composure I had left by a small, small thread. He nodded slowly, patted my arm, and moved onto the next student.
I never did that drill – either in training or after. Theoretically, I know how to replace my mask should it ever be kicked off my face by an overly exuberant, yet non-attentive “buddy” – but let’s hope I never have to find out for sure.