Learning to Dive: Beginner to Rescue Diver

I learned to dive in southern waters–in Dunedin, on the south island of New Zealand with Dive Otago–where the water is cold and the visibility is low and dive conditions are both challenging and rewarding. Student divers in chilly southern waters undergo many tests of endurance, strength and resilience and come away with a broad range of skills bolstered by the ability to perform well in conditions many divers would hesitate to dive in. Dive skills are made more challenging by thick neoprene suits (I wore a jacket and bodysuit of 7mm neoprene, my torso covered in a snug 14mm layer), hood and gloves.

My first pool training session took place on my birthday.

My first pool training session took place on my birthday.

I found the mask skill by far the most challenging skill yet it helped me learn very early in my training what I was capable of achieving. Removing a mask underwater while wearing chunky neoprene gloves, with trembling cold and stiff hands is hard but putting the mask back on over your hood is especially challenging and requires great mental control. From the first shock of cold on the skin around my eyes and nose and the blur of blue-green water, the divers in a fuzzy semi-circle around me, I kept my breathing steady and coached myself through each small step. The night before we were to do the mask skill in the open ocean for the first time (in chilly early spring) I wasn't able sleep to sleep. Instead I visualized the sequence over and over, a hundred times or more in the dark of my mind, careful not to get water in my nose or panic and bolt to the surface as I had done in the pool the first time I was introduced to the skill. Once more I ran through the sequence in the open ocean as I performed the actions in real time underwater. I was elated when I finished. Knowing how nervous I had been and yet never doubting me, my instructor gave me an enthusiastic underwater fist bump.

I became Open Water, Advanced Open Water and Rescue Diver certified over the course of my 32nd year. Working towards certification part time over most of the year and two wonderful months full time in late spring. For two months, no matter what else was happening in my life, from nine until five every weekday I got to be a happy, active, ocean person who went to the water no matter how cold, windy or wet it was. Even before I enter the water, I forget everything that's bothering me. The water brings me back to myself: a woman finding her way through life two meters of visibility at a time. I was not used to being tested by my physical environment or being so uncomfortable. I found that I was both capable and strong and adapted easily to discomfort. I noticed a freedom in my personality that was born of challenge and discomfort. I laughed hard and long and enjoyed over a thousand minutes underwater that felt like a dream but weren't–those minutes, that environment was very real. I was breathing underwater and I had never felt so free or so alive.

After long breaks in my part time study I would be nervous to dive again. Most of our dives took place in Dunedin's outer harbor. The hazards and challenges of harbor diving are many: the shipping channel traffic and its daily dredging; currents; wildlife, both seeking refuge and seeking prey; and low visibility. Good visibility is anything over four meters and on the majority of my dives the visibility was between two and four meters.

Many times I overcame my fears. I worried whether I would be able to relax and descend with the others or remain afloat, lost in the kelp near the surface. I worried whether I would be able to complete the skills and whether I would be able to overcome my imagination. The low visibility ocean acts like a green screen: the water before the diver is pale green and empty with the dreamlike quality of soft focus. When you have a vivid imagination like I do, you don't only imagine schools of fish or octopus scuttling past. You go straight to the heart of the fear–sharks were my most vivid and imagined companions.

In my most fearful moments I hugged the sea floor creating a screen of silt that was more taxing to my safety that any imagined threat as it separated me so easily from my buddy and dive group. Panic has a way of warping the clearest mind and would set in according to how nervous or anxious I was that day. It's essential for divers to learn not only how to prevent panic but to recover from it. For me it was a physical recovery. My mind lost itself to panic and a deeper part of myself took over, led by my breath. The diver in me awoke and rose up off the seafloor, waiting for the particles to settle and clear, keeping a close eye on the shadow of my buddy and forgetting about the dangers out beyond my line of visibility where sharks did occasionally cruise by completely uninterested in us.

Over the course of the year, the sharks in my imagination grew larger and spookier. I would imagine them cruising by overhead while I crouched in the wreck or coming face to face with one in the murky pale green gloom. I overcame my anxieties with careful, conscious breathing. My nervousness and anticipation before diving has not decreased but grown and a friend suggested I had so succeeded in meeting challenges, exceeding my expectations of what I am capable of, that my brain has to throw its worst at me in order to sabotage my endeavors. The imagined shark then is a signal for how much I have achieved, how little lies between me and my goals. In the water, I am happy, fear or no. Underwater, I both lose and come home to myself.

While it was unusual for the ships in the channel to disturb our diving activities, one day a fully loaded container ship steaming into the harbor caused a strange and powerful current to rip through the dive site. Four of us had just reached the weighted float line, about to untie it and bring it to the surface at the end of our dive. A dark cloud of particles, shredded kelp and small cushion starfish let loose from their hold on the seafloor, rose up, obscuring all light from the surface ten meters above. The four of us took hold of the line and let ourselves be tumbled in the current. We twirled, floated, and twisted, waiting for the current to subside. When it did, we untied the line and ascended right away along the slope, signaling our OK to the group waiting anxiously at the shore. They reported that the water had appeared to boil after the heavily loaded container ship had passed. While it was a frightening experience, I was grateful for the weighted float line and the company of my dive buddies. In fact, I remember the moment as peaceful, breathing steadily as I waited out the dark, turbid cloud of water.

A sea lion checks in on us at Wellers Rock in Otago harbour.

A sea lion checks in on us at Wellers Rock in Otago harbour.

By the time I went night diving I had begun to feel more confident in the water. I was caught up in the rush of the training without much time to anticipate the night dive. Night diving is surreal. In the black water the rest of the world completely disappears. What's left are only the beams of light we carry, the bioluminescent krill, fish darting from their disturbed sleep in the kelp and the black all around–the world taken away, made new. All trace of the human world disappears. Boundaries are dissolved: above and below, human and non-human, skin and water. All was black or light. Underwater the beams of light were mesmerizing. Following the clouds of krill rushing the light I felt myself forgetting who or what I was: no longer human or underwater but off world completely. I had made it to the void where life begins and ends, the waiting place, the holding place. I lost myself over and over. Every fifth breath or so I located myself: You are diving underwater. You are breathing from a tank. You are deep underwater at night. This light, this human beside you, this air is your life blood right now. Moments later in the trance of the light and the dance of the krill I would lose myself again. Between the reminders of who and where I was existed something unknown yet familiar: deep and focused attention, awareness encompassed by blackness. All else dropped away: my body, my roles, my name, my connections, my hopes and fears–I was reduced to narrow, focused attention, absolved of my humanness. I forgot the world above in its entirety. How easy it was! How painless to be reduced to basic consciousness, consciousness at the level of the blue and glowing krill attracted to the light. How freeing.

In moments of lucidity between spells of forgetting, I was reminded of the angler fish, a deep-sea fish that attracts prey with a fleshy bioluminescent growth suspended near its open mouth and sharp teeth. I wondered what other, larger fish we might be attracting. I shut the thought down quickly–the only way I knew to protect myself in the vulnerability of my position. I had felt how easy it was to be taken apart and reach the void side of life. Perhaps it would not be so bad to lose a human body and become spirit, ether. Deep underwater in the dark this position seemed remarkably peaceful. From above I thought, night diving? Who in their right mind would ever do that? 

Dark water can bring strangers together in a new kind of intimacy. Intimacy born of care, of responsibility: if I lose you we could die so let's stick together while our lights work to show us the way and if your light goes out, we have mine and if mine goes out, take my hand and we'll find a way. I know the pleasure of the vulnerability inherent in the pursuit. I know what one can find in those dark places. Not only freedom from our humanness but small orange octopuses, seahorses trailing in the seaweed, paddle crabs advancing over the seafloor to attack and just as quickly retreating.

All kinds of wildlife grace the inshore waters of Otago's coastline. One of the more frequent and fun visitors on dives are sealions and fur seals. The first sealion to play with me was a large juvenile male who found me trembling with equal parts amazement and fear, turned shyly away from his close gaze. He nibbled on my head though I couldn't feel his teeth through the layers of neoprene. Later in the dive he surprised me from below, grinning madly to show me his lovely teeth. I was both pleased and frightened of his attention. On later encounters I became more relaxed, in awe of the graceful creatures dancing around me in the water.

A sealion at night is altogether different and strange than a sealion in the day. The one I met nibbled at my calves, ankles and fins without my knowledge until I surfaced, stood waist deep in water and my buddy alerted me to the sealion swirling around me in the water illuminated by my flashlight. He followed us right up onto the shore, bigger than each of us by several hundred kilograms. He grew bored as we changed our tanks in the truck headlights and slipped back into the water. He swam around the small rocky headland and when he arrived behind us in the truck headlights from the opposite shore he took us completely by surprise. The look on his face made it clear he was thrilled with his trick and the way he had made us all jump in surprise. He looked at us as if to say, what's the next game? He grew bored of us before we had finished and on our second dive made no appearance. I think if I had seen him underwater arriving with lightning speed out of the dark, that would have been another story entirely.

Most of our dives took place at Aramoana, a small seaside village boasting a long spit of land called the “Mole” jutting out from between two beaches and separating Dunedin's harbor from the open ocean. On the harborside of the Mole are a series of old wrecks that were stripped of everything but their metal skeletons and wooden hulls and sunk to support the man-made spit of land. Many of our dives were at the the first and most shallow wreck called the Mokoia, that sits at the bottom in about ten or twelve meters of water depending on the tide.

The underwater world there is surreal and peaceful. Long trailing forests of kelp line the rocky shore and the wreck. Schools of blue moki, octopuses, seahorses, all kinds of starfish, aquatic sponges and nudibranchs call the Mokoia home. The wreck is open along the entire length, divers can swim through the wide ribs of the ship or peer inside small holes or rooms too small to enter. Blue cod dance up to our masks wondering what we're doing down there. I moved back and forth in the surge with the sea tulips and sponges hanging onto the wreck, moving slowly through the towers of kelp breaking up the soft beams of light like a dream. A school of blue moki hovered, eerily still, sheltering at the center of the wreck where they were protected from the worst of the current. It comforted me to know that I too could take shelter there if needed.

On my 43rd dive, the very last dive of my certification, a sealion joined us, dancing closely between me and the bow of the old ship. We looked into each other's eyes and I was not afraid. He was so calm and graceful and the encounter seemed like a reward for all my hard work. If he was a messenger, his message was to play a little more, to seek friendship in unexpected places. Relax dear friend, he said. Come and play, the water is fine. Sure, life can be hard or frightening but let it come and let it go–play in the middle where grace lives, where friendship waits, where we learn to dance.