Open Water Certification in the Dominican Republic
1999, the year of my 50th
birthday, coincided with my 30th wedding anniversary. It had been a
while since our family had had a real vacation, so we decided to splurge a
little. My teenage daughters were getting to the stage where their parents were
an increasing embarrassment to them and vacationing with us was not high on
their list of exciting things to do. Linda and I figured this might be one of
our last chances to go someplace as a family. Deciding on where to go anywhere
in our family, however, is a complex and drawn out affair. I was all for a
Caribbean vacation. In this, my youngest daughter, Diana, supported me. My
oldest daughter, Emily, wanted a vacation to a northern clime and Linda was
leaning in this direction, too.
Somehow, I prevailed.
We decided on the Dominican
Republic because it offered a lot of what we wanted for a very reasonable cost
compared to many other Caribbean destinations. One of my prerequisites was that
our location have good snorkeling available. I wanted a vacation where I could
spend a lot time in the water and on the beach and not be hassled by figuring
out where to eat and how to get around. So we chose an all-inclusive resort, the
Barcelo Bavaro Resort in Punta Cana. This resort is on the east coast of the
Dominican Republic and has some really nice beaches.
Before we left, my daughters
and I went to one of the local sporting goods mega-stores and picked up some
basic snorkeling gear. Linda didn’t want any, since she has never been
interested in seeing what lurks in the water she swims in. I didn’t explicitly
plan on actually scuba diving, but at some subconscious level I must have been
hoping that, just maybe, I’d be able to do that open water dive I never got to
do almost 30 years ago. In
hindsight, it looks more like I’d been planning on it all along.
We arrived in the DR late -
around 10:00PM after a pretty nice flight on Air Mexico. The warm, humid
tropical air with the wonderful smells of exotic plant life immediately struck
me. I felt transported back to Africa, my only other tropical reference point.
The hotel check in was rather slow and harried, but we got through it
eventually. We dumped our stuff in our rooms and headed for a look at the beach.
There was a welcome breeze coming off the ocean and it seemed wonderful. By
sheer coincidence, right on the beach I discovered the scuba shop that served
the resort, though it was closed this late at night. Getting into the "all
inclusive" swing of things, we ate something at one of the resort’s
restaurants and then wearily headed for bed.
I really loved the Dominican
Republic. The hotel was nice, the staff friendly, and the location fabulous. Not
too many Americans vacation there and most of the other guests were South
American and European. This gave it a nice "foreign" feel. There
wasn’t a lot of English being spoken, but most of the staff spoke enough to
understand us. It was fun for us to try out our feeble Spanish and most of the
people we afflicted it on seemed pleased at our attempts.
On our first morning, we
were all in a much better mood. After breakfast, we quickly got into our bathing
suits and headed for the water. Within minutes of staking out beach chairs under
the palm trees, I was in the water snorkeling. While it was great to be in the
water, the snorkeling right off the beach was a bit disappointing. The lovely
white sand continued a long ways out into the water, and all I could see were a
few smallish fish and the odd small lump of coral, often with a few lonely
tropical fish hanging out under it. I took my daughters out a few times and got
them comfortable with breathing from a snorkel.
On the afternoon of our first day, I paid a few bucks for a boat ride out to snorkel on the reefs. This was a lot better, but not as relaxing as I’d hoped. The east side of the DR is on the Atlantic Ocean and there’s usually a good deal of surface chop and some current. I also discovered that my middle aged spread made me a lot more buoyant than I was as a twenty-something year old, and it was considerably harder to dive down and stay down than I remembered.
It wasn’t very long before
my legs carried me over to the scuba shop, Red Coral Divers, a 5 star PADI dive
shop, whatever that meant. For $75 I could do a resort course consisting of a
pool session and an open water dive. Sounded great. I did the pool session the
morning of our second day. Things had changed a bit since my college days. I was
given a shorty wetsuit and around 16 lbs of lead to sink my plump carcass. The
tank was strapped to a “Buoyancy Control Device” with hoses and pockets and
rings on it. The regulator now had sprouted multiple hoses including two second
stages to breathe from, a hose to attach to the BCD, and a submersible pressure
gauge (SPG). People kept talking about the “octopus”. One of the instructors
from the shop, a young Dominican named Douglass, helped strap me into all this
stuff and I got into the pool. Joining me was a very nice Dutch couple.
It was a real thrill to
breathe underwater again even in a pool. Douglass took us through a few drills,
most of which I remembered from my college days. He also showed me how to work
the BCD. The Dutch guy was enjoying this, but his companion was decidedly
uncomfortable with the whole business. Though they were speaking in Dutch, it
was clear that a real debate was going on.
After about 15 minutes in the pool, I guess we were judged competent
enough to do the open water dive without killing ourselves. This was scheduled
for the afternoon, so I rejoined the family unit for another lavish, all
inclusive lunch and enthusiastically told them all about the fun I was having.
My family accompanied back
to the shop that afternoon. As I signed my life away on release forms, I began
to think that maybe this wasn’t quite the walk in the park I was expecting. I
was issued the requisite equipment again and lugged it into the waiting boat. I
waved goodbye to the family unit and settled in for the adventure.
There were quite a few divers aboard the rather small boat, which
resembled a large open rowboat with two narrow benches running along each of the
sides. It was powered by a big outboard motor. The tanks and weight belts were
dumped on the floor between the seated divers. It seemed kind of curious that
the dive shop staff all sat in the front, while the rest of us crowded in the
back. The reason for this soon was apparent as the boat pilot fired up the motor
and roared out from the beach. The bow tilted way up and large plumes of spray
cascaded into the back of the boat. I discovered that even tropical water can
feel cold if you're moving fast enough.
Luckily it was only a very short ride to the dive site – a fifteen feet deep spot along the coral reef that the dive shop referred to as “The Aquarium”. I struggled into the still largely unfamiliar equipment with a good deal of assistance from the shop people. A German diver asked me if I would be his buddy and I agreed. I’m sure he didn’t realize he was getting an uncertified novice for a partner. He asked if I spoke German, and I got to revive my high school German for a bit. It was good fun for a while, but we soon went back to English when it soon became apparent that his English was far better than my attempts at German.
For the entry we were
instructed to sit on the edge of the boat and roll backward “like James
Bond”. (This was an expression I was to hear a lot over the next few days.) At
this point, I began to have some doubts about what I’d gotten myself into, but
everyone else seemed ready to go. I maneuvered my butt over the edge of the
boat, pumped a little air into the BCD and planted the regulator in my mouth and
took a few breaths. There was no turning back now, and with a silent hope that
all this high tech crap was really going to work, I rolled back into the water.
Then followed a moment’s uncertainty as I hit the water and sunk below
the surface for an instant before bobbing back up. Hey, it worked!
I hung out with my new buddy
for a bit as the Dutch couple entered the water. The female member of the pair
wasn’t liking this one bit. She somehow got into the water, but immediately
wanted to get back into the boat. One of the instructors/divemasters said
something reassuring to her and then grabbed her tank valve and began hauling
her towards the descent line. She really didn’t like this, and began flailing
her arms about. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t her sport and she got
back into the boat.
Finally, the instructor gave
us the signal to descend. I let some air out of the BCD and entered a new world.
In common with many of my early dives, I remember very little of this dive’s
details. My senses were overwhelmed by the experience of it all and it seemed
impossible to take it all in. First there was the sensation of being underwater
weightless. Breathing underwater in this environment seemed a new experience –
the loud hiss of air from the regulator as I inhaled rhythmically alternated
with the soft bubbling sound of my exhalations.
We descended to a small sandy spot coral surrounded by looming coral
formations. Swarms of brightly colored, curious fish surrounded us. I tried to
concentrate on relaxing and breathing deeply and slowly, but it was just too
exciting. In the middle of this sensory overload, I tried to attend to the
details of diving – clearing my ears, adjusting my buoyancy, etc. I don’t
think I paid any attention to my erstwhile buddy. After a bit, I recognized the
instructor or divemaster who was leading our group and began following him
around. He led us in, around, and at one point under the coral formations that
surrounded us. From under a piece of coral he gently coaxed a delicate and
fragile looking crab of some sort and showed it to our group. Trying to look
heroic, I had my picture taken for posterity by one of the other divemasters,
but before I knew it we were somehow back at the anchor line and being told to
ascend. It’s a good thing they were watching out for me, because I didn’t
once bother to look at my pressure gauge and undoubtedly would have stayed down
until my air ran out.
I returned to my collection
of females completely exhilarated. They were relaxing on the beach doing the
tourist thing. I tried to communicate how wonderful the dive had been, but
didn’t get very far. I could see that this was going to be like most of my
hobbies and obsessions – something they might tolerate, but never fully
understand. I downed a few Pina Coladas and settled back into my beach chair. I
relived the dive in my mind, while trying my best not to be too distracted by
the topless women parading along the beach. Life is hard sometimes.
It was soon clear that I
wasn’t going to be satisfied with a single dive. In fact, I was probably
hatching plans for more diving while still underwater on the first dive. My mind
works in funny ways sometimes. I discretely inquired at the dive shop about how
much extra it would cost me to do the PADI Open Water Certification -$275 if
memory serves – and whether there was time to do it before my vacation ended.
The dive shop was very helpful and cooperative and it looked like I’d be able
to fit in the required bookwork, pool sessions, and 3 more open water dives that
I broached the subject with
Linda and she responded with a kind of patient exasperation as if she were
expecting something like this all along. After 30 + years she had been through
this kind of thing many times before.
So the rest of our vacation
went something like this:
I’d wake up around 6:30 AM, before the rest of the crew, and head out for a short run. It was marvelous to run along the roads of the resort while it was still quiet and before the heat came on. I took in the deep bluish scarlet sky and the dense tropical vegetation along the roads as I struggled to get my old fat body to cooperate this early in the morning. Slowly the area seemed to be coming to life with the resort staff walking to work or tending to early morning chores. Usually I’d get a curious stare, but when I called out “Hola”, it was inevitably returned along with a friendly smile. When I got back to the hotel area, I’d keep running straight at the water, quickly peeling off my shirt and shoes, before plunging into the bathtub warm water. This early, the beach was deserted of tourists and only the grounds people were out cleaning up seaweed and anything else that had washed up overnight onto the beaches.
After a quick swim, it was back to the hotel room to wake everyone up if necessary and take a quick shower. Then we all headed down for a wonderful (and large) breakfast. I especially liked the thick, black Dominican coffee - wonderfully strong without any bitterness. I instructed (non-coffee drinking) daughter Emily to order a cup to supplement my own and so I'd get two cups filled whenever one of the charming waitresses would pass by. “Café solo, por favor. Gracias.” Usually 6 or 8 cups were sufficient to prime me for the day.
During breakfast we’d go over the plans for the day. Mine were usually were something like:
“OK, I’ve got to be at the dive shop at 9 to watch some videos then have a pool session. I’ll meet you on the beach before lunch. After lunch I have to watch more videos and do another dive. I’ll be back sometime in the afternoon. Have fun.”
After the day’s adventures
I’d meet everyone on the beach to decompress with beer or a few Pina Coladas.
I managed to work in some more snorkeling most afternoons. We’d all shower
back in the rooms and head to dinner around 6 or 7 PM. Evenings were spent
lounging around the pool before the night’s entertainment began around 10 PM.
By this time I was pretty much out of it, but the girls really got a kick out of
the shows that were put on by the hotel staff. It was made very clear that my
presence was expected, since this was, after all, supposed to be a family
vacation. So around midnight, I’d finally make it back to the room and crash
The PADI Open Water course
was, for the most part, enjoyable. My buddy was a Mexican, named Jose, who spoke
excellent English. We were joined by an Italian couple, who spoke no English.
Douglass, our multilingual, instructor effortlessly switched between English and
Italian and occasionally explained a point to Jose in their native Spanish.
Douglass also spoke a bit of German and he’d try it out on me from time to
time with mixed results.
I soon discovered that scuba
instruction had become a lot less “militant” since my college days. We
didn’t have any rigorous swimming tests to pass and there were snorkeling or
skin diving skills included in the class. The
“theory” on the videotapes and books was pretty basic with very little
emphasis on gas physics or decompression topics. The pool exercises were also
very basic – clearing a flooded mask, getting in and out of weight belts and
BCD underwater and at the surface, sharing air with a buddy with the
“octopus”. I think the objectives of skills like these are twofold: the
first is to give you some ability to perform the skill should the need arise
while diving and the second is to make you generally comfortable in the water.
On one of our open water dives, the young Italian lady seemed to be having some
trouble with her regulator and appeared on the verge of bolting to the surface.
Douglass calmly handed her his backup regulator and got her breathing from in a
relaxed way. Then he took her primary regulator and checked it out by breathing
from it himself. Via some underwater signals, he convinced her that it was
working properly and the rest of the dive continued as planned. Learning to
avoid panic and control panic impulses is probably the most important lesson in
this level of course.
I tried to take the
“academic” stuff seriously and I went through the in-water exercises to
Douglass’s satisfaction, but I’m afraid I was mostly interested in getting
in more open water dives. We had three more dives – two were at the
“Aquarium” and one was a deeper dive to 45 feet at another spot further out
on the reef. The latter was a really nice spot. On the open water dives, we
spent a little time performing exercises – like swimming out and back a
distance without a mask on and then putting the mask back on and clearing the
water out of it. After a few exercises like this, the rest of the dive was spent
touring around the reefs. I really looked forward to this.
One thing I neglected to do on all these dives was to track my time and
watch my air consumption. This was a serious oversight on my part, but I was
just too absorbed in the rest of the diving.
By the fifth day of our
vacation, I had completed my final open water dive and passed the written exam
with flying colors (OK, it was pretty easy). I’ll admit to a certain thrill
when Douglass handed me my temporary certification card. After almost 30 years
since I first strapped on scuba equipment, I was finally a certified diver.
I had hoped to maybe squeeze
in an additional dive, but by the end of the week I was feeling exhausted and
had picked up some sort of tropical bug. Either I pushed myself too hard or
I’d eaten or drunk something I shouldn’t have. My last full day in the
Dominican Republic was spent semi-comatose on the beach with a mild fever. The
wonderful meals were no longer very appetizing and even the glorious coffee had
lost much of it’s appeal. Luckily I was feeling much better by the time we
boarded the flight back to Newark, NJ.
I had a few days left before I was due to return to work. On the morning after our return home, I powered up my laptop and began surfing the Internet about scuba diving. I was determined to keep on diving and eagerly read everything I could. It looked like there was good diving off the shores of New Jersey and I was ready to explore it. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
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Copyright 2002 Carl Muhlhausen