Open Water Certification in the Dominican Republic

June, 1999


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 were required.

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 into bed.

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