OK, why would rational, sensible people festoon themselves with a lot of weird equipment and jump into an environment they were never intended to survive in?
I can think of three
1) Sea Hunt
2) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the Disney Movie)
As a kid, I loved watching
the first two and thought how wonderful it would be to explore underwater. As a
teenager, I thought the underwater scenes in Dr. No were just fabulous, plus
there was Ursula Andress waiting for you on the beach once you got done fighting
the bad guys.
More seriously, I think
being underwater in an experience unlike any other on the planet. When my long
suffering family sees me strapped into all my diving equipment (sometimes this
takes place in my living room), they kind of shake their heads in bewilderment.
I try to explain that diving is the closest you can get to being on another
planet that I can think of. Weightlessly floating along and seeing a completely
different world is an experience that’s just,… well,…“out of this
As a youngster, I loved
being in the water be it the ocean, bays, lakes, or swimming pools. I usually
had a mask, fins, or snorkel around. (Anyone remember those snorkels with the
caged ping pong ball on the end?) I’d even bring the mask into the bathtub
with me. I was never much of a swimmer, though. I never had any real lessons and
learned just enough to keep from drowning. My wife, when we were first courting,
referred to my unique swimming style as that of a dying whale.
Then I got to college (Harpur College, which changed it’s name to SUNY Binghamton, which now calls itself Binghamton University). They had an absolutely ridiculous swimming requirement that you had to pass for a Bachelor’s degree. On top of this was a requirement for 2 years of physical education courses. I was in my cigarette smoking, rebellious, serious intellectual phase and opposed rules like this. I’d pretty much given up exercise as a waste of time, as well.
I passed the swimming test, which was something like swimming a ¼ of a mile without drowning and treading water for 10 minutes. Then to satisfy the PE requirement, I took a beginning swimming course. I soon discovered that I loved it. I finally learned how to swim correctly and I got a lot more comfortable in the water. Eventually, I even began swimming for exercise (quit smoking cigarettes, too!).
In my junior year, I signed up for a college scuba class. This was in 1970 and things were a little different than they are today. Scuba diving was considered a pretty adventuresome activity and there were some tough requirements. If I recall correctly, we had to swim a ¼ mile or so with a time limit, be able to swim underwater the length of a pool (25 yards?), and (this was kind of ridiculous) jump in the deep end of the pool and retrieve a rubber-coated brick from the bottom. You were supposed to clear your ears for the latter, but since we hadn’t been taught how to do it, I just plunged to the bottom and grabbed the brick. I ended up with a monster headache, but I passed all the tests.
The course followed the
curriculum then taught by the YMCA for scuba diving. This was a whole lot of
pool sessions, lots of theory about gas laws and decompression, and (for
certification) an open water dive. We had something like 30 pool sessions. The
first half of them were just snorkeling. We did stuff like taking off mask,
fins, and snorkel on the bottom at the deep end of the pool. Then we surfaced,
hyperventilated, and went back down and retrieved our stuff. We had to put the
stuff on underwater, clear the mask with the air in our lungs, and then clear
the snorkel with the remaining bit of air we had left. I got real good at
holding my breath. I also became very comfortable with being underwater for long
periods of time.
When we finally moved on to the scuba equipment, it was by comparison so easy! The equipment in those days was primitive by today’s standards. We had a double stage regulator attached to a small steel tank on a backplate and harness. For open water diving, the norm then was to use a tank with a “J” valve ( that gave you a 500 psi reserve), and a “horsecollar” inflation device to help you float at the surface. We didn’t use these in the pool and our tanks had no reserve on them. When you ran out of air, it suddenly got hard to breath and you came up.
Being able to breathe underwater instead of holding your breath was a lark. We did all the standard stuff like ditching and donning equipment at the bottom of the pool, ditching equipment on the bottom, surfacing, and then diving back down and donning it again. We also did a whole lot of buddy breathing, which was the standard out of air technique in those days. I had a lot of fun with it all.
We also had some serious academic work. Now, most of my classmates were swimming jocks of some variety – members of the swim team, lifeguards, etc. They were much better swimmers than I was. I, on the other hand, was a chemistry major. So when it came to solving those pesky problems involving ideal gas laws, Dalton’s Law, Henry’s law, algebra, and such, the shoe was on the other foot. While taking our written exams, I got a kick seeing them scratch their heads and squirm in their chairs. Poetic justice.
Anyway I passed the course, but never got around to the certification. To get certified would have entailed paying some money to do an open water dive like in April in the Finger Lakes. I was very poor and none to keen on jumping into the open water just after the ice melted. So I never got around to getting certified, but I figured “Someday!”.
Jump ahead a few years, and my wife and I were serving in the Peace Corps in Uganda. We had a Christmas vacation in Mombassa and the east coast of Kenya. Still dirt poor, we hitchhiked 700 miles or so from Kampala, Uganda to the coast. After several days on the road, standing out in the hot tropical sun along a road that for a stretch passes right through Tsavo National Park (think lions, leopards, and elephants), we arrived at the coast. My first glimpse of the Indian Ocean left me appalled. It looked like it had all sorts of floating junk in it! Turned out I was looking through the crystal clear water at the multicolored coral, plants, and sand on the bottom.
I persuaded Linda to let me spend some of our meager cash on a mask, snorkel and fins. Snorkeling in the bathtub warm waters was a revelation. The waters teemed with life – colorful tropical fish, coral, sea urchins, sea cucumbers. I remember peering under a chunk of coral and seeing a wildly colorful fish that looked like he wanted to be left alone. It turned out to be a poisonous lionfish.
We spent about a week along the Kenyan coast. We hitchhiked rides from (among others) a long haired scuba diving reporter for the Kenyan Daily Nation, who had some great stories about diving on the outer reefs off the coast, and a group of happily hung over Irish polo players. We camped along the coast and lived on oatmeal, tropical fruits, and a single, ice cold Guinness stout each day that was all our budget would allow. At one point we were on the beach where glass bottomed boats took tourists out to snorkel in the reefs off shore. I couldn’t afford the fee, so I waited until the boats went out and anchored. Then I finned out the mile or so to them and dove down. Here there were huge coral formations in about 30 feet of water. Under the coral formations there were 6 ft. long groupers hanging out. All that snorkeling in the pool back in Binghamton came in handy.
Finally it was time to head back to Uganda. I managed to sell my snorkeling stuff to another Peace Corps Volunteer, so Linda and I were able to take the train back to Kampala. We were eager to return to Mombassa for another vacation, but a guy named Idi Amin cut our Peace Corps tour short.
Back in the States, I pretty
much forgot about diving. During grad school I was obsessed with climbing –
rock, ice, and mountains. Once I became a parent, I gave these up, but kept on
running and bicycling. Into my
40’s I discovered woodworking and became much more sedentary. Then something
happened that I really never planned on….
I turned 50.
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Copyright 2002 Carl Muhlhausen