I clenched my regulator in my teeth and released the reservoir of air in the apparatus strapped to my back. The twenty-plus pounds of lead around my hips ensured that the waters of the Pacific Ocean closed rapidly over my head.
As I sunk beneath the waves, I was struck with sheer, unadulterated terror.
I’d thought I was ready for this. I’d taken classes on scuba diving, learning the basic safety tips and formulas that would keep me alive and undamaged. But nothing had prepared me for the fear that came from the water pressing in on me from all sides.
And then my mask, a hand-me-down, started filling up with sea water. My eyes stung, and I closed them.
Great. Now I was terrified and blind. I hyperventilated, sucking air with abandon as I tried to figure out what to do.
Screw this. I kicked my flippers, making sure not to hold my breath as I rose. If you hold your breath while ascending, you can blow up your lungs. I considered this an Important Safety Tip.
I was alone when I broke the surface. Nobody else in class had chickened out. I was the only gal, and I could imagine the snickers later.
After we made it back to the beach, I went shopping for a dive mask that fit. I sucked down tanks of air at the bottom of a friend’s pool, getting used to being surrounded by water. I was going to make this work.
After nine years of marriage and three children, my husband and I were growing apart. He liked scuba diving. Personally, I liked reading and walks in the woods, but I was going to do this. It wouldn’t kill me. Well, not unless I held my breath at the wrong time or went too deep or stayed down too long.
I made it through class and started diving on weekends with my husband and his buddies. At that point, I learned other, equally important lessons.
Just because I was less physically capable, that didn’t mean anything remotely like chivalry existed under the sea. Guys would cheerfully lead me into situations that were dangerous. And then they’d get mad at me because I had trouble getting out of them. While diving, I had to look out for myself.
Also, I learned to never go on a dive boat with a group of gung-ho hunters. There is nothing quite like swimming around a group of rocks to discover a spear gun pointed at your face.
In fact, diving with hunters wasn’t a good idea, period. During one dive at Catalina, my husband had speared a couple of sea bass. They were hanging from a net bag on his hip, gently leaking bodily fluids into the sea. And then a Mako shark swam into view.
You can’t talk while underwater, but I developed mime skills with lightning speed. I made unmistakable signs to Ditch The Game Bag.
My future ex-husband shook his head, and I swam to the surface. I was NOT going to die for a fish dinner. I was definitely not going to BE the fish’s dinner.
Diving in a kelp forest is incredibly lovely. The sunlight comes down in shafts, and the bright orange garibaldi fish play hide-and-seek in the kelp fronds.
I could take my dive knife and break open a sea urchin to hand feed garibaldi and spotted sea bass. They weren’t concerned by my presence at all. When not getting a free lunch, they’d flutter ahead, just barely out of reach.
When the fish disappeared, it was time to take a fast look around. For the fish were deeply concerned about the ultimate fish predators in our area—harbor seals and sea lions.
I loved diving with them. I’ve been circled by pups who were overwhelmed with curiosity. They’d dart off and bring an entire group back, anxious to see this new wonder—me. Seals have given me soulful looks from long-lashed eyes. I could only envy the grace sea lions showed as they cavorted through the kelp, and they treated me like an honorary sea mammal. Even though I hadn’t a fraction of their careless ease.
Lobster for breakfast is wonderful. I didn’t mind catching lobsters—they don’t bleed. I even got into a tug-of-war with an octopus over one. It got the head, and I got the tail.
I almost gave the octopus the whole thing because they’re at least as graceful as seals. I was fascinated by their boneless elegance and speed. Reading up on them at the library, I was unsurprised to discover that they’re also highly intelligent.
I’ve swum with rays, who seem to be flying as they slowly flap through the water. I’ve startled halibut, only to see them swim off several feet and re-disappear into the sandy ocean floor.
Once I got past my fear and learned my limits, there was beauty beyond imagining under the sea. And I was a part of it, in a way that wasn’t possible with glass-bottomed boats or visits to aquariums.