I'm not sure why this thought comes to me, but kneeling on the sand in 40 feet of water, literally surrounded by Caribbean reef sharks, I decide it's best if I don't look them in the eye. They're all around me, metallic gray, sleek and powerful, circling the group of divers and then snatching fish from the feeder's pole. But when one looks directly at me, I lower my head and let it swim over me. I've been told this shark dive is safe, but I'm not giving any shark a reason not to like me. It is, after all, just the second dive in my short diving career.
Just a few short weeks ago, I couldn't have imagined myself in the water with a shark, much less face-to-face with a swirling mass of them. But here I am, just a day after completing my certification, taking the first step into what I know will be a lifetime of underwater adventures.
Back to School
My path to becoming a shark diver began a couple of years ago when my husband Ryan and I thought about getting certified before our honeymoon trip to Grand Cayman. The idea stayed with us, and we finally decided to take the plunge.
The first step in any new diver's education is a little classroom and book learning. The dive instructor is the professor and the training agency's open-water course manual is your textbook, in which you'll learn everything from how to equalize your ears and set up your gear to the finer points of decompression theory.
As I start my reading, I find that the more I learn, the more I want to get in the water. I start feeling like the little kid in the back of the car headed for a family vacation. "Is it time to get in the water? Huh, huh? Is it? Is it time to get in the water?"
Lucky for me, the next step in the process is pool work. This is where you get a first taste of how all the information in the book translates when you're actually underwater.
After putting all our gear together, taking it apart and putting it back together again, we're ready to breathe underwater. We get into the shallow end of the pool and sink to the bottom. I inhale one deep breath and find it cool and dry--not bad at all.
Many divers say that their first breath underwater is one of the most memorable experiences of their dive training. It's pretty cool, but my favorite moment comes when dive instructor Ashley Ford signals to us to take a swim to the end of the pool and back. As I kick my way down the lane, surrounded by water but breathing normally, I understand how it's possible to get hooked on diving--not just the places that diving allows you to go, but the actual process of diving itself. There is a freedom in being able to move in all directions in water that moving on land can't approach. I can never fly like a bird, but scuba allows me to swim like a fish--up, down, left, right, front, back--and that's pretty hard to beat.
Moving to the deep pool, we practice more advanced skills. They seem a little scary at first, but turn out to be relatively easy and kind of natural. Breathing from a free-flowing reg? Check. Taking off my mask, putting it back on and clearing it? Check. Swimming without a mask? Check. I'm getting closer to being a real diver.
All this work isn't without rewards. Once we're finished working on our skills, we have some time to swim around. Ryan and I swim forward, watching the swimmers doing laps above us. The water above is light blue and bubbly--a sign of things to come. When we get home, I fall onto the couch, exhausted but unable to fall asleep. Every time I close my eyes, I feel like I'm floating. After a few minutes, I drift off, dreaming of the ocean.
The final step to getting certified is completing four open-water dives under the watchful eye of an instructor. "Open water" refers to diving that is not in a confined space like a pool, but in a lake or ocean. During these final supervised dives, students are required to demonstrate proficiency in a number of skills they've practiced in the pool.
For our checkout dives, we're headed to New Providence Island in the Bahamas to dive with Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas, a dive operation with a reputation for conducting shark dives that are simultaneously heart-pounding and well-controlled. I can't wait. Stuart Cove's is also one of Hollywood's favorite underwater locations, with film credits including more than a dozen movies from For Your Eyes Only to Into the Blue.
We get into Nassau on a Saturday afternoon, and that night I dream about diving again-- this time with a little anxiety. Will I remember how to do everything? What will it look like underwater? How far from shore will we be? The next thing I know, it's 7:20 a.m.--time to get ready for our dive.
Once we're on the boat, I'm nervous, but it's the good kind of nervous--the kind that gets your blood pumping. Ryan and I slip into our gear and head to the back of the boat. I stand on the edge of the platform and wait a second to take a deep breath or two. Breathe, breathe, OK, go!
We let the air out of our BCs and start sinking. We're using a line to descend, and I'm concentrating so hard on clearing my ears and getting the air out of my BC that I don't really notice what's going on around me.
Once my ears are equalized and we are hovering over the reef, I take a good look around. There are fish and corals in every direction. We follow Ashley over staghorn and brain corals. There are purple sponges and black urchins. I see fairy basslets and rainbow-colored parrotfish. I soon realize that I'm hovering effortlessly over the reef. I'm not running into it, and with a deep breath I can rise up or exhale to descend a little to peer into a crevice. It's awesome, and it's over too soon.
Our next dive has us performing some of our skills. I go over everything in my head and practice some of them on the boat. When it's my turn, I take a deep breath and fill my mask with water. I take another breath and clear it. That was easy! Next I drop my reg and recover it. Easy! Next, Ryan and I exchange alternate air sources and ascend. Easy again. I can't believe how much easier it is in the ocean than it was in the pool. I feel so confident.
The next day, our first dive site is Tunnel Wall. We're staying shallow, but the wall at the edge of the site plummets to a depth of 6,000 feet. We demonstrate most of our skills at the surface so we have more time to swim around. We get near the edge of the wall, and I'm fascinated, watching schools of fish swimming out over the wall. Ryan points down and Ashley shakes her head in response: We won't be going over the wall.
Our last checkout dive is at Hollywood Bowl, where we have only a few more skills to run through. We descend again to the sandy bottom and start performing our skills. Our last skill is an emergency ascent. I take a deep breath and start finning upward, a slow stream of bubbles flowing from my regulator. I squeeze out my last huff of air and break through the surface. Ashley pops up next to me and Ryan comes up next.
"That's it, you're done," Ashley says. "You're certified divers!" The reading, pool work and checkout dives are all done, and we are now the real deal. I'm a diver now, and as soon as I've surfaced, I realize that I want to get back down there.
When we do descend again, the reef comes alive. We swim over huge staghorn corals and marvel at the variety of fish. Ashley looks at us and signals, asking if we want to go back up. No way--we're having too much fun.
Swimming with Sharks
Next morning: shark dive. I wake up early, psyched, but not sure what to expect. Deep breaths: "I can do it. I can do it."
After a short boat ride, we are hovering over the wreck Ray of Hope. As we're performing our buddy check on the boat deck, Ryan points to the water. The sharks are circling under the boat. We hang back to let someone else get in the water first. If they don't get eaten, we'll assume it's safe.
When I enter the water, I find a stunning sight: The picture-perfect Ray of Hope lies directly beneath us, and the sun's rays are dancing on its deck. I can see sharks in the distance gracefully swimming around the wreck as if they are guarding it. The sharks don't approach baring their teeth; in fact, they're ignoring me--I'm just another creature in the ocean.
We swim along the wreck and over the reef, and the wall soon appears before us. Giant schools of bright blue chromis pour over the wall, into the abyss, and sharks swim lazily out in the deep blue. At the end of the dive, while making our required safety stop, I take a look around and see sharks swimming all around us.
During the surface interval between dives, our divemaster/shark feeder Tohru Yamaguchi gives us the rundown on how we will watch the shark feed. There is a circle of rocks in the sand at about 35 feet. We can kneel or lie down and hold on to the rock. He says when the sharks swim by they create a bit of a current that can knock you over if you're kneeling. If that happens, you can't wave your arms around because the sharks hunt using the vibrations the fish make, and your hands look an awful lot like fish heads. I decide to take the lying-down-holding-on-to-a-rock-for-dear-life approach.
We get in the water, settle on the bottom and after just a minute, someone points up. About 30 sharks are circling Tohru as he makes his way down with the bait box. Soon, the sharks are all around us. They are gliding in and out of the circle vying for the fish head Tohru is offering them from a long pole. Tohru told us that the sharks would come right up to us and possibly even touch us. That's fine, they can touch me, but I'll just keep my hands to myself.
As the feeding goes on, I become more comfortable with the dozens of sharks swimming around me. It's awesome to see them so close. As the sharks are getting their lunch, a big dopey grouper swims up looking for a handout. Ashley reaches out and gives it a pet, so I reach out too. The grouper swims right into the middle of the sharks and steals a piece of food. Some nerve.
The feeding is over in what seems like seconds. When we get back on the boat, the crew throws what's left in the bait boxes off the back of the boat for the sharks to eat. They all come to the surface and start thrashing around for the last scraps.
On the ride back to shore, Ryan and I talk about all the places we want to go diving. We decide we have to get down to Key Largo this summer, even if it's just for a weekend. In just three short days we've gone from diving students to shark divers. I've hiked the Rockies in Glacier National Park, I've skied down the mountains of Killington, Vt., and I've canoed mountain lakes in the Adirondacks, but I have never seen anything as amazing as the underwater world I have just explored. I can't wait to get back in.
How I learned everything I need to know about diving from my great-grandmother.
Throughout the month-long process of getting certified to scuba dive, I thought a lot about my first swim lessons. I learned, along with my three older brothers, at a YMCA in western Ohio. The unlikely teacher of these lessons was our great-grandmother, a phys-ed teacher in her day and probably the most self-sufficient person I'll ever know in my life.
Widowed and living alone in a large farmhouse, she hosted us for weeklong visits that had us frequently in the water, either at the pool or on water skis at the lake. She never minded if we failed at something she was trying to teach us, but not trying was never an option. So when she was looking for you to make it to the deep end and back on four breaths, she was more than willing to look the other way when it took five or six. I think she knew that the less frustrating it was, the more willing we'd be to try it on our own. As always, she was right.
That was the approach that stuck in my head when my wife Moira and I visited the local pool for scuba classes two weeks before we were scheduled to leave for the Bahamas. I had looked through some of the certification drills that we would have to master and knew that some would come easily, while others left me wondering just how many times I'd be allowed to try them before I was eventually bounced from the pool and told to stick with snorkeling. A willingness to try was enough back when I was seven and advancing from a doggie-paddle to freestyle, but this was a lot more serious, considering some of the drills could be a reality on a dive 50 feet below the surface.
The drills came easily though, as our instructor worked with us while we flooded and cleared our masks underwater, hovered in mid-water without waving arms or legs and felt the empty draw from a regulator that has had its air supply cut off momentarily. It was one challenge after another, but it never reached a level of frustration that would lead me to believe that anyone with average swimming skills couldn't get through this with a good instructor and a clear head.
Two weeks later, we were on a dive boat in the Bahamas, making final safety checks to our gear before taking the first plunge into open water. Moving around a crowded dive boat in rough water with a full tank strapped to your back and wearing fins is no easy feat. Once in the water though, the weight and clumsiness of the gear disappeared.
Over the course of the four checkout dives, it became much easier to move through the water, using slow, relaxed kicks to get where I wanted to be and hovering motionless over beautiful expanses of coral. On our last certification dive, I realized that my arms were rarely leaving my sides because my legs were doing all the work. My fears that I would be so focused on having to work hard as a swimmer that I wouldn't be able to take everything in were gone now.
A day later, as we swam along the edge of a 6,000-foot drop-off, surrounded by sharks and massive schools of fish, I was amazed at how comfortable it all felt--the sound of breathing and bubbles, and the shadows of the sharks over the coral as they patrolled their territory, paying us no attention.
As I watched the sharks, impressed at how gentle they looked despite their size and reputation, I thought again of my great-grandmother. I didn't know it at the time, but I suspect that years ago in the pool she was fully aware that she was teaching me a lot more than how to swim.