"Just put your head under water and breathe."
With his enthusiastic persona and reassuring British accent, Neal Wallwork, my scuba instructor, had a way of making everything sound so easy. I trusted Neal, but standing in chest-deep water in the Compass Point Dive Resort swimming pool, wearing scuba gear for the first time, I was a little skeptical.
My fellow students, Jeremy and Reagan, gave me a "here goes nothing" look and dipped their heads below water. And even though it went against every instinct in my body, I did too, but not before clamping my eyes shut. I felt the water rise up past my face and took my first tentative sip of air.
It worked! I was breathing. Under water! I quickly exhaled a small cloud of bubbles and tried it again, a deeper breath this time.
Confident now, I opened my eyes to the sight of Neal watching me with a knowing smile forming around his regulator. He made a circle with his index finger and thumb, the scuba diver's hand signal for "OK?"
I returned the signal with gusto. Yes, I was OK. In fact, I was better than OK, I was on my way to fulfilling a dream of becoming a recreational scuba diver. I had just passed the first milestone, and it was easy. We weren't even in the deep end of the pool yet, but I felt like I'd just been handed a passport to an entirely new world.
Now all I had to do was stay away from the sharks.
It was Super Bowl Sunday when I decided I had to do it. At half time, I told my friend Kathy that I was contemplating a trip to the Cayman Islands to learn to scuba dive. She couldn't believe it, especially since she shared my fear of things that swim in the ocean and have big scary teeth. Afraid of sharks. Just hearing myself say it out loud had a strange effect on my resolve. I'd conquered other fears in my life, and I decided this one wouldn't hold me back, either. By mid-March, I was booked, packed and ready to go.
I checked in at Compass Point, which is located on the secluded east end of Grand Cayman island, and settled onto the veranda of my condo overlooking the sea. Then I pulled out the 280-page dive manual I'd been studying since it arrived in the mail 12 days before. When you book a learn-to-dive vacation like mine, they mail you all the training materials in advance. By completing all five sections of the manual before you arrive, you can devote more time to actually diving. I was a little nervous about the amount of material and what it included--the mechanics of diving, the physics and a little bit of math--and I figured a little cramming couldn't hurt.
At 8 a.m. the following morning, I walked the 50 feet from the condos to the front porch of the on-site dive shop, Ocean Frontiers. There I met Jeremy and Reagan, a couple from Vermont, and Neal, the man charged with taking us through the transformation from land animals to aquatic adventurers. It was obvious that Neal loved his job and was eager for us to enjoy diving as much as he did.
"Diving is a nice, laid-back sport," he told us. "It's completely changed my life. Even after 1,000 dives, there's always something new to see."
He began the academic review by playing a training video that reiterated what we had read in the book. Neal would occasionally stop the tape to augment the lesson with his own experiences, observations and tips. For each of the five sections, there were reviews and mini-quizzes. I found myself getting most of the answers right, and my confidence began to grow.
Everything was going just fine until we got to the part on marine life and the subject of sharks came up. Neal told us that it's actually somewhat rare for divers to even see sharks in the wild (he sounded disappointed by that). He also said that when sharks happen to pass by divers, it's because they're curious, not because they're hungry.
"As long as you don't provoke them, it's fine. Just don't go stabbing things," he said.
"So they don't see us as prey?" I asked hopefully.
"No, no," he said, shaking his head vigorously. "They're just inquisitive."
He restarted the video, which explained that nearly all injuries from marine life result from human carelessness. Just for fun, though, they showed an animated shark eating a diver who is minding his own business. The others laughed as I covered my face with my hands.
At the end of the morning, Neal collected the final quizzes, looked them over and with a satisfied smile said, "Congratulations, everyone. You're half-way to your open-water certification!" We all smiled at each other, but the real challenge--the in-water training--was yet to come.
After a lunch break, we met by the pool for our confined-water dives. For the first time, I was face to face with a set of actual scuba gear. I'd seen the equipment before, onscreen and in print, and I knew what each piece of gear did, but I still felt awkward trying to assemble it all. Neal patiently guided us through the assembly. Then we suited up and shuffled sideways to the pool and gathered in chest-high water.
After giving us a few minutes to get used to breathing under water, Neal moved us to a deeper part of the pool where we knelt on the bottom in about eight feet of water. For each section of training, there were skills we needed to master. Neal demonstrated each one, then had us do them individually. Our tasks included purging the regulator while continuing to breathe from it, recovering the regulator after it had been "lost" behind us, and clearing a partially flooded mask.
We then moved to the really deep end to perform another series of skills: Reading our pressure gauges and signaling how much air we had left; breathing from another diver's alternate air source; and one of the most important skills--establishing neutral buoyancy.
Controlling your buoyancy is tricky at first. Divers wear an inflatable vest called a buoyancy compensator, or BC for short, that you inflate to float easily in the water. Inflate your BC too much, and you'll shoot to the surface and possibly damage your ears or lungs; release air too quickly, and you'll crash to the floor. We each spent a long time tinkering with our vests until, one by one, we established perfect neutral buoyancy, floating in mid-water. Passing the skill requires that we hold this position for 30 seconds, which allows a little time to appreciate what we've done: defy gravity. I pulled my legs into the lotus position and hovered, feeling as giddy as astronauts must feel on their space walks.
When the pool session was over, Neal showed us how to rinse our gear then gave us another 28-page dive manual for homework.
"You all deserve margaritas, but make sure you do your reading first," he said.
We scattered quickly when he dismissed us at 5 p.m. We were tired and our fingers were shriveled up like prunes, but we were also exhilarated.
The following morning, we boarded our very own boat for our first open-water dives. As he guided the boat out, Neal shared stories of historic shipwrecks in the area, but my mind was focused on sharks. If one came for me, I decided, I'd roll my back toward it so it would break its teeth on my tank--that'd teach 'em. Despite my worries, there was no denying the beauty of the moment: the fresh salt air, frigate birds diving from a perfect hover in the sun, and the brilliant blue and turquoise water around us. Neal anchored the boat in the sand and began his briefing.
Today we'd practice putting our equipment together and demonstrating several new skills in the water. Oops. I put the hoses on the tank backward, a common rookie mistake, but Neal caught it and turned the error into a lesson for us all on the importance of the pre-dive safety check. Once we'd suited up, we took turns doing giant stride entries into the water. This involved holding our weight belts, masks and regulators secure, then taking a bold step into the water. Standing on the edge of the boat, I could see that although we were in the middle of a protected sound, the wind was causing a lot of surface chop. I jumped in anyway.
Before descending, we needed to perform some skills on surface. I inflated my BC vest all the way, I had my regulator to breathe from and a mask to protect my eyes, but the constant splashing of the small waves on my face was troubling. While Neal ran through skills with Jeremy and Reagan, I was feeling anxious, like I was struggling to stay afloat and even just to breathe. I signaled Neal for help and he was there in a flash, reassuring me that everything was fine with my equipment and that I didn't need to struggle.
I was tempted at that moment to leave the saltwater to the fish, but as both Neal and the manual had stressed, you shouldn't let a brief moment of trouble during training keep you from a lifetime of fun. It was good advice. As soon as we finished the skills, we sank below the surface, and the second my head was under the water, I was fine. And when we reached the white sand bottom at 24 feet, everything was quiet, beautiful and serene.
We kneeled on the bottom and repeated the skills from the pool session under Neal's watchful eye. It was already starting to become second nature and when I finished the last exercise--the regulator exchange--Neal gave me a big congratulatory OK sign and shook my hand. With our chores done, it was time to look around, and I understood why people love this sport.
One diver I'd met at Compass Point compared diving the reefs of Grand Cayman to "being dumped into an aquarium," and I could see why. There was life surging all around us: fish of vivid blues and purples, an eel, and a sea turtle--a sight that Jeremy missed only because he was focused on a lobster. Among the creatures of the sea, we become different creatures ourselves, as one instructor put it. We experienced the joy of moving weightlessly in silence. It's simply the most peaceful recreation there is.
Later, I found out that during the surface choppiness, Reagan had been ready to call it quits, too. Like me, she was glad she stuck it out. I had seen her clearing her mask at one point during the fun part of the dive (guess those skills we'd been practicing do come in handy) and when I asked her how water had leaked in, she replied, and I asked her how water had leaked in.
"I was giggling," she replied.
That afternoon, we reviewed the last of the academics and felt confident enough to take our final exam one day early. We each passed with flying colors and all that stood between us and earning our C-cards were the final checkout divers.
The next day, the four of us boarded the boat with eight certified divers. Karen, the divemaster and boat captain, announced the site we'd be visiting: "We've had a request for Shark Alley."
I stuck my lip out.
"Don't worry, Vanessa. They're like teddy bears," Karen promised.
The certified divers all geared up, wished us luck on our final checkout dives and disappeared into the water. Neal gathered us around, gave us our briefing and we entered the water for our last round of skill testing. By now, the drills seemed like second nature and we had the rest of the dive to use purely for underwater exploration, which is the whole point of diving in the first place.
The visibility was over 100 feet, so we saw enormous schools of fish swimming purposefully all around us, sea fans waving on the coral, and other divers floating in the distance. It was like a parallel universe, this place that existed out of the sight of most humans, where we were fortunate enough to be guests. Suddenly, I wasn't afraid of sharks any more. I was a trained diver now and I knew what to do. In the end, I never did see a shark and I was actually a little disappointed.
When we surfaced from our last dive and climbed aboard the boat, the other divers were already on board. We might have gone into the water as students, but we came out full-fledged members of the club. Before we disembarked back at the dock, Karen made a little announcement. Jeremy, Reagan and I received a hearty round of applause.
I'm proud of myself for overcoming my fears and doing something exciting and new. The divers I met during my stay inspired me with their stories of travel to far-flung corners of the globe. I now see that my open-water certification is just the beginning to a lifetime of underwater adventure, and I'm looking forward not only to using the skills I learned on Grand Cayman, but learning some new ones: deep diving, for example, or high-altitude diving so I can explore the mountain lake near my home. And I hear that in some destinations, you can go on special shark encounter dives.
It's just too bad that all our fears don't have such easy solutions. En route to the airport, I stopped to give a woman a ride into town. My passenger, Yvonne, was 42-year-old Jamaican working on Grand Cayman for a few months. During the drive, she pointed out the native plants and trees--bougainvillea, hibiscus, mango, almond and sea grapes.
"God loves us so much to give us all this beauty," she marveled.
I told her I live in a beautiful place too, the mountains of Southern California. I expected her to imagine towering pines and sunlit snow, but instead her eyes widened with concern as she shook her head slowly.
"I could never go to the mountains."
"Afraid of bears!"
Do It Yourself
Ocean Frontiers and Compass Point Dive Resort are offering a Learn-to-Dive special through December 21, 2006. The package includes five nights' accommodations at Compass Point, a full PADI open-water course (including all boat dives and equipment rental), plus a car rental for your entire stay. Price: $875 per person double occupancy. For more information, visit www.compasspoint.ky. Our thanks to Ocean Frontiers, Compass Point and the Cayman Department of Tourism for their assistance with this article. For more on diving the Cayman Islands, visit www.caymanislands.ky.