I remember as a child watching programs filmed underwater and being overwhelmed with awe. How amazing it seemed to be meters under the oceans surface hovering over coral reefs and watching marine life dart around you. But growing up in Kentucky, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to do things like snorkel or SCUBA. Sure the YMCA offered courses, but learning to SCUBA in a pool and then doing my open water dives in a lake with about 1 foot of visibility did not have quite the same appeal as learning to dive in the tropics. So mainly I just watched TV programs and thought about how cool it would be.
Later in life I’d visit a fair few tropical destinations with happening underwater scenes. I snorkeled off the beaches of Hawaii, in Egypt’s Red Sea, off the coast of Belize, in the amazing waters of the Galapagos Islands, and in a number of other places. But I never found an opportunity to get certified as a SCUBA diver, and I have to admit that as I got older, I became a bit more timid. I don’t really like confined spaces, and though the ocean is certainly not confined, being tied to an oxygen tank seemed like it might be the ultimate claustrophobic situation. I’m also a worrier, and movies like “Open Water” and episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” about SCUBA diving give my mind plenty of fodder for worry.
When we started this trip, however, we said that once we got to Asia we’d give SCUBA a try, and now with less than two months left in our trip (really, can that be right?), we found the time and place. From August 15-18, we passed our days squirming into wetsuits, donning weight belts and BCDs, and slipping regulators in our mouth as we worked to become certified PADI Open Water Divers. Our choice of location: The warm, turquoise waters of Pulau Perhentian Kecil in northeast Malaysia. Our choice of dive shop: The excellent (and highly affordable) Turtle Bay Divers.
Becoming a PADI Open Water diver combines theory with practice. Our class, which ran from 9 am until nearly 7 pm each day, involved sessions of reading, watching video, and taking quizzes; multiple confined water dives to learn and practice skills; and four to five open water dives to apply our skills. The theory was, at least for me and Jeff, cake. It all makes sense. (In fact, I aced the final exam and thus got a free t-shirt. Jeff. unfortunately, missed one and is thus shirtless.)
The skills were a mixed bag, though I have to admit Jeff was pretty aces with all of them. For me, removing and replacing the regulator underwater, using an alternate air source, gaining neutral buoyancy, skin diving, and the like were no problem. What I didn’t like was having to fill the mask with water and then clear it or remove it completely and replace it. Though you could still keep breathing just fine through your mouth (the way you breathe when diving), when my nose wasn’t secured in my mask, I felt like I wanted to breathe through it too. Also, because I wear contacts, I had to keep my eyes closed when doing these skills and that was pretty disorienting.
What I disliked the most, however, was the CESA (Controlled Emergency Surface Ascent) in which, at a depth of 6 meters, you pretend you have run out of air, and after taking one final breath you must ascend to the surface at the safe pace of 18 meters/minute while making a continuous “ahhhh” sound. Since you’re at 6 meters, that means the ascent has to take 20 seconds. Doesn’t sound long but feels like an eternity.
In the end, we managed to check off all the skills, accomplishing them with sufficient agility to know that we could, if ever faced with a situation, do them again. Hopefully–and most likely–we won’t have to. I did take one dive longer to accomplish it all then Jeff did, as he breezed through all his requirements in a quick 3 days. But really, let’s be honest. If I wanted to, I could have done it in three days too. But why would I pass up the opportunity for a free bonus dive? On the fourth morning, while Jeff just sat on the beach, I hopped back in the water, checked off two quick skills, and then got to spend an amazing half hour swimming lazily 15 meters below the surface, peeking at black-spotted puffer fish, watching Nemo play in the anemones, avoiding eye contact with the colorful trigger fish, marveling at the size of the grouper, and feeling absolutely free and at peace under the sea. It’s as awesome as I thought it would be back when all I could do was watch on TV and wonder.