My husband enjoys scuba diving. Prior to meeting my present spouse, I had never entertained the notion of going diving, as it combines three things I generally try to avoid: doing equations, wearing a rubber bodysuit, and drowning. Nonetheless, I was prevailed upon to sign up for a semester-long course at a community college. “Attitude,” a popular diving Web site explains, is “the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.” Since getting married, I have been subject to a remarkable number of ordeals.
The twice-weekly course was divided into two parts. First there were classroom sessions, where for two hours I perused a workbook that featured diagrams of someone’s lungs exploding. I circled answers on an impossibly ancient, mimeographed worksheet. Correct answers:
1.) Poison puffer fish.
2.) All of the above.
3.) Decompression sickness.
4.) Under no circumstances.
5.) They will explode.
I listened to my teacher, a former police officer, regale us with personal anecdotes about the thousand and one terrible ways to perish while scuba diving and suggest possible techniques to slightly decrease our odds of a watery death. All this excitement was balanced by the more sober necessity of doing simple physics equations using a variety of charts and graphs to determine how long one may stay submerged at various depths and in various conditions. The penalty for getting the equations wrong is that you die.
After the classroom came the pool sessions, where I strapped on 50 lbs of heavy, awkward, ugly equipment and then swam around in a community pool so focused on breathing through my mouth (as opposed to my nose) that all I could hear above the awful whooshing din of my own submerged exhalations was my meek interior voice repeating “breathe in, breathe out” while a hideous plastic mask embedded itself into the freezing flesh of my face.
The other students were all younger than I by half a decade, excepting one middle-aged, reed-thin woman with a fierce feline face and high, severe forehead who would countenance no partner and insisted on drilling with the instructor alone. My own partner was a meek young asthmatic girl that took the course in order to impress her handsome boyfriend, a fellow classmate and fireman in training. Together, we huddled in the shallow end of a deep pool and practiced our hand signals. These simple signs are intended to communicate desperation, resignation, and farewell in the silent, yawning depths, should we wish to pass on a last message to our families on the surface.
“Goodbye” [a wave].
“I am out of oxygen.” [A hand drawn across the throat.] “Tell my mother I loved her.” [Thumb and forefinger form a circle, other fingers raised.]
At last the day came for our first real ocean dives. We woke up at six in the morning to eat a hearty breakfast and be at the dive site by eight. Divers are big eaters and early risers, like farmers. Our teacher informed us that we needn’t fear—despite the low visibility and rough tides, we would press on. Our dive today was in Monterey, California, and the icy water necessitated the thickest available wetsuit, with the addition of gloves and hood. Wearing constrictive clothing in the open ocean, you see, allows you to experience the twin thrills of claustrophobia and agoraphobia simultaneously.
Now as you may know, there are two ways to scuba dive: leap off a boat or stride in from the shore. For our first dive, we did the latter. This meant swimming out against the breaking waves with over 70 pounds of equipment, then diving, swimming around down there, then swimming back to shore on the surface. While underwater we were required to perform drills for real life situations including losing our masks, disconnecting our breathing regulators, and running out of oxygen. We squatted on the sandy ocean bottom to run through our tests, one hand clutching the teacher’s vest: the visibility was only two or three feet in front of our masks.
The tests didn’t go as well as I’d planned. Even those I had passed easily in the pool became fraught with unexpected difficulties. In the pool we had practiced the simple trick of removing our masks entirely and then putting them back on again, clearing out any intervening water with a puff of breath. An easy one, except that this time, the attached snorkel came off and floated away. Meanwhile, one of my two fellow students lost his tank. We lost one pair of students entirely in the low visibility and had to reunite with them later on the surface, far off course. My partner suffered a panic attack and bolted for shore.
My husband has rapturously described diving as a chance to enter for a time into a remarkable and alien world, a place humans were never meant to go, and to hover there in a space of otherworldly serenity. Or as I might put it, diving provides all the novelty of drowning without the safe certainty of death. But at least I have a good attitude.
Original art by Ilyse Magy