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:: SCUBA Class

About a month ago, Amy and I finalized our plans to go see our friends Tim and Cambria in the Caribbean for a week in March (see pics from our previous visit). This time our friend Pete is going to join us (or rather, we'll be joining Pete, as it was his idea to do this during his spring break from law school). In any case, we all decided that it would be cool to try some SCUBA diving while we're down there. Since Pete and I don't know how to dive, we both enrolled in SCUBA training classes (Amy also took a one night refresher course). So.. for two nights a week for the last three weeks, I've been driving over to Dublin for training at a place called Cap'n Aqua's.

While repetitive at times, the class has been pretty interesting so far. On Monday nights, we have classroom meetings, where the instructor basically explains SCUBA stuff and then tells us diving stories of dumb things he's seen people do. On Wednesdays, we go over to this outdoor Olympic-sized pool, put on all our gear, and practice in the water. I should point out that it is February, and that while the pool is heated, you've still got to get into and out of the wet suit outdoors (and wet). Too bad I didn't bring a camera- we all looked kind of cool afterwards, walking around in our wetsuits with steam wafting off of us. Anyways, it's been interesting, but honestly, I'll be glad when the class is over. It's tough taking a class after 9 hours of work, especially when you have to pay attention to things that your life might depend on.

This weekend we're doing the last part of the class: an open water dive. I've been dreading this dive a bit for a couple of reasons. Mainly it's because the dive will be in Monterey, where they say the water is cold, cloudy, and loaded with kelp. Kelp bothers me a bit, just because out dive instructor has told us that every year they have to fish a couple of dead divers out of the kelp forest (I should point out that most of these divers panicked, and didn't do basic emergency procedures, like ditching their weight belts). Like most of the California coastline, Monterey can also have strong underwater currents that pull you away from your buddies in a hurry. Oh yeah, and then there are the normal things to worry about with SCUBA diving, like how you're strapping your oxygen supply to your back, and that you don't live for long without it.

Anyways, the drive to Monterey got underway at around 9pm tonight (Amy had to work late and I had to pick up gear from the dive shop). It was raining in Livermore when we left. There's nothing like a good two hour drive in the rain at night to make you contemplate all the worries that you have for the next day. Worry worry worry..

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:: Open Water Dives

Today, my scuba class did its first set of open water dives at Monterey. The day started off pretty hectic. I managed to misestimate how much time it would take to get up, find breakfast, and make it down to the beach in time for our 11am meeting. My nervousness about being late was purely invented, though- my dive class is pretty casual, and if anything, the dive master wondered why we had showed up on time. I had plenty of time to think about this myself, because we spent the next half hour or so by our gear in the parking lot, waiting for our class's turn to get into the water.

Bright flippers make it easier for them to find the body

Ooof. So, one of the things that sucks about scuba diving is putting on all the equipment when you're not in the water. Being that I'm about as buoyant as Pamela Anderson, I've got to wear a weight belt with about 30-35 pounds in it. Throw in a full wet suit, fins, and an aluminum air tank, and you've got one heap of heaviness to carry to the water. My clumsiness was also increased because it was the first time I had to wear a hood and gloves in the water. I waddled into the waves, praying that I wouldn't get knocked over and steam rolled by the surf.

As I was walking in, I remember thinking "hmm, you know, the water isn't as cold as I thought it would be." Then, I put my face into the water so I could see my feet as I was putting my fins on. My next two thoughts were "Holy crap" and "I must not have pulled the chin part of my hood all the way up" as the coldness shot through my face. The shock made it that much harder to tighten my fin straps, get oriented, and over to my dive master. The hood also made it very difficult to understand what anyone was saying. When the rest of the class started to submerge, I figured I should do the same. Easier said than done, though-even with the 30 pound weight belt, I had to constantly kick to stay down. Oof. Fortunately, the instructor had some additional weights with him that he could load me up with. He stuffed the right side of my vest with a sack of weight. This kept me down, although it also made me pitch to one side when I swam. Ooof. We did a few basic skills tests, and then followed the instructor on a tour of the water.

I think these guys lost their car keys or something

There wasn't all that much to see in the bay that day. The water's visibility was only about 10 feet, so we all scrambled to stay close to the instructor. The fish weren't that big, but there were tons of colorful starfish. Our instructor also found a well-camouflaged crab, and this, flabby thing he said was a Spanish Dancer. It's hard to describe the dancer, it sort of looked like an uncooked filet of meat that flapped away when our instructor touched it with a starfish. Odd.

The day's second dive went much better than the first for me. This time I went in with more confidence and got situated in the water a lot faster. We did some more skill tests and another tour of the bay. I paid a little more attention to my breathing, and was able to control my depth better just by taking larger or smaller breaths as I needed them. Pretty cool. At the end of the day, our dive master revealed that he had only used half a tank, while the rest of us had cleaned out two tanks (plus he had gone on one more dive than us that day). He also told us that while he was 300 pounds, he only needed 20 pounds of weight to keep him down. I guess there's a lot you can do to get yourself conditioned to staying underwater.

"Now everyone, punch your neighbor"

The class broke up at around 3pm. Amy and I went back to drop some of the gear off and get changed. We avoided the downtown part of Monterey and cruised over to the south side (pebble beach?). Amy showed me this nice resort where her dad comes every year for a math conference. We walked down to the beach and watched a tai-chi class practice by the water. A few surfers braved the rough waves (and were pretty good). We then headed into town and found this amazing Mexican restaurant.. Mmm.. maybe it was just that we hadn't had a real meal all day, but the food was incredible. We ended the night early, super tired from all the day's events.

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:: The Old Nerd and the Sea

We returned to the pier this morning for some more open water diving, after a solid night of sleep. The first dive today was the trickiest of the whole course because we had to perform a few of the more complicated skills. Once we got out into the water, we had to take off both our buoyancy control vests (the thing the air tank is attached to) and our weight belts, and then put them back on. I'd had some trouble with this in the pool since I'm a bit clumsy, so I was worried about doing these in the open water. Fortunately, we only had to do these on the surface, and the water was pretty calm. It took a lot of flopping around in the water, but I eventually got the vest and belt back on and functioning.

Later on in the dive, we had to practice a shared breathing ascent. That's where you're underwater and you "calmly" motion to your buddy that you need to borrow their spare air hose and go up to the surface. Our diving instructor had a hard time not smirking when he described the hand signal dialog that goes along with the acquisition of a spare air regulator. He then admitted, "Ok, so if I'm out of air and you're near me, you'll know I want to borrow your spare regulator because I'll be clawing at your vest trying to get it into my mouth." In any case, everything went fine when I had to do the ascent with my buddy.

Making sure my spare regulator works

For the last dive on the trip, all I had to do was pick out a course and go explore it with my dive buddy. At first, I thought everything would be cool because my buddy said he didn't want to do anything difficult. However, once we get in the water, he tells me that he wants to go through the kelp forest and swim all the hell out to this boat that's a long way away. After convincing him that we should probably not get too far into the kelp, we set off. Before long, we were through the kelp and at the maximum depth for the dive (just 30ft). He signals me that he wants to go to the surface, so I meet him there. Is there a problem? Nope, he just wants to talk about how great wet suits are. Huh? He does this like three or four times during our trip. Given that rising and sinking takes time and effort, this was all kind of annoying.

The seals were not impressed

My dive buddy was also bad at navigation. I kept a close eye on our position, direction, depth, and air supply ("I can't fight this feeling"! or is that REO Speedwaggon?). Every time I'd try to get him back on course (basically just a loop back to shore), he'd start pulling towards deeper water. My air started getting close to the limit that we were told to hit the beach with, so I made him come up, so we could swim back to the beach on the surface. Crap. We were a long way out for this kind of swimming, and as I realized, my legs were already tired from two days of diving. It took a long time for us to get back. At least I was the responsible one.

Back on land, our diving instructor had a BBQ lunch waiting for us. Mmmm.. I learned something else today- guys that are 300 pounds and have their own BBQ rig probably know how to cook good food. We ate it up while collectively scrambling to fill in our dive logs with all the right numbers. It felt good to have completed the class. I'll admit that I was nervous about the whole thing, but now that I've done it, I can say that I feel relatively confident that I can keep my head during a recreational dive.

As we were leaving, I noticed that there was a diver out in the water waving his arm over his head. Funny, I thought, that's like the sign for help or something. At first I figured that it was just a guy in one of the emergency rescue classes (we'd seen people practicing mouth-to-mouth on the beach, earlier). Then this diver yells out "call the coast guard". Crap. Dive instructors on the pier start scrambling to the beach, as people in kayaks start rushing out to the guy. While they're hauling him back, fire trucks and an ambulance show up and rush down to the water's edge. The kayakers bring him back to the EMTs, who immediately put him on oxygen. Eventually, the guy gets up and is able to walk it off.

We joined the rest of the pier in watching all of this unfold. As is typical of bystander crowds, we never found out what happened or how serious things really were. One lady told us that she was a local, and that this kind of thing seems to happen every other week down here. Doah. Good thing I heard this after I did my dives. I dunno.. My friend Gary from work said that when he did his open water dives at Monterey, they were pulling a diver out when he was going in. When Gary came out of the water, they were putting the diver in a body bag. Yikes. Maybe we won't be doing so much diving in California.

Anyways, that pretty much ended the weekend. The only other thing to report from the trip is that there is a town between San Jose and Monterey called "El Bano". Even if there's no tilde over the n, you'd think that they'd pick something different. Yep..

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