I learned to scuba dive when I was in 7th grade. My dad had been an avid scuba diver when he was younger and had convinced me to try it. He was assisted by my uncle, a former scuba instructor with a cracked tooth from an expanding cavity after a rapid ascent and a scar on his arm from cutaneous decompression sickness. Apparently when he taught my dad to dive, one of the final tests involved having a tank tossed down into 30 feet of water, being handed a regulator and buoyancy control device, and then being told to drop into the water and surface with everything assembled. My certification was much more cut and dry. It involved a couple days in the swimming pool, some lectures, videos, tests and an open water exam. I was living in Hong Kong at the time, which isn’t exactly a shining beacon of environmental protection at work. During my first venture out into the blue for the exam there was about 10 feet of visibility and a lot of sand. I saw two fish and a tire.
My diving experience dramatically improved after my mediocre introduction. Over the next couple years, I took trips with my dad to Malaysia, China proper, Thailand and a few places in the Philippines where we stayed in island hostels or on boats. My family’s eventual move to Hawaii also helped me get more experience. I got around to getting my advanced certification and my naturalist, underwater photography, orienteering and wreck diving specializations a few years back, and I became a certified rescue diver this winter break. Although my lackluster dive logs mean that exact numbers are lost to history, I’ve probably been on around 175 dives as of now.
One thing I’ve always found strange is how tired scuba diving makes you. It’s incredibly exhausting for a sport that requires very minimal movement. In the water, it’s almost entirely effortless. One of the key measures of how proficient a diver is at, well, diving, is how much air they consume. Since air is limited, efficient and slow movements are preferred because they allow you to stay submerged and pretend you are a fish for a much longer period of time without having to worry about the general discomfort caused by not having anything to breathe. Being as calm, lazy and comfortable as possible is generally extremely beneficial. I’ve always found the whole experience to be fairly zen-like. The regulator makes Darth Vader-esque hissing noises at regular intervals, sounding almost like a slow heartbeat, and the only other noise is the crackling static made by the snapping shrimp that inhabit almost every reef in the world. In addition to being a diver I run track, and whenever I’m particularly nervous before a race I like to imagine that I’m underwater at night. Not something I do all the time because I have to be in a particular state of mind to be open to try thinking about something that weird when I’m about to try to run in circles as fast as I can, but it has definitely helped a few times.
Despite how calm recreational diving is, you feel drained after you get back (which is something I mentioned at the beginning of the above paragraph and then proceeded to not talk about). Some of it is definitely a product of the sun, heat and equipment hauling that go with the sport, but there is certainly an aspect of the actual diving itself that tires you out. This became a much more noticeable problem when I became a competitive runner in late-high school and into college. I found myself unable to complete workouts up to snuff and sleeping much more. Essentially, this is mild decompression sickness, the body has to recover from the stress that underwater pressure provides and I believe there is an aspect of expelling nitrogen from the bloodstream that expends energy in some way, although my grasp of the processes at work is not too extensive.
As a little aside, diving also let me sympathize with Tanya Streeter when she talked about nitrogen narcosis. I’ve heard from a couple people I’ve met about how some friend of a friend tried to give their regulator to a fish while on a deep dive, which is apparently a sort of common occurrence, and that’s not going nearly as far down as Tanya went (although divers are there for a much longer period of time). For my advanced diving class, we did basic multiplication at the surface then the same problems deep down as a demonstration of how much nitrogen muddles with our brains. I’ve personally never felt more than light headed and maybe a little slow, but I suppose that’s enough to begin to sympathize with how disorienting it can get. I didn’t like it.