Learning to fly underwater
Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
273Trip End Oct 08, 2008
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Travelling with a guidebook, especially in a place as relatively untouristed as Central America, puts you in a sort of time warp. The most recent guidebook we could find was from 2004. In 2004, Utila was the cheapest place on the planet to dive. In 2007, things had changed a little bit. It started at La Ceiba, where we needed to get a taxi to the docks. The driver wouldn't go lower than four times the price listed in the guidebook. The actual ferry ticket to the islands had doubled in price. Maybe Utila was still cheap, but getting there wasn't.
Arriving at the docks was an interesting experience. We were still in low season, which meant that everyone was waiting for our personal business
After staying in a decent room for the night, we spent the next morning visiting almost every dive shop on the island (there are 11 of them). The various sales pitches were very entertaining. In case you end up going there, let me give you a quick summary...
It turns out that prices have gone up slightly. To get certified on Utila it is now around $250 for a 3-4 day course, up from $180 a few years ago. Fun dives, individual dives, have almost doubled from about $25 to $50 per dive. It's still cheap, just not the cheapest
And so we embarked on 4 days of intensive instruction to learn how to scuba dive.
PADI is the organization that certifies new divers and allows them to dive around the world
The first thing you have to do in these courses is watch a bunch of videos as you go through four chapters in the Open Water book. This teaches you about your equipment, the differences between being in air and being underwater, and tons and tons of safety procedures.
Scuba gear consists of the following components: A BCD (buoyancy control device) which is basically a jacket that can be filled with air; a weight belt, which balances with the BCD to help you sink or float; a scuba tank, which supplies air to your primary and backup regulators for breathing, a pressure gauge, and an inflater for the BCD. Flippers, a mask, and a snorkel as well of course. You have to become familiar with all of these things above and below water.
The goal of scuba is to make yourself neutrally buoyant, meaning you are suspended and weightless in water and can go in any direction easily
Depth does funny things to a person. Herein lies the danger in scuba diving. You cannot freak out and lose control of yourself. Your first instinct when something happens underwater is to get to the surface. And that's the worst thing you can do. Its all about the nitrogen and pressure. Erin really loves all the physics.
Every 10 meters you go down underwater is an additional atmosphere of pressure on your body and the gas you breathe. This pressure squashes gas into a smaller space. Therefore, at ten meters, you only have half the volume of air you started with at twice the density. This means that the air in your tank doesn't last nearly as long when you go deeper, and the air you breath as you go deeper is at higher pressure, meaning you take in more molecules with each breath.
Breathing high pressure oxygen doesn't become a problem until very deep, but the extra nitrogen being absorbed by your body causes two big problems
The more dangerous nitrogen problem is decompression sickness. This is caused by ascending rapidly and causing the nitrogen to form bubbles in your tissue as it dissolves out. Decompression sickness can really do bad things to you, so you want to dive only to certain depths for certain times, and always ascend slowly when you are coming to the surface. Another problem with ascending rapidly is that air will expand as you ascend. So if you hold your breath while you go up the air inside you lungs will get bigger than your lungs can handle. The golden rule in scuba diving is to never hold your breath. A very complicated looking dive table is used to determine how long you can dive and to what depths, and how long to wait in between dives.
Now that you have all that background, the course consists of around 2 confined water dives (like in a pool or in our case shallow water) and 4 open water dives
Since we can't talk underwater, there is a set of hand signals used to communicate. They are fairly self-explanatory, except for the couple that mean something else to you. Thumbs up isn't good, it means do you want to go up. And waving to someone while floating on the surface will make them come rescue you. Have to be careful sometimes. The hard-core divers have a more dirty set of signals of course. Also signals for various creatures underwater. Some are similar, like the shark (fin over the head) and tiny squirrel fish (mohawk). So a conversation can go like this:
Diver 1: *Squirrel fish*
Diver 2: *Shark!* *Danger?*
Diver 1: *No stupid, just a little fish*
Things can get a little confusing when you talk with your hands
Anyways, the first dive was on our knees with the water just over our heads. Then a little deeper. Then 12 meters. And finally 18 meters. When we were at shallow depths, we found everything fairly enjoyable. The first time we went on an actual dive, however, Erin came up and said she would be happy if we never went diving again. Going down is hard on the ears - you need to equalize by holding your nose and blowing every meter or so. It's hard to get used to at first. We had a really tough time with our buoyancy, especially since we weren't yet properly weighted. We held hands and every time I looked over Erin would alternate between being above me and below me. Our divemaster held on to our tanks and kept yanking on them to try to get us to fix things. She was an angry underwater signaler. It wasn't our fault when the instructor and the other two in front of us went in different directions. Or we kept running into the group in front of us. I think we were fairly certain of the fact that if she tugged on our tank one more time we would have tugged out her regulator. I didn't see many fish on that first dive. After the second dive (the third of the day) I was tired and dispirited. "Ï hate diving," said Erin over dinner.
Of course, things were much better the next day
Our first dive that day was to a sailboat wreck. The owner had left in on the island for two years and when he returned it was completely stripped. He was so angry he brought it out here and sunk it. It was really cool to float above that wreck. I'm looking forward to going wreck diving in the future. We also passed a barbecue that had fallen from a boat along with a bunch of beers (no longer present).
We had done buoyancy control exercises such as the fin pivot before. Once you achieve neutral buoyancy, if you breath in you'll rise, and if you exhale you'll sink. So you can bob up and down in the water. On the last dive we practiced the hover, where you try to hold yourself floating in the water (see our pictures). Then he had us all take off our flippers and moonwalk over to a sand patch. Here we did flips in slow motion, the matrix kick, running in horizontal circles. It was pretty fun. We had completed our certification dives. We later took the final exam, fifty multiple choice questions
We are now certified Open Water Divers, and proud of it. Thinking about going for Advanced Open Water when we are in Thailand or Egypt.
I wouldn't say scuba diving is easy. But it's fun and a challenge. And once you get through all the safety procedures the dives seem almost easy in comparison. We took our fun dives the day after the course and had a great time looking around and trying not to look too inexperienced. But by this time everything was second nature. I'm glad we weren't diving anymore because the flippers didn't really fit and I have several bleeding sores on my toes as well as severe armpit chafing from the wetsuit. But I'm looking forward to diving again.