Thursday, December 22, 2011


I saw awkwardly on the little desk in the corner of the Aranui 3 dormitory. I couldn't have done this a week ago when my power strip had still been working and the desk had been covered in phones and cameras, but now with the power strip busted, there was plenty of space. I was waiting on someone to show up to repair my locker door, which had fallen off in my hands this morning. My French dorm-mates and I all had a good laugh over it, and now I hoped someone would show up to fix it before the day started.

Today we were all "swarming out" (as German guide Jorg likes to say) to various activities on the Tuamotu atoll of Rangiroa. We were now out of the Marquesas, having spent all yesterday at sea covering the distance from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus. I'd slept for a bit of it (I'd been up late the previous nice doing karaoke, which is not my thing but everyone had been so astonishingly bad at it that I hadn't been uncomfortable, plus I made 15-year-old Martin sing a duet of Summer Lovin' with me—at least I didn't make him do the Olivia Newton-John parts). I'd also sat around bullshitting with others for more hours than I should admit, given that I still have deadlines.

But today was scuba day for me. I hadn't been diving in ten years, and that dive, in Vietnam, had been a dud. My ears had hurt, I'd had a cold, and I'd ended up not getting underwater. Before that, I don't remember the last time. I was with Yancey in Belize, but I can't remember the year. 

"Heck," I thought. "If I can karaoke, surely I can scuba dive." 

I'm not sure that logic makes sense, but because I hadn't been diving in so long, the idea of doing it scared me. And when something scares me, unless it's REALLY scary, I like to try to do it to get past the fear.

I signed up for a refresher/beginner dive, and this worked out well because the guide took only me and Tony, the ship's photographer and videographer. Tony, it turned out, had taken the theoretical part of a PADI or NAUI course many years ago, so he wasn't a total novice either. Our guide was a skinny woman in her thirties or forties, and she took us out into the clear blue-green water on a Zodiac, along with another guide and two French beginners.

She threw Tony's gear into the water, then had him jump in and put it on there. I asked if I could do the standard backward roll off the boat, with all the gear on already, and she said sure.

I sat there for a minute, remembering a disastrous dive years ago in San Diego. I'd gotten seasick bobbing up and down waiting for Yancey and Babcock to jump into the Pacific. My inflater valve had gotten unclipped on that backward roll, and I needed a buddy to find it and snap it back in so I could reach it to inflate and not sink. But Babs had lost a fin in the sea and had swum off chasing it, while Yancey had gotten seasick before even leaving the boat, and hadn't jumped in yet. And I sat there in the rough surf, bobbing up and down while clinging to the anchor line, getting sicker and sicker while waiting for a dive buddy, until I'd reached a sickly green state of panic. In the end, Yancey had come in after me and clipped in my buoyancy control and inflated it, but I was unable to do anything by then aside from vomit and cling to the rope. In the end, I'd let go, floated to the front of the boat, and Babcock had dragged me out of the water, taken off all my gear, and tugged me over to the side of the boat to hold my head over the water so I could throw up.

So maybe you can see why I'm a bit apprehensive about my diving skills, and why I sat alone in the Zodiac for a second, psyching myself up.

I knew it was absolutely safe. The most we could go down here was between 20 and 30 feet. Nothing. It would be hard to hurt myself in this calm, idyllic dive spot.

I held on my mask and regulator, and leaned back.

And rolled and bobbed right up.

I gave the okay sign.

The guide took me down a few feet, signaling me to release the air from my vest. I felt panic rising, but she looked me in the eye, daring me to be illogical.

I could do this.

We slowly descended. I held my regulator in with one hand, though my teeth were already gripping it enough to bite right through it.


I kept my cool.

She left me on the bottom of the ocean for a minute while she went to get Tony. Then we were all three kneeling on the sand of the Pacific.

Our guide took both of us by the hands and led us around, releasing our hands to point out eels and colorful schools of fish. We were diving in something called the "Aquarium," which is an apt description.

As Tony and I got more confident, we just followed our guide around. At one point, Tony went chasing a stingray and got lost. The guide found him just by seeing his fin from the surface. That's how shallow the dive was.

We were out for what felt like a long time, and it did turn out to be a long time. Once the two dive-masters had hauled us all back into the Zodiac and we motored into shore, we learned that we'd missed lunch, an Aranui barbecue. We showered quickly, changed, and headed over.

I saw some gross-looking fish heads and thought "Oh, no food for me." Then one of the restaurant staff handed me a covered paper plate of vegetarian food and I laughed. They'd kept my lunch ready for me. (Because I can't eat fish, I'm a vegetarian on board, as it seemed easier than trying to explain what I could or couldn't eat.)

I rested on a shaded bench, eating my lettuce and potato salad with a plastic fork, and waiting for my lungs to feel normal again. I'd been sucking up nitrox, which I don't think I've ever had before.

And finally, on the last barge going back to the ship, with the crew and the remnants of the food, I headed back to the ship.

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