Waves rolled against the stone jetty sending spray into the blustering wind. The scent of brine filled my lungs, clean and fresh. I watched the beryl green sea from the horizon until it spilled in tongues of foam across the beach. My pulse fluttered beneath a wild-eyed grin. I was fifteen and in a matter of moments I would be taking my first breaths under the ocean.
I had been on a SCUBA unit before of course. Safety demanded time spent on the equipment in the pool mastering its use along with the fundamental skills of scuba diving. I thought back on that time as I walked to the back of my mom’s minivan and began assembling my gear. My first breaths in the pool had felt so daunting, so impossible. I had laid flat on the bottom of the shallow end of a YMCA pool bobbing up and down with each breath in and out. The regulator had hissed like Darth Vader as I watched my instructor, a middle-aged man that was all limbs and beard who insisted we call him “Chick”. He nodded reassuringly as I breathed and stared, my mind rebelling at the notion that this breathing underwater thing really could be as simple as an inhale following an exhale.
There were other skills, of course. Twenty-four of them, in fact, that grew successively more complex as we worked through the list. All had sounded so complicated at first, but we practiced each to a high polish. I soon realized that the key to each was fundamentally the same as the breathing, go slow and stay steady. Ironically, there was no need to rush underwater.
Similarly, there was no need to rush now. I breathed deeply of the salt air. I forced the rise and fall of my chest into a practiced rhythm. Slow and steady. My equipment came together, and I squeezed into the thick neoprene needed for the cool Connecticut waters. After a brief but thorough check, Chick and I walked down to the beach and into the Atlantic. The water seeped beneath my wetsuit and into the small of my back. It sent a thrill up my spine that was accentuated by my own buzzing excitement.
A few fin kicks later and we were bobbing out passed the breakers. Chick gave me the thumbs down, the signal to start our descent. I returned the gesture to acknowledge and checked my compass for orientation to the exit. I glanced down at my fins to make sure there was nothing unsafe below. Their bright yellow tips disappeared in the mysterious green depths. The regulator fitted into my mouth and I pulled two breaths taking comfort from the familiar rumble. Finally, I checked my watch for the dive’s start time and then Chick and I slowly released the air from our BCDs (buoyancy control devices). With an exhale, we slipped beneath the waves and left the sounds of surf behind us. Only the rasp of my breathing followed us below.
With Chick at my shoulder, we slowly drifted down through the water column. As we did, the world seemed to open up and a spread of waving sea grass stretched out as far as I could see. There was a whole different world down there. A world so different that my anxiety sublimated into an effervescent excitement. I was bursting to experience this alien world for myself. My eyes went wide. I have no idea how long I floated, gaping into the rim of the great unknown but at some point, Chick tapped me on the shoulder. We had skills to do and I needed to focus. This was the first of my checkout dives after all.
I whipped through the skills as fast as I could and minutes later, I was off, following Chick as he guided me around the expanse of sand and grass. As we went, he pointed out little details hidden among the waving reeds. A sea star held my attention. I had seen them before at the Mystic Aquarium but there they were behind glass. They were alive but somehow more decoration than clam hunting predator. I floated and watched its fat arms glide over the sand probing the water for prey.
Chick waved me off and soon found a collection of brown camouflage fish alternately lurking and hiding in the grass. Round impassive eyes stared back at me waiting for some tell, a sign of what I might intend for them. Our staring match lasted until an errant gust of surge pushed me forward and the fish darted off, convinced I was on the hunt.
Eventually, It was time to head back and I followed Chick in a broad arc toward the shore. When we had returned to our ascent point, we again signaled and then followed the five point procedure Chick had taught me in the pool. We made a leisurely climb to the surface where I inflated my BCD. Now floating, we made the short surface swim back to our exit.
My mom was waiting for me on the beach and walked with me back to the car to prepare for the second dive. “How was it?” she asked, my dad’s blue L.L. Bean jacket wrapped tightly against the coastal wind.
“So cool!” I said my voice overflowing with enthusiasm. As I set to work resetting my gear for the next dive, I babbled to her in that breathless way unique to teenagers about all that I had seen and felt.
When finally, I stopped to take a breath. She asked, “How was breathing underwater? Was it hard?”
I opened my mouth and then closed it again puzzled. No, it wasn’t hard. Heck it had been so effortless that I had forgotten all about it as soon as I fell below the waves. I guess diving really was as easy as breathing after all.
Rob Currer is PADI Course Director, world traveler, and returned Peace Corps Volunteer. He has been diving for over 15 years and counts the Maldives as one of his favorite dive destinations.