Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Art and Science of Scuba

Post intended for June 2011. Yes I know- I Fail.

Note*- I think this post I wanted to finish and put up more than any other post I’ve ever written, because I’m finding that Scuba diving is probably the activity I would do for life if I had a choice of one thing to do till the end of my time on Earth. Sadly never got around to putting the final touches on this piece till very recently.

If you Asked me just a bit over a year ago, when I was still an itty bitty senior in college, “Mike, would you ever imagine yourself scuba diving amongst white tip reef sharks and poisonous stone fish?”, well I would have chuckled and promptly replied “not a chance”. But I guess the same would have been true of me if you told me that I was going to spend a year trekking and researching in Borneo and S.E. Asia. Go figure. Life changes. We, humans, are pretty terrible at predicting in the present day what our feelings or opinions about pretty much anything in the future will be (Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness). Experiences change us in ways we could never have expected, both because we can’t predict many experiences happening to us, and because we just don’t truly know how any given stimulus is going to change our body and mind. I will say that I’ve definitely noticed many unexpected changes in my psyche over previous years, but that’s a conversation for a different post. The important thing is that I made the right choice of going on this trip to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the eastern side of Borneo. It helped that I had a travel buddy, my friend Ashley, to motivate me to plan the trip and all.

I’ll admit that there was certainly a bit of anxiety going into beginning my open water course but Roy, my instructor, helped assuage any worries I had with his carefree, Rastafarian attitude. “Everything’s gonna be alright.” So there I was, all suited up in my wet suit, BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), flippers on foot, mask on face, and certainly air tank connected to my regulator (the device that delivers air from the tank to my mouth and to the BCD if I press the button to inflate it). Roy does a buddy check on me to ensure I’ve not missed anything in setting up my equipment and that everything is functioning smoothly. Roy tells me to just take a big stride off the boat into the water, and so I did, making sure that my mask was on, BCD was inflated, and regulator firmly in my mouth. After some briefings, I was instructed to deflate my BCD, and with regulator in mouth, descend slowly. In doing so it was absolutely vital that I made sure to equalize the pressure, as it built up in my ears, by just pinching my nose shut and blowing air through my ears (i.e. like when you’ve landed from a flight). You see, pressure in water rises much more rapidly with depth than it does in air. And that makes plenty of sense, since water is way denser than air, and thus has a greater mass for the same volume.

A little graphic to learn more about scuba suits

I won’t pretend as though those first moments underwater were immediately wonderful and natural feeling, because they certainly were not. In my first minute under water, I fell into the dangerous cycle of what I call “panic suffocation,” which is a vicious synergy between abnormal breathing (i.e. rapidly, irregularly, holding breath as opposed to breathing in slow, deep, and regular fashion) and panic. The abnormal respiration gives way to uncontrolled, wild, panic, which itself worsens your ability to breathe normally. My problem was that I understood how to breathe in, but the exhalation part was really strange for me since there was this regulator in my mouth kind of blocking me from exhaling. So I would inhale and hold my breath, one of the worst things I could have done, especially when you combine this with me later panicking and just rising to the surface with lungs full of air. This little maneuver can get one’s lungs overexpanded and even completely burst open, since pressure drops as you go closer to the surface, and so in the closed system of a breathe-holder like myself, the air in the lungs will be able to expand against this diminishing pressure. Luckily I quickly learned the right way to do it- I found the learning curve in this situation to be very steep, considering the alternative of suffocating or lungs bursting. And then once I got it, it seemed like the most obvious thing ever, though still not absolutely natural. Very soon though, I started thinking less about how strange it is to have this device in my mouth. A little after that, though pretty much simultaneously, that initial anxiety started to give way to sheer awe at the inexplicable beauty contained in this underwater world, this treasured secret of the Earth that humans have yet to fully conquer (and hopefully never do).

      Don’t get me wrong, I still had this slight butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling right before I would go for a dive. But with each sighting of a turtle, nemo, lionfish, scorpionfish, or coral, beckoning to me with its psychedelic aura, the anxiety of being “stuck” underwater in such a vulnerable position dissolved away, until eventually it was just pure bliss. Even by my 3rd and final day of diving, I can't say that I was 100% carefree going down into the humble abyss of the sea. But I was very much sold on this  scuba thing. I knew I needed to do more diving before getting back to the U.S. Sipadan, an island in the Celebes sea on the eastern coast of Borneo, was considered a world class dive site in the top 10 on the planet. And I was not going to miss out on sharks, turtles, and poisonous critters down under.