Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

I mentioned in 2018 Wishlist post that getting our Scuba certification was something I had wanted to look into. I like the water and generally prefer to be under it than bobbing around on top so diving seems like a natural for me. And there have been several times in the boat ownership experience when being able to work on the boat below the waterline would have been helpful: checking/changing zincs, removing a tangled dinghy painter etc.. And snorkling without a wetsuit is often contra-indicated in our chilly water.

Against that I know I have control issues, mild claustrophobia and ears that don’t much like the deep end of the pool. I also remember reading Matt from Gudeon’s blog posts (SCUBA DIVING IN THE OCEAN IS FUCKING TERRIFYING) about when he got his certification in Victoria — the kind of creeping panic he experienced on his first dive is something I can really relate to. Maybe I don’t really want to do this? But why let that stop me?

The process of learning to dive goes something like this: you take an online study module (which in recent years has replaced classroom study), then do 4-6 hours of diving in a pool with instructors. After that’s done you have to do 4 separate open water dives over 2 days. If you pass you are certified to dive in open water down to 60 feet. There are several certifying agencies of which PADI (Professional Association of Divers) is the most prevalent. So I got it into my head that we could do all the school and pool work here in land-locked Edmonton and then do our open water dives on the coast this June. And since we’re going to be in one of the coast’s most beautiful places (the Broughtons), why not do our dives there?

Unfortunately there are no PADI dive schools in Port McNeill. Fortunately there is Sun Fun Divers. I contacted the owner, Steve Lacasse, who is a NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) instructor and he said he could do the instruction there, using the McNeill pool, and we could work the open water dives around our sailing schedule. We’d actually get to dive in the beautiful waters of the Broughtons: cool!

But for me, the panic/fear thing was a bit of a worry — so I went back to the local dive shop’s website (Ocean Sports) and found they offered a Discover Scuba package for just $60. This got us all the gear, an introductory booklet and around 2 hours of diving time in the pool. Perfect. So we signed up and Tuesday night had our first taste of breathing underwater.

Breathing Underwater

It was a great experience and we had a great instructor. Not to say I wasn’t hesitant, twitchy, mildly terrified and prone to idiotic mistakes…because I was. Leslie, on the other hand, was a natural. Afterwards she compared the experience to our first time climbing: an experience that for me it was a real hoot as I had no trouble with the heights or the gear and complete faith in the system; but for Leslie, she kept having to remind herself she could trust the gear (and me) and balance intellectual knowledge with visceral reality. Diving for us had the roles exactly reversed. There is something just not right about dipping your face in the water and continuing to breathe. And the Golden Rule of Diving is never hold your breath, so you could see how my brain might be at odds with the procedure — and it was. Leslie, meanwhile, took to the system like an eager fledgling jumping out of a nest.

But I got over it. Mostly. We started with a few beginner skills: clearing your mask, recovering your regulator, equalizing your ears, learning to use the BCD (buoyancy control device) etc. Recovering my regulator was something that took me a few tries to master since, according to the Golden Rule, you can’t hold your breath while trying to recover the damned thing.  I didn’t swallow too much water.

After the skills bit and some practice kneeling, and breathing, on the bottom of the shallow end, we left it behind and glided slowly to the bottom of the deep end. You have to take long steady breaths (a lot like yoga) and try to equalize the pressure in your ears every meter or so — NAIT’s deep end is around 4 m so that’s at least 4 times. Again, I had trouble keeping up and was having to really work at it: my ears started to hurt before I achieved equalization and I was always playing catchup. But eventually I got it so it was comfortable. On the bottom, the instructor threw a small toy torpedo at us and had us pass it back and forth for a bit. It’s a great device because it forces your brain to concentrate on things other than not drowning and remembering to breath, and helps prove to your subconscious it’s all going to be ok.

An hour and a bit later we left the pool with my tank nearly empty and Leslie’s still half full—a sign, said our instructor, that I was a bit more anxious than she was since that uses up more air. Leslie had a huge smile plastered across her face. I think she liked it. Me? Well it didn’t kill me, I didn’t panic, and I really do want to try it again. But I am still not sure I could commit to adding the salt water ocean, the dark, fish, currents and cold into the mix after only a few more hours in the pool. Maybe I should just take this intro course six or seven more times… 🙂

It’s an odd experience: as unlike swimming as BBQing is like using a microwave. Surprisingly (even after they tell you), there is not much crossover between swimming and diving. Even the act of maneuvering underwater with all that mass and using  only the fins has very little in common with  swimming underwater normally. And all the while you are expelling bubbles and breathing in compressed air, feeling the pressure of the water on your body in a way that is subtly unlike anything you have ever experienced, and operating in 3 dimensions which you suddenly realize you don’t actually do when swimming. If you are like me, every time your concentration slips from doing it, back to thinking about it, you have to wrestle with a sudden urge to head for the surface. Which, thankfully, I managed.

What Next?

And there is the quandary. We’d like to try again. And I have a reasonable expectation I will succeed. So we can go ahead and commit to this year, spend $540 apiece to get certified in Port McNeill although this will eat into our cruising time, run the risk of me not really wanting to complete the course in such a short period of time, and mean we are adding another grand to this year’s expenses, which might not be our best choice. Alternatively we can do the online/pool stuff here for around $399 each, gain more confidence and wait until we are in Nanaimo again to spend around $200 to $300 for our open water dives, which, money-wise, is a worse choice but at least spreads the costs out over two years. We can also wait until later in the summer and try to do the open water dives in a local lake, completing everything here in Alberta. Or just let it go for a year or two…

So we still aren’t sure if we want to commit to doing our diving certs this year, but I am pretty sure we are going to give this a go eventually. Leslie just enjoyed it too much.

This could be me someday?


—Bruce #Equipment