January 30th, 2011


PADI (scuba) Open Water Certification day 3 and camel riding

Yesterday was the second day of the open water dives I needed to complete my PADI "open water diver" certificate. I'd done such a poor job with the mask removal that I was actually waking up over and over worrying about what a mess I was making of the whole thing and how lame I was. I'd "failed" the task because I'd inhaled water through my nose; not only was this wrong, it made me feel pretty panicky and made me want to call it quits. I had spent the evening chilled and feeling that all-body exhaustion that comes with having buckets of adrenaline pour through you; I thought of calling the dive center and just saying, "It ain't happening," or sending J out to the dive instructor in the morning and saying I just wasn't going to finish the course. But somehow 9 AM rolled around and I was outside of the gates of the hotel and hopping into Walid's truck, and off we rolled to "The Canyon," a diving area all of 15 minutes walk from our hotel.

During our briefing. Walid explained the exercises we were going to do. For the first dive, we were going to do two things: full face mask removal and "fin pivot" (getting neutral bouyancy while you're stretched out level in the water) using your own air to inflate your vest (you have weights to help you sink and a "bouyancy control device" to help you float; as you go lower and it becomes less effective, you have to add more air to it to keep in the same position). We argued a bit about what had gone wrong yesterday; while I conceded that opening the mask from the top kept the water from filling the nose (and thus causing that "smothering/choking/water going up nose" feeling), I had never practiced opening my mask from the top and thus had not developed the motor skills to manage the flow of water. Plus, I added, it went right in my eyes, which burned like hell and was most unlike what had happened in the pool. I asked to practice mask removal before we went in so that I could "pattern" it correctly, and we did: tuck in my chin, back strap off first, then pull mask forward from the top (with my eyes closed) and full removal; reattach strap first, then get face mask in place. Sure, it all sounds easy, but when you do it under 5 meters of water with your eyes closed while you're breathing through a rubber hose (that makes a horrible brrrrppp noise when you exhale, not sure WTF was wrong with my regulator) it suddenly becomes really fucking stressful. And when we were done with those two things, he said, we would go for a swim to some really pretty places and just spend some time enjoying ourselves. He also mentioned my previous problems, like not swimming from the hips and flailing around too much from my hands, and reminded me that he basically questioned that I had got much of any skill from my earlier course and told me that was why he'd had me do skills that weren't required for the open water cert. Yay Walid, way to build me up.

So we went into the water and while I pretty much fell over before I was able to get my fins on (I hadn't loosened them up beforehand), when we got under the water (swimming through rather a lot of kicked up sand, visibility was about six inches) I was able to get into the "I'm not actually going to choke to death" mindset much quicker than yesterday, although I did need some time to mellow out. We got to a sandy bank before this wall of coral that encircled the beach like a giant bathtub edge, and I got on my knees on the sandy bottom - and took my mask off and replaced it properly, even untwisting it when it got entangled in my hair. And I kept breathing, and breathing, and keeping my eyes shut, and keeping calm although I was actually just waiting for it to be the final moment when I gave up and called it quits; but instead, Walid high fived me and shook my hands. Well. That was a surprise. Then we puttered forward a little bit more and I stretched out full length so I was basically laying on the bottom, and he had me inflate my BCD (inflatable vest thingie) orally, rather than using the pushbutton inflator that's attached to the air tanks, until I got to where inhaling made me float up and exhaling made me go down. The trick to this is that you have to keep taking your breathing tube out of your mouth after you got a lungful, then exhale into a second tube, then clear your breathing tube thing (either with a fast exhale if you had air left or by pressing the button that forces air through it) so that you didn't inadvertently get a lungful of water when you inhaled again. Breathe, remove, insert, blow, remove, insert, clear, breathe. It all sounds so natural, doesn't it, sitting underneath the water in a place where humans don't really have any business being, basically inflating a wearable beach ball with air you're sucking from an aluminum tank?

Anyway, I managed to do that correctly (and no water in my lungs or nose either time) and was tremendously relieved; we then went over the edge of the bathtub and to the rest of the reef. The fishies were beautiful; there's some little yellow kind that likes to hide in the branches of the coral, and they were very cute; also we saw a lionfish! It was very quiet and regal and I kept my distance. And on our way to the bathtub rim, we saw these cute little striped eels that hid in the sand and stuck their heads out and then back in their tubes, and yellow fish with long whiskers coming out of the sides of their mouths they used to kind of poke through the sand; and it was all really very pretty. Apparently we got to about 18 meters but I (ahem, bad form) never checked my gauge; instead, I was trying to keep close to Walid, who said I was kicking too fast, not deflating in the right position, too high, too low, et cetera (and all in divers's sign language). I did nicely clear my mask underwater when the water in my nose area started to irritate me (so there!), but I felt like I couldn't really get my position right. And I saw a very long pointy fish that looked kind of florescent and it was cool. And we went slooowly along the sandy bottom so that we got our "three minutes decompression at 5 meters," waved hello at J who was snorkeling overhead, and then we were out and done. I ran to the bathroom pretty quickly then sat down at the cool beachside "Bedouin tent" thing and ate the hardboiled egg I'd brought along with.

Walid said I wasn't keeping up with him correctly, that I wasn't getting my body in the correct position when I deflated my BCD (fully UP, left arm extended UP) and I kept stopping when he asked me to inflate or deflate; I apologized and said it just hadn't occured to me that I could keep swimming when I was doing that, and also that he was worried about hitting the coral. He told me if I was getting really close, that stopping would cause me to sink; the better choice was to keep moving forward and INHALE. Alright, I said, I would work on those things. Then we chilled (or rather tried to warm up) for a while, fortunately, the weather was better than yesterday, and I had my red polartec with me, so I felt much better than I did the day before and wasn't feeling nearly so apprehensive about going into the water.

Then it was time for the final dive and we only had two things to do; "navigate by compass" and "meditation," which is basically hovering in the water in a sitting position so that inhale takes you up and exhale makes you sink. He said it's an important exercise because it helps you learn how to use your lungs properly; I was not looking forward to it as it's notorious for not working so well for women, who tend to roll over because their center of gravity is in a different position. Compass navigation he had me practice above water; you put a wrist compass on, take notice of the "degree" you're pointing at, go ten paces, then add 180 degrees to what is shown and return in that direction.

To be honest, I kind of felt overly coached through the execution of these exercises in the water. I sucked at the hovering as I thought I would, but got my handshake and pass; for compass navigation, I wound up counting breaths instead of "kicks" for my ten "paces," I suddenly forgot how to do subtraction, yet somehow we wound up in the same place (according to him) as we started and I'd passed the course. We then went over the edge of the bathtub and I tried to 1) inflate my BCD while moving 2) not kick too much 3) slow down 4) keep at the right level 5) keep moving. Aargh. We got to see the "canyon," a cut through the bathtub rim that goes pretty deep; and I got to enjoy all of the corals that were around, purple and brain and fan and pretty pretty and unsurprisingly when I got to the surface in my final debrief I was told off for looking down too much and not keeping up with him. Sigh. Whatever. I was done.

We went back (when J finally returned) to the dive center and filled out my paperwork and took my picture, etc, and paid, and I was done, and we both decided that we were just going to take today to do something mellow, a little snorkeling and a camel ride, no more tanks, masses of equipment, and stress stress stress, and I was glad.

And today we had a nice man meet us at our hotel at 8 AM and take us by truck to the other side of the "Canyon," to the "Blue Hole," where we were given flippers and masks and met another young man who had two camels, which we rode to Ras Abu Gallum, where we sat under a shelter and drank mint tea and decided, when we were warm enough, to go putter around looking at coral and fishies. This we did and it was fun but it was windy and J got too cold, and when we stopped (probably only half an hour later), we were done for the day. We then played cards, were served up some lunch (tahini, rice and vermicelli, tomato/cucumber salad, and pita bread, with freshly caught fish for J), and then I napped and J sketched. We went beachcombing, then at two the camels came back and we rode off on them, returning to the Blue Hole at 3ish, where we drank mint tea and talked politics with the Egyptians, who were very excited about what was going on and wondering what was going to be next and would America get involved. And that was our day. And that was me done with scuba diving for rather a while, I think, I'm just not so sure if I want to continue doing it anymore.