Hello. This is going to be a weird post. It is going to be a weird post because I spent this past weekend getting dive certified, which, when done in the Puget Sound, involves a lot of hauling around heavy things and swimming through really cold water while wearing clothing that doesn’t like it when you move in any direction at all and will fight you every twitch of the way, and I am thus exhausted. There are sentences in my head, but I don’t think you could fairly call them “thoughts.” They’re more like vague impressions, and most of them tend in the direction of “…waaaaarm…sleeeeeeep….” Critical analysis is well beyond my capacity at this exact moment.
But of course, like a numb skull, this is the week I decided not to write my post in advance, so instead of curling up in front of my space heater and going to sleep for 14 hours, I’m going to write you guys one of these Internet letters. Because that’s basically all a blog is, isn’t it? Letters to the Internet.
Let me tell you about diving.
Though I have only just gotten certified, this past weekend was not my first time experiencing the utter mindfuck that is being able to breathe under water. I’m lucky enough to have gotten to dive in both Australia and Hawaii, under closely supervised conditions of course, where I basically just followed the guide around and attempted to gape at sharks without letting the regulator fall out of my mouth. There is a lot of cool shit underwater, and my personal greatest challenge when diving is fighting the instinctive drive to grin like an idiot at everything I see, because when you smile you break the seal on your mask. Bummer.
But the thing about diving is that even without all the cool shit–the turtles, sharks, and sneaky little fish, sunken boats and tires and dumped household appliances, the crackling in your ears of parrot fish miles away chewing on coral–you’re still breathing underwater. You’re doing something humans just aren’t built to do, and every inch of your monkey brain is screaming that it isn’t right. Sitting at the bottom, staring up through thirty feet of water at rain drops skittering across the surface as sunlight filters down into the blue, that little voice in the back of your head will just keep repeating, “this is impossible; this can’t be happening; you’re going to die.”
They say that the hardest diving skill to master is buoyancy control–carefully mitigating the amount of air in your vest so that you neither float nor sink, but hover just above the ground like a levitating genie*–but I don’t think that’s true. The hardest part of diving is convincing yourself that you can breathe. That even though you’re surrounded by water, and everything is kind of blue and warped and you can’t talk, and the sounds are weird and sharp and impossible to locate, and you can’t even feel the weight of your own body, you can still breathe. Breathing is easy, in fact. The air is clean and cold and it keeps coming, even though every instinct is telling you that it shouldn’t.
Convincing yourself to keep breathing is even harder when the mask comes off.
When you get dive certified, you have to practice a number of different skills, like taking out your regulator (the breathing thing) and putting it back in, removing and replacing your weights, traveling up and down the line, etc. Most of these aren’t terribly difficult, and even the more complex ones are fairly simple in principle. This is also true for fixing and clearing your mask; it’s relatively easy, and it doesn’t even involve removing your air source, so you aren’t really even risking anything. All you have to do is close your eyes, let water into your mask, then tilt your head back and blow air out your nose until you’ve filled it back up with air and all the water is gone.
This is, in my opinion, the most terrifying task, for one reason only: your monkey brain thinks it can’t breathe.
When the mask is on, it covers your nose, so naturally you can’t breathe through it–but you also don’t feel the water running into it. You can also see, which helps you stay oriented and able to remind yourself of where you are and why. When you remove the mask, and your closed eyes and nose are engulfed in water, your instincts kick in.
Can I feel water on all sides?, they ask.
Is there water in my nose?, they ask.
Can I breathe through my nose anyway?, they ask.
No, fuck off, we can’t do that, you interrupt.
Why?, they ask.
You wouldn’t understand.
Oh, okay, they conclude. Then we must be drowning.
Never mind that there is still crisp, clean air flowing easily through your regulator and into your lungs; there is darkness and water everywhere else, even in your nose, and thus you are drowning.
All you have to do is breathe, of course. Deep, firm breathing that pays no attention to these nonsense ideas instinct is putting in your head. In, out. In, out. Cold, dry, compressed air flowing into your lungs thirty feet under water, against all odds. You can’t see, but you can breathe, and that’s all that matters.
The rest of the skill is easy. You put the mask on, check the seal for stray hairs, tilt your head up, brace the top, and blow with all the force and enthusiasm you usually reserve for sneezing. You do it again, just to be safe. The mask clears. You open your eyes, and you can see again. The wavering, dark blue world stretches out before you, just past the salt water dripping off your eye lashes so that you have to blink a few times to get rid of the sting. The ocean is still there, and so are you, and so are the instincts that tell you breathing underwater is impossible.
But it isn’t impossible. You’re doing it.
“He who would search for pearls must dive below.” -John Dryden
P.S. It’s my birthday. I don’t expect too much enthusiasm on the point from anybody else, but I’m pretty pleased about my continued existence, so I thought I’d mention it. Another year of continued survival for the win!
*Buoyancy control is incredibly hard, by the way. Don’t get me wrong. Here’s why: when you add air to your vest, it makes you float slightly higher in the water, so that you aren’t bouncing off the bottom. When you go up in water, though, the pressure around you lessens, and the air inside your vest expands. This means that the amount of air you add when you’re on the bottom suddenly becomes a lot more air when you rise even just a couple of feet, and if you added too much, next thing you know you’ve shot to the surface without meaning to. If you’re quick about it, you can deflate the vest before you hit the top, and then you’ll sink back to the bottom and you’re back where you started–which is to say, kicking up sediment and pissing off all the divers around you by ruining the visibility. Finding the sweet spot is like trying to find balance at the top of a pyramid–a little bit of lean to either side, and you’re on the ground. Except that the “sweet spot” changes every time you move between depths. Experienced divers mostly control their buoyancy by varying the size of their breaths. Like all beginners, I suck at this rather spectacularly.