Back when I was in Bonaire last August, I did something I never thought I’d have any desire to do: I became an advanced open water SCUBA diver. Now, if you remember correctly, a mere five years ago, I was terrified of being in open water of any form—lake, river, ocean, it mattered not. And while I nearly had an anxiety attack during that first dip in the Maldives in 2007—I made the dive master hold my hand the entire time—it wasn’t long until I was hooked. The marine life in the Maldives was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before: Not only did I see the entire palette of primary and secondary colors, I spotted vivid magenta, electric aquamarine, deep crimson, safety yellow and hues for which I don’t even have names. And I learned a major key to my future diving success: Being fully submerged at 50 feet below really isn’t that big of a deal. It’s surprisingly far less scary than snorkeling, where you don’t have nearly the range of vision and, accordingly, can never be quite sure what’s lurking just behind you.
Getting your basic open water certification is easier than people think. You take a series of classes—mine was from 9am until 5pm on a consecutive Saturday and Sunday; others are two weeknights for two straight weeks—then do four open water dives (anywhere you like, whether it be in your own town or in some tropical locale on vacation), in which you perform a series of maneuvers to prove you know what you’re doing.
Becoming an advanced diver was a bit more difficult, but still hardly challenging. In other words, anybody can do it. This go, I didn’t have time to sit in a classroom to do all the work before I left on the trip, so I did my classes online via the PADI website. (I only recommend this for people who already have their open water degree. There was a guy at the dive center doing his basic certification who had done all the preliminary work online and had NO clue what he was doing. It was frightening really! A sport as dangerous as diving, you want to go in prepared.) Then, after a day of fun diving on my own, I dived two straight days at Captain Don’s Habitat, the premier dive resort on Bonaire, with a funny Dutch dive master who tested my skills one-on-one and gave me pointers, with occasional trips to the classroom to go over diagrams and do a bit more book work.
What’s fun about getting your advanced degree is that you get to choose three specialties from a whole list of options, as well as complete two required dives, and you study those selections and do one check-out dive of each. I would have picked a night dive, which is on the list, but that didn’t work out with our schedule. (SVV and I did a night dive in Borneo last summer, and while it was extremely spooky, it was awesome. So many creatures you don’t see during the day come out of hiding once the sun goes down.) So instead I wound up with a line-up of peak performance buoyancy, navigation (required), wreck dive, boat dive and deep dive (required). (The boat one is a weird option, as I’ve rarely done shore dives and almost always do boat dives, but the instructor chose that one for me based on the other dives already going out from the shop. I really wanted to opt for underwater photography, but he told me it wasn’t worth my time.)
Doing the deep dive was no biggie. It’s more to work on your breathing and descent. Most open water dives stay between 40 and 60 feet. Technically, you aren’t supposed to dive any deeper with just a basic open water certificate, but SVV and I had done a 117-foot wreck dive in Honduras three years ago, so I knew I could handle 120. Plus, we snuck down to 80 feet while diving Sipadan on pretty much every dive, and I’d done a few others around 100 feet, so there was nothing unexpected on the horizon for that dive. One big challenge of dipping down to 120 feet is testing your motor skills and learning to prevent (or at least placate) nitrogen narcosis. I have a constitution of steel, so I was fine doing so. In fact, I didn’t get the slightest bit dizzy!
The navigation and buoyancy control dives may not sound fun, but they’re probably some of the best skills a diver could learn. And given that I was a math major in a former life, I loved working with degrees and geometry and having to swim a perfect triangle back to my divemaster using just a compass. You do both of these dives in shallow water, around 15 feet, which is all the more challenging as it’s easy to get sucked to the surface at such shallow depths.
But the most fun dive was the wreck dive (which also was a deep dive at 100 feet). I’ve done plenty of wrecks before, but this one is one of the most famous sunken ships in the Caribbean, the Hilma Hooker, that went down in 1984 after locals seized its crew and found 25,000 pounds of marijuana on board. It was very dark and eerie with its many nooks and crannies for divers to explore.
I don’t have a diver’s flashlight, so I was a bit petrified to swim through some of these very tight spaces—have you seen what happened to Ariel when she explored such a shipwreck?!—but just followed as close to the girl in front of me as possible in order to make it out on the other side, alive.
Just kidding—it wasn’t that scary, but it was a new experience for me. And after my tutorial and four check-out dives—a total of two days, on top of the nights I spent on the classwork back in San Francisco—I was officially granted my advanced diver’s certificate. This isn’t imperative as a diver, but it does allow me additional privileges open water divers don’t have like night and deep dives.
There was another exciting facet of my trip…I got to step foot in my first decompression chamber!
It was cool seeing it, but truth be told I’m the most squeamish person on the Internet, and plugged my ears during much of the talk in basic open water class about the bends and all the other dive-related illnesses for risk of passing out so—aside from the fact that I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars—I only hope I never end up in one of these.
I’m so hooked with the dive degrees, I think I might go for a specialty certificate or two on future dive trips. It’s an addiction I never thought I’d have.