Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sitting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean

27 feet down, this was not exactly how I had envisioned my first California dive, off Escondido beach in Malibu. They had promised kelp and that most definitely was there. I was after seated right next to one. As I had raised my hand and released the air from my BC and slid under the waves, everything disappeared into a pea soup green haze. Divemaster Dave, Phil, Brian and P sank right next to me, yet when I hit the bottom they were nowhere to be seen.

And boy did I hit bottom. For some reason, it seems that people dive out here in California with much more weights than we did back home. Even taking in the discrepancy of wearing a full wetsuit, hood, etc 27 pounds seemed a bit excessive. As soon as I went negative on my buoyancy, I shot through the water so quickly my sinuses didn’t so much equalize as implode quietly. I’m glad I didn’t do this over the Marianna because I’d still be falling.

Dave’s instructions rolled through my head, 30 seconds down and if we don’t find each other surface. Of course being on the bottom of the Pacific in conditions that seemed reminiscent of the inside of an Blue Whale after a solid rice and curry session wasn't exactly condusive to recalling those instructions. Visibility was down to a couple of feet and everything was pea soup green.

It was with some relief then that Dave appeared out of the gloom, fluorescent tank gleaming. As he motioned for me to follow him and we swam off, I assumed we were going to join up with the rest. Yet we continued swimming, at what seemed to me unseemly haste through the kelp. The brown green streamers pushed at us as we weaved through them. If I thought visibility was bad in the open, under the kelp everything went a chocolate brown. All I could see was the fluorescent tank and the faint gleam of Dave’s torch.

We continued swimming through the kelp, at one point Dave jerked up over a rock as something zapped him. I took great care to swim further up over the rock (turns out it was some kind of electric ray). After approximately 17 minutes of exploring this area, getting sick of kelp and learning to control my fear as the light kept ebbing and flowing, Dave gave the thumbs up. Ascending through the green and then dark blue waters, we got to the surface, right hand up as a sacrifice to any passing speedboats, we surfaced.

I was intensely curious to find out what had happened to the original plan of all five of us swimming in one line. Maybe because of the visibility Dave had decided to split us up. Of course it was with some surprise that I noted when the mask came off at the surface, that my dive buddy was in fact…not Dave.

I could however hear Dave in the distance, yelling. Floating on the surface, nervously eying Phil next to me, I couldn’t for the life of me make out what they were yelling. It was only as Phil looked over curiously and wondered aloud what the problem was, that it started to dawn on me….Phil hadn’t stuck to the plan. He’d grabbed me as a dive buddy and decided to go a wandering without waiting for anyone else. Me, being unable to differentiate white folks at the best of times and most definitely not underwater and in scuba gear, followed as had been instructed. Admittedly I did think the situation strange at the time, but then how does one discuss these things a couple of stories down in the water? Also if it was any consolation, Phil had thought I was P, which if anyone has seen us in real life would realize how laughable a mistake that would be.

As it turns out Dave had, rather un-gratifyingly in my opinion, decided that I must have panicked and drowned Phil (another experienced diver) with me. He had gotten Brian and P to take off their BCs and tanks, tied them to a kelp plant in order to help him look for our bodies. The worst thing is that P didn’t even defend me, pointed out that I’m not a likely person to panic. He was just trying to figure out how to tell the maternal unit without losing vital body parts. 911 was even being dialed as Phil thankfully decided not to explore anymore.

As it turned out, once we surfaced all was well with the world. Universal OK signals were exchanged and we came back to shore in staggered shifts. One thing is getting through the surf at the beginning of the dive was not an issue. But at the end, freezing, tired, disoriented, it’s a hell of a thing to be battered by waves while carrying that tank and wearing those fins. It was not with much dignity that I exited onto the beach. The rest of the dive club members assured me it was standard at the beginning.

Carrying the weights and tank in a wetsuit up PCH was also not the most fun. But it was worth it, despite some of the worst visibility I have seen outside of a drain in Colombo, I mean for all I know I could have had Jaws next to me I wouldn’t have noticed, the dive was an experience. The main lessons being stick to the plan and learning to recognize white people better. I think I’ve had my fill of kelp but I am looking forward to seeing what populates those forests, Channel Islands next stop!


pissu perera said...

i would've been terrified if there were no people around at that depth with that visibility, especially with the kelp floating about. something about your description makes my skin crawl.

T said...

eek. being in the ocean with zero visibility gives me the willies.

Delilah said...

Love your spine-tingling description. How I wish i could dive too:( watched 2 friends dive last weekend while we snorkelled around like sissies. sigh.

N said...

PP - it was terrifying...but also awesome to learn to cotrol that fear.

T - see above.

Delilah - thanks:) It's not that hard when you can see where you're going..trust me!