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SCUBA Diving: Big J in a Wet Rubber Suit
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scuba

As if there aren't enough wacky hobbies for the well-to-do...

I guess it was inevitable. As more Americans become richer, some of those activities that used to be only for the rich (like golf and polo, for instance) are being taken up by ordinary slobs like you and me. Now it seems like everyone I know plays golf or tennis. Now, I've found that as a relatively successful adult I can afford a hobby that costs more than, say, cruising the internet for free porn (not that I'll give it up, mind you), but golf still seems a tad too elitist, and I haven't the energy for tennis. But fear not, friends, for I recently found a deep pit down which I may hurl my excess time and cash; it's called scuba diving.

Scuba diving is what most of us (at least the males that I know) always dreamed of doing when we were kids. After all, our boyhood heroes did it--Jacques Cousteau, James Bond, Bud on "Flipper." It always looked so effortless, so relaxing an activity. Besides, I'm a man whose favorite channel is Discovery. Of course I'm going to be attracted to scuba diving.

So when a friend of mine recently told me that the local marina offered scuba lessons, I immediately signed up. Fortunately, I was also able to convince my wife to join me. As I made some calls and visited the marina, however, I realized why scuba diving is like golf: you can't play if you don't have the stuff, and the stuff costs!

Goggles, fins, and snorkels are just the basics. The cost for each of these items can range from $50 to nearly $200, depending on quality and your tastes. If you buy the more serious equipment needed (like a wetsuit, regulator, and BCD, or buoyancy control device), you'll be investing a lot more. Still, I reasoned, "No pain, no gain" and we shelled out the dough. Nearly $800 bought us the basic equipment and an intensive 3-day scuba course, which consisted of about 7 hours of in-class instruction and 7 hours of confined-water training (by confined-water I mean a pool).

One of the first things we learned is that scuba diving is, in a very real sense, an activity monopolized by a handful of organizations, particularly PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors). During our course, taught by a PADI instructor using a PADI-developed and produced CD-ROM as textbook, I got the clear impression that a very real goal of the scuba course was to convince us to pay PADI more money. Lots more. Most of the final "module" of the course is a PADI sales pitch, in which you are encouraged to expand your diving credentials and "buy and service equipment only at PADI dive shops." Worse, questions from the sales pitch were on the exams! Imagine if a multiple-choice question on your college American Literature class final exam had read something like this:

If you take advantage of Dr. Roth's "Foundations of Literature" class next semester, you will gain additional knowledge of American literature by being exposed to the works of:

a. Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald
b. Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe
c. Capote, Updike, Roth
d. Leno, Letterman, O'Brien

I kept wondering how knowing which types of diving activities were offered by which course was actually going to help me learn how to dive. Despite this slightly annoying element of the course (and our instructor, I must admit, hurried through this section), I must say that overall the course was very interesting, challenging, and fun (in that order, by the way).

It's interesting in that you learn a lot about pressure, buoyancy, air, and human physiology. Most of this information is presented within the first few hours of the course. The key thing that I learned is to NEVER STOP BREATHING. You might be saying to yourself, isn't that a general rule for life in general? Well, yes, but in scuba diving it's important to never hold your breath„ever. Why? Scuba gear gives you air pressurized to the depth you're at when you breathe it. If you're down around 60 feet and decide to hold your breath and then come to the surface, the air in your lungs will expand 300%! This is how divers burst their lungs open. It's not a pretty sight (so I've heard, anyway).

During the classroom parts of the course, all any of us really wanted to do was put on the gear and start doing it (scuba diving, that is). On day 2 we actually got to suit up, jump into a pool, and get our feet wet (literally). I have to admit: diving is not as effortless and relaxing as it looks on TV. It's exhilarating, no doubt about it, but getting the hang of it is no easy feat.

First of all, the gear is extremely heavy. And it's not just the tank full of air. Divers have to wear weight belts and inflatable vests, which help the diver control his buoyancy. Controlling buoyancy is necessary to keep you level at the depth you want to be. It also helps keep you from getting too fatigued. How? To move through the water with as little resistance as possible, one must swim horizontally. If your head lifts up and your legs hang down, you're going to have to expend a lot more energy to move through the water. Buoyancy control permits you to stay horizontal.

Not only that, but breathing pressurized air through your mouth requires more effort that normal breathing. That effect worsens as the depth of your dive increases. What else? When you fly in an airplane or drive into the mountains, you've probably felt your ears plug. A yawn or a good swallow usually ?pops? your ears. The plugging or pressure sensation results from unequal pressure in the air spaces in your ears (and other areas of your head) and the outside air. Yawning, swallowing, or attempting to exhale lightly through the nose while plugging it releases the buildup, thus equalizing the pressure (and any accompanying pain or discomfort). When scuba diving, I found that I needed to stop and do this every few feet of my descent.

There were several trials. We paid PADI a lot of money and they wanted us to earn our diving certifications, so there were some diving-related activities we needed to be able to complete successfully. I won't go through them all here, but I will highlight those that gave my group the most difficulty.

  1. Before we even put any gear on we had to swim 200 meters. A person in decent shape shouldn't have a lot of difficulty with this, but not many Americans are in ?decent shape? anymore, so there were a couple of people who almost got booted before we even used scuba gear! I don't mind admitting that by the end of my 200-meter swim I was pretty fatigued.
  2. There's not much point to scuba diving if you can't see anything underwater, right? So what if your mask is filled with water? Worse, what if your mask gets kicked off your face? Well, you have to learn how to clear your mask of water. This is actually pretty easy, especially if you have a purge valve in your mask. The short answer is you blow air into your mask with your nose (just don't inhale through your nose for another lungful of air to blow), which forces the water out. If your mask gets kicked off your face, you do the same thing, only you have to put your mask back on underwater first. This sounds easy, but I think the inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose (especially when the mask is OFF) is an unnatural rhythm. A lot of people in my group sucked in water. When that happens your supposed to cough and gasp and wheeze through the regulator (that's the thing you stick in your mouth and breath through). Sad thing is that human instinct is to bolt for the surface. Well, if you're at 60 feet and you race for the surface, you run a real risk of blowing a lung. Fortunately, for me at least, coughing and hacking through the regulator is really not that hard, as long as you stay calm.

The rest is pretty basic. There are a few other emergency procedures you need to demonstrate, but in a simulation it's easy to stay calm, which makes the procedure pretty simple.

By the third day of the course, I was having a great time. I didn't want to get out of the pool! Considering the only thing to see in the pool besides other divers was a used band-aid, the fact that I felt I could have stayed in the pool swimming around all day is a real testament to the thrill of scuba diving!

So if you're considering a new hobby, and you just can't see yourself joining a country club and putting on checkered slacks, then look into scuba diving. At the very least, you ought to look cool doing it.

end of essay
Jeremy Groce Portrait Jeremy is largely responsible for the bizarre name "Clark Schpiell and the Furry Cockroaches Without Butts" for the mock rock band he and others founded in 1988 (if anyone recalls differently, he is willing to discuss the matter...in court). The rock is long gone, but the mock lives on with CSP. After spending most of his life in the Dakotas, Jeremy left North America for the first time in 1991 and has since visited or lived in almost 20 different countries. He is currently in Kenya where he runs a news and information shortwave radio station. He is married to planet Earth's most patient woman and has two beautiful daughters. Fatherhood has eaten up the remains of what little spare time Jeremy has, but he occasionally writes about political and travel topics. | more essays by Jeremy
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