The Beginning of the Beginning

“We make a living by what we get.

We make a life by what we give.”

-Winston Churchill

This past Thursday, on my 200th dive, I successfully became a PADI Open Water SCUBA Instructor.  At first, I was surprised at how emotional I got after successfully completing the Instructor Exam.  After all, the big “leap” I took was quitting my job to start this year-long journey.  Yet somehow passing my IE made it all seem real.  It was the culmination of a huge journey that began the first time I ever breathed underwater and swam through schools of countless jacks in Belize.  A love affair that began that moment and continued through many more–me and the ocean.  The place where I found endless calm and peace amidst a chaotic world.  The place where I connected with the earth and was spellbound by the mystical diversity of the creatures of the deep.  And with that, I thought it fitting to share that journey and thank the many people who helped me get here.  So a big thanks to everyone mentioned in this post.

It all began on a spur-of-the-moment birthday trip to Belize with my long-time friend Jen.  We both had a lull at work and decided to make the most of it with a long weekend–planned about a week in advance.  We lobbied about ideas of where we could get easily, at first thinking of Mexico.  Somehow the idea of Belize popped up and since neither of us had been and we could get a decent fare, we pulled the trigger and booked.  Knowing we would probably do some snorkeling, I decided I should probably get myself a mask and fins.  So the day before the trip I started calling all the sporting goods and outdoor stores in Chicago.  No success whatsoever.  Finally, one of the stores asked, “have you tried that dive shop on Lincoln?”  A SCUBA store in Chicago?  I had no idea.  But I looked it up and the mythical store did, in fact, exist.  I saw that it closed at 7:00, so I planned to leave work at 5:30 to head up and get the needed equipment.

And so began the insane night that first made me a lifelong customer of Underwater Safaris.  First, I had just an awful day at work–the kind of day that makes everything that follows seem that much worse.  And then, a torrential downpour meant it took me an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trek from downtown to North Lincoln.  And that traffic meant I was very nearly out of gas by the time I arrived.  And as I parked on the street and opened my bag to grab my wallet, I found nothing but a checkbook.  (Why I had that I still have no idea.)  I had no gas, and no money that was worth anything without an ID.  And I was to leave for Belize the next day.  A pitiful, sopping mess, I went into the store anyway and asked if I could take shelter from the rain to call my friend to come meet me at a gas station and give me gas money.  I tried to hold it in, but my eyes brimmed with tears that eventually spilled over from the unrelenting bad day.  And despite it being ten minutes before closing and having no money, I asked the unthinkable–would they take a check and sell me some snorkel gear?  Marianne decided I was either having the worst day ever or was the best actress on earth, and she took pity on me.  (This long story may be a bit of a digression, but it’s an important one.  Marianne’s treatment of me that night was part of the reason I came back to Underwater Safaris when I got back–and it turned out to be somewhat of a second home for me in Chicago.  And by the way, my friend Sarah came to my rescue at the gas station, and all ended well.)

With the insanity behind me and a snorkel gear in tow, we left for Belize the next day.  Jen, a licensed open water diver who had not dove since a few post-certification dives in Thailand, talked me into doing a discover SCUBA course.  I was content to snorkel (which was not even one of my favorite activities anyway… still isn’t), but I thought, “why not?”  So the hotel hooked us up with a local dive shop who picked us up on our dock, fitted us with gear, had us watch the PADI Discover SCUBA video and ushered us onto a boat with our dive instructor (whose name I believe was Tony, although I’m not certain… we’ll just call him Tony) and our boat captain, Big Sexy (whose name I will obviously never forget).  We motored off to a shallow, calm sandbar for the confined water session, where I learned to clear my mask, and recover and clear my regulator.  Jen tagged along for this portion as well, getting a refresher since it had been sometime since she dived.  Despite thinking it would be physically impossible to remove water from a mask while STILL UNDERWATER, it was surprisingly easy.  So once I was ready, we swam off for my first dive.

As we got about ten feet down, the fear set in.  I looked up and realized I could not just stand up if I was having a problem.  The regulator began to breathe harder at depth, and while I now know that is fairly normal for a cheap regulator, I thought for certain there was something wrong with it.  So in response to Tony giving me the “OK” I gave him the “something’s wrong” sign and pointed at my regulator.  He looked at it, gave me the “you’re fine, just breathe” signal, held my hand, and we continued to swim along.  “DOESN’T HE REALIZE MY REGULATOR IS BROKEN?” a part of me thought.  But the saner part of me prevailed, realized I was still breathing, and just went along with him, likely turning his knuckles white in a grip of death.

But then something happened.  We entered a new, previously unknown universe, full of corals and fish.  I had snorkeled before, but I never had experienced anything like this.  I was seeing new things, and at the same time, I felt weightless, like I was flying.  Slowly my fingers loosened their grasp on Tony’s hand and eventually they let go.  We continued floating through this magical new world, even gliding through a school full of jacks in a small swim-through I had just moments before thought certainly I could never actually get through.  (Now the instructor in me kind of cringes at that, but nonetheless, it was incredible at the time…)  And not only that, thanks to a cheap disposable camera, we even had poor-quality greenish-tinted photos to remind us of this experience.


My First Dive (Sorry Sea Cucumber!  I know better now.)

As soon as I got back to Chicago, I called Underwater Safaris and signed up for a weekend confined water class to begin the certification process.  I had a week planned in Florida the following months, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to become a “real diver.”  I had a blast learning all of the skills in the pool under the direction of my instructor Mike “Smy” Smykowski, and was surprised at how easily it came.  I had never been an athlete and was not a super strong swimmer, but thanks to Smy’s coaching and encouragement, I felt at ease in the water.  That was not true for everyone.  My buddy had some challenges with the mask skills, and even then I felt like I wanted to help her.  Looking back, I think a part of me caught the instructor bug even then.

I was so excited, I very nearly signed up for the Fiji trip with the shop that fall.  Jen talked some sense into me and suggested perhaps I wait until I actually get certified to decided if I really like it.  I agreed, but deep down I knew I was Fiji bound.

So feeling confident, during a weeklong gap between jobs, I hopped down to Fort Lauderdale Florida to do my four open water dives.  I signed up for private lessons with Lauderdale Divers.  I showed up at the shop, was fitted for my gear, and met my instructor, Chris Webber, who took me over to the harbor to board the American Dream II.  We hopped in the water, descended to the maximum depth for dive one, and hung out on the line.  (The first dive was a wreck that was beyond my limits, but I’d be able to see the wreck the next day, and the second dive would be a reef dive.)

While we were underwater, mother nature decided to give me a little test.  As I ascended the line for my safety stop, I was bobbed up and down; up and down.  The swell had grown and it was all I could do to hold in my breakfast.  (TMI:  When I got to the surface, I didn’t.  Sorry to the cop who was diving as well and ascended right below me!  Wish I had known back then that was an excellent use of an alternate underwater.)  I made it back on the boat, and after our surface interval, we hopped in for dive 2.  The swell was still pretty heavy, but we were optimistic once we descended things would get better.

They didn’t.  Aside from the swells, still making their presence known at 30 feet, there was a wicked surge.  I tried a skill, and simultaneously trying to keep from puking, I lost all control of my buoyancy.  We got to the surface, and I still remember feeling like this was not possible–I would not be able to do it.  But Chris knew I could.  “Forget the skills for now,” he said.  “Just give me 20 minutes.  All you have to do is stay down for 20 minutes and it counts.  We’ll do the skills tomorrow and just do the skills for both dives on Dive 3.  Do you think you can stay with me down there for 20 minutes?  If not, we can get back on the boat.”  I nodded and gave him the thumbs down (“let’s descend”) signal.  So he put a couple extra pounds on me and we headed down.  We didn’t get through any skills, but I made it.  Back on the boat, I wasn’t sure I could come back for the rest of the dives the next day.  But Chris encouraged me.  He promised me that conditions weren’t usually that bad, and if the water conditions had been like that when we were leaving, we wouldn’t have gone.

Mother nature decided she still didn’t want to cooperate, and she kept me in suspense.  The next day I got a call that the dives were cancelled because the seas were still rough.  They weren’t sure about the following day, so they told me they’d make the call at 7 AM the following morning.  And it turned out we were on.

Mother nature apparently decided she had tested me enough.  The seas were glass, and the visibility incredible, so I could see everything on the wreck–my first wreck dive.  I was again mesmerized.  We did the skills for dive 2 and dive 3, and still managed to have a wonderful float around the wreck.  When I ascended from dive 4, I was a certified diver.  I was so excited, I signed up to go out on the American Dream the next 2 days.  Chris was teaching another course on the boat, so he said he would help me find a buddy.  He hooked me up with two experienced divers who turned out to be the best buddies I could’ve asked for for my first dive without an instructor.  And as soon as I got back, I signed up for that Fiji trip.  (So did Jen.)

By now you’re probably wondering if I will go into this excruciating amount of detail for every dive trip I’ve been on.  Of course not.  Suffice it to say that the following years, diving was where I felt truly happy.  I’ve been fortunate enough that every dive trip I’ve been on has been not only fantastic diving, but on every single trip I’ve met new and interesting people I genuinely enjoyed spending time with–many of whom I keep in touch with to this day.  So from Dive Wananavu to the Kona Aggressor to to Salt Cay Divers to CocoView Resort to Atlantis Dumaguete and everywhere else I’ve dived–thank you to everyone I’ve dived with–whether it be fellow guests or divemasters/instructors.  I’ve learned so much from watching other divers and talking to them that truly all of you have left a mark on me.

But I want to give a special shout-out to those who have dove with me and taught me over the past year.  It has been about a year since I decided to take the instructor plunge, and so I’ve been thinking of diving a bit differently since then.  First, I want to thank every person who works at at Small Hope Bay, but especially the dive staff there.  Despite having never actually taken a class there, I feel like my diving has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year thanks to my three trips to Small Hope.   I was given the option of navigating dive sites on my own (and not an easy dive site like a wreck or a wall), which gave me confidence in my compass and my navigation abilities.  I went to depths I quite literally never thought possible and even did a cave dive.  Watching the instructors there teach my others and guide people on DSDs showed me what I want to be as an instructor.  It is everything diving should be, and I am not sure there is anywhere I’ve ever had more fun.

And of course, there is simply no way I would have passed my IE without my fabulous divemaster instructors, Marc Merel and Ashton Kinsey, or my fellow DMCs Stacy and Jamie.  The divemaster course was fun but it was also a challenge.  I started to think about diving in an entirely new way.  And I started to think of myself in an entirely new way as well.  I really wasn’t certain I would be able to swim fast enough to pass the water skills, but they gave me confidence in myself.  (And I don’t think I’ve ever been so elated as when Marc yelled “4!” and held up four fingers after my tired diver tow.)  Plus, watching them teach open water students makes me hope that someday I can be that kind of instructor.  The joy in new divers’ faces is something I hope to see many times.

And last (chronologically) but certainly not least, a huge thanks to the team at Blue Corner Dive in Nusa Lembongan, especially Cody McDonald and Rosie Dixon, and my fellow instructor candidates Chris Danna and Belinda Huang.  The last few weeks have been physically and emotionally demanding for me.  Getting used to diving in a new environment while learning new skills has been more challenging than I expected it to be, but you all got me through.  The support and encouragement has been outstanding, and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thanks to all of you.  Fittingly, Rosie reminded me the other day that the Winston Churchill post that opens this post is at the beginning of our instructor manual.  Well all of you have given me a lot, and I hope one day I can do the same for other divers.

So to wrap up this lengthy (sorry) post, I felt like quitting my job was the beginning, but it really wasn’t.  In the opening paragraph, I said the IE is a culmination, but it really isn’t.  This is the beginning.  It’s the beginning of my new life.  Even though I don’t plan to be a full-time instructor, I hope that teaching diving can always be a part of that life in some way, shape, or form.  And reflecting on this story, I remember attending my first Underwater Safaris party and running into Smy after finishing my certification.  I told him “I’m finished!”  He replied “No, you’re just starting.”

And so I am.

Photo Credit:  Cody McDonald, Blue Corner Dive

Dive Summary:

Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia

Date:  July 5, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15 & 16, 2017

#Dives: 12

Max. Depth:  81 feet

Total Bottom Time: 433 minutes

Dive Sites:  Pontoon, Mangrove, Sekkohlah Dasar, Sental, Buyuk, Pura Ped

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One Comment

  1. Thankfully I have a private office at work because I am a bit teary eyed right now. I have always said that the best part of being a scuba instructor is when a student has an “Ah-ha” moment. I am happy to say that you have given me several of those in the past few years. From your Advanced Open Water class to your Dry Suit specialty and thru divemaster you have impressed me. Now as a new instructor, you are one of my role models. Your attitude and decisions have given me a new urgency to live life on my terms and not do only the comfortable things.

    I appreciate the mention in your post and can tell you that my involvement in your progression has been my honor. I just helped show you the path. As you said, the instructor was already inside you waiting to get out!

    I love ya’ kiddo! Go get ’em!!

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