A few members of the group decided to get Scuba certified while here on San Cristobal. Many of the marine track students got certified on the coast back on the mainland, but the rest of us waited until island fever set in and we needed yet another diversion. In the end, about ten of us decided to pursue certification.
After a week of cheesy videos and workbook that was painful to get through, they decided we were finally ready to strap on some gear and head underwater. We had our first session in the island’s only pool, a veritable hot-tub spanning fifteen feet by fifteen feet. With seven of us piled in (along with our excessive amount of gear) it was a tight squeeze. Thankfully we were just kneeling on the bottom of the pool practicing simple manuvers like removing our regulators (mouthpieces) and allowing ourselves to get used to breathing underwater. It is a very strange thing, sitting underwater for an hour and a half without resurfacing. I thought I would be more worried, more desirous of a fresh breath of air than I actually was. In truth, it didn't really bother me that first day, which was nice. I had a scary moment when they had us remove, then put back on, our weight belts, but that was it. To remove the belt was no problem. They are designed to be removed with just one hand in case of emergency. The buckle is the same as those on airplane seatbelts. To put it back on, however, means rolling over onto your stomach, then of course sinking to the bottom of the pool (because they’re heavy!), readjusting, then rebuckling. After rolling over and sinking to the bottom of the pool, however, my regulator starting taking in water instead of air because I kept turning it upside down as I touched my chin to my chest trying to rebuckle my belt. At first I thought my instructor had turned off my air so I could practice our emergency "no air" sign. I signaled and we surfaced the whole three feet to the outside world. No problems, just a little scary. My main instructor Shay has been really wonderful. He is a taciturn fellow from Israel who married a dance teacher on the island and has been here for a few years. His English is great and he sarcastically torments us girls. He ended up with the blondes as his trainees, including myself, Krista, and Helena. I've noticed that here I am considered a full blown blonde, though in the States I would definitely qualify only to dirty blonde status. Actually, I might be a real blonde now, with all the sun my hair has been soaking in.
Day two of scuba class had us out in the ocean, praying we wern't going to die. We're supposed to have five confined dives and this was one of them. Yeah, right. I'm pretty sure the ocean doesn't count as confined...or maybe just in Ecuador. Either way, we didn't get too deep, only about fifteen feet. Before they sent us under they "tested" our swimming skills by sending us out to a buoy in the middle of the harbor and back. Thankfully we were just wearing our wetsuits (which still greatly impede efficient swimming technique) but we didn't have to lug any other gear. As neither of the instructors went with us, however, it was more of a life or death, we'll-see kind of situation, and less of a swimming test. I asked Rachel as we swam who was going to save us if we started to drown/were run over by a boat. She didn't have an answer. Thankfully, we all made it back alive.
Once again, this day was all about kneeling on the sandy floor of the harbor and practicing skills like emergency ascent and buddy breathing (sharing a single regulator while swimming to the surface.) Shay was really good at explaining what skills we are going to practice without actually using any words. He has an underwater slate, but didn’t every use it. Buddy breathing was the toughest. One partner takes three breaths while the other is slowly and constantly exhaling bubbles (because you don't want your lungs to explode, of course) then you trade. When I think rationally and practice above water I can recognize that taking three deep breaths, then passing the regulator takes exactly ten seconds. Logically, I know that I can hold my breath for ten seconds without issue. Twenty feet under the surface, however, watching my only air source being passed to another person and having to wait for them to breathe, really panics me. I was fine and managed to deal with my fears without issue, but it was what most stood out about that day. We had to practice over and over because Helena, like myself, was most afraid of this skill.
To prevent chill while visiting the depths, we corset ourselves into wetsuits, a clothing device designed for people with the body shape of a twelve year old boy. You should have seen the three of us girls in the "dressing room" trying to pour ourselves into these things. Talk about body issues stemming from personal experience...Thankfully, we all finally jiggled, writhed, jumped and tugged just enough to fit.
Day three, our first "real" dive. We started at the unloading dock, dodging baskets of crabs as they were passed up, while we hauled our gear down. From the unloading dock we swam through the harbor to Playa Mann, the beach right in front of the university. We were quite a sight as we tried to haul ourselves out of the surf and up onto the beach. Even thinking about it now has me laughing. Foremost, our gear is terribly awkward, very light in water, but incredibly heavy as soon as that generous buoyancy sea water provides is taken away. Even standing up out of the water is an effort, but then to try and balance while removing your fins and trying not to faceplant as the waves batter the backs of your kneecaps? Almost impossible. Only to add to our embarrassment, there was a bus full of tourists standing on the beach, taking in the view and snapping pictures. Wonderful timing.
After spending half an hour on the beach and changing out our tanks, we headed back into the surf and swam out to a small shipwreck in the bay. The boat was really interesting and we were able to explore it freely, though not go inside because it was so small and we haven't been trained in wreck diving. As we were swimming along the ocean floor, Shay found a rusted hammer head (not the shark) and stuffed it in my pocket. He also found a dead fish and tried to revive it by giving it air through his regulator.
Thursday was my favorite diving day- an absolutely wonderful experience! We went out to Tijeretas, the cove where Darwin first landed in the Galapagos. This was the day that we dove down to 60ft!!! We took a boat out to the dive site and got in the water. To get in the water we perched ourselves backwards on the railing of the boat and let ourselves fall over backwards. We're supposed to keep one hand over our regulator and mask and the other over the back of our head, in case it hits something on the way into the water. I didn't know if that was comforting or not as I fell overboard.
It was a perfect day for diving!!! The water was so clear and crystalline that I could see forever! Ahhaha! I love diving so much! Once we reached our max. depth I rolled over and swam looking up at the surface, watching my bubbles as they lazily drifted towards the surface, like little jellyfish racing one another to break open at the top. The sun was a hazy ring of light piercing through the rippling surface and filtering down to illuminate the rocky bottom around us. Schools of fish were racing among us and sea lions were bobbing in and out of our paths, playing in the bubbles produced by our regulators. They would bump their noses into our masks and blow their own bubbles in competition. From a distance I watched a sea turtle drift along. They always look like little birds as they flap their flippers up and down. Along the bottom were starfish of so many different colors, sizes and shapes. My favorite was a fat yellow variety with little black spikes sticking up from its arms and back. They are called (loosely translated) chocolate chip sea stars...We also saw a ray that was bigger than me! Even Shay and Jose were impressed about how large this guy was! He was resting underneath an overhang of the caves we were swimming along and was so impressive. We were able to observe him for a while, first as he sat beneath this overhang, then later as he swam along the bottom, his "wings" rippling along the sandy bottom and his spiny tail swishing from side to side behind him.
I was absolutely entranced by how peaceful it was down there. I wondered, but never asked, if Shay or Jose ever got tired of diving. It is their job, I know, but I can't imagine ever getting tired of something so beautiful.