Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sea Lions and Dolphins and Kelp, oh my!

Dava and me after our first day of ocean diving!
i have now dived 3 ocean dives - and survived! got up at 4:45am yesterday morning to catch a sunfish full of fabulous gay men (and a few women) at the Channel Islands marina in Ventura County, CA at 6:30am. i was so nervous, i couldn't eat my luna bar, and i was so scared of being late that i didn't have any coffee. i wasn't late, and seeing my scuba buddy Dava and our instructor Buck made me a little calmer so i could choke down a few sips of coffee. unfortunately, the waves were crazy on the way out to Anacapa Island, and weeeell... i got a bit seasick. i didn't expect it at all! Dava loaned me her accupressure wristbands, i sat outside & stared at the horizon, and i felt better. got my wetsuit on, we dropped anchor, and whoops - i threw up. the divemaster gave me some ginger & that helped settle my stomach; i know it was mostly nerves and only partially angry waves, but still, i'll keep ginger & accupressure in mind for future...

ready or not, it was time for our first dive. we descended along the anchor line & i had some trouble with my buoyancy; i couldn't get myself to descend & kept hitting my head on the boat. Buck had to help pull me down, but once i got to the bottom, i was surprised that i had successfully equalized my ears & felt ok. overwhelmed but ok. we were on a sandy bottom, with small sections of reef and a few tall kelp strands around us, and to the side, we could see a big group of sea lions diving down & playing with some of the other divers. there was so much to see and to remember to do! even though i'd been fine in the pool, my brain suddenly realized i was breathing underwater & kind of freaked out like, this isn't supposed to be happening! but i stayed calm and did my skills tests and then we started swimming over the reefs and through the kelp. i kept bumping the bottom so i thought my buoyancy wasn't quite right - i saw d. put some air in her BCD (the vest you wear) and i thought oh - good idea! bad idea. apparently my buoyancy was fine, and the little bit of air i added took me high enough that it started to expand & then expand more, and before i knew it i was shooting up to the surface. shit! thank God we were only in 30ft of water! once i surfaced, my ears were hurting from not taking the time to equalize, and i couldn't get myself back down; again, buck had to pull me down. as we were descending, my left ear refused to equalize and we had to cut the dive short & swim back to the boat.

starfish on the reef (pic by one of the other divers)

i felt so bad for making such a stupid mistake - i know better than that! i kept apologizing to buck & d. but they both said it was ok; d. even said she'd been getting kind of freaked out so was ok with ending the dive. buck said it's a common mistake & it's no big deal. he gave me a sudafed for my left ear & as the boat pulled around for our next dive, d. & i both sat in silence, feeling sicker than before (if that's even possible), both secretly wondering if maybe we're not cut out to be divers after all...
but i'm no quitter, and when we anchored at the second dive site, i told myself you're doing this. stepped off the boat into the cold water. this time, i managed to control my breathing enough to descend without help, and i paused every minute to equalize and my ears were fine. yay! we did our skills tests & weirdly enough, i had trouble with the mask clear - i kept trying to breathe through my nose & then i kept burping - note to self: maybe diet coke isn't the best beverage choice before a dive. but i cleared my mask successfully & buck said from that point on i didn't stop smiling. i don't know how he could tell, but he was right...

the second dive was INCREDIBLE. i felt comfortable, kept an eye on my buoyancy, and there was so much to see that at every turn someone was pointing out something amazing. we saw all kinds of foliage on the reef - purple spiny things & pink flowery things - and big rectangular half grey & half pink sheephead fish, and little schools of colored fish, and little translucent fish with big black eyes peeking out of the rocks. we saw so many starfish - bright orange/red starfish on the rocks and light yellow starfish hiding & moving in the sand. it was beautiful. then the sea lions joined us! a few of them loop-de-looped down around us playfully, and one of them got so close to me i could've touched it. she was swimming right next to me; she wanted to play. it was amazing. we watched one go down to the bottom & it looked like he was performing for us - rolling in the sand and swirling back up to the surface - i felt like i was watching a disney movie, but it was real & i was really there, breathing underwater. beautiful.

my sea lion friend (pic by one of the other divers)

after that dive, d. & i were in high spirits. our fear & worry from before had vanished and we were both practically giddy from what we'd just experienced. we ate - finally - and couldn't stop talking about what we'd seen as the boat pulled into place for our third dive. the more experienced divers said they were impressed with us; there was a bit of a current during our second dive & apparently we handled it well.
time for dive number three - i was tired but still feeling good. i descended like a pro - i'm actually proud of myself because the anchor line cut right through a "tree" of kelp so as we descended we got a little tangled in the kelp, but i stayed calm & made it to the bottom (49 ft - our deepest dive!) with no problem. this terrain was different, and it scared me a little - the ocean floor was rocky with large purple leaves waving from every crevice, and we were in the middle of a kelp forest with stalks reaching 50 ft to the surface & "branches" entwined. also, there was more of a current than on the last dive, and visibility wasn't very good, so i struggled a little to navigate over the rocks & around the kelp. and for some reason, my mask decided it was going to start leaking suddenly, and despite buck trying to tighten it for me, i just kept having to expend air & energy clearing it. thank God we practiced that so i wasn't freaked out by it. i'm also proud of myself for controlling my buoyancy - we kept swimming over rocks (shallower) and then into valleys (deeper) and as we went shallower, the air in my bcd would expand & i would feel myself floating so i'd sit still & exhale deflate my bcd & sink back down into the valley - i did that over and over. i'm sure as i get more experienced, i'll be able to control that more with my breath & less with my bcd, but i'm proud that i got the hang of it enough to keep myself in the dive. with all of that going on, i missed out on a bit of the scenery, but i did notice some BIG bright yellow/orange fish, one big scary grey fish with super sharp-looking teeth, and some fat green slug-looking things on the bottom. the kelp forest really was beautiful; i'd like to go back and dive it again when i'm more experienced so i can appreciate it more.

L to R: Buck, Dava & I, practicing "kelp crawl"
i was exhausted after that last dive, and i had a calf cramp, but luckily it was our last dive of the day. rinsed off, dried off, took our gear apart, and relaxed with a beer to chat with our new diver friends. as we were cruising back to the marina, there were three schools of dolphins swimming toward the side of the boat - they were jumping out of the water & doing flips! they followed our wake for a little while; it was so amazing. i looked at d. and said, "i love my life," and we cheers'd.

we did it. i survived & i loved it. just one more dive and i'm a PADI certified diver! more pictures to come soon...

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