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First Person

The most dangerous part of scuba diving

In this sport, an out-of-shape 50-something has an edge on a pumped-up bro

By Christina Wood

After a frigid morning scuba diving off the coast of Big Sur, I head back to Morro Bay on an 88-foot boat, preparing to say goodbye to the salty assortment of old-school divers I’ve shared the vessel with for four days. These are some of the best divers I’ve ever met. Several are old enough to have bought their first regulators A regulator makes the air in a diver’s oxygen tank breathable. Cousteau invented it, and with it scuba diving. from Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s.

At the dock, we pick up a new group of shipmates. They’re young, gym hardened, and ultra-fit. They’ve heard this ocean is not for the faint of heart. (It says so in the dive-boat’s brochure.) They are wearing sea-sickness patches, have invested heavily in the latest gear, and are engaging in manly, back-slapping camaraderie. They light cigars and regale each other with tales of fish they’ve killed. As I walk through the galley, one guy stops me, holding up a mug. “Is there more coffee?” he asks.

He’s mistaken me for the kitchen staff. I explain that I’m a diver, too. Something breaks in his bravado.

To be fair, I’m in my fifties and shun the gym. I’m sure I look, to this kid, like someone who would cook his meals. He’s embarrassed so I smile, forgiving. He’s too young to understand that diving is as much mental as physical, and that I’m much more prepared for this than he is.

Panic — not sharks, drowning, or gender — is what kills you underwater.

I’ve jumped into water all over the world: The Solomon Sea that surrounds Papua New Guinea, the Pacific oceans of Hawaii and Fiji. The Caribbean. The Gulf of Mexico. But this nearly inaccessible stretch of sea off California’s Big Sur coast is spectacularly untouched, and it’s personal for me. It is home, a short drive from where I mastered my first Bail Out.

The Bail Out is a training exercise that requires you to jump into the water with your gear in your hands and your air turned off. When I got my dive certification at U.C. Berkeley, I was a young, swim-team fit undergrad. Even then, the jump almost beat me. Knowing your gear and when you are prone to panic can save your life in an emergency. Good training forces you to become familiar with your gear in the dark, in rough water, and when you are cold, scared, and stressed. The first time I did a Bail Out in the ocean, the panic came as a surprise. I sat in the boat, clutching my gear, unable to move.

“I think this is your panic point,” my instructor stated with irritating calm. I did not explain that, according to family lore, my father — a man of legendary lunacy — had snatched infant me out of my mother’s arms and tossed me out of a boat. He’d read that babies swim instinctually and wanted to see it happen. (It was true. I could swim before I could walk.)

“If you aren’t going to quit,” my instructor told me, “give your panic 10 seconds. Count and jump on 10. If anything goes wrong, I’ll rescue you.”

I use that lesson often.

It’s what I did this morning, for example, before this boisterous crowd of new divers took over the ship. I replay the scene in my head. There I am, eyeing the gangplank, where divers are lining up to drop into the water. Knowing my turn is coming makes my stomach lurch.

I turn to my partner, Dennis, to check his gear. The gear is what makes it possible to breathe, move, and see underwater. Some SCUBA divers — especially newbies — throw a lot of money at gear. I dive with a carefully pared kit of time-tested essentials.

My turn to jump. My hands are shaking. My vision is a tunnel leading to the water. I count.

“Ten.” I step and drop, hitting the surface and plunging quickly below. The elation starts the second I hit water. Anxiety is replaced with pure physical joy. My body squirms with the visceral thrill of transforming from an awkward, land dweller in hot, heavy equipment to this too-brief, fluid freedom. 

Dennis descends to join me, one arm outstretched to hold my hand. We swim side-by-side in the choppy water through dense armies of fish, transparent ctenophores, quiet rooms formed from kelp, rocks blanketed in anemones, corals, and starfish — a density of life so rare on our planet that we are lucky to witness it.

The water column is so full of plankton, where all sea life starts, that it is, in places, difficult to see through it. Long experience in the water has taught me to slow down and study it. Many people would plow through it, calling it all, simply, “poor visibility.”

It’s enchanting, but we keep an eye on our gauges and, immediately, it seems, our time is up. We have been underwater for nearly an hour. We ascend slowly — so as not to kill ourselves with an air embolism, but also because we enjoy the romance of the slow transition through the water column. Then comes a dangerous, athletic transition from the tossing waves to the boat.

Back in the ship’s galley, I am still in a state of mental and physical bliss normal vacations can’t offer. We’ve left the planet, existed in a dimension where gravity is weak, and air comes from a bottle. You don’t sit in the ocean. You exist in it with every muscle, every neuron. We are aliens there. If we let it, it would easily kill and swallow us.

Despite the post-dive bliss, being underestimated by my new shipmate irks. I resist the urge to set him straight. But I’m making my own judgments.

Diving an ocean like this requires more than machine-plumped muscles. An intimate understanding of yourself and your gear can’t be bought in a gym or dive shop. In the water, you, and the people you’re with, are the most dangerous things you’ll encounter. Panic — not sharks, drowning, or gender — is what kills you underwater. This man, bolstering himself with his hulking biceps, looks scared to me.

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Christina Wood is a writer based in North Carolina and author of the novel Vice Report. 


Illustration by Francesco Zorzi

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