There was a steady hiss and a low rumble, like gravel tumbling out of a wheelbarrow, and I watched as the bubbles floated upwards, dancing around each other until they reached the surface. Breath. Short, controlled, with the taste of aluminum and sensitive gums, but breath all the same.
I exhaled lightly, sinking down the face of the wall ahead of me, deeper now, almost 30 meters now, careful not to brush the corals and fish gliding gently by. As I approached the floor, I inhaled, hovering, enlightened, over the sand. Everything was blue down there, the longer wavelengths being sucked up by the water pressure. I inhaled again. The novelty wasn’t gone yet.
I was breathing underwater.
Five years ago, my roommate Pat told me to get scuba certified. It was the best thing he’d ever done, he said. He’d done the course with his family down in Belize or Costa Rica or some such state, all green and clear with water like saran wrap. Easy to fall in love with there. It was like another world. But I put it off, having in my early college days the foresight to spend my hard-earned money given to me by my parents on alcohol and expensive gadgets I’d break within a few months. In Los Angeles, a scuba certification course can be around $600, an amount not unlike my monthly whiskey budget.
Even when I finally started traveling, finally left that world behind, I didn’t consider a four-day course worth such a large chunk of cash. When you’re traveling as a young guy with little care about where you go, saving money can become important, the ultimate, the choice between eating noodles for the fifth time in a row and going home sooner. And if there’s one thing I’ve vowed, it’s to never go home sooner. And thus, I missed out on the Apo Reef in the Philippines, Koh Tang in Cambodia. I’m not proud.
It’s worth it. If there’s one thing you take away from this, let that be the lesson. Scuba diving, gaining entry into the second world on Earth, is always, will always be worth it.
I booked my course with Deep Sea Diver’s Den in Cairns, knowing that I wanted to get certified on the Great Barrier Reef, my best chance of matching Pat’s experience in Central America, the home to thousands of fish species and the only coral reef I knew by name as a kid, back when I dreamed of being Steve Irwin. There were other options, Pro Dive is a popular one, but after some research found that their large size means they churn out licenses, more a mill than a personalized experience. I’m sure they are fantastic, but word-of-mouth was stronger for Diver’s Den.
Courses start with pool theory, they can’t throw you straight into the ocean, that would be madness, and for the first time in years I found myself actually enjoying being in a classroom. The theory is broken into five modules, with videos and pool dives for each, and the videos are hilariously dated, the kind of thing you watched in sex ed back in middle school when you thought everybody said “ain’t that the way!” when putting their condoms on bananas, as grown people do. My classmates weren’t as interested as I was. One girl fell asleep. But this is the same girl who, later, during the swimming test, stopped numerous times, despite that being against the rules, and she could barely tread water, so what was she even doing there in the first place? She would later go on to nearly kill herself by ascending far too fast on the first ocean dive, leading our instructor to raise his voice for the only time, to threaten to refuse to certify her.
I, on the other hand, took the opportunity to hot dog, to show off skills that have long since rusted over. I blew rings, I dove down and up, I did flip turns, I was just the fucking best and everybody needed to know it. The water is my home, has always been my home, and it’s been too long since I remembered that fact, but it welcomed me back with gusto. I was made for this express purpose.
And the boat.
I hadn’t had my own room in months. But with the smaller groups, the cabins were not filled, and I was given my own two-bed room, it had its own shower and everything like some goddamn palace. And it was small, and hot, and the blinds didn’t move even when the boat drifted with the tides so that the sun came just so into my eyes, but it was mine. I could spread my stuff wherever I wanted and nobody could stop me, couldn’t tell me no. I could sleep naked if I wanted. I slept naked.
But having my own room wasn’t on my bucket list. Breathing underwater was. Was. I didn’t count the pool dives, didn’t check it off my list until I had gone to the ocean. Diving in a pool isn’t a challenge, it isn’t fun, it doesn’t tell you what it will be like to finally jump into the water and sink below the waves to where the animals aren’t afraid of you, have never seen anything like you before. I strapped on my equipment, double checked everything, and took one small step over the side of the boat.
It hit me softly, catching me with a wave and bringing me down as it passed. I had a shortie wetsuit on, a little too large and not performing its job, but the water was warm and clear, and I inflated my BCD (buoyancy control device for those who, as I hope, wish to follow in my footsteps) and stared into the blue. When we finally descended, we did it slowly. I plugged my nose and blew hard, feeling the air squeeze itself into the air cavities behind my ear drums, it’s squealing eeeeeeeeeee letting me know that everything was equalized, and soon we were on the bottom. That was it. That was the moment. That was my moment, when I checked it off the bucket list.
Breathe deep. Breathe in a world that asks you not to and is ignored.
I looked up. The waves seemed so close I could touch them, unattainably close like the 3D projections of a kitschy film. A giant napoleon fish, a Maori wrasse, swam over to me, begged me to touch it and tickle its lips, which I was only too happy to oblige it with. It’s not every day a giant dumb underwater Labrador craves attention.
The dive was short, and compared to the subsequent ones, uneventful. We practiced our techniques, hovering in the water like a poor Western impression of a Buddha, and I spent the entire time marveling at the alienality of the world around me, trying to figure out how to smuggle some sand from the ocean floor into a nonexistent pocket so I could save it in my journal.
You see everything there, after spending so long on a boat. There were five dives a day, including a night dive, and in subsequent explorations I would be face-to-face with a sea turtle. I would shine neon lights on an epaulette shark and watch it dance among the brain coral. I would hover above a stingray and wonder if I could die that way. I would contemplate a moray, let it eat my finger, snap it off in one go before snapping back to reality and sculling back away. I had a new addiction, a new drive, a new place to go.
I had breathed underwater. Checked it off my bucket list in the most memorable way imaginable, among the corals of the reef.
I always say, Partake of the World. Don’t miss out on the one below the sea.