After reading of the exploits of divers, The Divers, it can be difficult to be a regular ol’ diver. Their accomplishments are unbelievable to people outside the sport, and fantastic to those within. There are people who plummet hundreds of feet below the surface of the water, or regularly spear fish that weigh more than I do. Their adventures are catalogued and discussed, criticized and praised. It is a fantasy life that they live, where water is the office and suits are made of rubber. They may be supermen, or super-talented, or simply very dedicated to their sport, but however they got there, it all ends up in the same place; hall of fame, world-records, and a freedom that many people would fantasize about, if they knew it existed.
Make no mistake: I applaud and admire the supers of the diving world. They work hard and their accomplishments are worthy of attention. However, I cannot help but feel a bit wistful when I read about their adventures. In the worst of times, I feel that my modest accomplishments are trivial indeed, and I only deserve to be called a ‘snorkeler’ or some other dismissive term, as some believe a true diver is one who has been below 90 feet or some other such business.
At least, this was once my perspective.
My diving environment is limited. My regular open-water diving area is the local river, which is currently closed off to everyone due to a higher-than-usual rainy season. Normally, it is a maximum of six feet deep, and only in a few places, while the rest of it is two to three feet deep. Occasionally, the water gets shallower, and shallower, finally necessitating that the diver (or snorkeler) must stand up or crawl to a place where submergence is again possible. Locomotion is otherwise accomplished through the use of a sort of crawl-kick, grasping handfuls of sand and proceeding hand-over-hand against the current, while digging in with the feet or kicking. The preferred fin for this activity is a short exercise fin, the type that is so adorable but wouldn’t provide much impulsion in the ocean. In the river, it is ideal for digging into the sand, making headway in short bursts, or standing and walking when the water gets too shallow.
The other hot diving spot is the college swimming pools. These have their entertainment value, as there are usually leaves, coins, or dead bugs drifting about at the bottom. They are good subjects for close study while diving beneath the surface. Space in the pool is never a problem. When lap swimmers are present, I simply fin under the surface, taking care not to surface too quickly and bash into them. It was difficult to see myself as any sort of a serious diver.
Eventually, the time came that I went on a boat dive off of Catalina Island. It was part of a spearfishing trip that included a tour of the Riffe factory and instruction by none other than Julie Riffe, with a special appearance at mid-day by her father, Jay. It was a special treat, but I had not been in the ocean for years, and only once went diving in the ocean without tanks. In spite of my brand-new Ocean Mimetic wetsuit, I felt inadequate. Surely, at any moment, everyone would figure out how little I knew. I was certainly ready to admit my inexperience.
It is a good thing that circumstances rarely turn out as negatively as we imagine. It is true that things did not go perfectly for me. Much time was spent bobbing around, trying to get used to the ocean and the increased buoyancy of the new wetsuit, struggling with those darned fins, and realizing that a nylon pocket-style weight belt is less than ideal. Julie Riffe was a great help. There are fewer experiences more humbling than when a world-class spearo assists with your stubborn fins. Humbling, but not humiliating.
That is the first thing that I learned on that trip. The derision at my inexperience was all in my own mind. No one made fun of me, even when I felt like making fun of myself. Everyone was kind and informative, letting me make my own mistakes, but helping when I needed help. There are no words to express my gratitude for such kindness. The second realization came weeks after the trip. During one of many attempts to clear off my desk, I spied the instruction manual for the spearfishing class. It was a pleasant review until the ‘fish species’ section, which delivered a bit of a shock. One photo featured a grayish fish which is known for its delicious flesh and dislike of human company. I flashed back to the dive trip. At one point during the trip, I had looked down and seen a good-sized specimen of this fish, known as the white seabass. It was visible for maybe a second, but I am as positive about that fish as I have ever been about anything.
It seems that the time spent clawing around the river served more of a purpose than simple entertainment. The skittish river fish, the rainbow trout, bass, and various little fellows had taught me more than I’d realized. It was necessary to be very quiet in movement and sound if you want to see living things in the river, and that applies also to the ocean.
To myself now, and to anyone who feels that their aquatic endeavors are inferior, I say that this isn’t so. It is enough to enjoy your diving. It is possible that you know more than you imagine. Anyone with a worthwhile opinion will use it to help you, and chances are that negativity stems only from your own mind.
I now call myself a freediver, and a spearo. I’ve been down 30 feet, held my breath for 3:23, and have not speared a fish. Yet.
See you in the water.