The first time I watched Avatar, I wanted to grow my hair long, stay up all night, live in an epic treehouse and neurologically connect with any organism I didn’t understand. How amazing would it be to tune in to the thoughts of another creature, and just for a moment to see the world through their eyes? Many people fault me for having a vivid imagination, but I chalk it up to embracing my natural human curiosity- something most people don’t spend enough time doing. Luckily, some of us work in an industry that thrives on that instinctive curiosity.
The first time I sank into the water with Scuba gear felt a mixture of panic, pleasure, claustrophobia and the immediate need to urinate. I was in a public swimming pool in Vancouver, Canada, and my instructor was gesturing at me trying to establish eye contact as my attention hopped from the discomforting water around my nose- to the buff water polo guys biceps intruding on our teaching space – to how large my instructor’s fingers looked through my uncomfortable mask. It was overwhelming to the senses, and my brain has undoubtedly blocked most of the memory, leaving me only with the vivid details of shaking my head vigorously from side to side as my instructor asked me to flood my mask. It was a long open water class, and a miracle my instructor convinced me to keep diving.
Fast forward two months, and I am about to take part in my first Night Dive, in the middle of the winter, in Canada. Tropical divers, you may be reading this with a dropped jaw and an escalating feeling of “what were you thinking…” – I don’t disagree. As we prepared our equipment in the parking lot of a pacific northwest beach access, I remember the wall I put up as my instructor jazzed me up, telling me how good the vis was going to be, and how many cool things we would see. I nodded, smiled, and clenched to avoid shitting myself in my drysuit. When we finally were ready to start our dive, I looked to the star-filled heavens, silently thanked all those who had every loved and supported me in my 21 years of existence, and descended into the crisp Pacific.
I had a flashlight that probably had the power to zap a small rodent, and it dangled at my side, bouncing up and down like dice on a rearview mirror. Looking back on it, I was that guy- the one who’s light was blinding all my fellow divers.
Lesson #1 – to learn, direct your laser beam down, towards the bottom, to avoid losing friends.
I gained control of my loose appendage and continued downwards, having no concept of depth, time or even my name. But I felt like the smelly kid in gym class, as all the other divers seemed to be swimming down away from me at grappling speeds.
Lesson #2 – don’t forget to deflate your BCD, air doesn’t miraculously evaporate in the moonlight.
The ground began to emerge, and the army of dive lights began to shine brighter as I pretended I had ear problems instead of embarrassingly admitting I, now a Rescue Diver, had forgotten to deflate my BCD at the surface. It was cold, it was dark, in hindsight it felt like I had entered into the “Upside Down”, a reference that was not even available at the time.
Once my heart returned to a more sustainable rhythm, and my pupil size returned from the dilation most commonly seen in first time meth users or angry squirrels, I started to appreciate my surroundings- the deafening silence, the soothing tunnel focus caused by only having one beam of light, and the amount of new life that was around me. Like Avatar, the world around us was alive with the strangest things. As I was only halfway through my Marine Biology degree, the descriptions were limited to “shiny things, rainbow things, and crabs with yellow eyes”. They would later become understood as bioluminescence, effervescent comb jellies, and just normal crabs. Regardless of their unknown name and origin, the effect was just as powerful- they were from Avatar and they were mind-blowing.
Lesson #3 – just look around, you will see incredible things that even Google has a hard time explaining. Take advantage of your amazing human eye and switch focus from the things on the reef to the creatures directly in front of, or clinging onto your mask. When in panic, gaze outwards.
I was feeling great now, I felt like a creature of the deep, an angler fish comfortable in the depths, a bit hungry, and uncaring of what was up and what was down. I had surrendered myself to the moment. Then my instructor told me to turn off my light.
He had briefed me on this, I was just too focused on not defecating myself at the time, and my brain had chosen to address that scenario instead of listening to his instructions. I knew exactly how many steps the outhouse was from the gear-up spot, but I had no idea why he was asking me to turn off my light.
Lesson #4 – listen to your instructors dive brief, and trust that they have your best interest at heart. Emergency explosion protocols can wait.
The light eventually flicked off, after a haphazard scrolling through the dim, dimmer, and emergency disco settings, which prompted my blinded instructor to cover the light with his hand while I sorted it out (see Lesson #1). His abnormally large fingers suddenly disappeared into the darkness, and I held my breath- a breach of my safe diving practices and the number one rule in Scuba. I was on fire tonight.
But then, a miracle; my eyes slowly started to adjust to the darkness. I felt like a cat, hunting small rodents at night, somehow managing not to bash my head into walls, doors or miscellaneous items of furniture. My confidence came back, my awareness with it, and I was in Avatar again, but this time I was there with one of those smart pills Bradley Cooper took in Limitless- things were more colorful, crisper, my life was perfect. When my instructor turned his light back on, I scowled at him through my regulator. My emotion got the best of me, and like an angsty teen, I got mad at him for ruining my perfect life, my roller coaster ride of emotion that led me to that serene moment. He gave us the thumbs up gesture that only 20 minutes ago I would have received with immeasurable gratitude, but now seemed bittersweet. We surfaced slowly, got out of the water and emerged from the water in dumbfounded silence.
The ocean gave birth to a new man that night, her cold waters letting me go with reluctance and wisdom. We walked in silence back to the parking lot and started shedding suits, taking apart gear, and chatting about how epic the dive was. My euphoria was unabated, as I looked at my instructor and stared into the eyes of a man who had found the answer. He looked back at me, smiled, diverted his eyes, sniffed the air and impatiently asked: “who peed themselves?”.
Lesson #5 – don’t pee in a drysuit, or any suit for that matter, you only think you’re getting away with it.