“Get out of your comfort zone” is an oft repeated admonition. One year I decided to do just that and signed up for scuba diving lessons.

Living in Florida you are surrounded by water and you hear “diver yarns”everywhere.  People go diving in the coral reefsoffsouth Florida, they go diving and lobster fishing during season in the Keys; some go diving for sunken treasure hoping to find another“ Atocha” a la Mel Fisher; resorts offer weekend diving courses.In Central Florida, where I live, cave diving in the many natural springs that dot this region is very popular.

So Ravi and I signed up with a diving school in a nearby strip mall. The dive master sized us up. “You will do just fine” he proclaimed. I mentally gauged the pros and cons – the pros were that one had to be a competent swimmer not necessarily an excellent one. I had no medical contraindications, I did not have to travel far to train and I already had a buddy in Ravi who would be learning with me. The cons were that I was certainly no athlete and did tend to get muscle cramps in cold water. Ravi was more sanguine about his abilities- had he not represented his college in junior swimming some thirty years back?

The didactic portion of the diving lessons took us back to first year physiology. We were reminded that the air we breathe is 20.9% oxygen and 78% nitrogen; that air could be compressed in the scuba tanks, as air becomes denser it does not flow easily, the deeper you dive the greater is the resistance to this flow. Air at 80 degrees is “warm” but water at 80 degrees will cause you to grow chilled from loss of body heat as heat is conducted away by contact of the body with water at a rate 20 times greater than air. We were thoroughly coached on the effects of pressure while diving. At sea level we are under 1 atmosphere of air pressure, at a depth of 33 feet in the ocean we are under 2 atm of pressure at 66 feet under 3atm of pressure- this affects the airspace in our ears and lungs and sinuses. We learnt about buoyancy and need to use weights to the wet suits to sink and how to achieve neutral buoyancy to float.Most of all we were cautioned about effects of rapid ascent and the dreaded “bends”.

Then we were assisted in purchasing our gear- wet suits, masks fins, goggles, gloves,snorkel. Mastering the use of these would ensure survival in this foreign environment. After a few practice dives in a swimming pool we headed off to the Deleon Springs Park for our training sessions. Again we familiarized ourselves with the scuba tank, the gauges, the regulators, the timing devices. Safety routines in this potentially hazardous sport areparamount and the “buddy system” where you dive in twos looking out for each other is considered mandatory.

After weeks of training we passed our tests and received our NAUI diver’s certificate needed for independent diving.  Agog with excitement we headed off to try our diving skills. What better place than the Hol Chan Marine Reserve off the coast of Belize- second largest coral reef next to the Great Barrier Reef, teaming with fish, coral and marine animals- well known for its “Shark Alley” and to consummate divers for the challenge of the deep “Blue Hole.”

A short flight in a 6 sitter plane took us from Belize City to Ambergis Caye. Within few minutes of checking into our sea side cottage we were in the dive shop signing up for what would be our maiden dive in the open ocean. The first available slot was a night dive- something we had never done before. We did not want to wait for the next day and sales person lured us further with the promise of seeing phosphorescent fish at night.

So come night fall we made our way to the jetty. We were greeted by a weathered old salt who was to be our dive master. Given his age he certainly appeared experienced. But wait, who was this young lad barely twelve? – Hewas the “assistant” and would follow us from the rear we are told. I felt a wave of concern rising. This was our first dive, I informed our dive master- “Don’t worry- we will not feed you to the sharks” hereplied in heavily accented English.

The rest of the group joined us. They certainly seemed to be an experienced bunch – given their designer wet suits (yes, there is such athing) underwater photographic equipment, knives strapped to their pants and general confident chatter of past dives and fish citings. The boat sped away into the darkness and now it was the dive master‘s turn to outline the dive plan.

In twenty five minutes we would be reaching the dive site where the boat would be anchored. We were to flip backwards in pairs from either side of the boat then reunite with our buddy. One of us would be given a flash light. There would be a bit of acurrent against us and we would be swimming down the channel in between the reef where we would identify the various fish and photograph them if we pleased. The dive would go past an underwater rock mass and then turn back to head towards the boat. I looked at the ocean now glimmering with phosphorescent fish like moon beams come to life, and fear gripped at my throat. Was I really up to this? In any case, there was no turning back. Our turn came up and Ravi and I tumbled backwards into the water like the rest. My mask and snorkel went flying off my face upon impact with the water however I retrieved them as practiced. Atleast I could breathe now. The challenge now was to identify Ravi. He hadlost his flashlight when he hit water and was scrambling to get it back. In the general darkness all I saw was a mass of finned thrashing legs but which ones were Ravi’s? The group headed in the dive masters direction and I followed for dear life without my “buddy”. Clammy with fear I was still able to appreciate schools of fish as they darted past. Someone pointed to a large creature lying still at the bottom- it was a shark. No time to appreciate the fish, just follow the group and stay alive, I told myself. I was lagging behind as my endurance flagged and suddenly the group went passed a large boulder and then-vanished.

I was all by myself in the midst of the ocean. Try to stay calm I told myself,do not give in to the primordial desire to rip off everything and surface. Surely, they would find me missing. Then vaguely in the distance I saw aglimmer of flashlight. It was adifferent group of divers but there was hope. IfI managed to join them they would surely rescue me.

I started swimming towards them abandoning hopes of finding my own group,and then I felt a tug at my collar. It was the young diver assistant. My group had noticed my absence and he had come to find me. Holding me by the arm he turned me in the right direction. All fear vanished with my little savior by my side; I was beginning to appreciate fish anew. The dive master met us soon. One look at my gauge and he signed I was to surface and turn back to the boat. Fear had made me hyperventilate and I had lost all air in my tank.

The young assistant and I surfaced and we swam back to the boat holding on to each other in tandem. On the boat I checked my gauge. It was at zero. Few minutes later Ravi clambered on board. He had been the next one to run out of air. The rest of the gang now returned. They were thrilled with their dive; I was thrilled to be alive. Later on they were stunned to know that we had selected a night dive as our maiden attempt.

The following morning with renewed courage we dove to a ship wreck, petted nurse sharks on the way and resisted the impulse to touch a darting moray eelin the crevices of the wreck. The dive master held ablowfish which transformed itself into alittle balloon in alarm. Rays swam around us with lobsters and sea turtles crawling on the floor.

The third dive was near perfect. At 70 feet I could still see the warm rays of sunshine penetrating through the ocean surface. Colorful parrot and angel fish dancedand pirouetted some almost touching our masks. Swimming in the warm limpid sea water felt like being enveloped in amniotic fluid in one’s mother’s womb. Dainty sea weeds caressed us, with coral of all shape and color glittering in the background. The feeling of peace,tranquility and repose was unfathomable.

Soon it was time to surface. We headed into the interior jungles of Belize the next day for more adventures. But that is a story for another day……

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