Early one overcast Sunday morning, I stepped off the boat into the Rainbow River, shivering from excitement and the chilly 72-degree water permeating my wet suit. I don't do mornings well, so the cold water certainly helped jolt my system awake. I tried to go to bed early the night before, but the excitement of a new adventure kept me tossing and turning all night. As a kid, I used to do the same before the first day of school and the night before Christmas. So after little to no sleep, a Starbucks venti latte and thoughts of my first open-water dive fueled the two-hour drive north through the rolling hills and shaded oaks of Central Florida until I reached the oasis of Dunnellon. I did one final check to make sure my air was on, my equipment was properly assembled and my buddy was ready. Then I strapped on my gear and plunged beneath the surface.
The first time I went snorkeling I was 8 when we took a cruise to the Bahamas. The last time was a few months ago, with a friend in Key Largo. It was there when the desire to get scuba-certified really hit me. Now 32 years old, I wanted to go deeper, stay under longer and be fully immersed instead of bobbing along as a "bubble watcher" on the surface. I wanted to explore — without limitations.
The next day, I enrolled in an open-water National Association of Underwater Instructors scuba course at the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park. I chose them because the Web site states, "Our course is not the shortest or the cheapest … just the best, most comprehensive scuba training in the area."
It cost $275 for the class, $55 for the book and DVDs, then a $200 investment in a mask, snorkel, fins and booties that were necessary for the class. But they say that you never forget your first breath of air underwater.
We met for 31/2 hours a night, twice a week for a month. Our time was split evenly between the classroom and an indoor pool. During the first class we introduced ourselves, watched DVDs about learning to dive and took a swim test that required us to swim laps and float for 10 minutes. The next class we learned how pressure and volume are inversely proportional, and put on our mask and fins to practice snorkeling. By the third class, we learned how buoyancy compensators, regulators and air tanks work, then we put all the gear together and tested it in the pool's shallow end. We quickly graduated to the deep end, practicing rescue techniques and more difficult tasks such as figuring out dive tables, which are used to determine how long you can safely stay under water at a given depth.
I survived the disconcerting task of taking my mask completely off and putting it back on after clearing the water out of it —- all while underwater. What I learned from that is it all comes back to the first and most important rule: breathe.
As long as you have air in your tank and your regulator is working you can breathe. I was very conscious of it at first, repeating the mantra "breathe through your mouth, not your nose" as I took my mask off underwater. The first few tries, I surfaced quickly, panicking and inhaling water through my nose. Determined, I'd repeat the mantra and try again. Eventually, the breathing becomes second nature. So much so, that when my instructor gave me a mask that was blacked out so I couldn't see through it and he told me I had to swim through an underwater obstacle course by feel, not by sight, I didn't panic. I just reminded myself that I had 3,000 pounds per square inch of air in my tank and could spend hours underwater if I needed to. Then I relaxed, put the dark mask on, took a deep breath and began.
It took three weeks to get to this point in the river. And I still had one more week to go and two tests to pass before I would be certified.
Below the surface of the river, an already gorgeous setting somehow became even more beautiful. Everything underwater seems so still, quiet and peaceful. The only sound you hear is your own breathing, and it becomes a rhythmic melody. Inhaling air from your tank. Exhaling tiny bubbles that escape your mouth and make their way up.
The crystal-clear, spring-fed water means the visibility is well beyond 150 feet. With the soft light filtering though the surface of the water, textures and colors become more muted. At about 10 feet, you start to lose the color red, with the rest of the colors falling off shortly thereafter. The sea grass on the bottom sways with the movement of the current. A family of otters plays on a hollowed out log nearby, a spotted Florida gar and some largemouth bass dart past.
The average diver has 50 pounds of gear on, but everything seems so surreal as you glide though the water, effortlessly. It feels a lot like what I imagine flying in slow-motion to be like. Since taking the class, I've had a lot of people tell me they can't, or won't, dive because they're afraid it'd be claustrophobic. To me, it is just the opposite. Everything underwater seems so vast that it really gives you perspective on just how small you really are.
"It cost $30 million to go into space and you're seeing exactly what you see through a telescope, but there is no life there," our dive instructor Guillermo "Billy" Carvallo told us during our first class. "But for a few hundred dollars, you can go underwater and experience a whole new world."
As a native Floridian who grew up around the water, I can't believe I waited this long to get certified. As someone who has always loved to travel, getting to go somewhere new and see something I've never seen before is exciting and awe-inspiring. As a photographer, now I have this whole new world to access through whatever lens I choose.