How We Became Divers

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Tina and I started diving mainly because of a trip to Puerto Rico.   But my passion for diving started long before that.  I have been in love with the underwater world since I was able to walk. My mom had me in swim lessons basically as a baby and as I got older,  I remember watching underwater documentaries and thinking how amazing it would be to swim and breath under water. It was only a matter of time before I put a regulator in my mouth.  My family didn’t really have money to give me for scuba lessons so I had to wait until I was on my own.

Puerto Rico Reef System

When Tina and I started dating, she was already PADI certified but she hadn’t dove outside of her class, except to try a drysuit which ended in disaster.   West Virginia didn’t have an abundance of scuba training agencies so she took scuba for college credit  sometime in the early 2000’s.  When we went to Puerto Rico in the summer of  2009, we camped on a beach called Playa Flemenco on the Island of Culebra.  We snorkeled endlessly and at the time I didn’t even own dive fins. I was shoving a cheap snorkel under the strap of my swim goggles.  However the amazing wildlife I experienced while snorkeling on the reef  solidified my fate to become a diver.

When we got back from our trip to Puerto Rico,  and I promptly called up the only scuba shop in Morgantown West Virginia, a PADI agency,  and registered for training.  Of course,  I had to buy my own mask, fins, snorkel, and boots. The rest of the gear was included in the class.  Now The class was the typical 4 or 6 week (meet on Wednesday) classroom followed by learning skills in a pool.  The instructors were good and patient. My first open water dives were in a warm water lake in the highlands of West Virginia, called Mt. Storm Lake. I was a total mess by “good diver” standards,  but I didn’t know any better. I basically clawed the bottom of the lake, kicking up all the silt into a visibility obliterating soup.  I finished my dives, passed the class and was given license to go forth into the diving world.  Fall of 2009, I was a certified diver with 4 open water dives under my weight belt.

I spent most of the winter wishing It was warm enough to dive and looking at scuba gear to buy.  I was certified to be a diver but to be honest I didn’t really feel like one. I had not dove outside of a classroom setting nor did I really have the confidence to do so.  Since Tina hadn’t dove for a few years, we decided to sign up for an Advanced Open Water (AOW) class through the same dive company I used for my Open Water.  The AOW gave us the training to dive deeper and hopefully more confidence.   Both Tina and I wanted to go wreck diving in North Carolina to see sharks,  but the Carolina dives are deep, and definitely advanced.  We made a significant investment and purchased most of the gear we needed to dive except for tanks.  It was easily a few thousand dollars worth of equipment.   We bought whatever the shop recommended and most certainly purchased things we didn’t need but that’s another story.

I think the AOW class lasted one weekend but we weren’t ready.  Again, we dove in Mt. Storm lake and this lake is deep, dark and scary.  We managed some of the skills when at the training platforms, but when it came to the deep dive, we both blew it.  Had the water been clear, blue and warm, then I’m sure we wouldn’t have had a problem. But it wasn’t, and in fact after about 40ffw it goes from pea soup green to black.  We needed to dive with dive lights just to see in front of you.  Imagine clinging to a rope staring down at an empty black abyss. Our minds played tricks on us and I imagined all types of lake monsters lived down there.  To complete the course we needed to dive to 90ffw and perform a skill at a platform in the dark.  Needless to say we didn’t pass the AOW class. Tina was frightened of the deep blackness and the instructor took her to the surface. I did manage to get down but I messed up the ascent and came up too fast and totally missed the deep stop.   But our Instructor was very patient and would allow us to try again later.  We didn’t pass because we truly weren’t qualified to take on more challenging dives.  Had we not made this huge investment in scuba equipment, I’m fairly certain that we would have ended our diving hobby right then and there.  But, as I found out; Scuba gear has virtually no resale value on ebay.  I was faced with a dilemma of taking a huge loss on gear or just trying to work out our problems under water.  We had long talks about scuba and we decided to give it another shot.

A few weeks after our AOW disaster, we rented tanks and decided to go diving on our own. Tina was frightened during her deep dive so much so,  that it was hard for her to even put her face under water.  Neither of us really knew how to properly plan a dive, we basically just had dive computers to tell us how much time we had left. Of course we had learned about the RDP and square dive profiles but I don’t ever recall getting a good explanation of gas planning so there was a big piece of the puzzle missing for me.   It was just easier to follow the computer and not worry about it.

Our first ever dive without an instructor went better then expected but then again we basically just sat or swam around a platform in 20 feet of water.   For the next few weekends we dove every weekend, honing our skills like: fin pivots, mask removal, underwater communication etc etc.   We stayed near the platforms for most of the dives.  It wasn’t until about our 20th dive that we felt more comfortable and wanted to try the AOW deep dive again.  We asked our instructor to meet us at the lake to finish our deep dive and he obliged.  We were also so confident that we would pass, that we scheduled an ocean dive in NC for the following week.  Needless to say our diving paid off  and this time we got it right and both finally passed the class. This was a huge accomplishment for both Tina and I. We still tell each other:  “If you can dive Mt. Storm to 90ft then you can dive anywhere”

Our first ocean dive went swimmingly and we both had such a blast that we talked about it for weeks. We dove the FW. Abrams off the coast of North Carolina in the summer of 2010. This was a far cry from the scary training lake we were used to diving. We had hired a Dive Master and were even complimented on our diving skills.  This of course made us feel good but we weren’t without our problems (and still aren’t to be honest).

Our First Ever Ocean Dive

After diving in the ocean,  we continued to dive in the lakes of West Virginia but Tina still had trouble with her mask clearing and never really felt comfortable in her gear. She had a Sherwood Luna BC and it would constantly ride up her back. I also had the same problem with my Sherwood AVID and it always required so much adjustment that half my focus under water was lost to messing with gear.  Tina had trouble closing off her nose and water rushes into her sinus cavity when she takes her mask off.   She will be the first to tell you that she still struggles with it to this day.     The biggest problem for both of us was working as a dive team and this is also something that we continue to learn.

The diving season of 2010 was closing and I had a chance to go on an all boys trip with the dive shop to the Florida Keys.  The plan was to dive the Spiegel  Grove, USCC Duane and the reefs.  The trip was great (and more on that later) but I was still very much a new diver.

For various reasons Tina and I ended up not diving in 2011 and most of 2012 until we moved to Texas.  Being on the gulf cost and at a lower latitude then West Virginia, the dive season lasts a little longer in Texas. Our first dive in Texas was for the most part total chaos. We dove a lake called “The Blue Lagoon”  It was October, the water was cold, I put my reg on the tanks backwards and Tina was miserable. We considered selling the gear again honestly.  Tina was constantly fighting with her BC, mask and other gear.  We just were out of practice and it showed.

Florida Keys Diving

When the water warmed up in 2013, we dove the Blue Lagoon and some of the other Texas lakes, and these went a little better but it was still a struggle.  After a few dives we were basically back to where we felt we had been in 2010.  It wasn’t because we were bad divers. In fact our buoyancy was pretty good, we communicated well underwater and we watched our bottom time and air.   We were just  struggling with gear and Tina was never comfortable being underwater to begin with,  so adding the frustration of gear made for a few unpleasant experiences.   It came to a point where I felt like Tina was only diving with me because I needed a buddy and I felt like she had lost interest completely.

Sometime back in 2010, my old scuba instructor had purchased a back plate and wing  (bp&w) and he let me try it.  It was a Halcyon Infinity.  I dove the infinity for a short 30 minute dive and felt very stable under water. Not to mention all the messing with the gear vanished. It just worked for me .   So fast forward to 2013, I thought that I’d try to save up for a Halcyon. Tina has always been good (or bad) at letting me collect gear.   I found Extreme Exposure online, gave them a call and ordered a Halcyon Infinity with a 30# wing. I did  do quite a bit of research on BP&W systems,  and  I more or less knew what I wanted (but had no idea what I needed).  The Infinity arrived and I was able to try it out on a few dives. After some adjustment I really started to see why the BP&W system was superior to a jacket BC.  The simple design stayed secure during the dive, allowed for better position in the water and didn’t have a bunch of unnecessary crap,  like dangly clips, pockets and straps. Not to mention you could run over it with your truck and it wouldn’t break. Tina however;  refused to try it. She saw it as complicated and uncomfortable.

After my relentless effort to get Tina out of her sherwood luna,  I talked her into giving the bp&w a try.  From the moment she put it on,  she was a different diver.  I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with Jacket style BC’s, they do work very well for some folks. But for the first time ever, Tina actually enjoyed the dive.  I had a lot more fun on the dive too.  The only problem was that we only had one BP&W rig between us.  We finished 2013 by sharing the Halcyon. I’d do one dive with it and she would do the next.  Needless to say, the X-Mas list for 2013 included a new BC for Tina.

But the gear was never really the problem that we have. This problem is a lack of confidence underwater.  I suspect that there is a fairly high attrition rate for people that leave the dive community after a handful of dives because of the cost of gear, they got scared or that they just never felt comfortable enough to do it on their own.  Tina and I are the typical divers.  I’m writing this entire blog partly out of frustration and partly as a plea to the dive community.  We started our diving the same as most of the divers in the world.  We have been lucky enough to make it to 100 dives but most of the 100 dives have been ripe with frustration.  We’ve come to a crossroads. We talked about taking rescue and maybe doing a DM course and that may happen eventually. But I feel like right now it’s not for me.

We recently discovered Global Underwater Explorers, which is a not for profit dive training agency.  What makes this agency different is that they are born from the same folks that are leading cave diving expeditions.  The florida cave divers invented holistic Hogarthian diving system (named after a real living person William Hogarth Main) to eliminate failure points in a system.  The cave diving community developed a philosophy about diving called “Doing it Right” or DIR for short and you can do a google search to read all about that.   Now in recent years there have been a few different organizations pop up that teach the DIR philosophy including TDI and UTD among others.  Of course,  depending on your dive goals, one could argue that none of the agencies are really any better than the other.  Also there is nothing wrong with agencies like SSI and PADI because they get people interested in diving, I just think that some instructors don’t know enough to prepare students to be good divers and 4 open water dives.  Our instructor was better then most i’ve seen but I don’t really think we were really ready to be on our own. That being said, we didn’t screw up too badly underwater and knew enough to keep us out of trouble.

The philosophies of GUE and other DIR organizations are just different from the recreational organizations like PADI and SSI.   For example from the get go GUE doesn’t teach divers to use a computer. They teach divers to plan dives using tables so that you understand the dive and know how to make the appropriate decompression stops should you need to alter the dive plan.  Also a big part of the dive plan involves discussing the dive with your dive buddy instead of gearing up, jumping in and hoping for the best. Another big point is that GUE emphasizes buoyancy above anything else.  I’ve personally seen on my handful of ocean dives, people kicking reefs, standing on reefs, people flailing about.  Because Tina and I are very much conservationists it just makes us sick when we see that type of stuff.

I’m also a big fan of the standardized gear between divers.  This resonates with me because I have seen enough divers to know that many of them have a mess of gear hanging from them and random places. Yes there is the golden triangle but short of that, there really are no other rules for placement of gear.  GUE specifies exactly what gear you should have and where you should put it.  This eliminates any confusion. My gear is exactly like the next person in my dive teams.  Even before Tina and I started diving the standard GUE kit, we basically had a standard way of placing gear.  Albeit, the standard was something we made up and was only standard between us.  If we ever dove with other divers they wouldn’t know our setup.  My attitude towards standardization is that in an emergency I shouldn’t have to think about where someone has a piece of gear or how the buckle of their integrated weight bc works.   The picture of me on the line is from 2010 and I have a flashlight, dive slate, a random carabiner, and some mask defog all hanging from me. I also had a spare light in my bc pocket which was extremely difficult to get to. The pockets in my BC were mostly useless. In an emergency I could probably fiddle around enough to find a spare dive light or my smb but it would have been a chore and would have certainly made the stress level go up.

Lots of Floaty Dangly Things

Now the disclaimer is that neither Tina nor I have taken any training from GUE or any other tech/cave diving focused agency. However we are signed up for a GUE fundamentals course in the spring and we have both begun to read the required training material.  I am choosing to further my training with GUE (and not do any more with PADI for now), simply because I have spent 100 dives struggling. I feel that , had I done things the GUE way to begin with; we could have saved frustration and money.  GUE training is not cheap though,  and the reason is because it’s extremely thorough. A class like GUE Open Water lasts for an entire week maybe longer and you spend 8 hours a day either in class or in the water.  Fundamentals is 4 days of intensive training.    Of course there are critics and naysayers but you can instantly tell the difference between a GUE or other DIR diver when you see one in the water.

For the record, my understanding is that GUE distanced it’s self from the “DIR” term because of some controversial people who used to be part of the organization.  Fortunately, for the most part I think all those people are gone,  and what is left is a very well structured group of instructors. Take a look at GUE’s website and you can see that they really care about training and making students feel confident as well as promote conservation and exploration.

For an example of what I’ve been talking about;  take a look at the video below, which  demonstrates the DIR skills to some recreational divers. Clearly the video is shot somewhere in Europe (based on the speedo suits) and I want to emphasize that this is not a class to teach DIR but merely a demo.  A video about teaching GUE’s philosophy is at the bottom of the page.

DIR demo bij Duikteam Almere from Wethorse on Vimeo.

Now I’m sure that the divers demoing the skills have lots and lots of dives but I also bet there are a handful of non DIR divers in the video that have a bunch of dives as well.  I’m not bashing skills or saying that if you took PADI or SSI courses or any of the other non DIR agencies, you are a bad diver.  I’m saying that I’m in your shoes. I was and still am the recreational diver that struggles with buoyancy. But when I see the skills of these guys in the video, It makes me strive to be better.  And we can all be better divers.  So follow Tina and I on our journey as we learn to be better divers.