Breaking News! I’m a CERTIFIED OPEN WATER SCUBA DIVER!
Earning my certification was the high point of a wonderful weekend on Catalina, an island off the southern California coast. As I mentioned in my previous scuba post (which chronicled the classroom and pool portion of the certification process), I had never been to Catalina before, and didn’t really have expectations. Catalina is easiest to get to by ferry, which takes about an hour from Long Beach. We met up on Friday night and boarded the last ferry of the day to Avalon, the main little town on Catalina.
Avalon is a cute little town that surrounds the harbor. The main street along the waterfront is closed to vehicular traffic (golf carts are the main mode of transportation), and it’s lined with bars, restaurants, hotels, and shops.
Our hotel, the Hermosa Hotel and Cottages, was up a side street. It’s a small, no-frills establishment that’s very diver-friendly and met our needs, which were minimal, because I was barely in my room except to sleep.
We grabbed a bite to eat on Friday night and bright and early on Saturday morning (7:15 am), we met in the lobby to head out to the dive site.
We walked over to Casino Point, home of the Avalon Underwater Dive Park. It’s the oldest underwater park in the country, and it’s marked off by buoys on the surface. Boat traffic is prohibited in the dive park, which means it’s safe for divers to surface wherever they need to. The dive park isn’t much to look at on the surface, but there’s a whole different world underneath!
The dive park is in the shadow of the Catalina Casino, the landmark building on the island, a huge circular structure housing a theater, ballroom and museum (but, oddly enough, it isn’t and has never been an actual casino). This was my view while I was tugging and pulling on my wetsuit:
As you saw in the first picture (and in my last scuba post), there’s a lot of gear involved to be able to breathe underwater. It takes a little time to set everything up and put it on, and you do a pre-dive check with your diving buddy to make sure everything is properly functioning. Here’s my scuba tank, after I attached it to my BCD (buoyancy control device), which you wear like a vest:
Lots of scuba diving is done off the back of a boat, or by wading into the water on the beach, but at Catalina, you simply walk down a staircase that leads into the ocean.
There’s a small landing a few steps up from the water’s edge, and that’s where you put on your final piece of equipment, your fins. Once you hit the water, you swim out a little bit, and once everyone in your dive group is there and ready to go, you descend.
It gets deep quickly in the dive park – 20-30 feet deep within a few yards of shore, and there’s a lot to see underwater. There are a lot of fish darting around, including the bright orange Garibaldi, and you may see eels, octopi, or lobsters, among other things. Turns out I’m not very good at spotting underwater critters; there were at least two occasions when others I was diving with pointed out something lurking near a rock, and I just didn’t see it. I did see, on two occasions, two giant black sea bass, which can ultimately grow to be 6 or 8 feet and 500 pounds, although these were more like 4 feet long. It was still very cool.
In addition to the living creatures, the Dive Park has great rock formations that you can swim around. Between the underwater precipices and the giant boulders and rock piles, there’s a variety of terrain to navigate. Most impressive are the kelp forests. It may not sound exciting to swim through kelp, but it grows in these thick columns that slowly undulate in the current, and it was beautiful to look and swim through them, with sunlight from the surface breaking through in patches, catching on the leaves.
On Saturday we did three dives, all of which had skill requirements we had to complete in order to move forward in the certification process. I was one of six students in a group led by our instructor, Stu, who led us through the skills. There wasn’t anything we did in the ocean that we hadn’t tried last weekend in the pool, and nothing posed a challenge for me. On the third dive, Stu brought his underwater camera. Here I am, about 30 feet down!
And I like this shot, because a Garibaldi photo-bombed us:
That’s me in the center, and Skyler, my dive buddy, on the right. Another new friend, Brendan, is on the left, but the Garibaldi is perfectly obscuring his face. You can’t see it in the photo, but we’re gathered around an underwater plaque honoring Jacques Cousteau, the French explorer and conservationist that’s considered the father of modern scuba diving.
On Sunday, we did our fourth and final required dive. Stu wasn’t diving that day, so we were led by another instructor, Mike. This dive contained the skill I was most nervous about – descending from the surface all the way to the ocean floor, but stopping and hovering 5 feet above the bottom, without ever touching the bottom. Hovering was the skill that I had trouble with in the pool, but it turned out my nerves were unnecessary – I completed it like a boss and went the rest of the dive without ever touching the bottom.
After that dive, I was a certified open water scuba diver! Here’s a celebratory photo with Stu.
There was lots of time to get another dive in, so Brendan, Skyler, Skyler’s girlfriend Ally (who got her certification a couple years ago) and I headed back into the water one final time. Stu suggested an area to explore, and we headed down and had some fun winding along the rocks and through the kelp forests. At one point we surfaced and realized that we had unintentionally left the Dive Park and entered the marina (whoops), so we quickly descended again and returned to where we should have been.
You keep a log of all your dives, and at the end of five dives, I had spent a total of 180 minutes at the bottom of the ocean. Bust out your calculators – that’s three hours! The entire experience was thrilling and rewarding, and I’m so glad I did it. And proud of my certification, too!
It was a great weekend for me in other regards too. I stayed on track with my eating. There was a grocery store a few doors down from the hotel, so I loaded up on healthy stuff for breakfasts and snacks (fruit, carrots, turkey jerky, tuna). I ate out a couple of times, but made smart choices, like an egg-white veggie omelet and a turkey burger.
I was also very active. Scuba is tiring. I was carrying 80-90 pounds on my back, and lugging it to and from the dive park each day. In addition, on Saturday, after the three dives, I went for a run in the hills. The woman at the front desk pointed me to a great trail that overlooked Avalon, and it turned out to be a great 4.15 mile outing with some nice and long inclines that brought my heart rate up. I made a wrong turn at one point and ended up on a golf course, but after sprinting across a fairway, I made it back to the road.
Stu quickly pointed out, after the run, that I should be careful. Basically, your body takes on lots of excess nitrogen while diving, and afterwards, your body needs to process and expel that gas. Both vigorous exercise or changes in elevation (I had ascended around 300 feet into the hills) could affect how your body does that, so neither are recommended. I’ll remember that for next time. I will say that it was my first run in about 2 weeks, and I felt great both during and after.
Keep it up, David!