It began in 1978. My mom became a certified diver. Growing up I heard her mention her underwater adventures quite often. Some aspects were appealing; others- like swimming with alligators in Florida- not so much.
Throughout my 20’s I often thought about diving. But I was fairly poor most of the time and diving is not an inexpensive hobby. When I got a real job I was nowhere near the ocean and didn’t want to spend my vacation time “working”, which is what I thought getting certified would involve.
In the summer of 2014 I traveled to Mombasa, Kenya. It was there that I learned of something called a “Discover Dive” where one could go scuba diving with a dive master by their side, even if they had never dived before. My friend Kelly (who is up for just about anything) and I decided to give it a shot.
It is hard to describe my first experience breathing underwater. It was AMAZING! The feeling of weightlessness and just…peace; it is like nothing one can experience above water. An entirely new world was at my fingertips. Now, of course, I’ve snorkeled all over the world and seen beautiful reefs in the Bahamas, Mauritius and Mayotte. I’ve snorkeled with manta rays and sea turtles. But snorkeling is very limited. I cannot hold my breath very long so I’m usually stuck at the surface marveling at the beauty of this world from an outsiders perspective. Diving makes one a part of this world as much as humanly possible. I surfaced from that first dive convinced that diving was made for me and I for it.
On my plane ride back to the islands with Kenya Airways after that vacation I read their sky magazine. It mentioned diving with whale sharks in Mozambique year-round. And so a new line was added to my bucket list. Since I was going to be off the islands for my 30th birthday with some vacation time on mainland Africa, what better time to check off this new item. And why not add getting certified as an Open Water Diver to the list?
After some research I discovered Tofo Beach in south Mozambique- a veritable diver’s paradise- a town with multiple dive shops…and that’s about it. The Marine Megafauna Foundation is based in Tofo because giant manta rays, reef manta rays and whale sharks can be found in the waters of Tofo year round.
After weeks and weeks of research and planning I decided to dive with Liquid Dive Adventures, run by a Finnish couple, Jari and Satu. They arranged my lodging, giving me different options for various budgets, and setting up all kinds of activities. I had 12 days but I thought I’d only do the four dives for certification and a couple fun dives, so I needed to fill up the rest of the days with kayaking and surfing (I don’t really “hang out” on vacation- I do stuff). I convinced my Peace Corps friend, Sarah, to meet me there and thus the adventure began.
We arrived on a Friday. And immediately my stomach started to hurt. Well, not really my stomach but it wasn’t my intestines either. It kind of felt like cramps but different. I didn’t worry about it, figuring it would pass quickly and I would be all ready for diving the next day. The whole afternoon and into the evening it got more and more painful. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and try to fall asleep but I had a friend I hadn’t seen in months so I tried really hard to be social. We went to live music at the Tofo Do Mar hotel and stayed as long as our ears could handle the bad speakers. The next morning I woke up around 5:15am; the pain was even worse and I now had a fever. I’d known there was a possibility I could contract malaria again from my time in Tanzania since it’s epidemic and the inside of my mosquito net was party haven for the little monsters. After some medical research, I learned that the abdominal discomfort was most likely my liver swelling from a malarial infection. Upon learning this, I made a (slow) beeline for the nearest doctor, located at one of the dive shops. Malaria was NOT going to ruin my vacation. I hobbled to Liquid, holding my side and breathing heavily, followed the entire time by a small beach boy peddling bracelets, to inform them that I could not start my course today. I had malaria. Bleh.
Fortunately, I was prepared. I brought the medicine from Tanzania and I began taking it that morning. It is incredibly quick acting and by Sunday morning I was well enough for the first part of my certification- three hours of watching videos about diving. I’d already read the Open Water manual online and taken the quizzes. The videos were mostly a recap of the reading, I guess to reinforce the written material for those auditory and visual learners. It. Was. Boring.
Due to my weakened condition we held off on the pool dive until the next day when I was feeling more like myself. My instructor, Jari, explained all of the gear outside the pool and then had me put everything together. We combined the three pool sessions into one. Jari had me fill my mask with water and then get rid of it. He had me remove my mask and put it back on. He turned off my air so I would know what it felt like. We practiced sharing air and emergency assents. He had me practice hovering. He floated mid water with his ankles crossed like a zen master while I inevitably sank tank first to the bottom. No matter.
The next day was my first open water dive. Sarah accompanied us to be the official photographer (she’s a good friend). All the dive shops use RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) that are launched from the beach with a lot of tugging and pulling and being knocked over by waves. Passengers then sit on the inflated sides as the boat bounds over the waves.
The first dive was about a two-minute boat ride to Clown Fish Reef. After getting all geared up with some help, we did the BWRAF check, which the manual says to remember as “Begin with Review and Friend” but I was taught “Best Women Really Are Finnish”, so there’s that. It means you inflate, deflate and manually inflate your BCD (Buoyancy Control Device- the vest that divers wear), check weights (most divers wear weight belts to help them sink), check releases (of the BCD), air check (can you breathe out of the regulator and alternate regulator?) and final check (mask on, buddy check, etc.). Very quickly after going through this checklist the boat driver counts “1,2,3 go” and everyone just drops backward off the boat. On the first couple dives I popped right back up, inflating my BCD and then ever so slowly descended, trying to make sure my ear drums did not explode and that my mask didn’t cut a ravine through my forehead.
The Open Water Certificate requires four open water dives going up to 18 meters deep. You practice the skills learned in the pool and in an area like Tofo you have the added benefit of seeing some really beautiful sea creatures. I don’t mean to brag but I took to diving like a fish to water. Jari was an incredibly encouraging instructor. Every time I did something correctly he would clap for me. As I crave positive reinforcement, I paid very close attention to everything I did so as not to disappoint him and in turn get more claps. It’s hard to smile with a regulator in your mouth but I definitely tried every time I got applauded.
After a dive, I feel very strange. For the rest of the day and into the night I sometimes get the feeling that I am still under water, being rocked back and forth by the surge. In the beginning my nose ran constantly as the salt water cleaned out my sinuses. Sometimes my ears would fill with water and I couldn’t hear very well. Another side effect is loss of appetite. I have looked and looked through blogs and medical diving websites, I’ve talked to the divers at Liquid and the recreational divers at my guesthouse. I seem to be alone in this. Most people report being famished after dives. I have to force myself to eat. I’m not full and when I eat, I feel fine; I just have no desire to eat. Quite strange.
As I progressed through the Open Water, Jari suggested that instead of doing to the “fun dives” I had planned after my certificate, I should go for the advanced certificate since that would allow me to go 30m, which is obviously way better than a measly 18m. Umm….yes please.
One week in, I began my advanced training. The first dive of the advanced course took me out into open ocean about 16 kilometers. There were seven Finnish men (no one under age 50) and three staff members including Jari, who would be following me around and making sure I didn’t kill myself.
We did a negative entry, meaning once you drop into the water you don’t come back up. Once you’re under, you’re under. Then it’s down, down and more down. The visibility was incredible! That far from shore and that deep, there was no surge. There was also no current. It was simply clear, blue water as far as the eye could see. We saw some huge moray eels and a stingray that was larger than me. When I surfaced from this dive, I literally could not stop smiling. We had an hour trip back to shore, where I was continually hit by giant waves, right in the face over and over again, but I did not care! It was a feeling of complete euphoria. I think those Finnish men probably thought I was a complete idiot with this gigantic smile on my face the entire miserable boat ride home.
For the advanced course, you must do five “adventure” dives, focusing on a different skill in each. That first dive was my “deep dive”. Later that day I did a “drift dive” that involved drifting along in a current, letting Mother Nature do all the work while I enjoyed the surroundings. I also did a navigation dive, using a compass underwater. I had to
navigate a square, which I accomplished flawlessly. Then I was supposed to locate another reef about a 15-minute swim from the one at which we had been dropped. It probably moved, maybe washed out further to sea with the strong waves, because I certainly didn’t find it! Instead I navigated Jari and two rescue diver trainees to a great patch of sand where we swam around for an hour…
My last two dives were “Computer Diving” and “Fish Identification”. I studied my fish families the night before and had a jolly good time taking pictures and trying to figure out what I was seeing. Those last two dives also brought along a Giant Manta Ray, getting itself cleaned over the reef and three white-tipped reef sharks. Sharks and tornadoes (as I’ve written in previous posts) are my two very greatest fears. It is a testament to Jari’s amazing instructional ability and calming effect that I did not pull out my regulator (something a panicking diver tends to do) and try to swim straight up 30 meters. Instead I chased after it trying and failing to get a good picture.
My last two dives were yesterday. I am now an Advanced Open Water Diver. But it’s not enough. Despite my desperate hopes, I never saw a whale shark. That’s still an item on the bucket list that needs to be checked off. So I’ll have to come back.