Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Diving in Panama City

I'm pretty new to this whole diving thing, and I still have much to learn. But every time I go, I learn something new, develop a new skill, improve upon my current skills, glean advice from more experienced divers, and expand my confidence and experience as a diver. And I absolutely love all of it.

Diving in Panama City this weekend was my third (and fourth) dive, if you don't count my first four dives to become a certified diver. It was an ocean dive, which I'd never done. It was boat dive - meaning I would have to jump off a boat to enter the water, and it was deeper than I'd ever been - about 75 feet at the deepest.

And let me just say - it was amazing and the absolute best dive I've done so far. The quarry dives I've done were cool and interesting...until they weren't. On those dives I found myself feeling uninterested way before the dive was over. When I got to the bottom of that ocean, I had to keep a close eye on my computer and air because I did NOT want the dive to end. I wanted to stay down there much longer than my air would allow. That was a new and pleasant feeling. I was left wanting more... almost craving it in a way.

The dive shop through which I've earned my certification and where I purchase all my gear and rentals has a quote on their website that says:

"The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."
                                                                                                        - Jacques Yves Cousteau

I found this to be true this weekend. I grew up on the beaches of Panama City. I went often, swam often, snorkeled, hunted for shells, and enjoyed the beauty of it all for years. But I'd never seen it like I did this weekend, and it was magical. Beautiful. Peaceful. Graceful. Full of wonder from the large goliath grouper, to the tiniest starfish hidden inside a sand dollar. I lack the words to adequately describe how I felt down there, experiencing this amazing part of God's creation I'd never seen before, but I'll try anyway.

Jason and I drove down Friday, stopping by Southeastern Divers Inc. on the way out to rent our tanks and wetsuits (one of the last bits of diving paraphernalia I've yet to purchase). Saturday morning we awoke early and headed to Panama City Dive Center to sign in, and then headed to Captain Anderson's Marina where we'd board the Reef Runner for our two ocean dives that day.

The original point of this trip was to hunt lion fish. Jason and I bought pole spears and a Zookeeper (a contraption in which you store your lion fish once speared), and were ready to hunt, but the water was too rough to go offshore, so we stayed inshore, but there were few lionfish to be found at either spot we dove. I hope to go back and give that another shot at a later date, but that did not detract from the fun we had.

We met Zach, our Captain, and Fred our Dive Master. Both were great and very good at what they do. Zach navigated some rough waters at the end and kept an eye on weather and conditions to keep us all safe. Fred, our illustrious dive master was a real character, from his colorful personality to his exteremly colorful language. He gave us all a hard time, telling us there were no sissies allowed on his boat, and regailing us with stories of previous dives. He seemed 10 feet tall to me (of course everyone seems tall to me) and had a handle bar mustache. He was retired military, a retired fire fighter, and a black belt in kung fu, so while he was joking around with us mostly (I think), I still took him pretty seriously. No sissies. Got it.

When it came time to dive, however, he was perfect. He was just what this new diver needed, in fact. (But don't tell him I said that.) We geared up, and Jason and I were the last off the boat. I wanted to see everyone else do it so I knew what to do. I recognized it all from my diving manual and the diving videos I'd watched, but doing it myself was still intimidating. Fred strapped on my fins and reminded me to hold my mask and regulator as I jumped. And then I jumped. I grabbed the no swim line that would lead me to the anchor line... and panicked. I couldn't breathe. I could breathe, but I felt as if I couldn't. The waves were rough and the ocean was deep, and it all seemed too much. I said, "I can't breathe!" and Fred and Jason were immediately beside me. Fred said I could go back to the boat, and I said I wanted to. He helped me to the stairs and Jason followed.

I knew I didn't want my dive trip to end this way. I knew I wanted to get to the bottom and see that bridge span and look for a lion fish. But it seemed daunting. I didn't want to get down there breathing hard and fast like I was. I kneeled on the ladder catching my breath with Fred and Jason waiting for my decision. I said I wanted to try again (no sissies, remember). Fred helped me back to the rope leading to the drop line that was anchored to the bridge below, and Jason stayed close. I told him to give me a minute at the 15 foot mark and he said he would. I put my head under and began to descend. I took a minute to relax and "find my Zen" as another diver on the boat put it, and then I was ready. My breathing slowed, and then I forgot all my fear as the world below came into view.

I was surrounded by the most graceful school of fish. They all moved together as one and flowed under and around me. The bridge was covered in all kinds of coral and algae, with brightly colored fish playing around it. Large trigger fish, beautiful starfish, and all kinds of things I couldn't identify caught my attention, and I immediately thanked my God for giving me the courage to get down there and see His majesty around me. Again, there are no words to describe it. Jason kept checking in with me to see if I was okay, and I signaled I was, but I needed to say more. So I made a heart with my fingers and motioned to everything around me. I was WAY better than okay. I think I was in love.

Jason was great at reminding me to check my computer and air, and I became more aware of it despite my beautiful surroundings. My computer eventually beeped at me to tell me I only had 6 more minutes at my current depth, and I wanted to tell it to leave me alone. But Jason motioned upward and I knew I had to go. We explored the shallower portions of the bridge until close to 500 lbs. of air left and then ascended. Grudgingly.

Getting back on the boat was a little crazy with the rough waters, but I remained relaxed and didn't fight the waves or the moving ladder as I climbed aboard. Fred helped and practically lifted me up by my tank. He secured my tank behind me as I sat down and then looked me in the eye and said, "I don't usually blow smoke up people's asses, but you need to be proud of yourself for facing your fears like that."

I appreciated that. And it felt great to have faced it. And so very worth it! Our second dive was at B&B Barge. The waters continued to get rougher, and we had a current as we explored. It was only about 55 feet or so, but it too was beautiful, and it was there I saw the goliath grouper. He was as big as I was, and my fellow divers said he was a small one! Visibility began to lessen as the waters got rougher, but it was still beautiful. I found a flashlight a little away from the barge and retrieved it, thinking it might belong to one of our divers - which it did! (Salvage diving, here I come).

Ascending this time was a little more intimidating because when we got to our 15 foot safety stop, I could see the boat rocking violently above me. I did not want to get too close, but I also wanted to reach the no swim line that would take me to the ladders. I saw it... and then I didn't see it. In fact I couldn't see the boat anymore. Jason and I ascended to see that we were almost past the trail line - which is the line behind the boat in case you miss the swim line. No worries though because Fred pulled it in and threw it out to us. We both got it and were pulled in. It was like skiing under water. I kind of liked it. When I got to the ladder I couldn't remove my fins and hand them up like before, so Fred jumped in the water and did it for me. I climbed up and sat back down on the boat safely once again.

I felt on top of the world! Exhilarated! And hungry for more. The boat ride back to the marina was beautiful and fun. I enjoyed getting to know our fellow divers, and that night we ate at Captain Anderson's with our small Huntsville group. Sunday, our dive got cancelled, and I was really disappointed, but we decided to visit my home church for services before driving home and that assuaged my disappointment some. The service was lovely, seeing so many dear faces was wonderful, and as we drove home, I felt refreshed and ready to hug my urchins and resume the daily grind.

Although, Jason and I couldn't help reliving our trip and discussing when we could go again. The sea is calling, and I must answer.

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