We should’ve known there was going to be problems after our NAUI scuba instructor told the class that he would dive on Saturday despite starting a second round of antibiotics for a middle ear infection. When the class met up at Devil’s Den near Williston, Florida there were four new faces; turns out they were holdovers from earlier classes who randomly bolted to the surface. Yours truly was probably the only one old enough to remember where he was when President Kennedy was assassinated.
It was a typical late summers’ day in Williston, about 101 degrees in the shade with a forecast for severe thunderstorms and possible hale. Trouble soon began as one student trying to get his foot through the leg of his dry wetsuit staggered across the concrete deck into another man with a fully charged air tank strapped to his back. I suddenly remembered from class that scuba air tanks contain 80 cubic feet of air under 3,000 pounds per-square-inch of pressure. Fortunately, the man wearing his tank was a veteran dive instructor with another class who weighed about 300 pounds and bore a striking physical resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger; he steadied the stumbler without budging an inch while casually continuing his conversation with another diver. Yours truly, fit for 64 mind you, had little problem suiting up until I was unable to grasp my wetsuit’s zipper, which for some inexplicable reason is located between the shoulder blades. I finally asked a twenty-something year old woman standing nearby to ‘zip me up’ which seemed awkward.
Soon, our instructor, the Mike Nelson of NAUI, paired me with a nice lady I guessed to be around 60 – one of the aforementioned surface-breaching holdovers. After standing in the Florida Sun for an hour-long spiel by the instructor and his assistant, wherein he warned us that It only takes a thimble full of water to drown a human being, the dry wet suit had raised my body temperature by maybe 20 or 30 degrees. Mercifully we finally submerged in the relatively small pool where the water was much cooler, or about 95 degrees. Despite all discomforts, I was determined to earn my open water diver certification even if it killed me, which no longer seemed such a remote possibility.
The sweet lady that was my dive buddy would probably make a wonderful diver if breathing underwater did not trigger extreme anxiety punctuated by episodes of claustrophobic responses. Panic was not apparent behind her mask at first because someone who could not properly adjust their buoyancy vest kept kicking my facemask off with a fin. By the time my mask was cleared my diving buddy was bolting for the surface with our NAUI instructor in close pursuit. The rest of us waited patiently at the bottom of the overheated pool, occasionally giving each other the “I’m okay,” or, at least not drowned yet, hand signal. My now former diving buddy was permanently grounded but her companion, not about to waste the certification fee, waded into the pool after donning her gear, which took about another half hour.
Finally gathered at the bottom of the pool, our 12-member dive class quickly devolved into an underwater version of Cirque du Soleil that included enough misunderstood hand signals to give me a keen new appreciation for people who use signing to communicate. It would have been funny if I wasn’t so afraid of swallowing a thimble of water the wrong way. Several students were unable to use their bouyancy vests to “hover in place” without thrashing wildly, and at one point my newest dive buddy failed to understand that “cutting” or “chopping” the throat with a flat hand signaled, for classroom purposes, one was out of air. Instead of grabbing my vest and offering his second-stage breather, he took my extra air hose, cleared it nicely, and began breathing from my tank. Making matters worse, After giving him a thumbs down, he peered with bewilderment at the pool’s bottom before looking up and shrugging, which is the universal gesture for “Huh?” My bad.
After an extremely hot poolside debriefing in full gear the group made its way to Devil’s Den, a 30-feet deep air cave that descends underwater for another 50 or so feet. The underwater spring is located about a hundred yards from the pool area which meant our wetsuits once again turned into hotsuits and our body temperatures soared back into triple digits. That’s when my air tank – as noted earlier, under about 3000 pounds of pressure per square inch – slipped through its buckled binding. Fortunately for the entire group and immediate neighborhood the assistant dive instructor caught it and yanked it up, which was fine except he gave me a heck of a wetsuit wedgie.
Steam rise from the wetsuits of several divers as they entered the cold spring, and the constantly 73-degree water felt wonderful. A father-and-son team swam in front of me as our class descended to 35 feet. Soon people were swimming away from the pack with the assistant instructor chasing them down one at a time like a nurse shark. A 14-year-old boy who was certifying with his Dad was in front of me and someone told me to keep and eye on him, which was humbling in view of the fact that my loose air tank might have blown the whole place up. However, as the attached video from my GoPro reveals, the kid did quite well, and all who made it to the spring survived to dive another day.