Saturday, December 5, 2009

Learning to Dive Blog- Day 3- Swimming with Shark

For years I lacked the self awareness to realize that I am a shark swimmer. Perhaps it was because I was swimming too fast to think about what was in the water. Perhaps I never wanted to peer down into the water to see where I was heading. Whatever the reason, I know now that I have always had a fascination with shark. In French Polynesia, I was the only one of our family who plunged into the ocean to watch them feed.

The then Salisbury family had paid, at my insistence, a huge sum of money to hire a Polynesian guide to take us beyond the safety of the surrounding coral reefs of Bora Bora and into the ocean. Within the Motu, sharks lie on the sandy bottom of the lagoons, well fed and docile. This is how Polynesian guides allay tourist’s fears of snorkeling in their electric blue waters. Predators outside the coral reefs are never discussed.

On the day of our feeding excursion, whenever we asked about safety, the guide smiled and shook his hand from side to side in the universal hang-loose sign. Danger was never mentioned. As we left the calm lagoons around Bora Bora and entered the dark blue waves of the South Pacific Ocean, I could see the eyes of my sons filling with fear. I never looked into my husband’s eyes to see his terror. Ned, the guide, displayed a large toothy smile, as I stared with wonder at the waves and the diminishing distant island landscape.

When we arrived at our destination, Ned emptied a metal bucket of fish parts into the water at the back of our boat. This is when the male members of the family voiced their refusal to follow behind by diving into bloody water. Ned was already swimming and beckoning us to enter with our fins and snorkel masks. I was not about to waste the hundreds of US dollars, or tens of thousands of French Pacific Franc, it cost for our adventure. I pulled on my flippers and jumped off the boat’s ladder. I assured myself that the power of the United States would keep me safe. No country would dare endanger a US tourist by putting them in harm’s way. I floated on the surface like a delicious stuffed turkey lying on a Thanksgiving Day platter. If shark liked women, they would love me. Through my mask in the crystal clear water, I could see Ned far below holding a fish part in his hand. I was amazed that he needed no scuba equipment and could hold his breath for so long. I floated and watched.

Ned surfaced and with excitement in his voice. He described the shark that was swimming toward him along the bottom. I calmly floated and smiled my approval. He dove under again. From above, I could see two sharks near him. He swam up to the surface, and with water bubbling out of his mouth, he reported that more sharks were coming. They were over fifteen feet long. Down he went. I watched. Below Ned, the sharks began to form a large choreographed circle. I could feel my heart rate accelerate. Circling sharks are not a good thing, especially in chum filled waters. I knew this, but my fascination kept me calm.

As everyone watched, I on top of the water and my family in the boat, I saw the largest shark turn with one flick of his tail fin. He was rising straight up to the surface where I was floating. I had a New Testament moment. A miracle occurred. I walked on water. From a vertical position, on the tips of my fins, I crossed the waves to the boat, hurling myself to safety without using the ladder. I flopped over the boat’s side and landed on the deck like a large snared halibut. I wondered if Jesus had been able to walk on water because of the shark swimming beneath him. As I evoked God’s name several times from where I lay, my husband, without sympathy, exclaimed that the day’s outing was over. The guide would be told to return us to the safety of our five star resort. Ned was disappointed. The children were happy to soon be in a swimming pool. My husband was furious that money had been spent for such an activity. And I was pleased that for a little while, I had been swimming with sharks.

Now as I put on my wetsuit to plunge into the covered swimming pool and begin my second dive class, I try not to think of my swim with sharks. They will be there, but not swimming beneath me as they did in French Polynesia. Tonight, they will come in the form of air embolisms, pneumothorax, mediastinal and subcutaneous emphysema, and of course the bends. These are the overexpansion injuries that we learned about in chapter three of our dive text. Our pool depth will keep us safe, but we are asked to take our simulations seriously. We are to practice emergency ascents. If we are designated to be out of air, then we are told to grab our partner and shake him as if we have no air. If we are designated to rescue our partner, then we must remain calm. We will be in control of our partner’s life as well as our own. Whatever the emergency situation, panic is not an option. It’s just a swimming pool. I am sure I will be fine.

Alec, the instructor, is my partner. I am relieved. He is qualified to rescue me. I plan to go limp in his arms, and he can do the rest. We review our basic skills at the bottom of the deep end. I go last of the three students, so I carefully watch each step and repeat when it is my turn. I can discard my regulator and take my mask off. I am not fond of doing this, but I know I won’t panic if I my mask fills with water.

Alec turns to me and motions with his hands, “Are you OK?”

I sign back, “I am OK.”

I guess.

“Are you OK to be out of air?”

“I am OK to be out of air.”

No, not really. I want my air.

“You are out of air.”

Oh, now I can act. What fun. I grab Alec’s BC vest and shake it as hard as I can. I am simulating no air, thus I am about to drown. He’ll see my passion, as I clutch at his vest for air. He does not hand me his regulator. Damn it. I need air. I told him I was ready. I grab at the secondary regulator from his hand and put it in my mouth. There’s no way I am going to be denied air. I grab his vest shoulder strap. He grabs mine, and he swims me to the surface. As he holds me in position, I blow and blow to manually inflate my BC. Most drownings occur on the surface, when the victim slips back into the water. I am slipping back down. I did not inflate my vest fully. I cheat and add air from my cylinder and float happily by Alec.

“Why didn’t you give me the regulator?”

“You forgot to sign that you were out of air.”

“Oh yeah, but I was shaking your vest.”

“You could have seen a big fish and wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it.”

I guess my acting skills are not good under the water. I will make sure that I don’t forget the hand gesture, knifing across my throat, when find myself out of air one day. However, I do know how to grab that regulator if necessary!

Now it’s my turn to rescue Jennifer. Jennifer is only sixteen but despite her fear, appears calm.

With my hands, I slowly ask, “Are you OK?”

I smile through my mask. This is easy.

She signals back, “I am OK.”

“Are you OK to be out of air?”

“I am OK to be out of air.”

“You are out of air”

Jennifer shakes my vest and slashes at her throat with her right hand. I calmly remove my secondary regulator and hand it to her. Our underwater conversation continues.

“Are you OK?”

“I am OK.”

“Are you OK to go up?”

“I am OK to go up.”

Well, I have to get her up. She is out of air. I inflate my BC, and we rise to the surface. I stabilize her while she inflates her vest. Alec swims up beside us as we beam over our success.

“How do you think it went?” and Alec waits.

“Great, don’t you think?” we both respond.

“You are both dead. You inflated your vest and did not swim to the surface slowly.”

“I forgot. I just wanted to get her up.” I remember the shark. Calm, I must remain calm next time.

Our lessons continue. On the emergency buoyant ascent, I run out of air to vent my lungs. How did Ned in Polynesia have so much air in his lungs? I make a mental note to start training more, jog father, run up hill. Our last lesson is to remove our vests and cylinders under water. Everyone plants themselves on the bottom of the deep in with no problem, except for me. I float around like a fishing cork. Alec comes and holds me down. Oh dear, I fear that more weight will be added to my vest next week. My back is already sore. At least now the guys carry my air cylinder for me. I need to find a scuba buddy who is as accommodating. We finish our lesson by sitting in the hot tub and reviewing our progress. I apologized to Jennifer’s dad for having killed his daughter, explaining that it was an accident. He accepts my apology. I am sure that he is also making mental notes. They will not ask me to be their dive buddy.

At the dive shop Christmas party the following Friday night, everyone cheers when I enter. “We know who you are,” seems to be the theme of my greeting from the divers I am meeting. I choose wine from a box rather than beer from a bottle and slip to a calm state.

“So why did you decide to take up diving at 58?”

“We think it’s so cool that you are doing this.”

“You can dive with me every day, or whenever you want.”

“The dive girls are getting together for drinks next week. You have to join us.”

I have another glass of boxed wine, and smile at my new buddies, some with long pony tails, some with beards, all with grins and a love for adventure. They are shark swimmers looking forward to when they can plunge into the sea again. One day I will be with them.

I am learning about myself. I did not know how mesmerized I have been by shark. I dated them in college. I found them swimming in the corporate world, big shark that fascinated me with their power. I supported political shark. I married one. I am told that if you fish in shark infested waters, you will probably land one. I am learning to watch from the surface and know when to walk across the water to the safety of a boat when a shark begins to circle.

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