Los Angeles Living, Travel

In Which I Leave My Warm House at 5 A.M. in the Dead of Winter and Jump Into the Pacific Ocean (Or: Scuba Certification Training)

Hubby decided now — ahead of our trip to Vietnam and Bali — was the time to pull the trigger on the scuba certification we’d been talking about since before our Tahitian honeymoon in 2010.

I resisted a little bit, only because of the significant expense (close to $1,000 for the pair of us), and time commitment: eight hours of online coursework, followed by two weekends of solid training in the classroom, pool, and open water. But far be it for me to deny hubby any bucket list-y item — and I’m always game for an adventure. Plus, if we want to be certified in time for our trip, it’s now or never, with nary a weekend to spare. (We’ve never been interested in getting certified while on vacation because we move around a lot and don’t want to waste precious few days on a short trip on training dives anyway.) So away we go.

The online course work was dry, but exciting in its ways too. I liked the little videos that showed neutrally buoyant divers effortlessly floating around. All the parts about all the ways you can die, or become messed up severely, didn’t scare me as much as they should have, maybe.


Thursday evening, we go into the dive shop to get fitted for our wetsuits and all of our other rental gear. I start to get nervous. First clue: How a California girl like me has never actually donned a wetsuit until now may be a mystery, but it is only that night I learn how downright uncomfortable they are and how unpleasant to get into. We also scoop up our gloves, boots (which you wear under your fins), and hoods (hoods!), all required for cold-weather diving.

We fill the car with about 120 total pounds of gear, half for each of us, which includes the weights you need to sink yourself down into the ocean. Off the bat, what I like about the weights: They are pink. What I don’t like: They serve the purpose of causing you to sink in water, which seems counterintuitive to wanting to remain alive. So I start getting nervous.

Saturday we begin our coursework in the classroom. Turns out our instructor is a fellow Berkeley alum (go Bears!) — who graduated in 2011. So I’m entrusting my life to a 23 year old. NBD. Anyway, I like him. But it’s from him I learn the err of my assumption that our open-water dives will occur after we take the large, civilized Catalina Express ferry out to the island and jump off some platform into the water, have a little lunch in Avalon, and fall asleep on the nice heated ferry on the way home. No, instead, we’ll be spending the whole day on a dive boat, which takes twice as much time in transit to Catalina (more than two hours each way), and once we board, we shall never touch land until the day ends. Um.

After the classroom sesh, we break for lunch before heading to the Hawthorne pool. I have a few spoonfuls of rice. I’m bona fide scared now. As we’re learning about our gear outside the public pool, I’m freezing my tush off. It’s 46 degrees at practically mid-day. In Los Angeles! And we’re not in the water yet.

At least the pool is heated, and the exertion of putting on all the gear warms me up. But it all feels so encumbered — basically the opposite of snorkeling, which I love love love — and I’m not totally comfortable with breathing compressed air through the regulator yet (duh).

Husband and I are both doing better with this than at least half the people in our group of eight, but when he pulls me aside and says, “So?” I actually choke out, “If I’m being honest, I don’t love it.” I’m generally game for any activity done in a pool, or near a pool, or in or near an ocean, or for trying new things in general — but frankly I’m cold and not really having it.

After the pool, it’s back to the dive shop to refill our tanks. Again, the nerves. OK, truth be told: I’m freaking out. I become certain I’ll barf all over this dive boat from jump street, and then be committed to spending the whole day trying to hold down anything that remains of my breakfast while bundled in my old puff coat that’s been in moth balls since my New York days. Why? Why, Dubin.

Leaving San Pedro Harbor in the Winter to Scuba Dive Catalina

Bundled up and away we go

I shall simplify the rest of the evening to say only this: Husband tells me I can totally bow out, so what if we lose money, whatever, just say the word. I say I’ll decide at 5 a.m. when the alarm goes off. And just in case, we both take Bonine (Dramamine equivalent) to get some of the medication into our systems early. [Foreshadowing: This turns out to be a key decision.]

…and of course, because of pride and determination and lord knows what other reasons, the alarm buzzes at 5 a.m., and I’m doing this. We eat some cereal with soy milk, which seems innocuous enough, each take another Bonine, and head down to San Pedro.

Our dive boat is full. There are 40 people on it, eight in our certification course, another large group in a second class, and a number of individual divers just out for a day of recreation. In the arctic tundra. Weirdos.

We strap all our gear into pre-designated spaces, and sign the manifest. People are eating breakfast in the galley — sausage and eggs and things. OMG. I do as advised, and head straight for the front of the boat where I shall gaze into the horizon the whole time and try to fend off seasickness.

Dolphins swimming with our dive boat!

Dolphins swimming with our dive boat!

Amazingly, it works. And the sunrise is gorgeous. And there are dolphins swimming with our boat! It’s lovely, I must say. But I’m telling hubby, “At some point, we are going to take off these clothes — this puff coat, this scarf, these mittens, two sweatshirts, two layers of pants, socks, fleece-lined boots — and strip to our swimsuits, and then put on wet-ass wetsuits, still soaked from the pool. My brain cannot make the leap.”

Two hours-plus later, and we’ve found our first dive spot (photo above). And we all take off all the clothes, in rather uncivilized fashion, in the middle of a jostling boat, shoving clothes into bags and on benches kind of willy nilly. It’s disorderly for my tastes. On go the wet wetsuits. We help load our gear onto each other, open the valves to each other’s air cylinders, and then it’s into the water.

I’m not really breathing right, sucking down a lot of seawater, basically getting used to it. At some point, our instructor asks me, “Where’s David?” Wait, what? You don’t know where my husband is either? I saw him get into the water…

That first dive is a 20-minute or so training dive to about 30 feet during which I practice skills with the instructor (letting my mask fill with water and then clearing it, and removing my regulator and replacing it). I see mostly kelp and bright orange Garibaldi, the California state fish, and not much else — including my husband.

Then it’s back on the boat, where I learn a bit about what’s been going on. After getting in the water, husband discovered malfunctioning equipment and didn’t complete the dive. Neither did several other people in our group — for reasons of vomit (!!), or fear, or extreme cold, or whatever. I couldn’t feel my feet, but hey: I had one dive in the bag.

On the second dive, husband and I are both in together, which is reassuring. We give each other the universal sign for “OK” underwater and we actually see a bunch of neat stuff: a family of lobsters, for instance, and a kelp forest that gives the illusion you’re flying through a forest on land (kinda). Stats: 40 feet, maybe 25 minutes underwater. Water: 52 degrees. Smug meter: rising.

I’m satisfied at having completed two successful dives out of the four necessary on a minimum of two different days in order to become certified — especially when I look around the boat at many casualties: the barfers, the frozen ones, and even an experienced diver who came up after perforating his eardrum. (Dude! Husband said, “Oh yeah, I wasn’t going to tell you about that, but they put that dude’s head in a bucket of water and bubbles came out of his ear.”)

Scuba Diving Catalina

There goes hubby, into the depths…

When David goes down for the third and final dive of the day, his second, I hit the hot shower on the boat (Yes! There was one! The single bastion of civility), strip off that wetsuit and hood (think full-body Spanx, up to the face), and get dressed. You did it, Dubin.

After the divers all return to the boat for our ride back to the coast, the galley kitchen serves up dessert: ice cream. You can’t make this stuff up.

We’re so tired, like bone tired, like ineffable tired. Confident enough in the power of Bonine to ride inside now, I put my head down on my bag on a table and nod off. As the boat heads back to San Pedro Harbor, I wake up from time to time to find my bag/head sliding from side to side rather violently. David’s asleep on his bag too.

Sunset over San Pedro Harbor

Sunset over San Pedro Harbor

After 10 hours on the boat, we’re back in the harbor just in time to see a gorgeous sunset. We load the car, and blast those seat heaters. We feel like we’ve been through a war together. (It should be noted, I’d rather be in the scuba trenches with nobody other than my sweet, patient, logical husband.)

We pick up dinner and eat voraciously. In the shower, I feel I am thrashing around from side to side like the A-ha dude at the end of the “Take on Me” video. We hit the pillows — heads still spinning with the motion of the ocean — and are fast asleep before 8. That night, we sleep a combined total of 24 hours (OMG, I just realized that), David 13 and me 11. [N.B.: This insomniac has figured out the elusive solution to the problem.]

So that’s where we are. One weekend down out of two needed to earn our certificates. This week we’ll call the dive shop and see if there’s some magical solution that will help us avoid 10 hours on a frigid dive boat in the dead of winter (for instance, taking the Catalina Express over for a private lesson), but it does seem unlikely. So, I expect next week we’ll be back at it in just the same fashion. I didn’t come this far to not get scuba certified.

And yes, those people who earn their certifications in tropical waters are sane and warm and all that. But um, our way builds character.

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  • Reply sharon January 18, 2013 at 12:10 am

    oh my god i loooove! i laughed out loud more than a couple times. you are brave! im inspired to (maybe… probably…) try this before return to balihooo next winter. 🙂

  • Reply pui January 19, 2013 at 7:02 am

    love this article too! (sorry i’m reading these out of order!) BRAVO to both of you!!

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