Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, 1989. “Hey mister! You wanna Scuba?” Almost asleep on the beach, I look up to see our friend Mitch, negotiating a Scuba adventure. “What’s your name, mister?” asks the deeply tanned dive guy. “Mitch”, replies Mitch. “Feeeesh?”, the diver repeats with a half smile. We all burst out laughing and sign on for the next day. For our friends Barb and Mitch, this is no big deal. Mitch was a master diver and Barb was married to a master diver. Both experienced. Me? I knew how to swim. So the next day, I don a mask, fins and tank and jump into the Pacific Ocean with the knowledge that only a 27 year old has – the unwavering knowledge of immortality. And, apparently I was right because I lived to eat the scallops we gathered and sit on some beach where we drank buckets of Corona with the diver and two boat guys and sang “Gloria” accompanied by Rick on a beat up, out of tune guitar. Perfect.
On return to the great Pacific Northwest, we officially certified. But, the Pacific Ocean in Washington state is VERY different from the Pacific Ocean of Mexico. That, and a couple adorable children that required all of our attention and every penny we earned. Clearly, our Scuba careers were doomed.
Fast forward – Thailand, 2017. Sitting in the school canteen, I casually ask my friend Richard, “What did you do over the weekend?” His reply changed the course of the next several months. “Oh, I went to Pattaya and did my Scuba certification” he said, referring to a city about 2 hours from Bangkok. I perked up. “Really?” I quickly gathered the necessary information from him, emailed Rick, and we were signed up for the class that night – for the following weekend.
Pattaya is – well – different. We arrived on a Friday evening to an area called Jomtien. It’s mostly populated by Expats here on the generous Thai retirement Visa. (Must be at least 50 and show evidence of a substantial savings account. Renewable yearly for a fee.) Apparently, this was a popular R&R location during the Vietnam War. What has lasted from that era is the innumerable number of “comfort” men and women available for hire. So we gawked and wondered about the individual stories that brought all of these people together. Without exaggeration, it is mostly older Western men with young Thai men or women. I hoped that everyone involved in these arrangements had clear and open expectations.
The next morning we met our instructor, Noc. Small and sturdy, she walked us through our written exams (during which I panicked on the math and she patiently calmed me down); our pool work (where she admitted she wasn’t sure I’d make it at first – after the math ordeal – but, was pleased I could swim); and our open water checkout dives (where I became dehydrated and learned that if you throw up under water, it’s no problem). We were certified!
If you’ve never had to breath underwater, it’s important to know a lot of stuff about – well – diving. Our first few dives were basically all about staying alive. My heart would race with anxiety each time I made that giant step off the boat and into the blue unknown. Constantly checking my air supply, hand on my regulator to make certain it didn’t slip out of my mouth and simply trying to control my buoyancy occupied every brain cell. Lucky if I noticed a tiny fish, I was jubilant upon completion of each dive. I had again survived! I still wasn’t sure I liked this Scuba thing. It took the first 10 dives to begin to feel even remotely comfortable.
Recently, Rick and I did our 15th dive, and our 5th with Yann, our French divemaster, while on Palawan – an incredibly beautiful island in the Philippines. It’s the low season, so it’s just the three of us. After two dives in spectacular coral and spotting 5 reef sharks, and a meter long turtle – he says we are ready for a drift dive. We set in and off we go – floating in suspended animation and allowing the current to scoop us along. Amazing. Plus, more sharks, and an eagle ray. I almost forget about breathing.
Back on our small Banca (a Philippine boat that has outriggers on both sides that give it a decidedly “spider” look), we eat our sandwiches and talk. Yann tells us that he just “discovered” our last dive site a few weeks before. Unfortunately, another site that he used to go to has been recently decimated by dynamite fishing. If you are unfamiliar with this illegal practice, fishermen detonate explosives underwater as a means to catch fish. Killed or stunned by the shockwaves, the fish float to the top where they are gathered up in nets. Unfortunately, everything in the radius of the explosion is killed. Including the coral. We have seen these large areas of dead coral – grey as ash with no noticeable marine life. I ask Yann if he’s ever heard the explosions. He nods gravely, “many times”, he says. “But it is worst when you feel the shock waves while diving.” He taps his chest. “You can feel it here.” We silently take in his double meaning.
So far, we have seen sea turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, reef sharks, moray eels, lionfish and the incredible manta ray. I saw a dugong (very shy creature – much like a manatee) off the bow of a boat in Indonesia. We swam with Dory and Nemo and all their little friends. We have seen indescribable coral reefs in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Every dive is a new adventure into an untamed wilderness of incredible beauty. And maybe because of the knowledge that only a 54 year old can have – that I am, indeed, mortal – it’s all the more wonderful and sweet.
And for this, I have two old friends to thank. Barb and Mitch. I never would have made that first great leap in Mexico without them. Thanks for high adventure, stupid choices, crazy laughter and unforgettable memories. And, thank you for reminding me to say “yes” as often as possible. I have never regretted it.