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All You Have To Do Is Breathe

I am underwater. I am twenty feet under water. On purpose. It's so wet this winter I figured the best thing to do was to take scuba diving lessons. The only thing I did not take into consideration was that after you finish a diving class, which means six intensive weeks of classroom text, testing and pool diving, you have to do an open water dive. A real dive in real water. Ideally, one would do this in a warm climate, but being a long way from any place remotely resembling a tropical paradise, I have to do it where the class instructors tell us. Puget Sound. In January.

I used to live on Puget Sound. You rarely go swimming in summer in Puget Sound. Well, there are lots of protected coves up there and if you're in your wet suit and out of any wind or current, it might be all right.

But we do not go to a protected cove, we go to the Tacoma Narrows about a mile up stream from the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge — the one they show in all those old newsreels of the bridge twisting and turning and eventually crumbling into a mass of tangled steel having succumbed to the high winds that scream through the narrows. Yep, that's where we go diving.

Of course, it's freezing too. 36 degrees with a wind chill that I figure puts it around -120F. Tacoma Narrows, where legendary winds whip through the channel, where billions of tons of sea water pour through the narrow strait, unprotected, currents strong and powerful. Boats stay away. We'll be on the bottom, I'm told, where the current will not sweep us around Vashon Island to Bremerton before we head out to sea, and hey! the water is 44 degrees and will seem warm. Well, gosh, what are we waiting for?

Before we are officially certified, we must have four open-water dives, each at least 20 feet deep for at least 20 minutes duration. We can only do two dives a day, which gives us a Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday morn, we brave (dumb) souls (there are about twenty of us) start donning our wet suits in a boardwalk picnic area perched nice and dry (elevated and exposed to the wind) above the sand. This is the old Tillicum ferry dock, dismantled except for the pilings that supposedly provide scenic wonders underwater. Above water, the pilings look like treacherous outcroppings from some grander day as the current swirls around them and white caps crash against them.

Putting on a wet suit means taking your clothes off, but I prepared for this by having what's called a dive "skin," a neon blue, skintight, long-legged, long-sleeved miracle fibered jumpsuit that looks like something you'd wear on "Star Trek." In fact, this proves to be the most memorable and most scenic wonder of the whole weekend — my friend, Jeff, and I in matching "skins" ready each morn at dawn zipped up and ready to board our spaceship.

Only eight out of our class of twelve show up for the open water dive. Two have gone to Tahiti where they have taken their paperwork to get certified and two others have sinus problems. You cannot dive when you have colds, flu or sinus problems because your head would explode.

"Our twelve-year-old friend couldn't stand the cold and leaped out of the water like a flying fish to her waiting father on shore."

We eight are split up between instructors Ted and Jack. Three guys and one woman with Ted and two big guys, a twelve-year-old girl, and me, with Jack. Along with us are various "helpers" and friends who will dive with us as backup and explore as they see fit. I squeeze into my wet suit over my "skin," don weights (I have to carry thirty extra pounds to sink properly) and scuba tank, and finally waddle down to the water's edge. We test equipment and dive in. Ted was right; it is warmer in the water. And it's true too, that near the bottom, we are not affected by the current. We are merely affected by the effects of the current since we have only about 12 feet visibility. It's just the two guys and me with Jack, plus two helpers, as our twelve year old friend couldn't stand the cold and leaped out of the water like a flying fish to her waiting father on shore. We crawl/swim in the murky churned up water and I try to concentrate on enjoying this, but am rather unnerved. I wouldn't say hysterical, but not comfortable either. We go at a pretty good clip and I keep telling myself over and over, "Just breathe, all you have to do is breathe."

Once out at the pilings, some 23 feet under, we have to go through our skills: Clearing our masks (deliberately filling them with water and blowing the water out with our noses); buddy- breathing (pretending you're out of air and sharing a regulator with your partner); tossing your regulator behind you and retrieving it in one smooth swoop; ascending to the surface together with one breathing apparatus.

This, in case you haven't guessed, is a lot harder than in the pool. Well, that's why we're here. I nearly panic without my air, as my buddy, who's male and much larger, takes a long time filling his lungs. I swallow some salt water. Yuk. Then, on the surface, once we've made our perfect spiraling ascent, we come out into current and white caps. We inflate our B.C.s (buoyancy controlling vests), get swept away and have to swim back and hold onto pilings in the rough water while the others make their ascent and drift off. This exercise in merely staying alive, in one place, depletes energy quickly.

Then for some reason that I cannot fathom except for excessive brain-cell loss due to too much diving at certain depths, Jack has us swim to shore rather than navigate underwater. We start out, but it's hopeless, each one of us struggling to make progress. He has us turn on our backs, link arms and kick at an angle against the current to shore. I look up at the cloud cover, salt water splashing in my face and kick and kick and kick as I wonder how in the heck I got here and why I don't simply break rank and swim to shore at an angle down current, letting nature do all the hard work and then walk up the beach. (I learn later, this is exactly what Jeff does.) I pray that this ordeal will end soon. It does. Sort of. We have a twenty-minute break to pour warm water in our booties to thaw toes, warm our aching lifeless hands, change tanks and get back in the water.

“This is actually fun! If only I could feel my feet and hands."

On the second dive, our skills for the day done, we cruise around and as I repeat my mantra, "Just breathe, all you have to do is breath, god please don't let me die," I look at the huge gorgeous, plumes of white sea anemones covering the pilings, don't see any fish, find a couple of crabs and concentrate on finding little gardens of juvenile kelp, some of which are iridescent purple. I also like the varieties of seaweed growing out of discarded bottles, kitchen sinks, rusty cans and old tires. My favorite is a green anemone growing out of a huge logger's boot. When I do this, I forget I am underwater and breathe naturally. This is actually pleasant. This is actually fun! If only I could feel my feet and hands. I think of early Antarctic explorers whose frozen toes break off when they remove their socks. I wiggle my extremities continuously. And breathe.

Amazingly, Jack guides us in underwater with his compass and suddenly we're near shore in shallow water and can simply stand up. I struggle out of the water and can barely drag myself up the shore. Jeff, who only did one dive, is dry and dressed and runs down the beach with two plastic gallon milk containers full of warm water to pour down my suit to warm me. This is standard procedure and welcome. It feels fabulous. He takes my weight belt for me and I suddenly feel thirty pounds lighter, which, of course, I am.

Back up on deck, the wind howls. I am half-stripped out of my wet suit when Jeff pours more warm water over me, dousing my head and upper body. It feels wonderful for about thirty seconds, until the wind hits me and I freeze. Literally. I am so cold I cannot move. My fingers won't work. I cannot think. All I can do is whimper. Jeff jumps into action and peels my booties, socks and wetsuit off me, throws a large beach towel over my shoulders, and corrals me like some neon blue hapless sheep toward the car which he has waiting, running, heater on. He shoves me into the passenger seat where I curl up and pull my down jacket over me backwards, my face thrust into the hood while he packs up all my gear. I am shivering uncontrollably making uhhh,uhhhh noises. We drive to the motel where he pushes me into a warm shower. In about ten minutes, I unthaw enough to realize I am in a warm shower and take my dive skin off and draw a tub of warm water that I lie in for forty-five minutes before my feet and hands start tingling to life.

I feel good enough to discover I am starving and we find a Vietnamese restaurant near Tacoma's university district, with huge bowls of seafood noodle soup, which revives me considerably. We go to a movie, “Jackie Chan’s First Strike," which has a lot of mindless fantastic action and a diving fight scene in an aquarium with sharks that makes me real nervous.

Sunday dawns brisk and clear, Mt. Rainier looms, frost glistens on the dock. We, in our space suits, are ready to face the world again.

My diving buddies, the two big guys, are wimpy no-shows and I'm feeling a little wimpy and no-show myself, however, I can't imagine going through this torture again, so I am determined to gut it out. It's interesting that we students are the only ones truly suffering as all the instructors, friends, and helpers, including Jeff, have dry suits. All they have to do is put on these soft pajama quilted things over their clothes and step into a big insulated waterproof baggy. The wet suits however, rely on your body temperature to keep you warm. Water goes in, gets trapped and you heat it up. When you get cold, you get really cold.

I do my skills and finally the day is over. I am so depleted, I feel like a jellyfish. But I am not doused with water this time and can get out of my wet suit by myself. Jeff helps me pack up and Ted comes over to ask me how it went. "Fine," is all I can say?

"You know, the next class is coming up here in a couple of weeks, maybe you want to come with us."

"You've got to be kidding," I say.

Ted gets this confused, hurt expression on his face, which I attribute to the fact that he is standing cozy in his dry suit and that he's been diving too long. We say our goodbyes and get the heck out of that miserable place.

Now I am certified for underwater diving. Now I can face the rest of winter. Let it pour.

Or, better yet, get me to a warm beach.

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