My very first boat dive, thoughts on newbie diving in the Florida Keys, and asshole divers on social media

Yesterday I finished up my very first boat dives as a new Open Water certified scuba diver.  I’m down here checking out the Florida Keys to decide if I would prefer to move here instead of Curacao.  It would be a helluva lot easier as an American to just pack up my stuff, put my dog in the car, and drive down to the Keys, where I could immediately start working without worrying about permits and residency.  So, this diving trip down to the Keys is also a reconnaissance mission. 

So, back to my first boat dive. Until yesterday, I’d only been shore diving in Curacao and in our murky nearly-no visibility quarry in Raleigh, NC.  And I only had seven dives under my weight-laden dive belt. I’ll admit, I barely slept the night before the boat dive. I was so worried – not about being in the water.  But about holding up the rest of the folks on the boat. I have trouble descending – it takes my ears forever to equalize. What if I panicked and had to ascend before everyone?  Would it hold up the show and piss everyone off?  

I will say, I was truly worried about being a new diver with a group of people I don’t know and who are focused solely on their own dive buddy or group. I was the only solo diver scheduled for the trip without a buddy.  Another thing that increased my anxiety was reading some of the threads in these Facebook scuba diving group pages. Some of these guys – and they are always male divers – can get really nasty and judgemental in these social media groups – constantly bitching about how much it sucks to have to dive with new divers on boat trips and how much they hate dealing with newbies, etc., etc., etc.  So many of these guys bitch and judge constantly in these groups – about being new, about the kinds of equipment people use (they are always bitching about and making fun of people who use split fins), about questions people have as they try to learn this new hobby. These nasty folks made me feel already more uncomfortable about diving – and I am in the phase of trying to build confidence in the water. I wonder if some of these people forgot that they were new once too.  And that one of the attractions of diving is the community and comraderie of diving. If you are going to dive, don’t be a fucking dick.

Anyway.  On to the boat dive.  The boat crew and captain calmed me down immediately.  My divemaster said he would be with me and we’re just going to focus on having fun and building confidence in the water.  His calm, open demeanor calmed me down right away. He made sure I felt no shame in being a newbie and that I must not worry at all about anybody else on the dive – that everyone is certified and they are free to go do their own thing.  So I am not holding anyone up. Also, all of the crew had tattoos so we spent a while comparing ink. Again, all of this made me comfortable and connected to the crew – which is important for me. 

I have no problem or fear about jumping into the water, that’s fun.  Except for the moon jellyfish floating all around – pretty common here in the Keys.  And the day was perfect for my 1st boat dive – the water was so damn calm and placid that it was like a swimming pool.  Unreal. The captain told me this is unusual for November in the Keys – that usually it gets quite windy. So, I wasn’t worried about my first time ever getting BACK INTO a boat with my dive gear on and trying not to be killed by a flailing metal ladder. 

So, once I got in and went down (with my divemaster going down the line with me as I slowly equalized – dammit, I cannot easily or quickly get those ears equalized).  I gotta tell you – I was FREAKED out by all of the people darting around me, above me and below me. I was so focused on not running into people and keeping people out of my space, I couldn’t focus on anything else – including the zillion beautiful nurse sharks swimming around me and the massive moray eel that was swimming up to and around the divers (evidently he gets fed a lot from other boats and isn’t afraid of people – he seems curious about them) and all of the lobsters hiding under the reef.  As always, I overthink EVERYTHING and was crazy concerned about staying out of the way of people. I didn’t expect that to bother me as much as it did. And since I didn’t know any of these people, I really didn’t want them to think I was an inconsiderate asshole all up in their grill. I did notice that some folks don’t give a damn about other peoples’ space and just dart around like hummingbirds, bumping into everyone. I never want to be THAT guy. 

One more thing – in November, the water is about 75 degrees and everyone had on wetsuits.  I cannot stand to wear a wetsuit – I feel confined and like I am suffocating. So I decided to dive without one – I was never cold for one moment.  Though, I do have some good natural padding to keep me warm. Again, I didn’t want to add one more thing to my list of things that I was uncomfortable about.  Now, I only did shallow dives from the boat – not sure what a deep dive would be like. I am planning to finish deep and wreck diving here in the Keys to finish out my Advance Open Water cert.  I’ll let you know how that goes. And if I freeze my ass off. 

The problem with being so concerned about moving out of the way and being focused on where people are is that I also was trying to get a solid grip on my buoyancy.  So, let’s say, you are trying to move out of the way of some dude lumbering about with a camera who is about to kick you in the head, well, you want to jet left but there is a giant coral formation a couple of feet in your path – you gotta be quick in the way you breathe to ascend a bit so you don’t kick or hit the coral.  Again, as a new diver, multi-tasking is stressful – but it is so important to just jump into the fray and develop your skills. It’s like driving a car – you learn to do a lot of shit at once, operating on instinct to manage the obstacles around you. My entire first dive was focused on task managing so, like I said, I didn’t really fully get to appreciate the beautiful sea life teeming about me.  

If I ever end up teaching diving, I will talk with my new divers about the “swarm” factor for their first boat dives – about group etiquette and what it’s like when a gang of people are around you checking out the reef and give them some idea of what to expect – but assure them they can only really worry about what they can see in front of and below them.  And that over time, you’ll be able to immediately take in, assess, and appreciate everything going on around you – that includes people, sea life, and geography.  Whew, there’s a lot to process in diving, but, even after only 10 dives, I can tell you from first hand experience, it gets exponentially easier with every dive.

For the 2nd dive, I went down on the line a lot easier – I was much more comfortable and took on the attitude “I cannot control what the divers around me are going to do – I can only be conscientious about what I am doing.”  Once I accepted that mantra and accepted that yes, people will bump into one another and yes, you might get your mask kicked off, well, I was able to calm down and have fun. And I realized that I don’t have to follow my divemaster around like a scared puppy – as long as we can see one another and check back with “OK” now and again, I’m good to go.  I will say, at some point in the dive, my nose got completely congested and I could not blow to clear my mask. The thing is, I didn’t panic. I get now why the mask clearing exercise for OW certification is so important. The pressure in my head got too intense down on the reef so I just slowly ascended until it was relieved. Not sure how to go about clearing out a full blown snot stoppage while diving – I was worried to blow too hard lest I hurt something (why does everything you say in diving sound dirty and sexual – I love it).  

The captain and crew had also put out shark bait as part of some kind shark awareness program they are newly involved in.  But, alas, only the nurse sharks came to check it out. By the way, the shark bait was iguanas – apparently they are overrunning the island and wreaking all kinds of havoc.  So, I gotta say, it was surreal seeing iguanas floating all over the reef while I was down there. And, of course, you’re always a bit nervous waiting for a reef shark or a hammerhead to show up.  But I was thinking, hell yes, bring on the sharks baby!

Afterwards, on the way back to the marina, I chatted with one of the crew members about how much calmer I felt on this 2nd dive.  She told me she was watching me down there and that I look so comfortable and calm in the water. “I can see that you know exactly what you are doing, Angela, you’re just thinking too much about it.  You’re overthinking everything.” And she was totally right. I cannot tell new divers to not overthink – I know that if that is how your brain is hardwired, then you’ll do it. But I can tell you, just keep plugging along – every single dive is about building up that confidence and comfort zone.  About encountering some new element to diving, about dealing with the problems that pop up (and they will). What has been key for me is to take this slowly – do not get too ahead of yourself. You don’t have to get all of the certifications in 6 months (unless you, of course, somehow take to diving like a fish and have no issues – I am not one of those people).  For me, diving is helping me face so many fears and move out of my comfort zone – and the reward is this magical experience of free floating up close with beautiful sea creatures who deserve our respect and care. I’ve developed a new love and appreciation for the ocean. And my interest in the business and psychology of diving is developing.  

Oh, and, and one more thing.  I LOVE boat diving more than shore diving – if you are doing multi-day diving, the crew takes care of everything.  And, with this particular dive center – I do mean EVERYTHING. You can even leave your boots, mask, and fins and they rinse all of that off for you and set up for the next day.  All you have to do is walk off the boat and grab a beer. Now that kind of service, well, that’s damn fine. So, onward and downward into the glorious seas shall I roam…thank you universe for turning me on to the world of diving. I only wish I has started as a kid and not here in middle-age – so much I have missed.  But, I plan to make up for those lost years.  

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