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Friday, March 23, 2007


Along with Roy Rogers and all of the American astronauts, Lloyd Bridges' character "Mike Nelson," in the TV show Sea Hunt, was one of my childhood heroes. It had nothing to do with his heroic actions in the plot-lines of the various episodes. It was simply because he could breathe under water.

I took my first scuba certification course in 1972 while I was still in high school, but — there being a marked shortage of oceans and lakes near my hometown in the Texas panhandle — I was never able to manage the supervised open-water dive necessary to complete the certification. I remedied that through another course I took during college in Austin, though, and I got my basic PADI certification diving in Lake Travis and other Hill Country lakes in 1979. Distractions intervened; it was many more years before I could take the sort of dream vacation that includes serious ocean diving. I finally got my PADI advanced open water certification in 1989, and then had some terrific dive trips to Cozumel, Cayman, and various Texas Gulf Coast spots in the early 1990s. But then I lost my regular dive buddy (and wedding best man and overall best friend) to complications from a tragic snow skiing accident. Because of that and various other reasons, it's been well more than 10 years now since I've done any open-water diving.

But watching a really cool video like this one from InstaPundit certainly makes me miss diving all over again.

One of the things I like best about this particular video is the segment from 1:15 to 1:30 in which a diver is doing a series of graceful 360-degree rolls and then a somersault — all while his arms are calmly folded, motionless, over his chest. That illustrates very well something that I've always had a hard time explaining adequately to non-divers — how scuba diving seems to me more like flying than like swimming.

I'm a decent swimmer, and I enjoy it. But swimming, even graceful swimming, inevitably is all about flailing one's arms and legs through the water, and always having to get one's mouth and nose back out of the water to keep breathing. And swimming, like the rest of life, is mostly two-dimensional — that is, one's own motor power only moves one along either an X-axis or a Y-axis. Our daily lives take place in Flatland, and usually it's noisy there to boot.

But scuba diving makes the Z-axis way more accessible to a human than wings make it accessible to a bird. Scuba (once you learn good buoyancy control) is like having an anti-gravity suit that's nearly effortless and automatic. You're cruising along at 40 feet below the surface, and you see something interesting 15 feet below or above you. With what feels like way less effort and thought than it takes to walk 15 feet on land — without much more conscious thought than it takes you simply to look up or down 15 feet — you glide up or down at your whim. Your own orientation — upright, head-down, prone (either belly-down or -up), or whatever — is likewise completely a matter of your easy choice. (Although most people do tend to want to avoid attitudes that prompt that last splash of seawater which you haven't quite been able to purge from inside your mask running back along your cheeks and up your nostrils.) There's no thrashing. No reaching, climbing, or pulling required. And just the rhythmic, soothing sound of your own calm breathing and tiny bubble-trail.

(The folded arms you see throughout Prof. Reynold's video, by the way, are very deliberate, I'm sure — and a mark of skillful and environmentally conscious divers. If you keep your arms folded then they can't be flailing around and accidentally banging into coral, which can hurt both you and it — and you heal much faster than the coral can! When you're diving somewhere like these reefs around the Caymans, you no more ought to be crashing into stuff than you'd walk through Yellowstone recklessly swinging a running chainsaw. Keeping your arms folded also helps suppress the swimming instinct of trying to use your arms for propulsion, which wastes energy and increases your air consumption rate. People also tend to use their arms to change or maintain their depth without realizing it, which is also energy- and air-wasteful, and something you're better off learning to do reflexively through other buoyancy control techniques. And besides: Gliding along with your arms folded just fits the zen of a good dive.)

Diving is filled with seeming contradictions. It's a group activity that is also intensely personal. It depends on high-tech and fairly expensive gear that is bulky and heavy out of the water, but once in, you completely forget about that gear for the most part, and instead you just feel a profound sensory and spacial freedom. It's the most serene exhilaration that I've ever experienced.

My kids are approaching the ages now when they all can learn to scuba dive. Soon, with them, I hope to go back.

Posted by Beldar at 11:54 AM in Family | Permalink


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(1) DRJ made the following comment | Mar 27, 2007 12:00:33 AM | Permalink

Sea Hunt was great but I always liked Sky King. Maybe that's why I took pilot lessons in my younger days, or perhaps my interest in flying came first and that's why I liked Sky King. Anyway, it's fascinating how easy it is in retrospect to spot early signs of what often becomes a lifetime interest.

(2) leelu made the following comment | Mar 28, 2007 5:52:45 PM | Permalink

Ripcord for skydiving, and The Aquanauts - two divers who lived in what was a hotel on PCH in Malibu.

I dove, but haven't jumped. Did fly a plane once, also.

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