For the next week, I am in Cayman Brac with my mom and a group from Minnesota, and we are going SCUBA diving! Currently I am an advanced open water PADI diver, and I will be using this trip to gain my certification as a PADI rescue diver. Each day I’m going to be telling you all about what I’m learning. Be sure to check back for updates!
My dive instructor is Ed Nelson who is a Captain with the Saint Paul Minnesota Fire Department and a paramedic. I am certifying with my mom and another woman named Jane – you will be seeing some photos of all of us in later posts!
Diving is an important skill for astronauts to have, as neutral buoyancy (which can be achieved by a skilled diver) is the closest sustained simulation of microgravity that we can have on Earth. At this time, astronauts can train for space walks and other mission-critical activities in the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, located at the Sonny Carter Training Facility in Houston, Texas. SCUBA diving isn’t necessarily the type of thing that you can just pick up in a couple months (at least not for most people) so I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to be learning it so far in advance of when I will apply to the astronaut corp!
Come back each day for updates on what I’m going to learn next! Sign up here to get my blog posts in a weekly summary email so you don’t miss a thing!
Day 1 – Starting My PADI Rescue Dive Certification
Our first dive was called Snapper Reef, and was fairly shallow (max depth 43 feet). During this dive, we ended up working on many skills that go towards our rescue diver certification!
Most notably, we learned how to do an emergency out-of-air buddy alternate air share. This is just what it sounds like—one diver runs out of air and taps their buddy, who then gives them their spare air source. Next, we worked on rescuing and towing a tired diver at the surface.
Our second dive of the day was called Preachers Barge, which was also fairly shallow, maxing out at 45 feet. It included a couple reefs and a wreck! I really like diving wrecks because it’s so interesting to see the way nature incorporates the foreign object into a living habitat.
Speaking of living habitats, we also saw a fascinating coral farm! The coral farm was meant to grow new corals, which could then be transferred to other parts of the island to supplement the natural reef. Baby coral is just as cute as all the other baby animals, FYI!
Day 2 – Dreaming of Space and the Deep Blue Ocean
Today was a long day- we went on three dives, two of which I thought were really fantastic and will describe in detail here. In the morning we went to a dive site called ‘Nancy’s Teacup’ which is a part of the Bloody Bay Reef Wall. This was one of the most beautiful dives I’ve ever done. Bloody Bay is famous for having a near vertical reef wall with high organic diversity (especially for a frequently dove area) on one side and a sharp drop off on the other. Despite the brightly colored corals and flashy fish along the reef wall, while diving Bloody Bay today I felt a much stronger draw to look out over the drop off. It seems impossible to describe in words what it was like to dive in this site, but I’ll try! Once I turned away from the reef, I was struck by the wide expanse of pure, uninterrupted blue that was before me. Every so often a school of fish would swim barely into view and then quickly dart back into the deep ocean. I felt a strong urge to follow these fish, to go deeper into this seemingly unexplored frontier. I hope that someday I will get the opportunity to dive in the open ocean, without a reef or shoreline as my guide, so that I can float completely unencumbered by the constraints of up and down.
Staring of into the blue abyss that is the Atlantic Ocean, I quietly contemplated how far out from the reef I could safely venture (don’t worry, I chose the safe and responsible path of staying near the reef, despite how tempting it was to drift off…). In fact, after the dive my mom (who was my dive buddy on this dive) told me that there were a couple times when the way I was looking at the ocean made her think that they ought to have attached a tether to me! I think that part of what makes the open ocean so alluring to me is that it reminds me of space. First off, when you hit that moment of perfect neutral buoyancy it feels like what I expect floating in microgravity would feel like. Secondly, when you look out into this field of pure blue nothingness, it feels like looking at the black of space. Thirdly, when you are under water, sound and feel are muted. It can feel like it is just you, alone in a vast emptiness. And finally, knowing that this environment is so hazardous to human life, and yet so enthralling… it begs to be explored.
Our second dive of the day was in between Jacksons Bight and Bloody Bay. Once again, we followed the reef for most of it. There was a really fantastic point at which we went through a ‘pass through’ of coral (which is basically like a very small coral cave formation which brings you under the reef and out on the other side). This dive was much shallower than the previous one (my max depth on the first was 105 ft, on this one I briefly reached 91 ft, but spent a majority of it at 50/60 ft). On this dive I saw a handful of really interesting creatures! There were two stingrays, which have a tendency to camouflage themselves in the sandy areas, a lobster, a sea turtle, and a very very friendly grouper fish. Grouper fish are absolutely adorable. They of course can range in size, but the one we say was about the size of my torso. What makes them cute isn’t neccessarrily their appearance- they look like a typical fish- instead, its their behavior. Groupers can be very friendly and will sometimes follow around groups of divers, and even nuzzle in to be pet! I have heard other divers describe them as ‘sea dogs’ because of how they act. This particular grouper followed us for about 20 minutes and came up to be pet a couple times J.
We didn’t work on any rescue diving skills during the dives today, instead taking a break to enjoy the fantastic dive sites! However, during the decompression break in-between the two morning dives we learned about what is arguably the most important piece of equipment for dive emergencies- compressed oxygen. Compressed oxygen is a vital step in treating the two most common dive injuries (lung over-expansion and decompression sickness). Early treatment with concentrated oxygen can severely reduce, and sometimes even eliminate, the harmful symptoms of the
Day 3 – More PADI Rescue Diver Skills and My First Night Dive
Today I had a full day of diving with 2 morning dives, an afternoon dive and my first night dive ever! Each day during our morning dives we cover a few skills for our PADI Rescue Dive Certification. The instructor mixes it into the dive so that we can have fun most of the time with just a few learning opportunities. This is the nice part of doing a Rescue Diver certification over a week long dive trip in the Caribbean (versus diving cold Minnesota lakes! Brrr!). The main skill that we practiced today was a search and rescue of a lost diver. This was a drill that our instructor setup with one diver, another instructor Rick F., who was lost on the ocean floor. Our primary instructor, Ed came to us on the boat and informed us that he lost Rick and that Rick only had 350 PSI of air left and we better hurry to find him. Ed pointed to the direction that Rick was last seen and our job was to create and execute a search plan.
We entered the ocean as a team of 3 people (all being certified) our leader (my mom) had a compass and swam in the direction that Rick was last seen. The other woman, Jane, and I fanned out beside my mom to cover more of the ocean floor. We dove about 15 feet below surface so that we could have a wider range of visibility of the ocean floor. After about 5 minutes we found our lost diver and discovered he was unresponsive laying on the bottom of the ocean floor. We checked to see if he was conscious and then Jane took him to the surface as an unconscious diver (hold the regulator in the unconscious divers mouth, control buoyancy using their bcd, slow ascent). Meanwhile my mom played unconscious so I could take her to the surface in a controlled ascent. And finally we switched roles and my mom brought me to the surface. This was it for our skills today. The rest of the day was all fun!
After 3 full dives during the day, I will admit to being exhausted. But I was also excited as this was my first night dive. Many people are nervous before a night dive and many people never attempt a night dive because of fears. But I was not nervous. I was simply excited! I couldn’t wait to experience the wonders of the ocean in the night. I had heard many stories of predators who are out hunting in the night for their food and couldn’t wait to have a glimpse of this world in the evening. It’s also a tim
e that many underwater creatures sleep and catching a glimpse of that work was also something I could not wait to see. Our dive master instructed us on how NOT to disturb sleeping fish such as the Parrot Fish – this fish creates mucous secreted bubble around itself to create a barrier or protection while it sleeps. If a diver breaks that bubble the fish then needs to stay up all night to hide from predators (not fun)! The other interesting thing we learned was that sea turtles take one deep breath at bedtime and then go to the ocean floor and find a cavern or hole to sleep in. They lower their heart rate so they don’t need to breath again until morning. If a diver comes and wakes up the turtle it is possible to give the turtle a heart attack because it’s heart rate is so low. Also once the turtle is awake (if it survives) it then has to stay awake all night because it cannot see to find a new den to sleep for the night. Finally it’s important not to shine flashlights directly in the eyes of the fish because it bothers them and makes it hard for them to see.
I absolutely loved night diving. I imagine the dark wondrous ocean that I witnessed is what it would be like on a space walk looking out into the deep dark abyss of space. Just nothing but black with only the light of flashlights to see your surroundings. Overall it was an amazing day of diving – although I was exhausted after 4 dives!
Day 4 – A Few Fun Firsts and Some PADI Rescue Dive Certification Skills Too!
That’s it. I’m done diving. I have fulfilled my lifelong goal of making sustained, intense, eye contact with an octopus. Now I can go home.
Just kidding, about the going home part that is. I did, in fact, make eye contact with an octopus during one of today’s dives! This was the first octopus I have ever seen! The octopus was buried away in a little nook in the reef, and looked to be about the size of a dinner plate. He was not happy with all the attention he was receiving as there were many divers surrounding his den with cameras and flashlights and such.
While diving today I also saw a sea turtle, and a sunken barge! The barge was quite the surprise- we happened upon it while making our way back to the boat. Usually when I have dove in the past my dive buddy and I will follow the dive master who gives a ‘underwater tour’ of sorts. However, for the first time today my dive buddy (my mom) and I decided to try our hands at navigation and went off on our own! It went very well (as in neither of us died and we made it back to the boat).
For my Padi Rescue Certification we practiced retrieving a diver from the ocean. The safest way to do this and only way we practiced today, is to throw an object (preferably a floating object on a rope) and pull the diver in. I was doing a backflip off the boat for fun and that triggered my instructor to start the drill, which was a fun way to do a drill. I did my backflip on the side of the boat and swam to the back of the boat (the waves were quite large today) and then my classmates pulled me in and lifted me on the boat. This doesn’t sound hard but it is more work that it may seem to lift someone out of the water and onto the boat. After I was safely back on the boat, I had to backflip back in again so the second classmate could practice. Finally my mom dove in so I could practice retrieving her and bringing her onto the boat.