I tend to prefer aisle seats when I fly, mostly because I’ll have a little elbow room on one side and can occasionally stretch my legs. However, on this particular flight to the Bahamas, I had ended up in a window seat. With my forehead pressed against the slightly blurred Plexiglas I watched endless miles of ocean passing below, comparing the scant minutes of this flight to the hours of sailing time covering the same distance. I soon found myself looking down at the northern end of the island of Andros, specifically at the natural harbor of Morgan’s Bluff. Some places and events may not change you, but they will mark you; the waters of the Bahamas below were such a place for me nearly twenty years ago…
The question of what got me “into scuba” has been raised often, usually by people first becoming interested in diving. Perhaps this is because they are struggling to identify just what it is that interests them, and until they have an experience for themselves they look to others for definition. I understand that struggle, and I also understand the growth of a passion as experience broadens.
My own journey began when I certified as an open water diver in the cold, dark waters of mid-Missouri. I was young and adventurous enough to be drawn to the excitement of the sport, and purchased my own equipment within the first year of certifying. Each dive brought back my initial excitement, and the stories seemed to hold endless fascination for those around me. However, with a lack of time and available dive buddies my opportunities to dive were sporadic at best, and I found myself with more desire than satisfaction. I simply couldn’t get enough; but rather than being discouraged I worked a little harder to find or create opportunities to dive.
One such opportunity was the chance to join a small group from the “local” dive shop on a week-long liveaboard trip to the Bahamas. A liveaboard is a boat trip where you eat, sleep, and dive for the entire time out on the ocean, with little or no stops or landfalls. You sail out, and the boat and your fellow passengers become the entire “world” for that period. Liveaboards can either be staffed by a professional crew or can be of the “bare boat” variety, wherein passengers also fulfill the role of crew. Needless to say, it’s important that you choose wisely both the boat and the people you will be with, since there is precious little space on a small, crowded boat. Liveaboards will either be the very best or the very worst trips you’ll ever experience, and the deciding factor can all come down to a single person, a piece of equipment, or an event on the boat.
I had been blessed to travel on family “vacations” growing up, but a trip like this was something I considered more as an “adventure.” I was both nervous and excited by the prospect, but having never done anything like this before gave me no way to mentally prepare. I was one of two or three “newbies” joining a small group of people who had sailed together before, but that I didn’t know well. I know at that time I didn’t fully appreciate the risk or compliment this group was giving me in extending such an invitation; I was too excited by the adventure!
Our liveaboard was of the bare boat variety, and as a newbie I was bringing a lot of excitement but very little skill with me. Our local shop owner/instructor was very experienced in the region we would be sailing and diving, and would act as our captain. The rest would divide duties as cooks, boat crew, and divemasters; filling tanks or performing whatever tasks became necessary during the course of the week. It was easy to understand how patience and a good sense of humor were valuable assets, and how a lazy or diva-like attitude would irritate fellow boat mates.
Our group of twelve was sailing out from the Port of Miami aboard a small 42’ catamaran leased from Florida Yacht Charters. The white fiberglass hull was emblazoned with a huge smiling face of the cartoon character Garfield, and bore the unlikely name of Luv Cats. The necessary grocery shopping had been done before I arrived from the airport, and I could only hope the week’s menu selection would be more than peanut butter or spaghetti. I helped finish loading tanks and supplies on board, and was eager for our planned evening departure.
Luv Cats was no racing boat, and the sixty-mile cruise from Port of Miami to Andros would take about ten hours. We planned to cross the sand flats during the night, and begin diving the next day. That meant we would be working in shifts overnight to monitor the autopilot-controlled boat, watch out for other vessels, and keep an eye on the depth. It surprised me that in many areas between the United States and the Bahamas boats have grounded in the middle of the ocean on sand bars that are just inches below and sometimes even rise above the surface! Of course the name “Bahamas” comes from the original “Baja Mar,” or “Sandy Sea.”
A party-like atmosphere pervaded the boat as we sailed out, and in spite of our effort as newbies to appear low-key and cool, the difference between us and the veterans was very apparent. We clung to anything and everything as we attempted moving around on the boat, especially out on the deck, in spite of what the veterans declared to be glass-calm seas. By the end of the first day we would be more sure-footed, and by the end of the week I found myself scampering around the boat easily no matter what the sea-state was.
I anticipated the boat routine becoming just that; routine. However, for me it never did. Even the more difficult parts of diving and working the boat were all a part of the grand adventure. My boat mates turned out to be a wonderful group of people, most of whom will remain friends for the rest of my life. Each person seemed to go out of their way and to great lengths just to make me happy. It made me want to try harder in serving the others, taking great joy doing even small things simply to make another person feel special.
The Bahamas was also a fantastic introduction to tropical diving. While famous for the large pelagic animals such as dolphins and sharks that inhabit these waters, it was recognizing a small fish on my first dive that made real the fact I wasn’t simply seeing television or visiting an aquarium. The four-eyed butterfly fish is one of the most common fish found in the Caribbean, and a pair of them greeted me early on my very first dive, seeming to say “hello, friend, we recognize you, too! We’re not afraid, and we’d love to have you join us for a while…” Seeing that special hand signal from my favorite dive buddy pointing out a pair of “my fish” still makes me smile even today!
The week aboard Luv Cats planted a seed deeply inside, and while at that moment I didn’t know how it would ever be possible, I knew I wanted to make a career in diving somehow. Once again it would take hard work and opportunities both given and created to turn that dream into a goal and eventually a reality. It would be a change I would never regret.
The “giant stride” is a form of entry made by a diver into water too deep to stand in or wade into, and it is often seen by new divers as an act of faith. My own career entry seemed akin to a giant stride, but I’ve grown to love and admire this industry. The dive industry has seemed to say “hello, friend, don’t be afraid! We love having you join us.” Diving has challenged, enveloped, and buoyed me up just as much as the water we teach in. It has allowed me to find a place in a community as diverse as the ocean, a place which manages to combine and form something far greater than the individuals it is made up of. It is a place I can both grow and share.
I believe I have always had a gift for teaching. I don’t always enjoy the aspect of public speaking when it comes to large groups, but in small, intimate settings with interested people I find myself in an element I can be good at. When given a subject that I am knowledgeable and passionate about the gift is nearly an evangelical fervor that must be shared with others. Diving permits me that opportunity on a frequent basis.
Where diving will eventually lead I cannot say; but just as you never know the point during a dive when something incredible could happen, you simply have to make that giant stride and just keep swimming….