Diving the Blue Hole

I look at my gauge and notice the air pressure has fallen to a dangerously-low 500 pounds per square inch. I touch the arm of my instructor a few feet to my right and show him the bad news. He motions me upwards with a hand signal, and waves “bye bye”. Eighty-one feet under water, it will take more than a minute to reach the surface at the maximum ascent rate of sixty feet per minute, not counting an optional decompression stop. I know I should leave immediately, but there’s one more thing I must do. My “buddy” is swimming a few yards away with her back to me, and I can’t leave without letting her know. I kick my fins gently and am propelled rapidly through the water. Touching her on the shoulder she turns around, and I show her my air pressure gauge. She makes the hand signals asking if I’d like to share her air supply, but I shake my head, politely declining, and wave “bye-bye”. She waves in acknowledgement, and I head for the surface.

As I drift upwards, properly ascending at the same rate as my bubbles, I glance again at my pressure gauge and now I’m scared. 100 pounds of air is all that is left. Three hundred is considered the minimum. I’m floating upwards rapidly now, in fact, too rapidly, and my ascent rate is accelerating. Then I see another danger. An overhanging rock cliff is directly above me, and I’m on a collision course. Just in time I twist my body around and kick twice. I scrape against the rock, but in my wet suit I’m protected from the razor-sharp limestone. A few more kicks and I’m clear of the wall, but still ascending too fast. What’s happening? Why am I going so rapidly? Just before panic sets in, I discover the problem. The air in my buoyancy compensator is expanding as the outside water pressure diminishes. That’s increasing my buoyancy and accelerating my ascent rate. I grab for the BC’s “dump valve” and a stream of bubbles shoots upwards. That slows the ascent but a glance at the pressure gauge tells me I’d better keep moving fast: the needle is pointing to empty. Yet there must be air because I’m still breathing. That’s the important thing. No matter what happens, keep breathing, or if you can’t breathe in, and least breathe out. A diver who holds his breath during an ascent will explode like an over-inflated balloon.

These and other worries suddenly evaporate as my head breaks through the surface of the water, and now I’m floating calmly amongst the waves. I handled the panic situation correctly, and managed the ascent sufficiently to avoid a problem. I breathe a sigh of relief.

This dive to the bottom of the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico was the final exam for Colorado Mountain College’s Beginning Scuba Class. Presumably I’m now a Certified Diver, accredited to rent Scuba equipment from any dive shop in the world. But if I’ve learned anything from the last forty eight hours, it’s to not over-estimate my abilities. Scuba diving is easy–until something goes wrong. And I’d had just enough experience with things going a little wrong to know how easily it can happen.

Bobbing on the surface, with nothing to do now other then wait for my companions who are still eighty feet below me, I have a chance to think back on how I got here. I remember that first night in the Frisco high school classroom. A dozen new students, each a little cautious and unsure what to expect, drifted in and took their seats. Each of us glanced around, trying to size up the others. Who were these strange people, presumably intelligent adults, who had come together to learn how to survive beneath the surface of the water? And why were they doing it? For that matter, why was I?

In my case there was an excuse. My sister had emigrated to Australia several years ago, and in a few weeks I would be visiting her for the first time. She’d had only one word of advice: get your Scuba certification before you come down.   So here I sat, feeling as nervous as everyone else looked. Having learned to swim at an early age I’ve never been scared of the water. But I’d had my share of uncomfortable experiences in the pool: ears aching from trying to dive to the bottom of the deep end, eyes stinging from being opened in a chlorine environment, noses filling up with water, and so forth. I’d had a fair amount of snorkeling experience in the Bahamas and long ago in the Mediterranean, and still remembered the many times I’d taken a deep breath only to discover the snorkel was filled with water. By and large I found the ocean less threatening if one stayed on the surface. But it was too late to turn back now. The instructor walked in and smiled reassuringly.

He was a fairly young, competent-looking individual named Steve Hilley, and he set a relaxed tone by sitting on the edge of the desk and rolling off his long list of qualifications. He wasn’t trying to impress us, just make us feel comfortable.   Steve was an Emergency Medical Technican, a rated Scuba instructor, founder and president of the Summit County Dive Rescue Team, a certified CPR instructor, and so forth.

“So feel safe,” he said.

That first night was the qualification swim–the only part of the experience I wasn’t worried about. As a child I’d completed the Red Cross advanced life-saving and advanced swimming courses. And all we had to do was swim eight lengths of the pool using any stroke we wished and taking as long as we needed. What could be easier?

There were three women in the class, aged approximately 25, 35, and 45 I judged. I later found out that the forty-five year old was a grandmother. And there were seven men including myself, generally in our twenties or thirties. We lined up in the swimming pool and, on queue ,all ten of us lashed out with our favorite strokes. Despite the fact that we’d been told to take as long as we wished there were some among us who considered this a race. They streaked off doing sophisticated crawls or butterflies and seeing them I couldn’t keep from pushing myself harder than I’d intended. I was in my mid-thirties and one has a self-image problem at that age. I didn’t want to let these young hot-shots out-distance me.   But after only two lengths I realized I was becoming exhausted and after the fourth I knew I was in trouble, which was a shock as I’d never been in trouble in a pool in my life. But my energy was depleted. I was gasping for air and finding none. I realized a little late that most of my swimming had been done over twenty years ago, and certainly not at 9,000 feet elevation.   I swam to the edge and held on, panting, until I could catch my breath.   I didn’t know if this would disqualify me, but getting my Scuba certification wasn’t worth dying for. And if I couldn’t handle what I’d expected would be the easy part, maybe I should be disqualified. My image of myself as another Lloyd Bridges with slim wet suit and spear gun emerging from the deep was going up in smoke.

In the end I completed all eight lengths, and the instructor didn’t seem to mind the fact that I’d had to rest. Apparently I was going to be permitted to continue.

Our next task was becoming comfortable with what is known as skin-diving equipment. This consists of a snorkel, mask, and fins. You float face down along the surface of the water, using the snorkel to breathe. I’d done this before, and had no problem with any of it, which helped restore my confidence. Maybe I was going to be OK after all.

Lesson number two, several nights later, began with a hands-on examination of actual scuba-diving equipment: the weight belt; the air tank; the pressure gauge (which measures the amount of air remaining in the tank); the buoyancy compensator, or “BC”, which is an inflatable horse-shoe life preserver in which air can be injected directly from the air tank; and finally the most important piece of equipment of all: the regulator, a hose and valve assembly which delivers the air in a controlled fashion from the air tank to the diver’s mouth.

We were shown how to operate all of this, and then were ushered off to the pool to put it into practice. One of the first things we did at poolside was dividing up into “buddy teams”. The buddy concept is ingrained in scuba diving. You always dive with your “buddy”, stay close together, and look after each other’s welfare. Soon we were fully equipped and standing in a circle in the shallow end of the pool, each person beside their buddy. Steve told us that we were going to put the regulators in our mouths, see that we could breathe from them, and then drop down the several feet to the bottom of the shallow end of the pool. In a moment there we all were, still in a circle, huge bubbles coming out of our faces, staring at each other like some kind of invading insect life-form from another planet.

Steve knew what he was doing in having us just stay there for a few minutes for there was a host of new sensations accompanying this maneuver   It may seem silly now, but at the time the mere act of breathing in and out from a regulator while sitting at the bottom of a pool took some concentration. There wasn’t anything especially hard about it. It was just — different.

From that night on the classes fell into a predictable tempo. We would convene in the classroom, watch a thirty minute video tape covering much the same material as we’d been instructed to read in our manual, listen to a short lecture covering the material yet again, and then then adjourn to the pool where we would assemble our equipment and, as Steve put it, “get wet”.

We learned how to take the regulator out of our mouth, put it back in again, clear it of water, and resume breathing. The main thing to remember was to keep exhaling while the regulator was out of your mouth. Holding your breath — EVER holding your breath — is the primary mortal sin of scuba diving. If you can’t breathe in and out, at least breath out! It was also necessary to remember to clear the regulator of water before taking a new breath. You did this either by blowing air forcibly into the chamber from your lungs, or you could tap the button on the back and send a rush of compressed air into the device, thus accomplishing the same thing. We practiced it both ways.

The next exercise was tipping our masks such that a small amount of water would flow in, and then clearing the mask of water. This is done by tilting your head back, pulling the bottom of the mask just slightly away from your face, and then blowing air into it from your nose. The amazing thing about this maneuver is that it works. The water vanishes and the mask is clear.

A much harder maneuver is to take the mask entirely off. The first time we practiced this I was convinced I would have to drop out of the class. Water flowed immediately into my nose. The exhaled air bubbles from my regulator bounced all over my face and caused horrible disorientation. All sense of timing in breathing in and out was lost and I would start to choke.

But the instructor said not to worry if we felt uncomfortable with any of these maneuvers. He promised that eventually they would become second nature, and while I was skeptical I decided not to give up quite yet.

Our next big challenge was buddy breathing, where you take your own regulator out of your mouth and breathe instead off your buddy’s: two breaths, and then you hand it back. Two breaths, and then they hand it back, etc. It wasn’t too tricky as long as you concentrated, and didn’t dilly-dally about getting the regulator back to the person who needed it.

One night we crossed an important threshold by graduating to the deep end of the pool. You had to clear your ears as you descended, which could be done by holding your nose and blowing outwards. Everything we’d practiced in the shallow end we now practiced again, and soon, I knew, would come complete mask removal. That threat was hanging over me like the sword of damacles. Finally, at the end of one class when I was low on air and had gone back to the shallow end, I decided to conquer my mask-removal-phobia. After being at a depth of twelve feet the thought of doing most anything at three feet seemed tame. So I dropped down to my knees, using my remaining air, and cautiously took my mask completely off. It was horrible, but I forced myself to endure it, and finally I realized that water would not flow into my nose if I exhaled through my nose instead of through the regulator. It took some coordination but after a few moments I got it right. My next problem was my eyes. I couldn’t open them because the air bubbles being exhaled were so irritating. But I discovered a solution here also: I could merely close my eyes while exhaling, and then open them again while inhaling.

There wasn’t anything natural about this “open eyes — inhale by mouth — close eyes — exhale by nose” rhythm. But it worked.   Maybe I was going to be able to stay with the class after all.

Actually I had another, more serious problem.   My buddy quit the class. In a world where the buddy system is all, I became an outcaste, a pariah, and soon I’d developed a stoic independence. While everyone else looked to their buddies for help in putting on their tanks, and attaching their regulators, and with all the other little jobs, I was forced to learn to do these things as a single. While others would stay slavishly with their buddies while under the water, I was–by default–free to roam, and I did so with a sense of martyrdom. Perhaps the others felt sympathy but I didn’t want their pity. They were comfortable and secure in their cute little buddy teams. I grew to hate them all.

But the classes continued. We learned about decompression sickness, air embolisms, rapture of the deep, and oxygen poisoning. We learned about decompression tables, and how to use them to calculate safe times that could be spent at respective depths. We learned the proper way to respond to sharks while diving (ignore them in general, but never turn your back and swim away from them.) Steve put the shark issue in perspective one day when he said: “Imagine if you were strolling down the main street of Frisco and all of a sudden a six foot shark came walking along, clothed all in black, wearing an incomprehensible mechanical device, and blowing large bubbles of water all about it’s head. Wouldn’t you be terrified? Well, that’s pretty much how we look to the sharks. Given a choice, they’ll keep their distance.”

We learned how to take off our air tanks while sitting at the bottom of the pool, and then put them back on again. We learned how to buddy breathe while ascending to the surface (The instructor condescended to recognize me as his nominal buddy for that exercise). We learned how to do emergency ascents with no air at all (just keep exhaling, and head full speed for the surface). And — most difficult of all — we learned how to remove our weight belts and then put them back on again while underwater.

This latter exercise proved amazingly difficult. The center of gravity and buoyancy as they relate to a diver are astonishingly sensitive factors. A diver’s wet suit, air tank, and body fat contribute so much “positive buoyancy” that a weight belt must be worn if a diver hopes to sink beneath the surface. To compensate for the weight belt, the diver is provided with a “buoyancy compensator” which he can fill partially with air from his regulator at the touch of a button, or likewise purge of air by using the “dump valve’.   By using these two buttons a diver can fine tune himself so as to achieve neutral buoyancy, but the work doesn’t stop there. As you go deeper your wet suit compresses, reducing buoyancy, and you need to compensate. As you breathe in you fill with air and that increases buoyancy. Also there is a good ten-second delay when using the valves on the BC which make the adjustments themselves difficult.

Compounding all of this is the effect of forward movement through water. A diver’s fins are so powerful that a slight kicking motion will send him quickly through the water, and while moving he is able to aim himself upwards or downwards, producing an effect that can easily overpower the delicate factor of buoyancy.

When a rough truce has been obtained between positive and negative buoyancy the diver finds himself much like an astronaut in a weightless environment. Something as simple as settling calmly to the bottom, and then trying to stay there, or maneuvering over to another diver, require more effort than could be imagined. To achieve the desire result I found myself using the dump valve and inflator valve on the buoyancy compensator in much the same way that I’ve seen astronauts use backpack retro-rockets while performing extra-vehicular walks in space.

But all of this fine tuning amounts to naught when one is required to remove their weight belt at the bottom of the pool. As soon as the weight belt is even loosened the diver finds himself rolling out of control in several dimensions. When it is completely off the student is supposed to hold it with one hand at arm’s length before putting it back on. This causes the diver to stand on his head because the arm with the weight belt is held down while the rest of his body heads for the surface. The struggles necessary to get the weight belt back on merely exacerbate the situation.

Yet eventually even this exercise could be performed by all of us with only minimal effort and the classroom and pool work was finally coming to a close. On our last day of class we were rewarded with free time in the pool, where we could do whatever we wished, and simply enjoy the scuba equipment. Soon I had run my air supply down to the lowest safe margin so, not wanting to quit, I floated around on the surface for a while without my weight belt, and breathing off my snorkel. Mary Kay, the young grandmother, was relaxing on the bottom of the deep end. Being encouraged to practice the various techniques we’d learned, I decided to go down and buddy breathe off her air tank. I arched my back in the necessary dive technique of one who has no weight belts, held my breath (that’s OK in snorkeling), and headed down to the bottom. I gave her the buddy breathing sign and she immediately handed me the regulator. But before it was half way to my mouth I was reminded of what happens without weights. My lungs being filled with air I was utterly incapable of staying at the bottom, and I could only wave in frustration as I was pulled back to the surface by the laws of physics.

“Put on your weight belt, you idiot!” Steve called to me good-naturedly from the sidelines. So I did, and tried the maneuver again. Mary Kay was still on the bottom, and again she handed me her regulator. I grabbed it quickly for I was becoming desperate to take a breath and in that instant my first “panic” situation developed.

“Panic” is a constant danger in scuba diving, because even though most problems encountered by the diver can be handled readily while under water, the human compulsion to breathe is so powerful that anything interrupting that ability–or even threatening to interrupt it–is met by a surge of adrenaline that is mentally incapacitating in its force and is known as scuba panic. It had been discussed at length both in our textbook, and in the lectures. The proper response is to recognize it for what it is, fight it down, and solve the problem calmly. Easier said than done, but I’d decided the best approach was to avoid a panic situation in the first place. What could really go wrong, after all?

Yet here I was in an actual panic encounter, and overlaying the panic itself was an amazement that it could happen in a swimming pool. I’d always assumed panic would come when you were 100 feet down on a South Pacific reef, your air tank was empty, your foot was entangled in seaweed, and a Great White Shark was circling hungrily. Yet here I was in a high school swimming pool barely ten feet under water.

What had happened was this: I had taken Mary Kay’s regulator and had tried to put it in my mouth. But it wouldn’t go in. It was hitting something. I needed to take a breath, and couldn’t, and so I panicked.   It didn’t take much! All of my instincts screamed for me to drop the regulator and shoot for the surface, but I forced myself to “follow orders.” I relaxed (possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done), and tried to figure out why the regulator wouldn’t go in my mouth. I knew in an instant.   The regulator wouldn’t go in my mouth because there was a snorkel in my mouth. We’d never practiced dropping down from the surface with a snorkel and picking up a regulator.   I took the snorkel out of my mouth, put the regulator in, purged the water from it, and breathed deeply. Now everything was fine.

The elapsed time was probably no more than five or six seconds, and the problem had been embarrassingly simple to fix. Yet I had panicked. It was a very sobering lesson, and probably the most valuable thing I’d learned in the course.

CMC’s Scuba Class covers only the classroom and pool work. To become “certified”, one has to take an “open water” test, a series of four dives in which all of the exercises are repeated at greater depth in a real underwater environment — not a swimming pool. Summit County offers no suitable open-water sites because the lakes are too cold. There are a variety of muddy ponds in the Denver area that can be used for open water certifications, but Steve said they were disgusting.

We had two choices. We could wait until we went on vacation to wherever we might be going: Cozumel, the Bahamas, or in my case Australia. Once there we could arrange the open water portion of our test with a local dive school. That didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to get it over with now.

The other choice was to go with Steve on a three day weekend trip to New Mexico’s Blue Hole, an eighty-foot deep limestone crevice formed by the collapse of an ancient cavern roof, and filled by a 3000 gallon a minute underground spring. The blue hole is clear, not too cold (61 degrees constant temperature year around) and very popular with dive clubs throughout the southwest for open water certifications.   Five of us from the class decided to go, and we were joined by Michelle, a young woman from Breckenridge who was already certified, but who wanted to come along for fun.

The three day trip, I suspected, would be a transition between all of us knowing each other as classmates, and actually becoming friends. We car-pooled in two vehicles: Michelle’s double cab pickup, and Mary Kay’s seven year old Chevy citation, which had a new engine but also a hole in its muffler which made it roar like an Indy racer whenever it started up.   The five others from the class now began to take on separate identities as we drove across eight hours of backroads and freeways through the heavily mountainous countryside, stopping occasionally for gas or restaurant meals.

In my car there was Eric Grant, age 28, who worked as reservations manager for Resort Express in Frisco. There was Mary Kay Haines, the grandmother, and manager of one of the factory outlet stores in Silverthorne. Also in my car was Shawn Hermanson, the 6 foot 4 inch, fourteen-year-old basketball player from Summit County High School who spoke little and consumed bubble gum and Dr. Pepper in abusive quantities.

Michelle, the owner of the pickup, was a young mother of two who had met her husband on a scuba dive some years ago. She was tall and slender and taught aerobics classes for CMC in Breckenridge.   This would be her third trip to the Blue Hole. Steve rode with her, as did Chris Wells, a soft-spoken man, age 27, who worked as a locksmith during the week, and raced sailboats in the Dillon Yacht Club on weekends. Chris was good-looking, athletic, and hands-down winner of the original eight-length swim qualification that first night back in the pool. He’d been on his swim team in high school, and was the kind of guy who makes us late-thirties types feel our age. Rounding out the group of eight was Susan Putnam, a condominium manager from Silverthorne, perhaps in her late-twenties, and very pretty with long blonde hair and the requisite blue eyes to go with it. She’d been the only one to blow-dry her hair after each pool session back in Frisco.

The road-trip was its own minor adventure. Michelle proved to be a high-speed driver, keeping religiously to a self-imposed speed-limit of twenty-five miles an hour over the legal one. I was driving the Chevy Citation/Indy race car with the new engine, and was able to keep her in sight, but I did curse my negligence in not bringing along a radar-detector as we raced through Trinidad at 90 miles an hour on I-25

Half an hour short of Santa Rosa, home of the Blue Hole, the pickup pulled over to the side of the road where an adobe structure was battling the test of time. It was an old West saloon, the kind with low ceilings, rough-hewn furniture, an ancient wooden bar with a large glass mirror behind it, and a few cow hands sipping whiskey in the corner. No one inside was speaking English.

The scene reminded me of Randy, my college roommate from the University of Texas who’d grown up near Amarillo and used to tell me stories of cowboy bars out west of the Pecos where the locals didn’t take kindly to strangers. “They’s just itchin’ to get in a fight,” Randy had explained. “New guy in town walks into the bar, and don’t behave just right, they’s all over ‘im in a flash.”

“So how do you behave right?” I’d asked, prepared to store away the knowledge

“Here’s what ya gotta do. You gotta walk in slow, hands at your sides, looking straight ahead, but not ‘at anyone, ya know what I mean? You go right up to the bar, and just kinda stand there, waiting. Pretty soon the bartender ‘ll come up and say ‘whatlyahave?’ Ya gotta look right at him, and have your answer all ready, like it don’t require no thought. Ya say ‘Wild Turkey.’ He’ll say ‘Ya want that straight up or on the rocks?’ And here’s where you gotta do it just right. Ya gotta just stare at ‘im and let your eyebrows come together just a tad, like maybe you’re not sure if he’s insulted you, or if he’s just stupid.   Ya stare like that for a moment, and pretty soon the bartender’ll nod and say ‘Right,’ and he’ll get you a shot of Wild Turkey, straight up. Well, ya know what ya gotta do when it comes. And when you’re done, ya don’t slam it back down on the counter, you set it down real gentle-like, and look at the empty glass like it was your sweetheart or something. And then ya say real softly, to the glass maybe, ya say ‘That there’s a damn fine whiskey…’

“And then?”

“And then nothing. You do all that and won’t no one in that bar give you no trouble. They ain’t gonna pick a fight with no stranger who drinks straight shots of Wild Turkey.”

“What are we doing here?” asked Mary Kay, echoing the thoughts of the whole class, and bringing me back from my memories.

“Blue Hole tradition,” replied Michelle and Steve.

We walked in and took our places at the bar.

“Whatlyahave?” asked the bartender.

“What’s the tradition?” asked Eric.

“I think maybe the tradition’s Wild Turkey,” I said, hoping it might be true.

“A shot of tequila, straight up,” explained Steve.

Seven shots of tequila were served, and one Dr. Pepper. We sprinkled salt on our forearms, sucked lemon slices, licked off the salt, and downed the tequila. I set mine gently on the counter, looked at the empty glass lovingly, and said “That there’s a damn fine tequila.” But the other patrons in the bar weren’t paying us the least attention. Also, with our group of eight we outnumbered them four to one.

Santa Rosa is located on the high plain of the Llano Estacado, a hot, windy flatness that stretches from central New Mexico eastward to the hill country of Texas. It’s inhabited by tumbleweed, scorpions, a few cows, and, every couple of hundred miles, a worn-out ranch town. By all rights that’s what Santa Rosa should have been. But nature had played a strange trick here, and as a result Santa Rosa was a scuba diving mecca. Being the only good dive spot in the Southwest, it receives pilgrimages from as far away as Wyoming, Utah, and Nebraska.

Our first indication that we were approaching civilization were the billboards saying “Santa Rosa — Home of Famous Blue Hole.” Or: “Welcome to Santa Rosa. Ask about our Famous Blue Hole.” One was simply all blue, with two scuba divers descending down into the azure depths.   “See our Famous Blue Hole,” said the caption.   I got the impression that in Santa Rosa, famousbluehole was one word.

Our excitement mounted as we followed the signs. “Famous Blue Hole — One Mile”.   “Famous Blue Hole — One Fourth Mile.” At last we turned onto a dusty side street which we bounced along for several hundred yards and then turned again into a large deserted parking lot. Low shrub trees were scattered about, and to the south the forbidding bleakness of the Llano plain could be seen stretching on forever.

At the end of the parking lot some rough stone work nestled against a slight rock outcropping. We walked hesitantly up to it, and peered over the edge. It didn’t look like a blue hole. It looked like a small pond. It was only thirty feet across. The sun was now low in the sky and a nearby cypress tree cast its shadow over the water, turning the surface black. I walked down the little stone steps and touched the water. It was freezing. A stiff October wind was blowing across the prairie and I pulled my Patagonia jacket more tightly around my shoulders.   It was appalling to think that tomorrow morning we would climb into that cold, loathsome blackness and disappear beneath the surface

Steve had booked us into the Holiday Hotel, which used to be a Holiday Inn until somewhere in its past it had lost its franchise. Possibly its failing had come in the reservations department, for of the seven rooms we had reserved, only three were available. Each room had two double beds, and a rollaway could be added. The girls took one room, Eric and Chris took another, and Shawn and I bunked with Steve.

The wet suit party began at 6:00 p.m. sharp, in Steve’s room, but there was nothing fun about it. Steve had brought quarter inch wet suits for everyone, roughly estimating the necessary sizes. The objective of the wet suit party was to see if they would fit. Steve handed them out solemnly and soon we were all grunting and groaning with efforts that would have been totally misunderstood had anyone happened to pass our door.

“What we need,” said Steve after half an hour of struggle, “is baby powder.” Baby powder is used by scuba divers to lubricate the rubber suits and make them easier to slide on.

“We’re going to need an industrial quantity,” said Mary Kay, who was doing her best against impossible odds. But eventually we were all clothed in black and, glancing around the room, I decided we looked like a pretty tough crowd. So might a team of navy frogman look as they prepared their underwater demolition charges.

After the wetsuits came the weightbelts. The weights we had used in the Frisco pool would not be sufficient, for the wetsuits added nearly ten pounds of buoyancy. I experimented with various combinations of weights until finally settling for two ten-pounders on either side. At least I’d be balanced.   And after the weighbelts came all the other equipment: the backpacks and the regulators and the airtanks and the fins and snorkels and masks and buoyancy compensators. We had to make sure everything would fit. Watching us struggle into these mechanical devices, I was reminded of Mark Twain’s description of a medieval knight getting into battle armor:

“I had the demon’s own time with my armor. It is troublesome to get into, and there is so much detail. First you wrap a layer or two of blanket around your body, for a sort of cushion and to keep off the cold iron; then you put on your sleeves and shirt of chain mail — these are made of small steel links woven together, and they form a fabric so flexible that if you toss your shirt onto the floor, it slumps into a pile like a peck of wet fishnet; it is very heavy and is nearly the uncomfortablest material in the world for a nightshirt, yet plenty used it for that — tax collectors, and reformers, and one-horse kings with a defective title, and those sorts of people; then you put on your shoes — flatboats roofed over with interleaving bands of steel — and screw your clumsy spurs into the heels. Next you buckle your greaves on your legs, and your cuisses on your thighs; then come your backplate and your breastplate, and you begin to feel crowded; then you hitch on the breastplate and the half-petticoat of broad overlapping bands of steel which hangs down in front but is scalloped out behind so you can sit down, and isn’t any real improvement on an inverted coal scuttle, either for looks or for wear, or to wipe your hands on; next you belt on your sword; then you put your stovepipe joints onto your arms, your iron gauntlets onto your hands, your iron rattrap onto your head, with a rag of steel web hitched onto it to hang over the back of your neck — and there you are, snug as a candle in a candle mold. Well, a man that is packed away like that, is a nut that isn’t worth the cracking, there is so little of the meat, when you get down to it, by comparison with the shell.

(From “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”)

That evening we went to the Red Rooster Inn for dinner. There are only three restaurants in Santa Rosa, and they are identical. They serve Mexican food and catfish, they are garishly lit with high overhead flourescents, the walls are crammed with paintings by Manuel Salvador (an artist of the day-glow tiger school), and each devotes fifty percent of its floorspace to a souvenir display. The souvenirs consist of scorpions frozen in cellulite cubes, T-Shirts carrying the caption “Blue Hole”, Indian arrow heads, and rubber-band guns. As we were paying our bill, and making jokes about the artwork, Shawn asked the cashier if Manuel Salvador lived in the area.

“Manuel Salvador, it is I!” he said proudly.

The alarm went off at 5:30 the next morning, which was odd because we’d set it for 6:00. “It goes off pretty much randomly,” Shawn explained. “I’ve never figured out how to set it.” So I lay in bed for half an hour and tried to work up the courage necessary for climbing into a cold black hole of water

By six fifteen the others began drifting into our room, struggling with their wetsuits as they came. No one was interested in food, but on the drive to the hole we stopped at a convenience store and bought coffee. It must have seemed odd to the proprietor for eight people in black wetsuits to walk into his store at six thirty in the morning, but he was polite enough to make no comment. Or perhaps in Santa Rosa we were typical customers.

Steve had insisted we reach the blue hole by six-thirty so as to avoid the crowds, but this seemed silly. The parking lot was empty when we arrived, and the water looked even more cold and foreboding than it had the prior evening. I could not imagine it would ever be necessary to stand in line for the privilege of entering the blue hole. We opened the back of the pickup and hauled the air tanks, regulators, and other dive paraphernalia over to the edge of the water as the first rays of light were coming up over the Llano. Then, each taking a final sip of coffee, we launched into the maneuvers we’d performed all those nights in Frisco: removing the dust cover from the tank valve, checking the O ring for damage, attaching the regulator to the tank valve, holding the pressure gauge at arms’ length while opening the tank valve (in case the tank valve were to explode…) checking the pressure, checking each regulator for proper operation, and so forth. This was routine, and all of us were going about it mechanically, when all of a sudden I received a tap on my shoulder. It was Susan, the beautiful one, looking a little unsure of herself.

“Jacques,” she said supplicatingly, “will you be my buddy?”

This took me by surprise. I had been the outcaste, the “one with no buddy” for so long I had grown accustomed to the image. But suddenly all that had changed. Here in New Mexico the tight little world of the buddy system had come unglued. Out of the original ten class members, only six had come down for the final certification, and Susan’s buddy was not among them.   I looked at her coldly for a moment. Was there still enough warmth left in my calcified heart to ever feel close to another diver? Was I ready for the commitment that buddy-dom demanded? Yes, I decided. It was worth the risk…

“I’d love to,” I said simply. But I tried to add the proper inflection in my voice to imply that I was doing her a favor, and was utterly indifferent to whether I had a buddy at all. Having taken the plunge, so to speak, I found there was no turning back. Susan needed help with her air tank. I helped her. She then turned to help me with mine. Giving was demanded of the relationship, but it was a two-way street. I thought I might actually grow to enjoy it.

When we were all suited up, our masks, snorkels, and fins in position, our air tanks on our backs, and our regulators handy, Steve explained the agenda.

“I want everyone to relax,” he said. “We’re just going to walk down the steps over there and get used to the water. Then we’re going to swim around a little on the surface using our snorkels. No big deal. I just want everyone to get used to the temperature, and the wet suits, and the added weights. Let’s take it real easy.”

One by one we walked down the steps and into the inky cold blackness of the blue hole.   It is not true that in a wetsuit you do not feel the cold. You do, very sharply. The water seeps into the space between your skin and your suit, and the shock is violent. But it is also temporary. The body warms the water, and soon the temperature becomes bearable. I plunged face downwards and begin kicking with my fins, breathing off my snorkel.

After we’d completed two circles of the blue hole Steve beckoned us over to the middle, where he was floating calmly. As I had found to be true in the pool, nothing is more uncomfortable than simply floating at the surface. You can breathe out of your snorkel, but snorkels restrict your air supply, making it hard to relax. You can take the snorkel out and breathe regularly, but divers tend to rest on the surface with their mouth’s just below the waterline. You can breathe out of your nose, but the occasional wave makes that dangerous. You can use your airtank and hence not worry about your mouth or nose going underwater. But in doing that you use up your air supply. The whole point in having a snorkel is to be able to conserve air at the surface. Also, when breathing off the regulator a diver tends to float with his ears just under water, making it impossible to hear the instructor.

“C’mon Steve, ” I was thinking. “Let’s get this gabbing over with so we can get under the surface and be comfortable.”

The plan was to descend to twenty feet where a ten-foot “square” of four-inch diameter PVC pipe hung suspended from surface buoys, and which was attached by rope to the bottom. Previously, Steve explained, this device had been covered by a tight canvas mat but now the canvas had been removed and there was only the frame. Its purpose had been to allow divers to practice their open water exercises on a platform instead of merely being suspended in the water. But with the platform itself removed our job was going to be a lot tougher. On this dive, however we would simply be holding onto the frame and practicing a few easy things like clearing regulators.

“OK,” said Steve. “Let’s go.” It could not have come too soon. I pressed the dump valve on my buoyancy compensator, air streamed out of the hose, and I felt myself sinking beneath the waves.

The transition was immediate. Where before everything had been a struggle, now it was effortless. My weight belt was balanced, my tank was almost unnoticeable, and the problems of air supply were gone. I was floating in three dimensions, rather than struggling to stay upright in one. Snorkeling is often considered similar to scuba diving. But in my mind the difference between snorkeling and scuba diving is the difference between driving a twenty-year old open-top jeep with no windshield or doors at high speed over a rutted-out dirt road during a blinding rain storm, versus cruising down a smooth interstate highway in a luxurious motor home while listening to your favorite stereo music and drinking a cup of fresh hot coffee with Irish creme and cinnamon.   You can say the two activities are related, but anyone who’s experienced both will disagree. This latest experience confirmed it yet again.

I turned my attention to Susan. There she was, slightly above me and to the right, her hand likewise on her dump valve, descending effortlessly. Light from the early morning sun was just beginning to penetrate down into the blue hole. It’s shafts illuminated our descent, striking our masks and creating shadows, and probing deeply into the watery darkness below us.

Every two feet, according to the dive manual, you needed to clear your ears. But I found I needed to clear my ears continuously as we descended. Soon I was directly across from the frame, and Susan was right beside me. I kicked with my fins and reached out, grasping one of the vertical ropes. Using that as leverage, I pulled the rest of my body down so that my feet were resting on the frame itself, and Susan did likewise. But as I had discovered back in the pool, a weightless environment is not a simple one. I found I could not steady myself on the pipe, and would instead fall to one side or the other. I tried dumping more air from my BC, and this gave me more weight, but it did not solve the problem. Finally, I let myself actually sit on the pipe, and slipped my leg — with it’s long fin attached — around one of the ropes descending to the bottom of the blue hole. This, combined with a strong handhold on the ascending rope, gave me leverage in all three dimensions and I was able to hold myself steady.

Now I had a chance to look around at the others. Michelle was hanging on to the frame with her hands, letting her body simply drift out horizontally. I wouldn’t have thought of this myself. Too long a victim of normal gravity, I’d tried to lock myself physically to the frame as if it had been suspended in air. In a weightless environment this was neither necessary nor desirable, and I switched to Michelle’s technique. Susan dropped into this posture as well, and soon all of us were holding on around the periphery of the frame with our bodies drifting out behind us.

Steve speaks to us underwater with hand signals. Taking the regulator out of his mouth and then putting it back in again means “We’re now going to try taking the regulator out of our mouths and putting it back in again.” Steve pointed to Eric, and Eric performed the maneuver. Then he pointed to each of us in turn and we did the same.

Next came mask clearing. We let a little water into our masks, and then cleared it back out. It worked the same at twenty feet as it did at ten feet in the Frisco pool. Surprisingly soon, Steve gave the thumbs up signal: it was time to ascend. I shot a burst of air into my BC and began floating upwards, staying right beside Susan until we were at the surface.

Looking around the rim of the pool, I was momentarily seized by fright. The parking lot was filled, and fifty pairs of face-mask shrouded eyes stared back at me from the stone railing. It was rush hour at the blue hole. The wisdom of Steve’s strategy in being here early was now vindicated. We’d made our dive in an empty blue hole. Now scores of other divers were about to fill it up, possibly to overflowing. But while they took their first dive we would be relaxing on the grass waiting for our air tanks to be refilled. Then, when all these new divers had completed their first dive and were lining up at the air tank refilling station, we would have the blue hole to ourselves again. It was a neat piece of blue hole strategic planning.

As we climbed up the steps and began removing our dripping gear, we noticed a large group of divers lined up on an adjacent field of grass. A truck was parked next to them, and appended to the truck was a large flat trailer filled with compressors, air tanks, and various dive paraphernalia. The divers themselves were rigidly at attention and in front of them a man who was apparently their instructor was pacing back and forth, giving them final orders and emphasizing his comments by pounding his fist into his hand in a compelling rhythm.

“OK, now listen up!” he was saying.   “Anyone gets back to the surface with less than 300 pounds of air, you flunk and you’ve got to retake your open water. Benson! Ya, you! You wipe that smile off your face!”

“That’s a dive club from Albuquerque,” explained Steve. “They’re Serious Divers. They always line up on the grass and stand at attention like this was some sort of military exercise. One of these days I expect to see that van pull up, and the back doors fly open, and all the divers jump out in formation, like a SWAT team, with their air tanks held high over their heads.”

I carried the fantasy further in my mind, and could imagine them chanting in unison:

“Where we going to dive to now?”

“Where we going to dive to now?”

“Gonna dive to the bottom ’cause we know how!”

“Gonna dive to the bottom ’cause we know how!”

“Sound off!”

“One, Two!”

“Sound off!”

“Three, Four!”

Eventually these would-be Navy seals were marched over to the blue hole where they stood rigidly at attention. Steps were available for entering the water, but most divers used a small concrete diving board. The Albuquerque divers now made their way to the end of this board. One of the questions on our written exam had been: “What is the best type of entry for any given situation?” The correct answer had been: “The one which is safest, and is most likely to keep the diver from becoming disoriented.” In this situation that probably meant a “giant stride” entry, where you walk forward with your front leg far in front, then when you hit the water you bring your two legs together and slap downwards with outstretched arms. Done correctly, a diver using a giant stride entry won’t even get his hair wet. One of the assistant Albuquerque instructors had been positioned at the edge of the diving board, and was reminding each diver how to do the giant stride. Regardless, each one simply walked off the board with legs held straight together, plunging down ten or fifteen feet into the water before struggling back to the surface. After each such case the poor assistant instructor would hang her head and shake it sadly from side to side as if she couldn’t understand how God had played such a cruel trick on her as to give her custody of these idiots.   Then she would turn to the next in line and repeat the instructions and he would nod solemnly an do exactly the same thing. It was obvious that the poor Albuquerque divers were so intimidated by the military environment that they were freezing up and becoming unable to follow simple instructions.

Michelle, who had been watching the performance, turned to me and said “I think we should show them how the Summit Submersibles do it.”

“Summit Submersibles” was the name we had arbitrarily chosen for our dive group. The blue hole was very clique-ish, and the other divers all proudly wore insignias from their respective dive clubs. Since we didn’t have a club, we decided to form one, and Summit Submersibles was the name we’d picked.

Michelle walked quickly to the end of the diving board and did a perfect back roll into the water. There is no doubt that the back roll is the most spectacular entry, especially when performed from a diving board, and I’m sure we made a pretty sight as all seven of us followed Michelle’s lead. Yet it’s also the most disorienting for the diver because you’re essentially doing a somersault and even though you can keep breathing normally the world around you becomes chaos for a few seconds when you crash into the water.

But it was worth it because when I floated back to the surface the Albuquerque assistant dive instructor was staring at us all hatefully.

On our second dive we again dropped down to the PVC frame so as to practice more maneuvers. Susan and I were the first to reach it and I guessed it would be five or six minutes before everyone else arrived and we were ready to begin. I glanced over at Susan, who was calmly holding onto the frame and waiting expectantly. It would have been appropriate to make small talk for a few minutes so as to kill time, but it’s not possible to talk under water. It was an awkward social situation. I tapped Susan on the shoulder and when she turned towards me I held out my right hand, perfectly flat. Then I made it into a fist. Then I extended two fingers from it, imitating a pair of scissors. She understood immediately. Rock, paper, scissors! So we played “rock, paper, scissors” while we waited for the others, and Susan was leading 9 to 7 when Steve swam in front of us and pointed at me. It was my turn to perform the latest exercise: full mask removal — my former nemesis.   Now, just to prove how much progress I’d made, I took the mask completely off, kept my eyes opened, carefully examined the mask to see how it was doing, made a pretense of adjusting the straps a little, then put it back on slowly, taking plenty of time to get the head band properly positioned, and taking even more time to make sure my hair was out of the way. None of this was really necessary. I just wanted Steve to know I was indifferent whether the mask was on or off. Finally, when I figured I’d dragged the thing out as long as I could, I cleared the mask and Steve gave me the “OK” sign and went on to the next student. But I was having so much fun I took the mask off again, examined it thoroughly once more, and then repositioned it, taking considerable time to get it just right. I was hot stuff on mask removal.

Now there would be a considerable wait as Steve went around to each of the other students. I checked my air supply, as did Susan, and then we checked each other’s, which is proper buddy procedure. I had discovered early on that I am what is known as an “air wolf.” When Steve first accused me of being an air wolf I thought it was a mark of distinction, kind of like getting a Boy Scout merit badge. I liked the way it sounded: “Air Wolf.”   Might even make a good TV series, I suspected, if they could get Jan Michael Vincent to play the part. But I soon learned that an air wolf is someone who burns up air much faster than the norm. There was no particular reason for it. I was just using more air. On a possibly-related matter I’d noticed that while everyone else shivered violently when emerging from the blue hole, I would always be comfortable. It never seemed that cold. Apparently my metabolism was higher, causing me to use more air, and produce more heat. But while the latter was an advantage, the former was a problem.

Susan had discussed it with me after the first dive and we’d decided that if I started to get low on air again, I could buddy breathe off her “octopus” regulator. An octopus regulator is one that has two air hoses and mouthpieces, instead of just one. It’s a safety feature that can be used to help a buddy, or as a backup. So now when Susan saw how much air I’d consumed, she handed me her second regulator. I cleared it and began breathing off her air supply instead of mine. Regulator hoses are not long, and Susan was now holding me against her with her arm, which is the proper technique. Two divers not specifically held together will gradually drift apart. We breathed this way in silence for a time, and I couldn’t help thinking there was something curiously intimate about it. Here we were twenty feet under water, nestled against each other, breathing in and out slowly. It wasn’t exactly sexual, but it did seem like something that one perhaps shouldn’t do on a first date…

Finally Steve completed his round and was back to us. The next exercise was, ironically, buddy breathing. But he wouldn’t let us use the octopus regulator as that would be too easy. We were to share one of the regulators back and forth. Susan took her turn first, and then handed me the mouth piece. I breathed in twice, and handed it back. Suddenly I noticed that Susan was starting to ascend. Apparently this exercise wasn’t just buddy breathing, it was buddy-breathing during an ascent — a more advanced maneuver. Soon we broke the surface, and Steve was right beside us.

“I didn’t know this was supposed to be a buddy breathing ascent!” said Susan bewilderedly.

“You didn’t?” I asked. “Then why did you start going up?”

“I didn’t start going up until you started going up!” said Susan

“No way,” I said. “You started it!”

“You started it!”

“Did not!”

“Did to!”

It was our first buddy’s-quarrel.

But Steve was impressed. “I think you guys are going for extra credit!” he said. “You did good!”

We all three headed down again but after ten minutes I was nearly out of air and knew I should return to the surface. Susan offered to buddy-breathe but I shook my head. I didn’t want to use up her tank as well. Air-wolves have to abide by a certain etiquette. I headed up and Susan followed.

“Too bad you’re out of air,” she said when we broke the surface.

“Yeah, I hate it when that happens.”

“Look,” she said, “I know I shouldn’t leave my buddy, but since I have more air left, would you mind if I went back down? I’m having a great time!”

“Go ahead,” I said, “if a few moments of physical pleasure is more important to you than a meaningful relationship.”

She smiled sweetly, hit the dump valve on her buoyancy compensator, and sank out of sight beneath the waves. It was one more reminder that an air wolf leads a lonely life.

By 9:30 we were back at the hotel. With our day’s work completed we decided to play Trivial Pursuit until dinner. We modified the game slightly. For one thing all the nonsense about the board, and the dice, and the little triangular pie-pieces seemed unnecessary. So we just read the questions outloud. Second, while the questions themselves are nominally divided up into History, Geography, Art & Entertainment, Literature, and Sports, being a special interest group we created a new category: Scuba Questions. A scuba question might be found in any of the other categories for to qualify it had only to relate tangentially. A question about how many quarts of water it took to equal a gallon, was, by acclamation, a Scuba question. A question pertaining to a type of fish was a Scuba question. How many days it took Columbus to cross the ocean was a Scuba question. The more we played, the more questions actually seemed to be Scuba questions in disguise. How many pounds in the British “stone?” That was a weight-belt issue and hence obviously a Scuba Question.

This kept us entertained until dinner and after dinner we went to the Holiday Lounge, a classic country-western bar. There were two groups in this bar: the divers and the locals. The divers all wore jeans, and cowboy boots, and in some cases cowboy hats. But they weren’t trying hard to fit in because most of these hats, or jeans or boots, had “patches” on them, referring to specific dive clubs they belonged to, or professional dive organizations in which they were active members, or levels of advanced certification to which they had successfully aspired.

“I should have worn my patches,” said Steve.

“You don’t need to Steve,” I said. “You’re a member of the Summit Submersibles. You don’t prove things to others. Others have to prove things to you.”

“Yeah,” said Steve. “I like that. Others have to prove things to me.”

The second group in the bar were the locals. The locals didn’t wear jeans or cowboy boots or cowboy hats. The locals were dressed up for Saturday Night, all in shiny new polyester. The band was playing “All My Ex’s Live In Texas”, and several of the locals were dancing the two step. We sipped margaritas for awhile, and finally the band decided to take a break. I decided to take a break too, and ended up in the restroom, with the lead singer of the band right next to me.

“Nice music,” I said, to be sociable.

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s what they want, anyway.”

This last comment seemed to be addressed more at the wall then at me, and I looked over at him sharply. He was overweight, on the short side, but his hair hung down in disarray almost to his shoulders. The man was obviously a child of the sixties.

“Take requests?”


“I think we need a little Iron Butterfly to wake up the room. How ’bout Inna Godda Da Vita,” I said, referring to the quintessential acid rock song of 1968.

“Iron Butterfly,” he said wistfully. “I used to play that song all the time in High School. That’s a hell of a song…”

“Hey, it’s never too late,” I said.

He thought about this a moment, a look of hope in his eyes. “No,” he finally decided. “You need drums for that song. We don’t have a drummer tonight.”

“C’mon, that’s not the real reason,” I prodded.

He chuckled. “Naw, I guess it ain’t. I don’t think we’d be too popular around here if we played Iron Butterfly.”

“Well, you have to do what you have to do. ‘All My Ex’s Live In Texas’ does have a nice beat to it.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It has a nice beat.”

Back at the table I found that several of the party had drifted away, and we were down to Eric, Chris, Michelle, Susan and myself. The band was playing a lively tune, and the dance floor was crowded. I recognized the situation immediately. The two women were in the mood to dance. They were tapping their hands and gazing wistfully at the dancers. But us men weren’t quite brave enough to ask them. I thought about the last time I had been in this situation. I was with Robert, a fisherman from Estonia, and we were sitting at a nightclub on the outskirts of Leningrad. Our dates were two Russian ballerinas from the Kirov Theater. We were eating caviar and drinking champagne, the only language we had in common was French, and the band was playing a Uzbekistan folk dance. But in all other respects the circumstances were identical. I had finally bowed to the pressure in Leningrad by escorting 19 year old Isabella Gorodetskya to the dance floor and had experienced the guilty pleasure of teaching a ballerina to do an American swing hustle.

Now, ten months later, the circumstances were being repeated at a country western bar in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and instead of a Uzbekistan folk dance the band was once again playing “All My Ex’s Live In Texas,” which perhaps is roughly comparable. So I asked Susan to dance. Pretty soon we were all dancing, and had even moved up to a table adjacent to the dance floor. During a break in the music Michelle said “A couple more margaritas and I think we’ll be able to start chair dancing.”

“What’s chair dancing?” I asked, fearing the worst.

“You know, chair dancing! Where we roll our chairs into the center of the dance floor and spin them around and — well — dance.”

“You mean while you’re sitting in the chairs?”

“Of course! You’ve never chair danced?”

“I grew up in Iowa,” I explained.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I’ll teach you…”

So at the next song Michelle and I swirled our lounge chairs out onto the dance floor, and Susan, Eric, and Chris followed. We spun them around in time to the music and crashed into each other and tried to make the whole thing look choreographed. Half the audience screamed approval and began clapping. The other half booed. I suspected it was the divers who were on our side, and the locals who were against us. Sure enough, pretty soon the meanest, largest, most polyester-clad local of them all came out to the dance floor and deliberately swung each of us (in our chairs) off the floor and back to our table. He in turn was both booed and applauded by a different fifty percent of the audience.

“Well,” said the band leader into the microphone, “that’s some of the finest chair dancing we’ve seen in a long time.”

But Michelle was fuming. “What a jerk!” she said. “That guy really takes himself seriously. He ought to lighten up.”

“Just give me the word, Michelle,” I said, “and I’ll kick his teeth in for you.”

“Have you ever been in a bar fight?” she laughed, prepared to be impressed.

“Are you kidding?” I said. “I went to college in Texas.”   That answer appeared to satisfy her, fortunately. And having proved himself by pushing chairs off the dance floor the polyester bully left us alone, and anyway it was time to go to bed.

Five hours later, we were back at the blue hole. This, our third dive, would involve the most difficult maneuvers of all: air tank removal, weight belt removal, and emergency ascents with no air. Normally these first two maneuvers are done while standing comfortably on the canvas platform stretched across the PVC pipe frame. But since there was no canvas platform Steve had us use the square frame itself as a kind of theater in the round — or in this case the square — and each person would enter the ring when it was time to perform.

Steve performed first, quickly taking off and putting on first his weight belt, and then his backpack. Watching him I noticed a trick he seemed to use with the weight belt. He would remove it and put it on again so quickly that his body wouldn’t have time to disorient itself. The key was speed. When it came to be my turn I tried this and it worked. I had the belt off and then on again so fast that I didn’t suffer the normal contortions caused by unequal buoyancy.

Finally all of us had completed the maneuver except Eric. Poor Eric. Trying to get his tank back on he had somehow become entangled amongst the hoses on his regulator and the ropes holding the frame in place. Like an insect caught in a web, the more he struggled the more he made the situation worse. I was reminded of Shiva, the Hindu God of Blood, with its multitudinous arms and legs weaved in and around its evil head. It seemed impossible that he could ever extricate himself. All of us were watching curiously from the sidelines when suddenly Eric made an “out of air” signal: the slash motion across his neck. He reached for Steve’s regulator and Steve handed it to him fast. Something had gone wrong. Eric buddy-breathed off Steve’s tank while Michelle swam around and tried to disentangle the various pieces. Finally everything was back to normal, and Eric was back on his own air. What had happened, I found out later, was that one of Eric’s two octopus regulators was defective. He’d discovered this earlier but as he’d had a spare it did not seem to matter. However while trying to disentangle himself from his Gordian knot he’d confused the two regulators and had tried to breathe off the wrong one.

Far from constituting a black mark on his performance, Steve gave him credit for handling the panic situation correctly. All these underwater exercises didn’t matter in and of themselves nearly as much as did learning to overcome the unexpected problems.

Earlier, when Chris had been performing the full mask removal exercise, another panic situation had developed. Something hadn’t gone quite right in clearing his mask, and he’d inhaled water into his nose. That, combined with the shock of the cold water on his face, had caused him to panic, and he’d headed for the surface at full speed.

“He did the right thing,” Steve had explained later. “When you inhale water you can get disoriented and getting back to the surface is as good a response as any. In fact that’s almost always a good choice in an emergency. Sure, if you have time, you’ll want to control your ascent rate, and if you’ve been down too deep for too long you might have a decompression problem, but all those things are minor if you can’t breathe. It’s easier to deal with the bends on the surface then to deal with a drowning victim fifty feet under water.”

On our final dive there would be no contrived exercises to perform. We would be going to the bottom: eighty-one feet down, more than four times our previous depth. Simply going there, and getting back, was the test. While the others waited on the grass and let the early morning sun do its best to warm them, I stayed with my air tank to oversee the refilling. I wanted to be sure it was filled to the maximum 3,000 pounds per square inch. At eighty-one feet, I would need every bit of it. We started our descent routinely. Susan and I stayed close together, but it didn’t seem especially difficult. We descended feet first, by letting air out of our BC’s just as before. The only difference was that when we reached the PVC frame we kept going. Every foot or so we cleared our ears but that had become as second nature as breathing. Soon I could see the bottom looming up amidst a murky grey cloud of silt. I hit the air valve a couple of times on the BC to slow my landing and soon I had settled softly against the gravel on the bottom of the blue hole. Susan arrived a moment later.

In anticipation of this event I had secreted a Trivial Pursuit card into the pocket on my BC. It had a scuba question on it: “Who played the sheriff in the movie Jaws?” But the motion of opening up my BC pocket must have created so much water movement that the card had floated away. When I reached in, it was gone and no amount of searching the bottom or the surrounding water could produce it. My only consolation was thinking ahead to the time when some beginner scuba diver like myself would be down at the bottom of the blue hole and would come face to face with a water-logged trivial pursuit card.

Steve was now leading our group on a swimming tour of the circumference of the hole. It looked much like a cave, with overhanging rock ledges, limestone formations, and occasionally even graffiti from the “Bill Was Here,” creative school. I looked at my air and it was then that I noticed it was already down to 600 pounds, and I was forced to return to the surface — thereby precipitating my own panic situation as described earlier.

Eventually all of us had returned from the deep. We removed and rinsed off our equipment, and stored it in the back of the truck. But there was one question uppermost in our minds. Did this mean we were now certified? Had we passed the test? Steve was being amazingly non-committal, and it wouldn’t be good form to ask. After changing clothes at the hotel Steve asked each of us individually to line up against an outside wall, where he took our picture. “For the certification ID,” he explained, somewhat enigmatically.

Several of us talked about it out of earshot.

“If he’s taking our picture that must mean we passed the test.”

“It sure looks that way, but he hasn’t said so for sure. Maybe there’s something else we have to do, or some decision he has to make.”

For lunch we tried out the third of the identical restaurants but half way through our second serving of chips and salsa I couldn’t stand the unspoken tension any longer. We were making small talk while a cloud of repressed curiosity hung about the table.

“OK, Steve,” I said. “You’ve been beating around the bush all morning. I want a straight yes or no answer. Are we certified?”

“Well, what do you think?” he replied.

“Goddamm it, Steve! You tell me what you think right now, or I’m going to stuff one of those souvenir scorpions down your throat!”

The others were grateful to have the issue brought to a head, and were murmuring angrily in support. Realizing he finally had to commit himself, Steve raised his glass of ice tea, nodded to us as a group, and said the magic words: “Yes, you are now certified scuba divers.”

“Yaaay!” we all screamed. We clinked our glasses and shook each other’s hands. As we drove back over the New Mexico plains, a warm glow of accomplishment more than made up for any chill remaining from the Famous Blue Hole.

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