A part of the divemaster training is to put the candidate into stressful situations and watch them fall all over themselves trying to make the best rational judgment. Some situations are simulated, like a panicked diver underwater that looses their mask and regulator, manages to kick you in the groin in the process, and bolts to the surface at an unsafe speed. These situations are easily handled - remain calm, gently punch the panicked diver in the stomach (they'll exhale) to prevent lung overexpansion, hold on to them, and shove the reg back into their mouth, deflate their BCD, and so on. A scenario like this has little chance of happening at depth. If new divers panic, they panic in the shallows during their first exercises, for example, when faced with having to breathe from a reg underwater without their mask. If one has managed the exercises, there is little chance they will catastrophically freak out, unless, of course, they are faced with a dangerous predator or a maniac with a knife. Other situations are real life. Handle them wrong, and all your friends coyly smile at you all week and ask what have you been smoking. So I've led some students onto the sharp reef on the surface, and everybody thought that I was just too blind to see the coral right behind me, but well, what can you expect with six people all going in different directions leaving you no time to turn around and look where you going. I've learnt my lesson. My scars now remind me to take the time and turn around. I try not to think about how the simplest of situations can turn dangerous in moments. I was assisting on an advanced course during a deep dive, when at sixteen meters my ears wouldn't equalize anymore, and I watched the rest of my group disappear below me. I found myself in the blue. Nothing around me but water and the sound of my breathing. I couldn't even see the surface above me, and, in seconds, I didn't even know if I was going up or down. I looked at my console, and the depth gauge showed no change, but I could see the needle of my air gauge going down - my nervous heart was racing oxygen through my body way too fast. Stop. Breathe. Think. Bubbles! I can follow their bubbles! Funny, how the brain does its job, even when your mind is completely blank. I followed the bubbles, and eventually my ears popped again. Never mind, that not two seconds passed from my rejoining the group, when I had to leave again. One of the students was running out of air, and so clinging to each other like a sloth and its cub, he and I slowly ascended from the deep, through the blue, him breathing from my alternate.
I and a different student
Not many things I've done in my life have made me feel as strong as I feel after completing this training. I felt like I gave all I had, when we climbed to only 5,500 meters of the 6,088m high Huayna Potosi in Bolivia, and happy to be alive after rappelling twenty story high canyons in Yehuda Desert in Israel, but none of this has made me feel as accomplished and as comfortable with my environment as I do now underwater. Well aware how big of a jerk I can be feeling superior, I try to grin into the corner, and reveal I am a divemaster only when asked directly - nobody likes a showoff. In the short time I've been at it, I already had people thank me for saving their life and/or their money - when you find yourself too freaked out to breathe underwater and decide to quit, there will be no full refund.
Somehow, I've been the biggest help to those who are culturally closest to me. A Russian backpacking couple arrived at the island in hopes of meeting the travel writer vdinets, a good friend of ours who has come here to do his advanced course. A fun little couple; we called them 'the paparazzi, as they wouldn't stop taking pictures of us just about every second of every day of their stay. Eventually, we got used to having conversations to the sound of the snapping shutter and seeing spots due to the continuous flash. Though Irina and Andrey have came here only to "interview", with joint efforts we convinced them to go diving. Andrey knew some English, and his course went just fine, though Irina, a tiny 5 foot, 80 lbs chica, who knew no English at all, got very nervous and, after completing a few skills in one meter of water, bolted to the surface claiming that she doesn't understand what the instructor is saying and wants her to do. It was silly, really - the instructor demonstrates the skill underwater and you repeat it. But to Irina, who struggled understand the instructor on the surface, it seemed, of course, that she shouldn't be able to understand him underwater. It took both me and Shurik, not to mention one of our best instructors, Ricardo, to get her diving again. Another girl, I had to handle all on my own. Lee, a striking Israeli - her father from Morocco, her mother from Burma - could not bring herself to putting her face in the water without a mask and breathing from a regulator. All five of her classmates went on to finish the skills on the surface and then underwater, when Lee and I spent four hours achieving perfection. By the end of it, I couldn't feel three of my fingers, but not only that one treacherous skill was completed, but also a flawless mask removal and replacement underwater. Victorious, we came back that day to the diveshop, and I went straight to the equipment rinsing tub that has been sitting in the sun all day, and submersed myself. Ahhhhh… Hot water is a luxury we chose to skip living on Utila.
The divemaster course is by far not only about the physical endurance. Clearly, you must show incredible stamina during training and the swim test - a timed marathon of 400 meters with no equipment on whatsoever, followed by 800 meters with mask, snorkel and fins, but no use of your arms, followed by a fifteen minute surface floating where if your face touches the water you are disqualified, the last two minutes of that last one - if your elbows touch the water you have to start the whole thing over. The finishing touch of the whole ordeal is a 100 meter tired diver tow with both of you in full scuba gear. Ooophh… Only saying this knocks the air out of me and makes my head spin. Fortunately enough, during the swim test, an enormous green moray circled below reminding me what I am doing this for. Alas, there was nothing to distract me during the physics, physiology, and decompression theory classes. Well, except for the fact the subjects were taught by a pirate. Alfred, the co-owner of the shop and our instructor, his untamable gray-at-thirty-four mane flailing wildly as he explains nitrogen absorption halftimes of tissue compartments, is a born and raised Utilian, with peg legs, eye patches, and rum all too obviously coursing through his veins. If he and Shurik would've met about one hundred years ago, there would have been a duel. Alfred unquestionably knows his stuff and how to teach it, but Shurik knows physics and logic - one inaccuracy, and the whole class finds itself in the midst of two rams butting heads - neither is of the passive nature to stand down abandoning position. Fortunately, being of the same age and with genuine respect for each other, they did end up being close enough of friends; however, not even that has saved us from the last and slyest of all tests: The Snorkel Test.
after the Swim Test
Unnaturally large quantities of alcohol are an essential part of Utila life. Please believe me, when I say that we don't spend every night getting plastered, especially if we plan on diving the next day, but the final stage of the divemaster course had to be concluded with a bang. Well, more like a splash… The snorkel test is not an official PADI standard practice, at least I really hope it's not, but it became the right of passage for divers all around the world into this first professional stage in their scuba diving career. To call this ordeal devious would be a gross understatement. You cannot fail it, though those all around you will still do all in their power to make it as difficult as possible. One thing is for sure - it is by far the most watched test of all. At night, you, the candidate, exhausted and dehydrated from the morning dives and afternoon swim test, is seated in the middle of the bar wearing a mask. A crowd builds up, and as you loudly breathe through your mouth, it's unceremoniously gagged by a snorkel. For a second there, you are worried, but gleefully realize that breathing is still possible - though your nose is blocked by the mask, the snorkel is still empty. Commotion is all around you, bottles open, people cheer. You are the sacrificial lamb, and as you flail your hooves once in a while, in what you think is a show of pride and victory, they cheer in anticipation of what will soon be done to you. The foggy glass of the mask doesn't allow much of a view, but you can clearly see the change in the faces of the spectators once the execution starts. Their mouths and eyes widen all at once, and, just as you hear them gasp, the bitter taste of pure rum fills your mouth. At first, it's not that bad, they need you alive to put on a show, so soon the rum is diluted with cola. Enjoy it while you can, if you can handle the drink, because before long it's pure rum again, and it has nowhere to go. Swallowing as much as you can, there is only one thing to do short of drowning in liquor - send it back up. Gather all the power left in your drunken body, and purge that snorkel spraying all the onlookers with the sticky cocktail. Finally, when you've been tortured enough, comes the grand finale: you may put the snorkel out of your mouth, but now your mask is filled with beer. It burns the eyes, but you are a professional, and just like a professional you need not to fall off the chair as you silently demonstrate a mask clearing, just as you would underwater. Remembering the rest of that night is optional. Congrats, you are now a Divemaster.
before the Snorkel Test*
*Full details of the Snorkel Test and more - will appear in the next post which will be a captioned photo-collage of all three of our months on the island.