by Christa Fraser

We were all perfect divers in the womb, our dive instructor, H, told us on our first night of scuba diving class. This made sense. We did once live in an amphibious state in the womb. Then he went on to tell us that
because we were learning to dive in Monterey Bay, which some consider to be the Mt. Everest of scuba diving, we would be reborn as dive Sherpas by the time we passed the class. Let’s just say I wasn’t reborn as Tenzing Norgay.

Learning to scuba dive isn’t just about becoming friendly with your air tank and schlepping 60 pounds of gear, it is mostly about training and using your brain. We were constantly reminded to bring our brains below the surface, like any piece of good equipment. The problem was determining which brain to bring—the modern, evolved one which allows you to rationalize sucking oxygen from a tube while swimming with the fish, or the primitive one which tells you to get the hell out of there so you can breathe. It really was a tough decision.

The Higher Mind

Modern brains differ greatly from those of our ancient ancestors like Homo Erectus. We are able to compute, think in the abstract and create technology. It isn’t hard to see that diving is a result of the modern brain. We had to develop the equipment that allows us to submerge ourselves for long periods of time and learn how to compute safe dive times and depths. Most importantly, we had to be able to imagine ourselves breathing underwater. There is a reason that early Homo Erectus didn’t dive—he wanted to survive. Fortunately, the first part of learning to dive appeals to our modern brain. Otherwise, my inner Neanderthal would have hightailed it out of there pretty quickly.

Our PADI certified dive class, held at Aquarius Dive Shop in Monterey, started inauspiciously. In fact, I felt a little elation that what I thought was going to be a three hour class turned into a one hour introduction before we were excused. I felt like we were given leave to play hooky and it was only the first night of class. This is going to be easy, I thought.

“Finish your PADI Go Dive book and watch all the videos by the next class. Oh, and have all of the Knowledge Reviews and quizzes complete, too,” H told us. No problem.

After watching some really groovy PADI dive videos from the eighties (there is a reason we don’t wear neon green, pink and purple simultaneously anymore) I became really psyched. My boyfriend, Matt, sat on the couch watching the videos next to me. By the time the first video finished teaching about lung bursts and alternative air supplies, I was proudly rattling off the different pressure, volume and density ratios. Matt stared at me skeptically and asked, “Are you sure you can do all that?

”Oh, come on. I always ace tests,” I said. He looked back at the screen, where divers were now perfectly performing a buoyancy test in a pool.

“OK,” he said, but he looked worried.

I have always done well in school.That said—I usually had one of the lowest quiz scores in the dive class. I knew that I was in over my head before we ever got in the water, and then a young skin diver/ lifeguard
named James informed us that it was our medulla oblongata that governed our primitive functions, like breathing and heart beat. Um, how do you spell that? Well, I was sure that my medulla big olgoba wasn’t going to be in charge of my diving. I knew that my intellect would be in control.

H went on to tell us about the Zen of Scuba and how we would learn to control our breath, slow down our respiratory system, learn to meditate without actually meditating. He explained that we would learn to fly underwater.

Then we hit the pool.

The Primitive Mind (Located in the Hind Brain)

Some of the guys who were our dive masters were very big, muscled men who whispered things about being in the Special Forces and such. I suspected that they were operating out of that very lower section of brain which sits above the spine and acts like a bunch of twitching electrical fibers and drinks a lot of beer. Actually the instructors were great. I was the one who was reduced to operating from those twitching bundles as soon as I stepped into the swimming pool of the Monterey Travel Lodge where we would do our first dive simulations.

Gary, a big guy who was once in special ops, was assigned to instructme specifically, because…let’s just say that I had special needs.

There is something about donning a seven mil wetsuit and a seven mil vest that can make even a spelunker feel a bit constricted. Then you put on a buoyancy control vest, a 20-something pound weight belt, a neoprene hood,
booties, and to top it off fins, thick gloves, a mask, and a snorkel. You put this mouthpiece in your teeth and start breathing from the tank that you have strapped to your back and jump in the pool. It does not feel natural.

My mind panicked a bit (I should admit that I lost a contact during the swimming test, so my first experience scuba diving happened while I was virtually blind). Everyone else was calmly following instructions and doing their exercises. It took me four tries to clear my mask of water and then another four tries to take my mask off completely and replace it without schlurping up a bunch of pool water. But by the end of class, after following Gary around for a couple of hours, I had relaxed quite a bit and was becoming exhilarated by the sensation of breathing underwater.

The next week in the pool, I felt relaxed and excited. Jim, a sweet old salt and dive demon, instructed me and a student named Colleen, who probably weighed less than all of her gear put together. I felt like my higher brain had won the battle. I would be super stud under water when we went into the actual ocean.

The Really Primitive Mind

Hyperventilation is a response by the medulla oblongata to distress. My ability to rationalize using up three-fourths of my air supply before I even got my forehead wet, however shows that my thinking brain was still working,
at least on the surface.

My dive buddy, Monica, and our dive instructor, Lance seemed like my personal buoys at times. The visibility was reduced to several feet and so the three of us were holding hands or touching at all times. In fact, one of the clearest things I saw on all four of those dives were Monica’s eyes, big and brown and keeping me rational.

We had to do four check-out dives in the ocean over a two day period. I used an hour’s worth of air just swimming out to the buoy. On the very first dive, we had to take off our masks and replace them underwater. At one point I tried to surface without finishing the exercise. My mind saw the undulating light of day straight above (about 15 feet) and I kicked off the bottom and headed straight up. H tugged on my leg, and brought me back to my rational mind. I calmly replaced my mask, cleared it and then got the thumbs up from him. Apparently, I had brought the wrong brain with me on that first dive.

I cleared all of my skills. Although getting my weight belt back on over the bigger tank they gave me the second day was not pretty. Thankfully, Lance kept a hold on it so it didn’t sink. Finally, on the fourth dive, we were allowed to do a fun dive, although we had to do it by compass. It really was amazing to be skimming the ocean floor and checking out the starfish, sea cucumbers and sandabs while breathing underwater. I felt very safe and reassured by my dive partners. We navigated perfectly, and I had barely used up any air! By the time we hit the beach, we were excited to dive again.

I didn’t magically morph into a superhero diver in just three weeks. In fact, if Wonder Woman looked as bad as I did in 14 millimeters of neoprene, she would have been fired. What I did learn, though, was that
I could understand a lot of technical stuff, get my gear set up and keep myself calm enough underwater to discover a whole new world. I didn’t quite get to the Zen of Scuba, but at least I learned to stop hyperventilating. My medulla oblongata is such an air hog.