It took me six months to finally get my Scuba Diving Open Water Certification. I had originally intended on completing it while still living in Tucson, going through The Dive Shop for the academics, confined water, and eventually the open water portions. I was in the process of moving and without much to do and no dog to worry about, I signed up for the class, completing my academics in the evenings after work and spending an entire weekend doing the confined water skills.
Due to work, I was unable to go to Lake Pleasant and finish my open water dives. When I moved to Rapid City, I ended up Googling scuba diving places in South Dakota and found Landshark Scuba in Sioux Falls, gave them a call, and they helped me set up on their next dive trip to Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico. I planned for months, getting my gear together, reviewing basic skills, and finally it was time to get on the plane. It had been cold in South Dakota, so the warm weather was exactly what I needed.
Within hours of arriving in Cozumel, I completed my first three dives which were meant to test my skills. My instructor had me set up my gear and we went through our dive plan and checklists. It had been a while since I had gone through gear set-up and inspection and I was a bit rusty, and some of the equipment, like the regulator, were different than what I had previously trained with. My instructor helped me put my gear on and vice versa, and we walked to the water. Once we were about waist deep, we both put on our fins and started swimming.
The water was warm, about 80 degrees. It was wonderful. I just had a bikini and rash guard on and I was pretty comfortable. Luckily the BCD fit without any issues and we had to adjust the cylinder a bit since it was hitting me on the back of my cranium. The dives for the day were going to be relatively shallow, only about 20-25 feet, which was a good start for me. I had a hard time keeping up with clearing my ears during the confined water portion and ended up hurting myself. My instructor and I swam out from the shore on the surface and I was able to conduct some of the necessary skills. That’s when we started our dives.
The descent was easier than I anticipated. I took my time descending and clearing my ears continuously. I had gotten used to clearing my ears while working in hypobarics and that it’s best to clear them prior to feeling any pressure or pain. Swimming 20 feet underwater and on the floor of the ocean was absolutely amazing. I wonder to myself, “Why didn’t I do this a long time ago?” A love for marine biology and frequenting aquariums as a child had always piqued my interest but I never got around to actually diving. Better late than never, right?
The floor of the ocean off shore was much different than the reefs I dove around the following days. The plant and animal life was different and with very little coral, it was the perfect place to practice buoyancy control and I didn’t have to worry about accidentally kicking or touching anything. My instructor was at my side the whole time and I became very comfortable with my surroundings. We saw large sea stars, a vibrant orange-red color, and a very delicate brittle star, barely visible and wrapped around some coral. I swam over a scorpion fish, neither my instructor or I noticed until we saw it the very last moment. With my choppy diving skills, it was incredibly lucky that I didn’t touch it since it is a very venomous fish.
I completed all the skills necessary during all three dives. Except for the one where I had to completely remove my mask and put it back on. It was the one skill I struggled with in the pool and continued to struggle with in open water. I was tired and ended up swallowing salt water at about 15 feet. After two tries, my instructor made the call that we end swimming for the day. And we had to get up early the next morning to get on the boat.
The next morning, I was feeling refreshed and ready to dive yet again! In the following few days, I dove twice each day, totaling nine for my trip. The company we dove with was Challenge Diving, owned by a father and son team (Eric and Eric Jr, respectively) and they were not only very knowledgeable but also very helpful and accommodating. I had to set-up my gear for my first dive since I was still getting checked off on my requirements and skills, but they took very good care of all us, ensuring our gear was good to go, our masks coated with soap water, and snacks and drinks were available upon request. The boat was large enough to hold all of us without feeling crowded and the head/toilet was the most interesting thing I had ever seen in my life. It was a true test of my ability to balance while using that thing.
My first dive off the boat was my fourth open water certification dive. I was instructed to set up my own gear since it was part of my skills requirement, and the boat crew was nice enough to rinse my mask. The weather was nice, about 80 degrees, so it wasn’t too bad when we’d get out of the water. The crew stopped the boat at our first reef: Palancar Gardens. Our dive master gave us a quick pre brief, including our maximum depth, minimum air pressure, and a reminder for the safety stop. Everyone took their turns getting off the boat. I was the last one, shaking and nervous. The water was warm enough to where I didn’t get that initial shock and I inflated my BCD so that I could comfortably float.
The descent was the most nerve-wracking. I made sure that I cleared my ears every few seconds and we finally got to the depth of 60 feet. The rest of the folks diving with us dove through the reefs and I stayed over them with my instructor holding on to my BCD the whole time. I got accustomed to the water pretty quickly, finding my buoyancy and swimming above the coral and taking in the amazing sights. We swam for about forty minutes. I was constantly checking my submersible pressure gauge, looking obsessively at my depth and the pressure levels in my cylinder. It was a very easy and peaceful dive, and I put little effort into swimming. I wish I had my camera since the sights were beautiful, but since it was a certification dive, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. The best part of the dive however were the three large turtles that we saw during the dive.
The dive ended with the standard three minute safety stop at 15 feet and I had to perform one more dive skill right before we surfaced…taking off the mask. I was hoping my instructor had forgotten since it makes me incredibly anxious, but I passed and was finally certified!
The second dive of the day was at Cedral Pass about an hour or so later. We had a quick lunch on the boat and geared back up after our hour long Surface Interval. I was still nervous and my instructor told me he was going to keep an eye on me which put me at ease. This particular dive was a drift dive, so there was absolutely no effort in my swimming and we allowed the current to take us along the reef. It was a 50 foot dive for fifty minutes and the highlights included seeing a giant eel, about six feet long, hiding in a small cave, and two nurse sharks from a distance.
The next day, we also had two dives planned. The first was a wreck dive, which I thought was kind of cool to do on my second day. That being said, it wasn’t a real wreck. Those typically don’t allow you to go inside so that the wreck can be preserved, and I’m sure so that folks don’t get hurt. However, this wreck is used for the sole purpose of diving and exploring, with holes cut out throughout so that anyone can get out if they feel the need due to claustrophobia or discomfort.
The Felipe Xicotencatl C-53 was originally put into service for the US Navy in 1944 and sold to the Mexican Navy in 1962. It was decommissioned after 55 years in service and sunk in 1999 off the shore of Cozumel as part of its underwater park. I was glad to have borrowed a wetsuit from the dive folks since there were plenty of sharp edges and there was only room for one person to go through the doorways at a time. Again, due to my novice diving skills, I was bouncing around everywhere and scratched my hands a bit trying to steady myself. However, diving through a wreck was a very unique experience, like going back in time.
We rested for another hour on the boat before arriving to our next dive spot, the San Fransisco Wall. It was pretty cool swimming along the wall since the visibility was so clear and the wall kept dropping deeper and deeper. We jokingly called it the abyss since we couldn’t see where the wall ended. We were supposed to stay at around 60 feet and it was a good dive to find out how quickly one can keep descending without noticing. I kept wanting to get closer to the coral and felt a tap on my shoulder, and it was my instructor telling me that I needed to ascend a bit. I looked at my depth and saw that I had been swimming at 90 feet! The wall was full of life and I saw a small clear jelly fish swimming around me. We finally reached a shallow and sandy area and there was a flounder hiding beneath the sand, it’s two eyes poking out from the ocean floor. It was pretty cool to see just prior to our ascent back to the surface.
After a day off from diving so that some of us can explore the mainland, we went back to Palancar Gardens. This was my least favorite dive because while we were relatively deep at 75 feet, we weren’t close enough to the floor or the coral to see the wildlife, which is what I enjoyed the most. I felt like I had to do a lot of work on this dive as well because we had a slight current pushing us back. On the bright side, we did see a stingray and another large turtle.
Our last dive was at Punta Tunich. We were only 45 feet deep so we spent well over an hour underwater. This was my favorite since I dove close to the floor, seeing giant lobsters, ugly puffer fish, and barnacles that hid from sight as soon as you got too close.
I would have loved to had gotten another dive in off the shore to get photos of the sea stars, but maybe next time. This was truly a wonderful experience and it’s something that I recommend everyone trying at least once in their lives.