831--Tails From The Area Code

Scuba Libre: Neophyte underwater adventurer Traci Hukill takes one last surface breath before her virgin dive.

Fifty-five feet below the ocean''s surface in a hazy world of green and blue, a geranium-red tatter spun lazily past my mask. Anchored to rocks on the substrate just below fluttered a small colony of more bryozoans, bright tiny handkerchiefs waving in the surge. I gathered my awkward, slow-moving fins beneath me and dove for a closer look. They felt like rose petals between my gloved fingers, like thin slick leather.

Not two feet away, nestled in a crook of craggy rock amid bristling urchins and lichen, rested a luminous white rose anemone, its many delicate tentacles resembling a bromeliad''s spikes. This one swayed a little seductively in repose, but another group of divers would later tell about the starfish they''d seen half digested by one of these beauties, three of its five arms emerging from the poisonous center of the lovely Tealia piscivora. I brushed an experimental piece of seaweed over the anemone''s tentacles and watched it contract minutely into its speckled armor.

Diving was hard work, but worth it. As my dive buddy and I ogled puffy ochre starfish hooked onto the rocky sides of underwater ravines, the time spent sweltering in the sun as we lugged equipment across the sand and completed our pre-dive check beneath 14mm of neoprene wetsuit were forgotten. And as we startled a fish burrowed under the sand 200 yards offshore, and watched it shoot past us and wiggle wildly back into the bottom, leaving no trace, we stopped thinking about the ice-cream headaches imparted by a 48-degree polar current.

Like Neil Armstrong on the moon, my steps were flighty and exhilarated. I swam up or down as I chose, or turned somersaults in an atmosphere 800 times denser than air with senseless sounds echoing in my ears and the bubbles from my breath flipping upward like bright coins tossed up and carried away by a slow wind.

My journey to the bottom of the sea--well, to the bottom of its top floor, anyway--began with a phone call to a local SCUBA instructor. As I listened to a friendly male voice wax poetic about the wonders of the underwater world until he was utterly carried away with his own rapturous descriptions of fish, I had to smile. Here was a believer.

It did sound interesting--that Carmel Canyon that he enthusiastically compared to an underwater Grand Canyon. Snorkeling in pristine Hawaiian waters had alerted me to the very near presence of a completely other world peopled with bizarre flora and fauna--the obvious choice for the next frontier, in my opinion. So I signed up.

Lead-Bellied Frogs and Overturned Turtles

On the first evening of class, we assembled and sized each other up. We were young, ranging from 16 to 27 years old. We were poor or we had trust funds, we worked or we studied. Some, like my petite dive buddy, were athletic and fearless. Some were overcoming a fear of water.

The instructor entered, bringing with him an air of authority. He introduced himself briskly as Scotty, told us that diving had changed his life, and moved smartly on to the material. He proved a thorough taskmaster and a reassuring presence underwater. The crew of four divemasters, one assigned to each pair of students, ensured that everyone understood each procedure introduced during the three-week course. They cajoled and praised us like seasoned kindergarten teachers.

Our first excursion into open water was a beach dive off South Monastery Beach in Carmel, just around the corner from Point Lobos State Reserve. Suited up and weighted down like lead-bellied frogs, we made our clumsy way to the waterline, waddling backwards in fins while our instructors shouted encouragement and advice.

One graceless splash into the water and the weight and awkwardness melted away--we swam with little more effort than we would have expended snorkeling.

The first descent was another story. First of all, I was embarrassingly buoyant, indicating that my muscle-to-fat ratio isn''t what it might be. When I finally managed to sink, I found myself uneasy and a bit claustrophobic as the pressure closed in on all sides and the sunlight piercing the murky water in taut silky threads receded.

But divemaster Jimmy was there the whole time, and soon I was safely on the bottom and so relaxed I fell over, and--so help me God--I couldn''t get up. Yup, there I was, tank down, arms and legs waving like an overturned turtle. I hadn''t achieved buoyancy yet and could only suffer my indignity as a flood of bubbles cascaded out of my dive buddy''s regulator. She was laughing at me.

I managed to right myself at last and we toured the kelp forest.

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May I now say a few words in defense of the kelp I had previously known only as the rotting, slimy, sand fly-infested coils that offended my two most powerful senses when I strolled along Monterey Bay beaches? Kelp in its natural environment is gorgeous. It glows like dull gold, its long lithe limbs swaying in the surge, leaves and seed pods adorning it simply.

It also makes a fine descent line, a good visual reference by which to inch your way down or up at the recommended rate of one foot per second. I learned this firsthand on my third dive as I was ascending and suddenly lost buoyancy, sinking 15 feet in a second or two and feeling a sharp pain driven deep into my ear. I saw the kelp slide up my field of vision and, with St. Jimmy the Divemaster''s help, stopped my fall before doing real damage to my ears.

Better Land Mammals Than Amphibians

Diving is wondrous, but it''s not for the lazy, the poor or the vain. Dive equipment consists of a thick wetsuit, a vest with an inflatable bladder called a BCD (buoyancy control device), a tank filled with compressed air, and a lead weight belt to counteract the floaty neoprene and expanding air as a diver ascends to the surface. Without a weight belt, your suit would keep you bobbing frustrated on the surface in full gear and, if you did get down, you would run the risk of coming back up too quickly as the air in your suit, lungs and sinuses expanded faster than you could equalize them.

All this equipment is cumbersome and exhausting to carry around, and instruction is lengthy and tedious at times. No, it''s definitely not for the lazy.

SCUBA leans to the pricey side of Yuppie fun, so the impecunious are out of luck. And, as for vanity, I can kindly say of my seven intrepid fellow students that we all make more comely and graceful land mammals than amphibians. I couldn''t help but wonder as I flailed in 18 inches of water, unable to heave my extra 70-pound burden up on unstable fins, if this show of skill compromised my sex appeal.

Then again, it really didn''t matter once we slogged up on shore and saw two fat sea lions drowsing in the sun at the far end of the beach, or when we watched a pod of dolphins playing and spinning in the air just 100 yards offshore on a clear morning that would brighten into a gorgeous warm day. Diving is perhaps an extreme illustration of the old saying that anything worth having is worth working for.

Coffee-table books and Cousteau shows are fine and good, and someday we''ll probably even have virtual reality SCUBA, but nothing beats getting down there and seeing it for yourself, floppy fins and all, and collapsing on the beach for an exhausted nap, dreaming of underwater somersaults.

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