As I wrote in my previous post, after breakfast each morning, the day's diving activities would begin with the dive briefing. On the Sundancer II, each of the crew members who was a dive master, namely, Captain James, First Mate Marnie, Aaron and John, would take turns describing a dive site. The dive master would draw, with varying degrees of artistic ability, a rough map of the dive site on an erasable marker board as seen in the picture above. He or she would inform us of the kinds of marine life we could expect to see, the terrain, and the depths, among other things. An important piece of information that was shared with us in the first dive briefing that would apply to nearly all our dives was that as a consequence of the ship being tethered to a mooring block, the ship would swing back and forth in a wide arc, so if the ship wasn't where we expected it to be on our return, we should wait a few minutes and eventually it would swing back to us. The other important thing that they stressed at every dive briefing was that we should try to come back from each dive with no less than 500 psi of air left in our tanks.
The picture above is the dive platform at the back of the Sundancer II. The ladders, which are retracted in the picture, are lowered when the divers are in the water and are used by the divers to climb back aboard after first taking off their fins and handing them to one of the crew members. You can see tethered behind the ship a small boat for use in the event that a diver needed to be rescued. Hint: In a story, this is what is called foreshadowing.
Each of us had our own dive station, where we would keep our buoyancy control device (bcd) strapped to the air tank. Below was storage space for our fins, mask and other gear. After each dive, our tanks would be refilled in place. Below is the port side of the dive deck. The rest of the passengers had their stations on the starboard side.
Our first dive was at a site called Long Caye Ridge. Before my trip to Belize, I expected, based on my lack of experience, that my first day's diving would see a lot of mistakes on my part. And sure enough, I did not fail to live up (or down) to my expectations.
Marnie, the first mate, was the dive master for this dive, and it was my intention to join her and the other passengers that were accompanying her. Below the dive deck, about 15 feet down, was the ship's hang bar, where the divers would congregate after doing their giant stride into the water and submerging.
After I had donned by gear, John, one of the divemasters on the ship, asked me how many pounds of weights I needed. I had consulted my dive log for the open water dives I had done in Fort Lauderdale the previous year and it said I used eighteen pounds. When I told John this, he was absolutely astounded and told me that was too much. He sized me up with his eyes and declared that ten pounds should be enough. "Well, he's the expert," I thought to myself and I accepted his assessment.
Having put the weights into my bcd (as I have a weight integrated bcd), I walked to the dive platform, put on my fins, and when I had the all clear, did my giant stride into the water. Holding the inflation hose up in my left hand and pressing the release button and exhaling out of my regulator, I expected to begin my descent. But as the seconds went by, I failed to submerge. "Dammit, I knew it!" I said to myself, upset that I did not insist to John that I be given 18 pounds. I swam back to the boat and told Aaron that I had trouble submerging and asked to have my weights boosted to 18 pounds. I pulled out the weight packets from my bcd and handed them to him so that he could put more weight blocks into them. Once this was done, I swam a few feet away from the boat and then proceeded to submerge. As I did so, I looked down towards the hang bar and saw to my consternation that there was no one there. Marnie's group had already left.
I started swimming around, looking for the other divers. I first came across Ira and Leo the octogenarian. As I approached Leo, he paused and I had to take evasive action to avoid a collision. I ascended to go over him, and then breathed a sigh of relief that I avoided hitting him, and then felt what seemed like a tug on my right fin. I looked back and saw that I accidentally clipped him. "Way to go asshole!" I berated myself. I continued on ahead of Leo and Ira to see if I could find Sam, but I failed to locate him. A short while later, I encountered a couple of other divers who were not part of the Seascapes group. It was a man from Iowa and his college age daughter. I started to look around the coral formations and actually take in the scenery for once. The next thing I knew, the Iowans were gone. I looked at my air tank and saw that my air supply was about 1000 psi. I figured I had better start heading back to the Sundancer II. After trying to retrace my path, I realized that I really had no clue where I was going, so I decided that my best bet was to surface to get a visual on the ship and then start swimming towards it.
When I surfaced, I found the Sundancer II, but was disappointed to see how far it was. I submerged a few feet and started to swim in the direction of the ship, keeping a nervous eye on my air gauge. When I got to around 500 psi, I surfaced again and saw I was still a good distance from the ship, about several hundred yards. Weighing my options, and knowing my limitations as an inexperienced diver and not wanting to run the risk of using up all my air, I decided to swallow my pride and signal for help. I had a safety sausage clipped to my bcd, but I didn't want to deploy that yet, so I blew the whistle until I could see that Aaron, who was on the dive platform, heard it and could see me waving my arms. I watched as they drew in the rescue boat towards the dive platform, and then Aaron stepped in, started the motor, and made his way towards me. After he helped me on board, I apologized profusely for being such a burden. On the way back, we picked up two more divers, Rose and Renee, who were also not part of the Seascapes group. While they were not in distress, they decided to accept Aaron's offer for a ride back, as they had surfaced about a hundred yards from the ship.
The second dive of the morning was also at Long Caye Ridge. While the dive itself was largely uneventful, my return to the ship did not go so well. When I got to the ladder, Captain James was manning the dive platform. I took off my fins and handed them to him, but in doing so, I stupidly let go of the ladder and the current started pushing me away. I tried kicking my legs, but without the fins I could make no headway. James tossed me a line and I used it to make my way back to the ladder. I climbed up, feeling exhausted and eager to get my gear off. Problem was, I mistakenly thought that I was supposed to leave my gear on the dive platform. I unclipped my bcd with the tank still strapped to it and set it down on the platform and started stumbling towards the dive deck. I heard James call to me sharply and when I looked back, he reprimanded me (and rightfully so) for leaving my gear. I apologized and scurried back to retrieve my bcd and tank. Another mistake made and another lesson learned.
After the second dive, we had lunch and Captain James piloted the ship to the next dive site at Lighthouse Reef called Cathedral. The day's remaining three dives, including the night dive, would be at this site. On the third dive, I went along with Sam, who had a camera and spent his dives looking for interesting things to photograph. This is probably also a good time to mention that none of my posts about this trip will have underwater pictures taken by me as I did not have an underwater camera. I had made the decision that due to my inexperience as a diver, it would be better, as well as safer, if I focused on trying to improve my diving skills. Furthermore, I had also signed up to take the Advanced Open Water course during the trip, and would have to take a number of dives under the supervision of the ship's divemasters.
The third dive presented a problem for me that I would have to address as the trip progressed. I was still struggling with streamlining my body and kicking properly with my fins, which resulted in my using my air supply too fast. I saw that my air was getting low and signaled to Sam. He acknowledged and signaled to me that we would first ascend to 15 feet for the 3 minute safety stop. However, I found myself continuing to ascend until I reached the service, the alarm on my dive computer going off warning me that I was ascending too fast. But I just couldn't stop myself. I reached the surface and looked down. I knew that Sam still had to do his safety stop (which by the way is for avoiding decompression sickness that can result from too rapid an ascent) and so I waited for him to finish, whereupon he led me back to the ship. I felt bad that I cut short Sam's dive, but he was cool about it.
The fourth dive went extremely well. I had no problems submerging and I started to feel more confident in the water. It was the first dive where I felt I could finally start enjoying myself, though I still had problems with using my air up too fast. I ended up heading back to the ship on my own. Though I still could not see the Sundancer II, I knew it was close by because I could hear the hum of its generator underwater. As I swam towards the direction of the sound, the next thing I knew, from seemingly out of nowhere, the Sundancer II's hull was practically right up against my right side, and then it was up against my side. Remember the swinging arc I mentioned I earlier? I held out my hand to touch the hull as I continued making my way to the ladder. When I reached the ladder, happy with myself for having a successful dive, I looked at my air gauge and saw that it read 300 psi. Oh well, I thought to myself, I hadn't achieved perfection yet.
After an excellent dinner cooked by the Sundancer II's amazing chef, Jerry, it was time for the first night dive of the trip. Now, as scary as the idea of diving underwater at night might sound, it is important to understand that when you are diving off of a large ship like the Sundancer II, you are not diving into pitch blackness. The bottom of the ship is lit up like a sports arena, and unless you carelessly wander too far, it is impossible to miss it underwater. Furthermore, each diver is equipped with a flashlight, so the area immediately around you is illuminated well enough.
Nevertheless, diving at night can be quite an eerie experience. As the strobes of my flashlight pierced the dark waters, silvery sturgeons would glisten as they slowly swam by, their eyes white from reflecting the light. The one part of the night dives that were a bit scary for me was being at the edge of a reef wall that dropped down hundreds of feet that the beam of my flashlight could not penetrate. I could not help but think that somewhere down there were leviathans dwelling in the darkness that were best left undisturbed.
During the night dive at Cathedral that night, I had the pleasure of shining my light on a turtle swimming by before anyone else in the group saw it. The turtle then turned left towards us and settled down on the reef just a little bit in front of us. We swam towards it and then it suddenly darted away from us and settled down about 20 feet away. We also saw a group of about five or six small squid in a tightly packed formation. It was a fascinating experience and I finally had my first problem free dive of the trip.