Growing up on a ranch in the badlands of Wyoming, I never expected to learn how to scuba dive. In the unlikely event there was water, I drank it. I totally missed out on going to the town pool in the summer because I was out at the ranch. I was the only kid in grade school who couldn’t swim until I had to take an aquatic unit in junior high gym class. I managed to pass with a B, but never really felt comfortable in the water.
Scuba diving was not on my bucket list, so I was surprised when my parents bought me an open water scuba diving course for my fifteenth birthday. I had been hoping for some cash, but hid my disappointment because I didn’t want to hurt Mom and Dad’s feelings. They’re always trying to be the cool parents. Maybe they thought something as exotic as a scuba diving course would really excite me. It did excite me, but not in the way Mom and Dad intended. I was petrified of drowning. Being underwater with a limited amount of air dispensed through a narrow tube from a heavy metal tank was the stuff of nightmares. I didn’t know what to do with my birthday gift.
My boyfriend, Ray, was more positive. He loved the thought of underwater adventures and was a total Jacque Cousteau fan. He’d grown up in town and had been on the swim team during the summers, and was confident around water. Ray thought scuba diving was a cool opportunity, and he offered to take the course with me. It was hard to resist his enthusiasm, so I agreed to complete the course if he took it with me. My plan was to impress him with my adventurous spirit.
The course had three parts: Knowledge Development, Confined Water Dives, and Open Water Dives. We had to set aside two weekends to get certified. The first weekend we would complete the knowledge development part at our local rec center. The classroom instruction was held in the rec center community room, then we’d take a paper and pencil test. After the test, we’d begin learning confined water dive skills in the pool, then finish them the next day. The following weekend, we’d travel to Alcova Reservoir, near Casper, Wyoming, to complete four open water dives.
I spent the next week carefully studying the scuba diving manual. The more I learned, the more I worried. The thought of decompression sickness, where nitrogen bubbles form in your blood and body tissues because of the water pressure, was frightening. Decompression sickness can cause paralysis and even kill you. Reading about rip tides, entanglement, and dealing with equipment malfunctions increased my anxiety. But I had said I would complete the course, so I had to do it.
That Saturday, Ray and I went to the rec center to start our training. Our burly instructor, Lee, covered the information I had memorized from the manual, then we took the written test. I was a good student and used to that way of learning, so the test was easy.
Next, we went out to the pool and went over our gear. The scuba kit has four components: BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), regulator (delivers the air into your mouth), cylinder (air tank), and a weight system to help you sink. Apart from the scuba kit, you have your dive mask/snorkel, and your swim fins. We learned how to set up our equipment and gear up with our buddy. I tried to keep track of all the precautions and procedures while attempting to relax with the heavy scuba kit encasing my small body.
Once we were geared up, we entered the shallow end of the pool, then tried putting the regulator into our mouths and breathing underwater. We were told not to hold our breath, but to relax and breathe slowly. This was really hard for me because I was so scared and excited, and couldn’t help breathing in quick gasps. After a while, I was able to calm down and breathe more slowly. I can’t say I enjoyed being underwater, but it was definitely unique.
After we practiced breathing, we went a little deeper in the water and learned some basic dive skills. First, we learned to clear our breathing regulator. If your regulator comes out of your mouth, it will fill with water, and you have to get the water out before you can breathe with it again. You do this by exhaling forcefully into it, or by pressing the purge button on the regulator, which pumps some of the air from your tank through it. Then, we learned how to use the “arm-sweep” and the “reach” method for recovering our regulator if it came out of our mouth. These procedures are supposed to keep you from wasting time when you’re trying to locate your regulator. It was hard to stay calm while recovering my source of air.
I totally lost my confidence when I tried to clear the water out of my mask for the first time. If you get water in your mask, you’re supposed to hold the top of the mask with your fingers and blow through your nose as you tip your face upward while breathing through your regulator. This will push the water out of the mask. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but I ended up sucking water through my nose and choking. I completely panicked and shot to the surface to cough and spit until I could breathe (real attractive, so much for impressing Ray). It’s a bad thing to panic when you scuba dive. If you’re in very deep water, you can get lung expansion injuries or decompression sickness if you shoot to the surface like that. You’re supposed to keep calm and cough into your mask. I had to go back and practice the skill again and again. I finally got it but felt like a failure for panicking.
After we mastered our skills in the shallow water, we went into the deep end of the pool and practiced descending and equalizing the pressure between our ears and the increasing water pressure. I never realized how much pressure you feel in your ears as you go deeper in the water. I thought they would explode. The instructor signaled for me to descend slowly and move my jaw around to clear my ears, but it took a long time to get to the bottom of the pool. Lee and Ray had to wait for me. When I finally reached them, we practiced our buoyancy control. You have to hover a little above and parallel to the bottom by controlling your breathing and the air in your BCD. I really had to focus to keep myself level and steady—add a little air to go up, release a little air to sink. After we practiced for a while, we ascended and put away our gear.
Lee was really patient with my fear of water. He wasn’t that great of an instructor in the classroom—he about put me to sleep when he explained dive charts and went over theory—but underwater, he was a master teacher. It was like being instructed by a bull walrus. His power and confidence in the water was pretty awesome. He pulled me aside after class:
“Don’t worry, you did fine today. Breathe slowly so you don’t use up your air as quickly, and try using ear drops tonight. You need to soften the wax in your ears so the pressure of descending won’t be so bad tomorrow.”
I was glad Ray wasn’t listening in on Lee’s advice. The time in the water had left me shivering and his eyes had widened when he saw my sickly blue lips. Discussing my earwax build-up with him would have been just too gross. I barely managed to fake smile and make cheerful small-talk before Mom picked me up to go home.
The next day, we reviewed our skills and added some dive-emergency activities. We disconnected our inflator hose, performed emergency weight drops, shared air, and had our air tanks shut off at the bottom of the pool. I had used ear drops several times the night before and was able to descend much easier. Ray followed me down this time and shared an observation with me:
“Brown stuff kept shooting out of your ears! Gross. Must have been old wax, huh?”
All the next week, I worried about the open water dives we had to complete to get our certification. It was September, and the water in Alcova Reservoir would be cold. I kept reviewing the open water diver manual, but couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling I would make some horrible mistake and drown.
My mom picked Ray and me up after school on Friday and drove us to the dive shop in Casper. We had to pick up our gear before it closed. Lee’s wife, Randy, outfitted us with diving equipment, wetsuits and water shoes. She added extra neoprene vests with hoods because of the cold water. While Lee was slow and bulky on land, Randy was slender and energetic. She fussed over the fit of each piece of gear—her curly red head bobbing in and out of the dressing room (her office) with items to try on. She waved away our offers to help pick up the mess of discarded wetsuits and dive masks. We loaded the gear into our suburban and agreed to meet her and Lee at the reservoir at eight in the morning for the first day of open water dive training.
Alcova Resort is forty miles from Casper and has a marina, campgrounds and hiking trails. The reservoir is part of a dam and power plant on the Platte River built for flood control and as a regulated water supply for communities downstream. It’s basically an oasis in the middle of high desert dinosaur country, and the main recreation area for Casper, but we were able to find a campsite and set up our two tents.
That night, Mom, Ray and I sat in camp chairs and gazed out at the reservoir. The fading sun lit up the surrounding cliffs and I could imagine the whole area covered by water and full of prehistoric aquatic life. Were there any strange creatures left beneath the water? I knew I wouldn’t sleep well. Mom would be snoring next to me and would probably even keep Ray awake in his tent a few yards away. I would toss and turn in my sleeping bag—thinking about diving into the depths of that cold black water the next morning.
As it turned out, it was the wind that kept me awake—Wyoming is famous for it. It blew all night and Ray had a hard time lighting the camp stove that morning. The flame kept blowing out, so we drank instant coffee stirred into cold water and ate our oatmeal raw. Mom emerged from her sleeping bag a bit haggard from her night in the tent. She dropped Ray and me off at the dock and headed into Alcova to find a real cup of coffee. She agreed to pick us up when we were done with our first day of open water diving.
Randy and Lee were waiting on the dock with the dive master, Bob. When he was younger, Bob had enjoyed diving with Randy and Lee. He didn’t have the health to dive anymore, but still loved being around it. As dive master, Bob was in charge of watching our stuff while we were out in the water. After Randy and Lee explained what we were going to do and taught us some skills on shore, Bob helped us get our equipment on and adjusted.
When it came time to enter the water, I could barely walk with all the heavy gear on. The wetsuit didn’t prevent my body from getting cold as I walked backwards into the reservoir to keep from tripping on my flippers. When it came time to submerge my head, the shock of the freezing, murky water made my body act out on its own. It shot to the surface. I ripped off my face mask and gasped.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Randy emerged from the water next to me and placed her hand on my arm.
I stuttered, wild-eyed, “I …don’t think I can do this …”
“Just stay here and breathe for a minute,” she said. “The poor visibility in this lake can be pretty disorienting at first.”
My breathing slowed and I became calmer. I was still a little bewildered by how my body had acted without my brain—like it had a mind of its own that refused to go underwater.
Randy kept reassuring me, “There, now. You’re better. You can do this. It’s just water.” She lifted her shoulder in a careless shrug.
Her confident manner settled me, and I felt my fear subside. Taking a deep breath, I nodded and put my facemask back on. If I could get it together quickly, I’d only be a short way behind Ray and Lee. I didn’t want them to know I had freaked. Growing up in Wyoming—famous as the land of cowboys and progressive women’s suffrage—comes with the expectation to be adventurous and fearless in the face of danger. I knew I had to be brave or I’d lose face.
Forcing myself to take long, slow breaths, I was able to submerge and swim beside Randy until we caught up with the guys. They were waiting for us at the top of a mooring line so we could descend together. I was thankful the murky water had hidden my panicked reaction. I rejoined the group and we worked on our controlled emergency swimming ascent and mask clearing.
After a short break, we went down for the second and final dive for the day. Lee had taught us how to set our compass to a fixed point and adjust the plumb line so we could return to our original spot. Randy stayed close to me as I fumbled with the underwater compass.
After practicing our navigation, we worked on swimming on the bottom with our partner. Fearful of losing him in the murky water, I decided to keep a hand on his arm like a barnacle attached to a whale.
After a few minutes, Ray motioned upward. A rainbow trout was hovering above us. It was such a unique perspective, I released Ray’s arm to clap my hands together—and immediately shot to the surface in an uncontrolled ascent! I didn’t know what to do—tried inflating and deflating my BCD, but nothing stopped my upward flight. Bursting through the surface, I was grateful I hadn’t been at a depth where such a rapid ascent would have been dangerous.
“What happened?” Randy had followed me to the surface and was reproachful. Once again, I felt the stigma of being the panicky diver who shoots to the surface when spooked.
“Guess I lost control,” I mumbled.
Randy nodded, but said nothing. Ray and Lee joined us and we finished the day with surface skills: how to inflate our signal tubes, remove cramps, and tow a tired diver. Back at the dock, Bob helped us out of our gear and watched us fill out our dive logs. We discussed the plan for the final two dives we would complete the next day and left for our campsite.
That evening, I didn’t feel like talking. I thought about my uncontrolled rise to the surface. I realized that, in holding onto Ray, I hadn’t monitored my own buoyancy—hadn’t made the continual adjustments to my BCD I had needed, so I’d lost control when I let go of him.
The next day started much as the first, but the wind had died down, so we were able to light the camp stove and have hot coffee and oatmeal. We met Lee, Randy and Bob at a place called Sandy Beach. In an attempt to keep sand out of the equipment, Bob had spread out a huge, blue tarpaulin for us to gear up on.
The water was as cold and murky as it was the day before. I gritted my teeth and said nothing. We practiced free descents, snorkel/regulator exchanges and our underwater signals. Whenever I started to panic, I closed my eyes and focused on my breath—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It’s only water. The surface is a short distance above you. You can see the light. You’re okay. I paid close attention to my buoyancy, with my hands on my breathing regulator—or with fingertips together, like a prayer. If I needed to relax, I hovered on the bottom for a bit—eyes closed—flippers touching the bottom. In this way, I completed my third dive without panicking.
For our final dive, we did a little underwater exploration. Randy and Lee showed us the sights. Alcova Reservoir doesn’t have any sunken pirate ships or coral reefs, but there is a submerged toilet and an old lawn mower. We had a good laugh about our “tour” when we came to the surface. After we packed up our diving gear and filled out our logs, we hugged Randy, Lee, and Bob—then said goodbye.
My plan to impress Ray didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. I’m definitely not calm and awe-inspiring under water. Someday, I might be able to scuba dive in the clear blue water of the Caribbean, explore some pristine coral reef, or even find a treasure in some sunken pirate ship. For now, my treasure is the lesson that scuba diving in the cold, murky depths of a Wyoming reservoir taught me: I am responsible for my own buoyancy.
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