Happy Khmer New Year! See you again after next week.
It all started with a conversation about the Great Barrier Reef.
I mentioned to Mike, 16, who works out at my gym, that I had put the reef on my bucket list. He said that the only way to view the natural wonder was by scuba diving.
Quixotically following the teenager’s advice, I immediately deposited $200 with Scuba Nation, a first-rate diving concern that offers PADI certification with half of the underwater instruction at a Phnom Penh swimming pool. The second half takes place in the open ocean, from which I returned on Monday.
Because of travel, a couple of months passed after I had surrendered my deposit toward the total cost of $445 before I got serious about diving.
I began by viewing for hours the supplied diving guide on disks, from which I learned some of the necessary mysteries about atmospheric pressure, safe practices and the intricacies of the equipment, among other things. There is a 50-question test that must be passed with 75 percent correct to become certified, and it covers material that is not exactly scintillating.
Next comes instruction in confined water, that is, a swimming pool. It took me 35 minutes to walk there from home on Saturday and Sunday the last weekend in March just for additional exercise.
Emil, my Dutch trainer, was patient, informative and helpful as he showed me the ropes, as it were. Just understanding the workings of the equipment — the buoyancy control device (BCD), regulator and surface pressure gauge — was hard enough the first time around.
But spending at least three hours in the swimming pool was especially demanding for this landlubber, who actually doesn’t much like surface swimming. I went through exercises such as removing my face mask under water, taking off and donning the equipment in the pool and removing one breathing apparatus beneath the surface to use the second one. By 1:30 in the afternoon I was bushed, and there was more to come.
Emil and I made our way to the Scuba Nation office, where I took and easily passed a serious of multiple-choice tests as well as the final exam. I didn’t get home until close to 7 p.m., another trek (of 35 minutes) since walking is almost always my preference over motos and tuk-tuks no matter how weary.
I was at the pool at 8:30 a.m. again on Sunday, where I underwent additional challenging training in the water for maybe two and a half hours. There followed a swimming test to see whether I could manage 800 meters. Tired as I was, that was no problem.
We then returned to the office, where I had the dubious pleasure of learning about dive tables. My brain was pretty fried and so swimming with new information that I couldn’t quite comprehend them, though I managed to pass that extra test. (I went back to look at the instructions during the week and finally understood the tables’ simple concept.)
Finally on Friday to Sihanoukville, where I stayed in a hotel ready to board the dive boat by 7 a.m. the next day, though it was a while before the remaining nine of us along with two dive masters (including Emil) and the two owners got to the dock. Scuba Nation owners Vicki and Gerard contributed a great deal to the dives that they led and proved to be wonderful companions; Gerard’s Russian impressions are memorable, indeed.
The eight so-called fun divers were variously from homes in China, Holland, Germany and Canada. Their experience ranged from only a couple of dives after having been certified to that of Fred, the oldest of the lot, who probably is around 50 and who recently dived an amazing 18 times in five days. I was the only one yet to be certified.
This was no luxury cruise; it was somewhat like camping. I have to say that I haven’t slept in the presence of so many other individuals since the last time I was in an airplane.
The upstairs space, protected from any possibility of rain with tarps rolled down from roof to deck, was surprisingly stuffy and warm, and the pillows had disappeared from the boat. Consequently, only one of us slept deeply: the owner, whose ceaseless snoring from the deck sounded like an onrushing steam locomotive. His wife also slept in the same area, fitfully she acknowledged the next day.
Also on board were the captain, an adult crew member and a hard-working 16-year-old young man, the latter having slept on bare wood in the bridge.
Our dive group was convivial, and I enjoyed their company. There were plenty of laughs, talk about fish that the passengers had spotted and much mutual support.
Once on board Saturday morning, we were served breakfast, including sweet, fresh pineapple. The other meals were ample and tasty such as chicken curry. Virtually all the main dishes were chicken simply, Vicki explained, because almost everyone doesn’t rule that out of their diets. One of us is a vegetarian, and she was accommodated, as was someone allergic to gluten.
Emil was my buddy on my two dives on successive days, testing skills such as slowly exhaling for nine meters, hovering and navigating by compass.
My biggest challenge, and I guess everyone’s, was maintaining proper buoyancy. That amounts to staying more or less parallel to the bottom, which has gorgeous coral at significantly different heights, at an appropriate distance. The more I breathed in, the higher up I floated whether I wanted to go there and vice versa. I got better at control with each dive, especially when I learned to slow down forward movement, yet I obviously have a long way to go.
I have an unnatural (though not totally irrational) fear of sea urchins, and there was a plenitude of them. I did manage to brush an ankle against two of them, and at least learned that the sting was not so severe and that the minor pain disappeared within an hour.
Sea urchins as big as melons possess a dangerous beauty, which I appreciated seeing. I also much enjoyed viewing in crystalline water a range of stunning fish, most memorably pink clown fish. Apparently I was alone in the group in not much caring to know the names of the various species with which I swam; it is quite enough for me merely to see scores of different types around me, like being inside an aquarium.
The others went on a night dive, an endeavor beyond my competence at the time. Watching the moving blue-green glow of their flashlights from above was itself fascinating.
Aside from underwater spectacles, we were treated to a total eclipse of the moon Saturday night in the absence of any interference from lights on earth. When the moon disappeared, the number of stars bloomed improbably. I never have seen so many of them and doubt I ever will again; the sight was transporting.
In the end, I did receive my certification, and I rank the personal achievement up there with having run the New York City marathon in respectable time (a little more than four hours) in 1994 and with having completed two rides between Washington, D.C. and Raleigh, N.C. in three and a half days to raise funds for fighting AIDS in the late 90s.
Still, I was hardly a star scuba student: Despite my improvement over two days, I’m feeling a tad uncomfortable about diving again. That said, I hope to force myself to give it another shot before too many months pass, then to check that Great Barrier Reef item off my bucket list.