Key Largo First Timer

Key Largo First Timer

n the summer of 2004 I attended the scuba diving class with the Reef Dancer Dive shop in Wilkesboro. It has since gone out of business. After our class time at the shop and the pool time at the YMCA, we had to complete the certification and get our licenses by making five open water dives in the ocean. Our dive master Chris Jordan, the Reef Dancer owner and class teacher, and my class mates Stan and Iris Carman, Dave Smith and Rance Moore and I began making plans to go to the Florida Keys. My dive mentor and buddy Paul Anderson, who had been certified for more than a decade and had made about 150 dives, went with us.


Thanks to four hurricanes in six weeks ' a 125 year record ' our trip was postponed four times. From mid-August to late September, every week we planned our diving trip, and then postponed it, again and again. By the time we got to Key Largo the last week in September, most of the tourists and many of the residents were evacuated. Our flight to Fort Lauderdale was approved to depart Charlotte just a couple hours after the last hurricane was cleared. When we arrived, there were few other tourists, boats or divers - but little storm damage. We dove with Reef Dwellers dive outfitters, and basically had the whole island play ground to ourselves.

And it was a fun playground. The hot weather and warm water that had spawned the hurricanes was still there. Most of the dive sites waters were at 84 degrees, and we had clear, sunny skies the whole time. All our dives were in the John Pennecamp State Park. We went to several dive sites, including Molasses Reef, Turtle Rock and French Reef to the east off the north shore of Key Largo.

Diving in the ocean was different than anything that I had experienced. Our Wilkes County training in the YMCA swimming pool did little beyond teaching us to use the gear and the basic science of scuba. The open ocean was far more strenuous, like taking a Red Cross Lifesaving class in a huge lake while going up and down in 40 feet of water. We were subject to the stresses of wind, waves, tides and currents. The visibility averaged about 75 feet.

We committed many beginner mistakes. Sometimes our ears hurt while descending. Some times we could barely see through fogged masks. Often we lost control of our buoyancy and went yo-yoing up and down between the reefs and the surface. Some of us sucked in air too fast and ran our tanks down too low before the group was ready to turn back. Through it all we were putting on, taking off or wearing nearly 50 pounds of gear and breathing unnaturally dry, compressed air from an uncomfortable regulator stuck in our mouth.

Several of us got pretty bad sea sick, which happens while subject to the waves in the boat and while diving at or near the surface. Beginning divers, including me, who experienced sea sickness instinctively refused the dive master's advice to put on our gear and get in the water. Our thought was: I already feel sick; there is no way I can handle the added complexities and stress of scuba diving. As we eventually learned, diving is the best cure. Getting in the water and descending 10 feet, to get away from the wave action, is the best remedy. Also, back on land, we were given anti-nausea medicine for the remaining boat rides. Once we learned those 'ropes' then all went well with the wave action in the future.

With experience, we all learned to control our ears, masks, buoyancy, breathing and all the other tricks of the trade. By the last day it would be fair to say that we all felt comfortable in the water and could get around easily. Of course, scuba aficionados with several hundred dives logged in their notebooks would consider us '5 dive' pro's to be still beginners.

Our dive master was patient with me and several other slow students. He even let me drop out of the class the year before, on the last day of class, when I felt overwhelmed by several tests in the deep end of the pool. Different dive masters have different teaching techniques. Ours believed in the old fashioned Navy Seal style of training - which I later learned is not normal. In fact, he is in the very distinct minority. He made us do all kinds of tough, deep water pool tests that were almost impossible to complete. His theory, which I agree with, but found it difficult to satisfy, was that problems in the ocean, though rare, can be life threatening if not handled calmly and completely. We had to develop not just the knowledge of gear usage, but the mental toughness not to panic when things go completely wrong, and the physical toughness to fight it out and get the job done. Otherwise, we run the risk of drowning on the bottom; or shooting to the surface and dying of an embolism or the bends.

Chris's 'boat wreck drill' required us to throw all our disconnected gear in the water, with the air hose turned off. Then we jump in and while still at the surface, try to assemble it all and put it on, without getting our heads above the water to breathe normal air. The gear is heavy, stiff, complex to assemble and all round tough to handle, put on and hook up. Another test was to go to the bottom, separate ourselves from our partner by the full width of the pool, and have one diver remove his breathing regulator and signal he is out of air. This drill to save an airless partner takes 10 to 15 seconds. Waiting that long without breathing air can start to feel panicky.

A third test was to put all our gear on the pool bottom, weighted down, with the vest inflated. We got out of the pool, then dove back in and went to the bottom, which itself is tough while wearing a buoyant wet suit and no weights. We then had to assemble all the gear, put it on while sitting on the bottom, then start swimming around, with no air except what we could get out of our newly assembled gear. The problem is that as soon as we grab the gear, the weights stay on the bottom and the vest with the air tank immediately floats to the surface, so the student is stuck with arms stretched wide apart, like a monkey between a tree and a vine, and no way to control one item without letting go and losing the other items. If we can't do it, then we have to shoot to the surface to gasp for air. The pressure change gives our nose a tell-tale bleed and assures a failing grade. After multiple unsuccessful attempts, I quit.

Fortunately, our dive master kindly let me start the class again almost a year later, at no extra charge, by which time I had spent weeks thinking through the logistics of how to pass the tests. I had the moves choreographed in my mind like a dance recital. With a greater feeling of confidence in my skills and comfort in the water, I figured out how to wrestle the gear into position so I could control it. I passed with flying colors. If fact, the dive master never actually taught or tested me during the second class. He just watched me playing in the water like an otter, repeatedly performing these and other tests, and left me alone.

I had several beefs, about things that our dive master did not teach us sufficiently before the trip. One problem was the actual procedure of getting into the ocean, descending through about 35 feet of swirling water and getting oriented with the group at the sandy bottom. When I first jumped off the boat and began to descend, I immediately felt overwhelmed with the hugeness of the open ocean. I was disoriented. Where am I supposed to go? How am I supposed to get there? Eventually I followed my assigned partner Paul on down and felt better.

Another beef was the logistics of getting back to the boat. Most beginning divers feel some fear of missing the boat and getting left at sea. Based on our divers' different rates of air usage, our dive master would sometimes signal one or two of us to ascend to the boat while he stayed on the bottom with the remaining divers. My beginner's fears were exacerbated by having to find the boat, which we could not see from the bottom and could be a couple hundred yards away. Without the dive master to follow up, it would be fairly easy to miss the boat. On our second dive, Paul and I did just that. When we left the group, we misunderstood his signals and swam in the wrong direction. When we got to the surface, the boat was barely in sight. Further unfortunately, we were down current from the boat. Getting to the boat required a long, hard surface swim - exactly what I was dreading. Like a long hike on land, I got blisters on my feet from the fins. After a fairly tiring swim, we finally made it. [Note to self: next time wear socks under the fins.]

You may wonder, if the most we were separated from the boat was a hundred yards or so, what's the big deal? On land, we do not consider ourselves lost unless it is by several miles. The big deal is, in the open ocean, visibility under water is only a couple dozen yards, so it is easy to miss fairly close navigational pointers. Also, the heavy gear, strong currents and waves can make a hundred yard swim feel like hiking a couple miles.

Once we actually got to the bottom of the sea, the scenery was great! The coral reefs were vibrant with color and alive with hundreds of species of fish, lobster, sharks, corals, sponges, eels and all kinds of cool stuff. We also went to two boat wrecks and explored them.

The last five minutes of the last dive, our dive master had us assemble on the bottom under the boat, sit in a circle and perform a series of simple tests to clear our masks, remove and don our regulators and a few other drills. We all passed. I noted that when the dive master ascended and turned to lead us to the boat the final time, his flight pattern looked like the Millennium Falcon taking off from a space port in Star Wars.

You can go to the Carman's web site and click on 'Key Largo' for more beautiful pictures from this trip. Some of my photos above were taken (with permission) from the Carmans' site.

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Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.