By Dan Foldes, Taking the Kids Travel Correspondent
The underwater world near the sunny, briny shores of the British Virgin Islands makes for quite the unique classroom. When the obscure skills of SCUBA diving are the course materials, this point becomes all the more apparent. Learning to manage the stiffening wet suit, the tubing that creeps like vines around the body, and communicating without “using your words” are some of the things we SCUBA students must master in order to earn the coveted title, Open Water Diver.
My girlfriend, Reggie Yemma, and I have spent the past three days under the educational wing of our charming and warm-mannered instructor, Vicky (Victoria Zgardzinski) of Sail Caribbean Divers, who claims to be the only Scottish person with skin as tan as her own. Above water, she is as descriptive as she has to be about what we will be doing — many of our tasks are simply better taught by example, underwater.
Our first day of live instruction (we both had to complete a comprehensive online SCUBA course as a prerequisite) took place at a cozy beach on Cooper Island in the British Virgin Islands. Whereas most SCUBA students do these dives at pools near their hometowns, the preferable way to become certified is, naturally, in a paradise such as the BVI. In lieu of tile-bottomed pool foundations we see calmly swaying sea grasses, which serve as nurseries for the many small fishes found there. Vicky leads us into deeper water, where we begin our observe-and-repeat routine of training. Over the course of several hours, we plough through the training syllabus, which is series of plastic cards Vicky carries conveniently clipped to her BCD, or Buoyancy Control Device — essentially a life jacket that divers can inflate or deflate on demand from the tank of pressurized air strapped to it.
After covering most of the nuts and bolts of SCUBA techniques on Day 1, we head out to open water on Day 2. The plan is to make two 40 minute dives at two separate locations near Norman Island, both at iconic reef sites where we descend about 30 feet into the azure water, review some hard skills, but mostly – to everyone’s delight – enjoy the Candyland’s worth of sea life down on the reef – fluorescent-colored fishes, countless coral and sponge species, spotted eels, and prickly urchins. As promised, our first ever SCUBA dives were more mind-blowing than frightening, despite the counterintuitive mandate to breath underwater.
On our final day of SCUBA training – graduation day! — Reggie, I and our two classmates are boated out to a remote reef dubbed “the Pinnacles,” where the open-water current is strong and the weather becomes monsoon-like as we courageously step off the boat into four foot swells. To our delight, the tepid water is welcome relief from the cold patter of rain on our bare bodies while suiting up. Before going down as a group, Vicky cleverly jogs our memories back to our experiences on the first day of training by reminding us that the hard work is mostly done, and that our guided open-water dives are merely the homestretch of our training. Suddenly we are at the bottom of the ocean, nearly 50 feet down where we fall in — kneeling for drills in buoyancy control and mask-clearing. For me it’s an opportunity to put my face into some coral and see what’s happening, when it’s not my turn – underwater A.D.D., I guess. When business is done, Vicky leads us through the canyons of this underwater reef, where we are free to roam and look at whatever neon creatures catch our eyes. Like our previous training dives, our graduation dive is over before we want it to be. Soon we are on the surface trading high-fives and fist bumps, reveling in our accomplishment.
Reggie and I are already imagining our next dive back home in the much colder, kelp-forested waters of Monterey, California — just a couple hours away from our domicile in San Francisco. Reggie can’t wait to wrap me up in kelp as the mother otter does to her pups. May the underwater quests roll on!
Tomorrow and continuing for seven days: Eileen’s travel diaries of our family sail in the BVI