How I took to the world beneath
By Viktoria Tinberg
I am flying, soaring serenely above a canyon.
Perfectly weightless, I ascend and descend at will. Glancing to one
side, I glide in for a closer look at the twisted rock formations and
strange plants reaching out for me. My flashlight illuminates dark
crevices in the rocks, where I catch glimpses of neon-colored creatures
that I cannot name, blinking and staring at me. I hover awhile over a
pair of eyes on stalks that protrude from the ground below: they seem to
be watching me. Suddenly, I am surrounded by hundreds of black and
yellow stripes, flashing like lightning all around me. I twist and turn,
but there is no way out: they have me surrounded. Laughing with delight,
I pull a somewhat soggy bagel from the front of my bathing suit, and
tear it into pieces to feed the schooling Sergeant-Major fish. My dive
buddy kicks over to join me, and we give each other enthusiastic
"okay" signals that mean, This is a great dive site.
I am a large woman, but when I scuba dive, I am
weightless. Other divers may be tanned and slim, but none are more
buoyant. On the way to the dive, I may be the largest person in the
boat, but in the water I am sleek and supple. I adjust my gear,
fine-tune all the belts and snaps and gauges, hoist my considerable bulk
over the side of the boat, make a giant splash-and relax. Now the effort
is over, and the fun begins. I descend slowly, taking in the sights and
keeping my dive buddy (my husband of nineteen years) in view. Other than
regular checks of my gauges, my time underwater is completely without an
agenda. I breathe slowly, deeply. A gentle kick of my finned feet sends
me soaring ten yards in any direction. I may play here and there, as my
whim or the current takes me, or I may spend a full hour in an area the
size of my kitchen and still not see all there is to see. This is no
race or endurance test. This is peace.
I came to scuba diving only three years ago. My
husband and I were planning a trip to Cancun, Mexico, and thought it
would be a shame to visit the Caribbean and not see the underwater
world. I called the local YMCA and found that lessons were starting the
following week and would finish eight weeks later, exactly one week
before our departure for Mexico. Perfect!
My husband, Darryl, grew up in Florida and is an
excellent swimmer in good physical condition, so we knew he'd do well in
the lessons. I'm a mediocre swimmer from the landlocked Midwest, with a
size-28 body, so I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to "keep
up" with the rest of the class. Our instructor, Ro Wratchko of
Innerspace Expeditions, quickly dispelled the myth of scuba diving as a
"macho sport." Yes, there was a time when physical strength
played a major role in the sport: scuba gear is heavy, and there was no
equipment to help the diver float at the water's surface or hover near
the bottom, so the diver used pure muscle power to achieve that. Now,
however, all divers wear is a buoyancy-control device, or BC, to stay
afloat or hover at just the right depth for viewing the underwater
splendor. Years ago, divers had to pass strenuous physical tests,
including carrying heavy weights underwater and swimming long distances.
Today's diving student gets to skip those tests, because such endurance
is no longer necessary to be a recreational diver.
Ro told the class that, in addition to learning to use
the equipment, we prospective divers would need to prove that we could
float in the pool for ten minutes (effortless for someone carrying ample
body fat, which floats very well), and swim eight lengths of the pool-by
absolutely any method, and with no time limit. In our test session in
the pool, I was the second-slowest in the class, yet felt no pressure to
speed up my dog-paddle-alternating-with-back-float routine. As Ro
assured me at the time, this was not a race, only a way to make sure I
could handle being in the water and was unlikely to panic or drown. That
inspired confidence. I began to feel that I could handle scuba.
During our first pool session, Ro let us examine the
equipment and try out different styles of fins and masks. It was great
to know that we could complete the whole course of lessons without
committing ourselves to buying equipment: I am no stranger to spending
money on a new hobby that doesn't last! We played in the water for most
of an hour-trying our snorkels, learning to spit in our masks to keep
them from fogging-before we wiggled into buoyancy control devices and
air tanks. The equipment seemed complicated and bulky, but Darryl and I
followed Ro's instructions carefully and passed inspection. Soon the
class formed a slow and bubbling underwater train, following our
About three weeks into the course, after already
having logged several hours of blissful underwater experience in the
pool, I had a panic attack at one point during a lesson. I was suddenly
absolutely certain that I couldn't do it. I dropped my gear, ran from
the pool area, and spent the rest of the lesson time in the locker room,
crying and trying to figure out where the bad feelings were coming from.
I thought about the many times, growing up fat, that I had been told I
couldn't or shouldn't try some activity or other. The many times that I
had been chosen last for teams. The times that I had tried and failed at
sports and games. The times that I hadn't tried at all, but had hidden
somewhere or made excuses, convincing others, if not myself, that it
didn't matter and that I didn't care. I realized that I had no history
of trusting my body, nor did I really know what it could do. I resolved
to find out.
I scheduled a make-up session with Ro. He told me that
almost everyone experiences some panic when they are first learning
scuba: underwater is a very unnatural place to put oneself, after all. I
knew that it was more than the unnatural setting that was causing my
doubts, but I talked myself through it, and got back in the pool. This
time, I didn't rush into anything. I stood in the shallow end and put my
face in the water, breathing slowly through the regulator in my mouth. I
stayed there for ten minutes, and then let my feet and legs float out
behind me. Slowly, I kicked to the deep end, angling my head toward the
bottom. Magically, the panic and bad feelings vanished, and I learned to
love scuba all over again. I also learned that my large body is very
capable. In the water, I am slow to tire and slow to chill. I am not
frail. In fact, I am sturdy and strong. I can hoist scuba tanks and
other heavy gear. Through my experience in the water, my body and I are
now better friends.
I know now that age, size, and physical condition are
less a factor in a diver's success than a positive mental attitude: an
open mind and a willingness to try. A diving student should be prepared
to try whatever comes up in class, even if she thinks she can't. She
should ask lots of questions, and she should ask for help when she needs
it. If a student has concerns about her abilities, she should tell the
instructor and see if scuba can still work for her.
As I continued my lessons, I realized that many people
who feel disadvantaged on the ground-not just the fat and nonathletic,
like me, but those with mobility problems and joint pain-could find
tremendous freedom underwater. The experience of weightlessness is quite
invigorating, especially for someone who is unaccustomed to enjoying
physical activity. The first time I kicked my way around an underwater
lap of the pool, I came to the surface giggling. "I can fly!"
I called out to my classmates. Everyone understood.
Our reward for studying hard and practicing in the
YMCA pool came in Cancun, where we signed up for our certification
dives. The instructor there took us into the ocean with three other new
divers, and we were all giddy and nervous as we checked our equipment.
Darryl and one other diver got quite seasick from the excitement and the
rolling motion of the boat. But we were completely relaxed and at ease
when we stepped off the side of the boat into the water (we have since
learned to take motion-sickness medication before sailing). Once we were
immersed, we felt prepared. After guiding us to a descent line, which we
used to get about thirty feet down, the instructor ran us through a
series of maneuvers and drills to prove our skills. Then we went
"sightseeing," circling and gliding through coral heads,
finding puffer fish, lobsters, eels, and other fish we'd never even seen
in aquariums. Not only did we pass our tests, the instructor
complimented us on our abilities and said he could tell we had had a
good teacher (Thanks, Ro!).
I felt very safe and comfortable during our
certification sessions, despite never having been below the surface of
the ocean before. I know this was due to our solid training. Since that
one panic attack in the pool, when I carefully examined my relationship
with my body, I have never felt as though I were out of place, not
entitled, or somehow deficient, compared with the other divers. And I
have never had any difficulty with equipment, or problems because of my
The equipment required for scuba is adaptable to most
body types. For cold-water diving, I did have to get a custom-made
(black and fluorescent green!) wet suit-but I, with my ample
"insulation," don't need the suit in Florida or the Caribbean.
I wear a standard (size XL) BC, which fits like a vest (most of the
"fit" comes from its belt, and I purchased an extra-long one).
I also bought an extra-long weight belt, but the rest of my required
gear-mask, fins, snorkel, tank, and regulator-will fit all bodies. I
bought my own mask (with prescription lenses), snorkel, and fins (all
fluorescent green again) so that I can go snorkeling anytime. But
because I don't dive often enough to justify the expense, I rent my BC
tanks and regulator at the dive sites.
Diving equipment is not cheap, but most of it is
rentable, which cuts down on the investment required to get started in
the hobby. Travel, if you don't already have an ocean in your backyard,
is the major expense. With wet suits, Darryl and I can dive with buddies
in the Chicago area from May through October, but there isn't much to
see in the cold local waters, except for shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.
Our cold-water dives are for practice. We swim through and around the
various strange objects (such as school buses and small planes) that
diving enthusiasts have deliberately sunk in local lakes to make such
off-season outings more interesting. We watch snails etching trails in
the mucky lake bottom, and count crawfish, tadpoles, and new divers
taking lessons. We run through our hand-signals and equipment checks,
and then surface for wonderful picnic lunches with our diving friends.
The real thrill of diving, though, is found in tropical waters, where
you don't have to spend twenty minutes wiggling into a thick neoprene
wet suit, and you can see fish that surpass the best big-screen Jacques
Cousteau documentary you have ever watched.
In addition to forays into local and Mexican depths,
we've gone diving in Florida and Jamaica. We've seen dozens of species
of fish-sometimes hundreds at a time-and urchins, anemones, rays,
jellyfish, tube worms, and many other creatures worthy of science
fiction. We've also met divers from all over the world, becoming close
friends with some of them.
Becoming a scuba diver has meant that I have learned
to spend days on end in a damp bathing suit and a wrinkled t-shirt, with
no makeup or hairdo, without being self-conscious. I have learned to ask
about accommodations (such as a ladder on the boat, used for climbing
out of the water) without apology. On one dive trip, when we learned
that there was no ladder, I was able to look the Mexican captain in the
eye and say frankly, "Well, look at me. Do you think your guys can
pull me out of the water?" He smiled and said, "Sure, Missy.
We can do it." He was right, after a fashion. But I recommend a
ladder for large people, if you don't want to be pulled and pushed by
strangers. I ended up with the giggles after that adventure, and the men
who helped me aboard sure weren't strangers afterward!
Diving has also given me an avenue for enlightening
people. I enjoy shaking things up and trying to get others to see fat
people in new ways. Now, when I see someone with a dive watch, a scuba
bumper sticker, or some other sign of an interest in diving, I'll say,
"Hey, I'm a diver, too. Isn't it great?" No matter how hard
they try to hide it, I almost always catch the look of You've got to be
kidding! for just an instant. As we share diving stories, I feel that
I've taught someone something about not judging us by our size.
I have spent a lifetime "living large," and
I know the obstacles we face. I have faced the dread of shopping for a
bathing suit (thank goodness for catalog shopping), and the still worse
dread of being seen in public wearing the purchase. I know what it feels
like to look at a task and think, I'm too fat. I can't do it. But now,
with the reward of diving as my goal, I pull on a bathing suit eagerly
and sit on boats among tanned and trim divers-without fear. We share
stories of exotic fish we've encountered and memories of other boats and
distant, sun-kissed beaches. Sometime I can help less experienced
divers, and sometimes they help me. Always, I see in their eyes what
they must see in mine: the wonder of viewing an enormous new world that
so few have seen. There is a community of less than 1 percent of the
world's population that has flown weightless through the oceans. And I
am part-a large part-of that little community.
VIKTORIA TINBERG is an independent business
consultant involved in training and development. In addition to scuba,
she enjoys all kinds of music, her tiny urban garden, travel, and
virtually everything else. In her distant past, she spent three years as
a professional chef, and a few brief periods as a jazz and blues singer.
She lives in Chicago, and says she's never bored. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Illustration by PAUL DELACROIX
Readers: Here's a
resource for custom-made wetsuits. Check 'em out! http://www.oceanray.com
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