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Brave and Buoyant!
How I took to the world beneath the water

By Viktoria Tinberg

From Radiance Winter 1998

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 teacher.

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 size.

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 vik@walkerpartners.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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