The Making And Life Of A World Traveler: Well Almost–Chapter Nineteen–Diving Trips-Local

I have been on on over 270 dives with close to 200 being local lives ranging from California to Lake Mead, Lake Powell and Lake Tahoe. While a few of them were beach dives, the vast majority were boat dives. I simply found them to be not only the easiest but the most enjoyable to do. Mainly because you usually just either anchored or stopped right near where the diving spot was. I have done liveaboards and day tour boats. With shore or beach diving, you usually have to swim quite a distance to get to where the diving is and then you have to swim all the way back. These sights were usually inferior to the boat accessible sites mainly because the currents just churned up the sand too much making the visibility pretty shitty. Many of the dayboats that I went on did not supply tanks. You had to bring your own depending on their size and they may have offered a refilling service. The smaller six-pack boats which usually only host two dives do not offer refills so you have to bring two tanks with you. Most of the boats that had compressors were capable of high pressure refills but some of them only provided low pressure refills. So this meant that you had to have both kinds of tanks. If you only had a high pressure tank, you lost about a third of the capacity of your tank which reduced your bottom time substantially.

Many of the six pack boats had open pocket slots to hold your tanks. These slots worked better with flat bottom tanks which were predominantly aluminum tanks which were all high pressure. You only have an option between low and high pressure tanks with steel tanks. These tanks unfortunately have irregular shaped bottoms which just do not work well with those open pocket slots and they tend to keep on tipping over despite being strapped in place. Steel tanks tend to be much more durable, so if you are doing a lot of wreck diving where your tank got banged around you are better using steel tanks. Aluminum tanks also had a size limit. They do not make them bigger than 80 cu ft, while steel tanks go up to 120 cu ft. You also have two types of connectors for your regulator and tanks. One is the Yoke which is the most common and popular and Din which is less common and much more rugged and is used mainly for cave and wreck diving. This was important because if you hit the regulator just right you could cause a catastrophic leak which could spell doom if you were in an overhead environment. Are you starting to get the idea how equipment intensive scuba diving can really be? And guess what, I just started scratching the surface.

Don’t get me wrong it is a wonderful sport and activity but it is geared for younger people mainly because everything is so damn heavy. All of our local diving on the west coast is cold water diving which requires more gear, thicker suits and thus more weight to get you down to the bottom. I could write an entire book on the subject. The thicker and warmer the suit the more expensive they are. You, of course, also need a buoyancy compensator vest or BC, snorkel, mask and fins and the regulator and a dive computer. The point I am trying to make is, because cold water diving requires so much equipment that has to fit you just right, the chances of you being able to rent everything and have it fit you is next to none. About the only option is to maybe rent your tanks but this is a problem as well, as I just explained. Dive shops just don’t rent all of those types of tanks and sizes. It just would cost too much money to do so.

When we look at warm water diving, the requirements are less exacting and you subsequently can get by with renting your equipment. Though I still think that you should only rent your tanks, and you should own your own regulators, dive computers and BC, especially if you are new to diving. This is the case because there is no uniformity in equipment. Every rental place uses different equipment. This is the case with BC’s. Some are weight integrated whiles others are not and require the use of a weight belt. Some outfits may not use dive computers. They rely on analog gauges like pressure and depth, so you have to use diving charts to figure out your bottom time and dive profiles. Even though you learn how to do these things when you get certified, if you don’t use these skills you tend to lose them with time. Plus, there is the unfamiliarity of the equipment. The rule is that you should never introduce more than one new piece of equipment on each dive. Now your entire dive outfit is new to you…certainly not the best scenario for new divers.

I consider myself to be a skilled diver. I had also been looking forward to dive at the Bonne Terre lead mines for years. Unfortunately I had gotten rid of my equipment already. It was also a cold water dive. What did I say about cold water diving? Well, I was not able to do the dives for a multitude of reasons. One certainly being equipment that was not only new for me, it was also subpar in quality. I felt totally uncomfortable with this equipment. There was also no drinking water at the bottom where we were diving which resulted in me becoming dehydrated and then throwing up. A lot of things conspired to ruin my dive.

One other bit of information that I want to cover is something my dive instructors told me when I first started my classes. Never ever feel bad about calling off a dive. Always go with your gut instincts. You only have one life and there is always another day to go diving. Doing a dive, no matter how special it is, is not worth dying over. The second thing the instructor said is never dive beyond your training level and comfort level. Do not listen to those that say it will be ok. Thirdly, never go diving by yourself. That is unless you have been trained to do so, and have the appropriate and redundant equipment. Now I want to make the following statement that I have made over 70 solo dives but I had the appropriate equipment and the training to do so. I will not cover this topic in here because it is well beyond the scope of a travel book.

So if you have the experience to use rental equipment in a safe way then by all means, do so. Like I said, if you are going to use rental equipment, warm water locations are the place to do it. You may not even require a dive suit though I would recommend using at the bare minimum a skin suit at least, or a 0.5mm suit for protection from scrapes on coral and rocks. I have used rental equipment on more than one occasion on these warm water dives mainly because they tend to be fairly shallow at around 40 to 50 feet and the visibility can be in excess of a 100ft. These conditions are far different than the ones you will find in cold water dives which also tend to be deeper. In these warmer locations, you only tend to do two dives in a day, so there is less of a chance of having decompression issues. If you don’t use a dive computer, the golden rule of waiting an hour in between dives is a pretty safe way to go. Keep your dive shallower than 60 feet and keep your time to 40 or so minutes and take an hour off in between and you will never go wrong.

So if you rent your gear, you still have to bring your own mask, snorkel and fins. These are very personal items and you should have your own. A poorly fitting mask can ruin a dive. I should know, it has ruined an entire weekend of diving in the Channel Islands. A little side note, a mask fitted to your face for warm water may not fit your face in cold water. That happened to me, your face tends to shrink and contract in cold water thus causing your mask to fit poorly and leak.

If you bring your own equipment on a road trip including tanks you need to secure them so that they won’t roll around. If you have nice and thick rope at home you can make this for under $5.00. All you have to do is to buy a foam float tube at Walmart. In the picture below the holder was made to hold three tanks, and cost $36.00. You can make them to hold more. I made mine to hold four tanks.

Trust me it is so easy to make, you will kick yourself for buying one. This is all you really need to transport your gear safely in the trunk of your car or the back of your SUV.

If you have luck like me, the boat you are going to do your dive on is going to be like a thousand miles from where you park, it always happens. Because you are doing local and thus cold water dives, your gear can weigh in excess of a thousand pounds, or seems to anyways. So do yourself a favor, get a large water proof duffel bag with padded shoulder straps to carry all of your gear in. You ask why waterproof ? Well, your shit is all dry when you bring it to the boat, however, when you take it back after the end of the day, your gear is all dripping wet and you are all nice and warm and dry in your sweat outfit. Do you really want to put a wet backpack on your back? I mention this because I have done this more than once. Now your back is wet for the long drive back home from California. To make your life easier get the following item for your trotting back and fourth to the boat.

Get two of them. It is easier to carry them if you are balanced. Don’t forget even if you are only bringing one tank, you will be carrying the other tank for your spouse. What, you think she is going to carry that damn thing? Boy, have you got another thing coming. You will also be carrying both of those wet gear bags. Don’t forget your dry gear bags for your clothes and stuff. Also, you are going to want to record everything that you saw, so you need an underwater camera. A DSLR is your best choice. Don’t bother with a point-and-shoot camera, the lag time will kill your action shots. Lucky for you, mirrorless cameras are here now so the underwater housings are much cheaper and smaller.

If you have a wagon that you use for your backyard gardening, you can always bring it with you if you have room in say a pickup truck. I want to bring up one special case and that is Catalina Island. You can either take a live-aboard to the island to dive around it, or you can stay on the island and dive from there. I have done both. You can bring your own tanks but I would not recommend it. Just too much to haul around and besides you will have two wet gear duffel bags, two dry gear bags for clothes and a camera case. The walk is really far probably a 0.5 mile to the closest hotel. You can’t use a wagon on the boat, I tried. What you can do is use a two-wheeled handcart. Though you have to make a modification to it. Mine converts to a four wheel cart once I get to the island but you still need to get it on the boat and that is where the modification comes in handy. Buy a heavy gauge sheet of aluminum about 18″ by 24″ and bolt it to the bottom of the flat metal part of your cart. You need this, otherwise, your duffel bags will not stay on your cart when you roll it down the boat ramp. You will also need to drill a couple of holes in your plate so that you can attach bungee cords to it. Trust me, this cart will be very handy. It is strong enough to move furniture on. Especially since the bottom is bigger, it is handy to move storage bins and boxes on. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I have included a photo of my customized cart below.

Pretty simple, right? When you use it in the four wheel mode, you can attach a big wire basket on it and use it for loose stuff as well. One of the best investments I have ever made. The over-sized platform really does work. The size is not set, just make it to fit the size of your dive luggage.

Since you will be cold when you get out of the water consider a dive parka. They work great and you can even get cold in your warmer water dives especially if it is a long boat ride back to the shore. The evaporation of water off your suit can really cool you off quickly. If you do a lot of west coast diving there is also a dry suit. 🙂

I think I have covered quite a bit of information for a travel book. Besides I still have the next chapter, oh boy.

As a wrap up for this chapter I want to include a couple of anecdotal diving stories. I have included them for a myriad of reasons. No matter how careful you are or how well you plan and prepare, things can go south very quickly. The seas you dive in are the kings here. They have the ultimate power. I have had many close calls.

I will only include two diving close calls, otherwise the whole chapter would be about diving. The first incident involved the use of a Drysuit and the shipwreck, the Yukon.

I have included an image of a Drysuit so that non-divers could understand this story. There are two main types of Drysuits. I will only discuss mine. No water enters the suit, the diver is kept totally dry. To keep the suit off the skin there is a liner that is worn, the thicker the liner the colder the water you can dive in. Air from your air supply is pumped in the suit to help keep the shell from touching the skin. The air enters the suit via valve in the center of the chest. As you get closer to the surface, the pressure decreases so you have to let air out of your suit through another valve in your shoulder. Sounds pretty simple, right? In theory it is, when everything works. I had a couple of problems, first my suit was too large and it trapped way too much air, also the valve that put air into my suit got stuck in the “on” position. Also, the valve that dumped out the excess air wasn’t designed to handle that much air at one time. The Yukon is one of the most challenging wrecks in the California coastline. The currents are strong, the water is murky and cold and the wreck is mostly at or greater than 100 feet of depth. Even with a Nitrox mixture, your time allowed at the bottom is limited. The first 10 minutes of the dive went fine. Then shit happened and a cascade of events occurred. I was simply too new of a Drysuit diver to deal with all of the events that occurred. I have since made all necessary adjustments and dove many dives with that suit with no further issues. My suit filled with air and I got knocked in an upside down position, so my feet were up, and I was being dragged to the surface. When you are down that deep, you need to do at least two safety stops and you need to ascend very slowly or you could blow your lungs out. The Yukon had six lines attached to buoys at the surface. I knew if I free floated to the surface, I was a goner. I had to get to one of those lines. With the help of my dive buddy, I was finally able to get to one but I was burning through my air quickly and I had also been down way too long. I was at 20 minutes. So I started ascending up the line, feet first. As I got closer to the surface the more buoyant my suit got and the faster I was rising. The release valve was useless because air goes to the highest point in these suits, which was now the feet. I blew through both my safety stops and ascended way too fast. I was being dragged up the line and no matter how hard I held on, it was no good. Eventually, I reached the surface. The only thing going for me is that I did not develop a pneumothorax. I was immediately administered oxygen, and my second dive was cancelled. The amazing thing is that I suffered no ill effects at all. I must have used up 2 lives on that dive. I spent several hundred dollars on tweeking the suit and it worked flawlessly afterwards.

The second close call involved our search for caves close to the shore of one of the Channel Islands. My dive buddy and I were in about 10 feet of water searching for the cave when out-of- nowhere, I can only describe it as a giant hand grabbing me. I was immediately pulled to the rocky shore of the island. I kicked like hell with my fins but it was useless. Then suddenly I was released. So, I kept on swimming to get the hell out of there. My dive buddy was hiding safely behind some rocks. There was not a thing he could do to help. All he would be good for was to tell them where to look for the body afterwards. As I was swimming back out into deeper water, I got grabbed again. This time I was brought even closer to the ominous rocks on the shore. I thought this time surely I was a goner. But just like last time, I was released at the very last second. I told myself that if this happened a third time it was all over. So I swam like hell and this time I got away. There was no third hand of god grabbing me. This last close call convinced me to search for calmer waters.

During my 2nd marriage, we went on several trips to various islands to go diving. We went to Hawaii twice, Cozumel twice, Roatan and then Bonaire. I also made several trips to California where I would take a boat out to the Channel Islands including Santa Catalina several times.

The only island that I never got to dive on was San Miguel.

So back to my cramming things into a trip. This tendency was never more evident that in our second trip to Cozumel. We went with our dive group for six days of diving. So I seized the opportunity for additional sightseeing and decided to extend our trip by three more days. Our add-ons included a dive in the Cenotes or caverns in the Yucatan Peninsula and the exploration of several Mayan ruins including Chichen Itza, Tulum and Coba. To do this, we rented a car in Cozumel and took the ferry over to the mainland. We did this so that not only we would have transportation while in Mexico, it would give us a place to keep our luggage and gear….We had purchased two cenote dives and a meal as a package deal. I ended up diving without Julie because she whigged out when she saw the entrance to the Cenote. So we paid a $150 for a hamburger meal for her. What a waste. She could have enjoyed a spa day at the hotel instead.

California and the Pacific coastline were known predominantly for its cold water diving, and this was the closest salt water diving available to me. You could only dive in Lake Mead so much, and unfortunately when the water was the clearest, the water was also at its coldest. So I just couldn’t escape the need to dive in the cold water. As you also know, I eventually progressed to dry suit diving which was even more demanding and complicated. Cold water diving requires warmer wet suits which entails thicker and heavier suits and which surprisingly means that they are also more buoyant. Typically in warm water diving, I could get away with 12 to 14 pounds of extra weight to achieve neutral buoyancy while diving in cold water could require upwards of 40 pounds of weights. It also entailed wearing thicker gloves, and a hood to keep your head warm. All this extra weight and coverage and thickness of the suit reduced mobility and movement.

Wet suits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your suit and your body. Your body heats up the water pretty quickly and therefore you remain warm for a period of time. However, to remain warm…your body has to continue heating that water. But you still can’t get away from that initial shock provided by the temperature of the water. The water I was diving in for the first time was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest water I had dived in prior to this trip was 70 degrees. Quite a difference. Also the cold water makes your face contract as well, so now my dive mask no longer provided a good seal on my face and immediately flooded. I had been warned that this might happen, so my ever helpful dive master instructed me to enter the water without my dive gear just so I could become acclimated to the water. So all I would do after I entered the water was to simply hang from the dive platform on the side so I was out of the way. By doing it this way the rest of the divers could still enter the water. Thank God I did this, because not only did my mask flood with cold water rendering me virtually blind, I almost went into cardiac arrest from the initial shock of the cold water. So I was in and out of the water quicker than a prom queen is out of her dress. After my dive master performed CPR on me, I tried going in the water this time with my full gear. By doing this I hoped that my mask would work now since I was acclimated to the water temperature and was no longer seizing in the water. Well, guess what my mask still leaked like a sieve. By this time,, I was beyond pissed because I had spent over $200 for the mask. The mask cost this much because of the prescription lenses mounted in them. So as a result, I was unable to dive the rest of the trip. Thank goodness it was only a two day trip.

However, this is not the half of it. The Pacific Ocean is not only colder, the seas are also rougher. This is a time that I wished I had listened to my dive master. He warmed me on not eating a heavy meal before we got on the boat. Well, I thought I knew better, I have after all been on boats before, even ones in salt water. However, all is not fair in love and war. While it is true that I had been in a salt water boat before it was in the Gulf of Mexico where the water is as smooth as a sheet of glass. Of course, I did not have a problem under these conditions. What I was experiencing now was seas that were rough enough to sink the SS Poseidon. Since I now had a nice heavy meal of fried food sitting in my stomach, I almost immediately turned green once we left the harbor and hit the heavy seas. It was also too late to turn around. I proceeded to feed the fishes all the way to Island we were slotted to dive on the next day. So I was miserable most of the night. It is amazing how much food your stomach can hold. I think I vomited food from last year’s Thanksgiving meal. At least I wasn’t alone in my misery because there was a panoply of wretched soles lined up at the back of the boat also feeding the fishes. As it turns out, one way to cure sea sickness is by being out in the fresh air and also by keeping your gaze fixed on the shoreline even if it was just lights that you could see. To save daylight hours and boat time we arrived at the docks in late afternoon and sailed all night to get to our destination in the morning where hopefully the divers were all refreshed and ready to enjoy the diving. On these boats, you can dive as many as 5 or more times in a day. They have compressors on board, so they just keep on refilling the tanks the whole weekend. So not only did I suffer both routes on the dive trip, I didn’t get to dive at all, and to add salt to the my wounds I got to watch dozens of happy divers enter and exit the water all weekend long. I also got to listen to them happily prattle on about all the cool things they had just seen during their dives.

I am sure you are all thinking that this would end my cold water California diving, well, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The more roadblocks thrown in my way, the more I wanted to succeed. So, I discovered Dramamine and Scopolamine patches for the sea sickness. I not only bought another dive mask, I bought two new dive masks. Both of which worked just fine in the cold water. So I was happy as a clam, I made several other trips to California without further mishap that is until I tried dry suit diving. This is when my learning curve started all over again, but you already know all that. You may ask what could possibly be worth all this work and expense under the water? Well, California and the Pacific coastline is known for kelp diving for one. On a good day, you can have upwards of 50 feet of visibility. The variety of sea life is absolutely astonishing in the kelp beds. The experience can become quite addicting. Even though I have not been diving in a few years, I still think about it all the time. I would love nothing more than to get back into the water. Who knows maybe I will.