It seems that I’ve been facing a lot of fears these days. They are silly little fears, as most are, but they are dug in deep. For many years I’ve been afraid of swimming in large bodies of water, especially if I can’t see the bottom. I just don’t know what’s down there, and in my mind I am always just on the brink of some terrifying attack from a creature of the deep. Kayaking forced me to face these fears, scuba diving even more so. I don’t pretend that I don’t have these fears anymore, but its nice to know that I have survived facing them and I intend to face them again and again… and again if necessary.
We arrived in Taganga after taking an all-night bus from San Gil to Santa Marta. We stayed in a hostel called Villa Mary, run by David, energetic and helpful man who spoke excellent english. His family lived at the hostel and he treated us more like welcome house guests than paying customers. We asked him for a recommendation for a scuba school, as I was interested in getting my Open Water certification, since Erin already has her Advanced Open Water. David recommended Reef Shepherd, so we walked over to inquire.
It turns out there are multiple courses for essentially the same certification all with varying focus on various aspects. The most common training is PADI, which is what Erin has. I opted to go for SDI because to me it appeared to show more how to dive with modern technology and had less theory and class room work. SDI was also the cheaper option. I did a lot of research between the two online and found that they are pretty similar and there is no right or wrong answer.
The dive shop gave me a USB stick of videos and a text book to take a look at and fill out. We went for a walk on the beach, it had rained very heavily two days before and it washed a lot of litter into the ocean which then washed up on the beach. It was sad to see all that garbage, but over the following days it was cleaned up by some sort of town employees.
The next morning I met my instructor, Fabio. He looked a lot like a stereotypical handsome scuba instructor in a Colombian beach town. After introductions he gave me a quick overview of the equipment, most of which I remembered from my two prior dives in Fiji, and all the info I had studied the day before. From there we jumped into an old Land Rover and headed to a nearby hotel to use their pool to go over basics and confirm the fact that I can swim.
We did a few laps around the pool, and I was shown how to clear water out of my mask, and what to do if a companions or my air quits flowing. I was also shown how to use a compass while diving. I already had a good idea as I know how to use a compass on land, but I didn’t mention it to him because its always good to refresh… and no one likes a wise ass.
The first day of training was done within a few short hours. Erin and I wandered around the beach a bit, got some lunch and relaxed in the hostel. That night, a woman came by and sold us fresh loaves of homemade bread, still warm from the oven. It was amazing. She came back every night, and every night I bought at least one little loaf to eat.
The next day I was ready to dive in the ocean. We did two dives in the morning. On the boat there was Fabio and I, as well as about four other Colombians who were going spear fishing with another dive master. At first, I was a little nervous to get out of the boat and into the ocean. Something about it being so big scares me.
I didn’t want to be embarrassed, so I swallowed my fears and tipped myself backwards off the side of the boat. Soon Fabio was in the water too, and he explained what we were going to do. I had to do a few tests, things like: taking my mask off and putting it back on while under water, sharing oxygen, and emergency surfacing.
After all that was done, we did our dive around an island with a lighthouse. I saw a very large eel and a barracuda, along with a variety of other small fish unknown to me. We surfaced and loaded into the boat. The other group surfaced shortly after, and one of them was holding a trident with a lion fish on it.
They climbed in and we started chatting. It turns out lion fish are an invasive species in the Caribbean and they are edible. He told me they are a delicious white meat. To me, it sounded like they were similar to our Walleye.
The second dive started with more testing, mostly for my buoyancy. In this case I had to put my feet in the ocean floor and hold the rest of my body at a steady 45 degree angle. Easier said than done, but with careful, calm, shallow breathing I was able to do it.
We then swam along another coral reef to a sunken boat. It was a large piece of hull about ten meters across. I was told later that it sank and broke into three pieces which all found their way to different depths. As we were looking at the hull I swam around the side and was startled by three scuba divers, one of which had a large trident with a lion fish on it. It was the other group of divers from the boat, but it sure surprised me when I came around the side.
The day wrapped up around noon, so Erin and I walked over a small ridge to another beach called Playa Grande, which was crowded with Colombian tourists enjoying the sand and sun. We sat in the sand and royally over paid for a juice and a coke, but I guess thats just the cost of travel sometimes.
When I awoke on the third and final day of my course, I wasn’t feeling too well. Erin had scheduled to dive with me for my final two dives. Luckily the dive shop was pretty easy going and let us reschedule to the afternoon. We relaxed all morning and walked around town a bit. In the afternoon we went to the shop and geared up, Erin refreshed her memory and we met another Canadian who would be joining us on the dive.
We loaded into the boat and there was another group on their second day of the same course I was taking. On our first dive I had to do one more test, a basic compass navigation. I had to set a heading on the compass and swim 12 fin cycles (leg kicks) then turn around and follow the opposite heading back with the same number of fin cycles, I was allowed a two meter window of error. I was quite nervous, but on the return trip I almost crashed into the instructor who was waiting at the endpoint, so maybe I just expected it being harder than it was.
We then began our dive. It was a nice dive along some corals. We saw a large green eel, some lobsters, and a very large eel with a sort of leopard print. At first we only saw its head sticking out of the sand but when it spooked and swam away, we saw six feet of body emerge from under the sand.
We surfaced and started heading to the beach for lunch. Suddenly the boat stopped and Fabio told me to jump in and swim to shore. Naturally I gave him a funny look and asked “Why am I the only one swimming to shore?” He replied “Oh its your final test, I need to see that you can swim two hundred meters and then float or tread water for ten minutes, these two are also going to do it.” The other students jumped in and started swimming.
I sat hesitantly for a moment. Swimming in the ocean is one of my bigger fears. The ocean is big and deep, and I can’t see whats under me. Again, I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I swallowed my fear and started swimming. The boat motored around us to shore. When I got close they singled to stop and tread water. It was the longest ten minutes my memory can recall.
We had some sandwiches and iced tea on the shore, then went back out for our second dive. We dove another reef just off shore. As soon as we descended to the bottom, Fabio pointed out an octopus hiding behind a rock. We kept swimming and saw a variety of fish and swam through a tear in net. Just passed it I saw our guide pick up some litter and stuff it in his pocket. A little farther down he grabbed a broken water gun and started pointing it at us and waving it around. It’s nice to see people having fun at work.
Just before the end of our dive we spotted a lion fish resting in a nook in a rock. From there we began to surface. We did a safety stop, where we stopped at five meters for three minutes. It was during the safety stop that a school of silver fish swam by. One of them was very curious and swam several laps around and between us. It got close enough that I could have touched it were I brave enough. Erin, of course, was brave enough and did touch it.
The next morning I went back to the dive shop and they printed my new certification card. I chatted with the owner of the dive shop about his Land Rover, of which I am a fan. He was also kind enough to tell me all about lion fish which are and invasive species in the Caribbean, originally from the Pacific ocean. Heres what I learned:
He said he first reported them in the area about seven years ago, and as best he could tell they came from Florida. They are an expensive and prized aquarium fish. It appears that some got out either by accident, sloppy tank draining procedures, or possibly poor weather, such as hurricane Katrina breaking open houses and aquariums. He also said that for many years they weren’t found south of the amazon river as it drains into the ocean with too much force.
Unfortunately one year, with El Niño, they were able to cross the weakend river drainage. There have been reports of them south of the Amazon for the last three years. He also told me that they hold competitions to see who can spear fish the most and the largest lion fish. Sadly, though, it does not appear that they will ever be able to get rid of them entirely, the ocean is just too big and they reproduce too fast. Further research here and here showed me that they are believe to have a founding population of only a handful of individual lion fish.
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