It is an unwritten law of the sea that a Steven in possession of diving skills shall be called “Scuba Steve”. Just three weeks ago I was merely another “Steve” without the “Scuba” honorific; now I am Scuba Steve, Hunter of Lionfish, Lobsterbane, Friend to the Eels, and Casual Acquaintance of Manatees.
But before all that I had to learn to dive, starting with a two-day classroom session reminiscent of driver’s ed, except this time I was learning to control my own body. I watched lots of videos with encouraging lines like, “As a diver, you’ll be an ecological ambassador to a vibrant underwater ecosystem; but don’t forget to breath continuously, or your lungs will explode like a balloon.”
Gaining new skills and technology to survive in another environment feels almost like magic. Like many people, I grew up wearing clothes. This means I’m so accustomed to them I don’t even think about their usefulness in letting me leave my house without dying of hypothermia. But jumping into water and feeling warm thanks to a wet suit is a novel feeling. Swimming fast thanks to fins almost feels like cheating. Breathing underwater is something humans were never meant to do- it’s like pulling one over on God- and that makes it even more fun.
In order to become a certified Open Water Diver I had to demonstrate the skills I’d learned over the course of four dives. After inquiring after prices at several dive shops, I found that the market for scuba certification in San Pedro Towne is pretty efficient, and I chose the second-least-expensive dive shop. (Picking a dive shop is like getting your breaks fixed; don’t get scammed, but neither should you trust your life to the lowest bidder.)
My first dive surpassed all expectations. My divemaster, Pablo, took me out to the barrier reef and briefed me on our dive plan, finishing with the exhortation, “Let’s go- while we’re young and willing!” After rolling backwards into the bathtub-warm water I found myself hovering weightlessly amid open casting for Finding Nemo. Angelfish, puffer fish, nurse sharks, sea turtles, and sting rays swam around me nonchalantly. A manatee swam up just ten feet away. I met the great fish’s gaze and signaled Pablo to pass me his spear so we might feast on on the sea cow’s beef, but I must’ve mixed up my signals (divers communicate through sign language and charades) because all he did was take selfies with the creature.
On my third dive we descended to 60ft- the maximum safe depth for a beginning diver. I looked up from my pressure gauge to peer at the pale blue sun and was suddenly deeply aware of the enormous volume of water between me and the surface. Every 10 feet is an additional atmosphere of pressure. The gas laws are life and death for a diver; at 60 feet you use air at six times the rate you do at 10 feet. 60 feet is also a long way to swim without air, should something go wrong…
As I continued to deconstruct my situation I could hear my heartbeat rise and I double-checked the releases on my weights. (Dropping weights will send you bobbing back to the surface, but at the risk of exploding your lungs and near-certain decompression injury due to the rapid dissolution of nitrogen from your blood and organs.) But one of the fundamental lessons of scuba is that if you panic you will run out of air or hurt yourself more easily- so don’t panic. Instead I looked at all the pretty coral and reminded myself that there are probably worse divers out there- divers who don’t even have the benefit of being Steves- and they mostly do fine.
After emerging from the depths I dove five more times- the last four during a weekend of sailing around the reefs and atolls beyond Belize City. One dive site was Gallows Point, so named for the executions of pirates that took place there. I didn’t see any sunken pirate ships, but I did check out a the wreck of some drunk tourist’s sailboat.
To divers, the sea is a living wonderland and dinner buffet- we would spot a tasty looking lobster or snapper, our divemaster would swim over with his spear (technically a trident, due to its three prongs #PoseidonThings) and soon after we’d grill it at the stern of the boat. We’d also spot and kill lionfish- an invasive apex predator with venomous spines introduced from the Pacific. After a successful kill, sometimes a moray eel would emerge from its hole to feed on the corpse.
After a long day of diving (I spent 2 1/2 hours under on Saturday) we’d feast on fish, lobster, and rum punch before flopping into the netting between the catamaran’s hulls to watch the firmament sway with the motion of the waves. I hung suspended in the warm salt breeze and drifted off with head and stomach full of undersea delights.