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Aaron from Hollywood FL | Scuba Diver
#20


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Jacques Cousteau, Scuba Diving and Me.

I was five years old when my mum turned on our brand new state-of-the-art Magnavox color television, to watch the debut episode of the ABC documentary series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”. The episode took place on the expeditionary diving ship Calypso, in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Aden, in order to study shark behavior and to test methods of protecting shipwreck and air crash victims from shark attacks. From the very first moment of narrated dialogue, I was completely enthralled, captivated, and obsessed. During that glorious first episode, I immediately fell in love with the ocean, marine life, and scuba diving, proudly exclaiming to my mum bemused expression, that I was going to devote my life to ocean exploration, conservation, and studying marine animals, most especially sharks, whales, and octopi, and the thrilling world that is scuba diving. My eyes were transfixed on the television, my heart pounding in my chest with excitement, my vivid imagination primordially sparked by every sublimity in the scenes being played out before me on the Calypso by Jacques and his crew. I vehemently demanded, in a litany of monosyllables, that my mum buy me a red knit beanie, flooded cream chinos, a big dive knife, KEDS boat sneakers, and a set of scuba gear. It was my noble, albeit futile attempt, to emulate my hero. Jacques became a god and superhero to me and my very vivid imagination, capable of rising the Kraken and ruling over Poseidon. Soon thereafter, my mum bought me a red knit beanie and marched me down to the local YMCA for swimming lessons. She was ALSO a goddess and superhero to me. She understood. She knew. Immediately. I was hooked.

Watching Jacques and his sons, Philippe and Jean-Michel, explore, dive, and bring to full technicolor life, the world’s wondrous seas and oceans, was the most magnificent and remarkable thing my five-year-old eyes had ever seen! I became completely immersed in their undersea odyssey, as the oceans revealed themselves to me, a mystical dream-world of immeasurable life, unimaginable vastness, and thrilling danger, abundant with mysterious, mythical sea creatures, and infinite possibilities for adventure, exploration, and discovery. In those moments, week after week, in front of the television, all I wanted was to become an oceanic explorer, adventurer, and scuba diver. I felt so fucking cool. Like “James Bond” cool. I didn’t even know what “cool” was yet. Whatever. It was my dream. I fantasized about diving with whale sharks in the Galápagos Islands, gliding through ghostly shipwrecks in the deeps of Truk Lagoon, swimming with a shiver of hammerhead sharks on the edge of the Bimini Atoll, salvaging gold off a sunken Spanish galleon in the West Indies, or spearing Lionfish off the Great Barrier Reef. I’d pour over books for hours, sometimes under the cover of blankets, flashlight in hand and way past my bedtime, reading about the oceans, sharks, and marine life. I memorized all the names of the world’s seas and oceans, most species of shark and whale, and could recite, in great harrowing detail, the entire history of diving. As I grew older, I devoured Melville’s “Moby Dick”, Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea”, and Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”. My desire to become a diver was further fueled by the introduction of re-runs of “Sea Hunt” to my limited, eagerly anticipated, diving-inspired weekly television line-up. “Sea Hunt” was a diving wet dream of a TV show, featuring the rugged actor Llyod Bridges as Mike Nelson, an ex-navy frogman, traveling the ocean on his boat the Argonaut, outmaneuvering evil villains, salvaging nuclear missiles, and rescuing children from the perils of the deep. Wow. How fucking cool is that? James Bond fucking cool again. It was 1969.

As my youth and adolescence progressed, my obsession with diving grew, but my path to the depths and the untold mysteries of the big blue was severely impeded by terrible, life-altering circumstances. Having almost fatally drowned twice as a younger boy (can you believe it, fucking TWICE!), and barely escaping death after slipping on the steep bank of a deep reservoir playing with my sister, and foolishly prank falling into the deep end of a 12’ foot deep swimming pool, I was mortally afraid and completely terrified, of drowning. I’d never learned to swim properly at that YMCA. Bad teacher, to match my even worse water skills. I, unfortunately, was not a “natural” swimmer. It was just not in my DNA to float, or so I believed, and swimming became a horrible watery nightmare. My fear simply overcame my ability and desire to learn or cope. Although I’d always jump at every opportunity to be in, on, or near the water as a child and teenager, most especially the ocean, by the time I reached 15, I believed I would never truly swim again. My soul was completely crushed, along with my serious aspirations for a college degree in marine biology, and a career as a bad-ass, red beanie-wearing scuba diver. At that age, so young and impressionable, those terrifying drowning experiences, and my mortifying swimming anxiety, left deep and unforgiving emotional scars I couldn’t manage to get over. My confidence was shot through the heart. I began an internal dialogue to convince myself that my dreams of oceanic glory were unattainable because I was a sucky swimmer, who could never pass muster as a “master of the universe” scuba diver.

Although “modern” ocean diving had been discovered and developed in Britain and France in the 1700s via diving bells, waterproof leather and canvas suits, enclosed metal helmets, toxic lead weights, and hoses, in the 1960s and early 1970s, recreational scuba diving was still relatively new. Most diving was only done by commercial salvage companies or the military. Recreationally, it was an elite sport for the rarified few, and only attainable by doing extreme militaristic swimming drills, over-the-top and unnecessary physical exercises, advanced dive table and gas calculations, utilizing basic gear, specifically the aqua-lung, which had only been invented, advanced and developed the previous decade by Jacques Cousteau and engineer Émile Gagnan. Unlike today, there were no established recreational scuba certifying agencies, modern technology or equipment. No buoyancy control devices (BCD), dive computers, on-demand ambient pressure diaphragm regulators (other than the Aqualung), secondary octopus regulators, Helium, Trimix, or Nitrox gas mixes, recreational rebreathers, or neoprene wetsuits. Recreational diving was just about massive balls, guts, brawn, a deep understanding of gas science, and the ability to swim like fucking Aqua-man. It was bold, risky, and very fucking dangerous. And there I was, a swimming imp, all snot, gurgling and panicked, which is a death sentence for a diver. I was completely useless and alone, in a world of he-man, gas-calculating human dolphins. Thus, I turned my sights away from becoming a world-renowned ocean explorer, scientist, and scuba diver, and re-focused my sights on my passionate love of music, playing the drums, meeting girls, and a newfound desire to become a rock star. I’ve had a long, illustrious, and successful 40+ year career. I’ve been supremely blessed, and to this day, have never looked back. Until now.

My desire to scuba dive was sparked again when I had the opportunity to speak with an old friend of my mum, Ron Taylor. She worked in the movie business in the ’70s and they had worked together when he was filming the live underwater scenes for Spielberg’s “Jaws”, a film that I had waited 8 hours in line to see, mum in tow, when it premiered in 1974. To frame it somewhat mildly, I was a 10-year-old “Jaws” fanatic! EVERYTHING in my orbit was about great white sharks and fucking sharks in general. I wanted to be “Matt Hooper”. Badly. A Woods Hole graduate, oceanographer, marine biologist, shark expert, and most importantly, a scuba diver. As a young teen, I read the Benchley novel. Three times. I was full of scuba envy, sans the getting eaten by a shark, and wife stealing elements. I wanted none of that. Again, completely obsessed. See the pattern?

Ron was a world-renowned Australian scuba diver, spearfisherman, underwater cinematographer and photographer, ocean conservationist, shark expert, scuba diving legend, and all-around oceanic bad-ass. Ron and his wife Valerie were the first divers ever to swim with great whites outside of a steel diving cage. Talk about guts, glory, and the holy grail of diving! They were also some of the first serious ocean conservationist divers, dedicated to presenting sharks in their truest form: As docile, inquisitive, misunderstood hunters at the apex of the oceans food chain. I was in total awe of him, and his wife, who was also a legend. My mum had told him about my aspirations and “issues” with diving and had arranged a personal phone call. As we spoke, he told me that learning to scuba dive would help me overcome my fear of drowning and that with practice, hard work, discipline, and courage, I could, and would become a diver. His conviction, and belief in me, inspired and changed me forever. He was the epitome of cool. I was not. At least not in a wetsuit. I’ll never forget him. I was 20. It was 1984.

My inner child screams that I absolutely should NOT be fucking doing this. Swimming in a pool at a fancy hotel, or body surfing the shallows was one thing, but this was in the middle of the open ocean, with the closest beach and shallows 20 nautical miles away. My resolute and steadfast desire compels me and moves me calmly forward through the crystal clear blue. I’m at 55’ feet, and visibility is 150’ feet plus, above a sheer 3000’ foot drop into the dark, cold abyss. The enormity of that depth kicks up my heart rate, but I calm myself by looking at my depth and pressure gauge, and laser focusing on the ledge of the Santa Rosa Wall, which rises below me in stunningly breathtaking form. I drift slowly past huge, vibrantly colored coral heads, pinnacles, and sponges beside a pearly white, sandy bottom stretching off into the distance. Schools of tropical fish, sway and dance to the rhythm of the ocean current, darting in and out of corals, like alien children playing hide and seek. Ironically, I feel safe here, and know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the ocean is where I’m happiest. A sanctuary of peace, in a constant struggle of life and death. The inherent danger of what I’m doing makes me feel philosophical, alive, mortal, and god-like, all at the same time. Ok. I snap out of my philosophical meandering thoughts and get back to reality, as my Divemaster Edmundo, hovering close by in perfect neutral buoyancy, smiles at me through his mask and bubbles, knowing that what I’m witnessing is truly astonishing. He flashes the “Ok” signal and I flash him back. I am ok? I’m DEFINITELY fucking ok, as nurse sharks, a sea turtle, angelfish, barracuda, and a giant green eel join us in our silent salty revelry. How in the fuck did I get so deep with so little training? Why am I not terrified, panicking, and pissing in my brand new fancy Mares wetsuit? Why, am I not drowning or dead?!

After a “Discover Scuba” classroom and pool sessions at his tiny dive shop in Cozumel, Edmundo took me to do my “check out” dive on a limestone ledge, 20 yards off the beach at Laguna Chankanaab. It’s a beautifully clear lagoon brimming with coral and marine life. I was mortified, but also, elated and extremely excited. After so many years, I was finally going to scuba dive! But, how the holy hell was I going to dive, when, in my mind, I could barely fucking swim? The truth was, I didn’t care. I wanted to learn to dive so much that I was willing to bet my life on my desire. The voice of Ron Taylor echoed in my head. His words “practice, work, discipline, and courage” coursed through my subconscious as blood vessels, pumping my heart like a war drum, and empowering me towards facing the impossible. I am a warrior. Warriors don’t quit. They fight unto the last breath. Hopefully, I wasn’t about to take mine. I’d planned this trip to Cozumel for over a year, knowing that it has some of the most extraordinary diving in the world. It’s a Mecca for divers and snorkelers. It would be the perfect place to finally overcome my fear of drowning, and the shame I carried with it. All those years of opportunity were wasted. I had to redeem myself and win my self-confidence back, no matter the cost. Edmundo believed I would make a great diver. He recognized, like Ron, how to channel my fear into courage. He also observed how comfortable I was, with full scuba gear on, under the blue. He sensed my desire and how badly I wanted it. The weightless freedom, the pure adrenaline bliss, the communion, and redemption one feels when defying and defeating death, and communicating with the ocean gods. I never told him my story or my fears, but somehow he knew, and like me, wasn’t about to care, feed into it, or allow it to take over my psyche. Once I realized that the of fear dying, or anything really, was not nearly as important as how you live your life, everything changed. Over many years, I had slowly and cautiously, built up my swimming and water confidence, taking every opportunity I could to swim or snorkel in swimming pools, body surf in the ocean, or sail, kayak, canoe, and motor on boats. I’d waterski on Lake Arrowhead in California, sail off the coast on the Sea Of Cortez in Baja, or the straights of Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, boogie board or body surf on the ocean waves of Montauk, Stinson Beach, Point Reyes, Half Moon Bay or Zuma Beach. Every swim was a new challenge, a new day, of discovering my abilities and self-confidence. Every experience is a true awakening. I started to care less and less about drowning. I just wanted to live my life to its fullest potential and do what I loved doing. Where the fuck was my red beanie? It was the year 2000.

I snorkeled for the first time in the open ocean in Turks & Caicos. HUGE fucking step for me on my swimming journey. I’d come down to Providenciales for two weeks to play with a band at a resort. It was a great trip with my musical cohorts, and a chance to visit these amazingly beautiful islands. Turquoise waters were as clear as a bathtub, pristine white sandy beaches, good friends, and Rock n Roll. The added bonus was that we could get open water scuba certified for free. What’s better than that? A dream come true. Fortune favors the bold. On our first day in Turks, we’d planned a snorkeling trip. We traveled by boat for 1/2 an hour to a pristine coral reef in about 30’-40’ feet of water. To say I was nervous and apprehensive would be an understatement. I’d never swam nor snorkeled this deep, nor this far out in the open ocean without the comfort of a wetsuit or BCD before. It felt totally out of the realm of my abilities. Fuck it. I thought of a movie quote from Tim Robbin’s character, Andy Dufresne, in The Shawshank Redemption, when he says in life, you either “get busy living or get busy dying”. It resonated with me in that moment. I dove off the boat into the water, nervously following my snorkel “buddy” who by that time, was already vigorously swimming towards the reef like a mad fool, leaving me behind to fend for myself. Some snorkel buddy right? He had NO idea. When I hit the water, all those feelings of fear, dread, and apprehension were instantly washed away and replaced by calm, self-confidence, and an appreciation for what I was doing. I was alone again, but this time, I was free. There was a time when I would have NEVER taken the risk, or even considered it. It’s hard to describe that emotional shift, but it becomes palpable and absolute, like turning a corner or walking through a new door, the path clear, the road unbroken, your destiny set. I swam alone. I was content. I knew the time had come. My baptism and trial by fire were confirmed when the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt a large presence next to me. Swimming over my left shoulder, was the most magnificent 10’ foot Hammerhead shark, lazily zig-zagging and gliding through the water, her singular eye on me as if she was there to protect me, watch over me, and welcome me into this brave new world. It was electrifying. Me, the hammerhead, and the ocean. I was home. I signed up for my open water classes the next day.

It’s my 45th birthday. Tears are rolling down my cheeks on a dive boat 80’ feet above a coral reef in Turks and Caicos, the West Indies. My beautiful wife Sarah is hugging me, deeply knowing what the levity of this moment means to me. My amazing instructor and divemaster, Damon Harvey, gave me a thumb up in recognition of this moment. A shark tooth necklace, a talisman of protection, given to me by a friend, who is a friend had worn it while scuba diving, and dying in the waters off the coast of Key West, cast into the sea as an offering for what she, the ocean, had just given to me. A warm breeze, salty air, a brilliant sun, and ocean mists cling to the skin above the wetsuit hanging at my waist. I’m filled with a joy so complete, so rapturous, I can barely speak. The only times I’ve really felt this immeasurable joy were the day my son Griffin was born, and the first time I fell in love with my wife Sarah. 45 fucking years. It took me 45 fucking years to get certified as a PADI Open Water Diver. 45 years to conquer my fear. I’d made it onto the league of the rarified few. It was one of the happiest, most fulfilling days of my life, and I’ve had a lot of good days. Carpe fucking Diem! It was 2009.

I live in Hollywood, FL now, surrounded by 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of pristine tropical coastline, the world’s 3rd largest Coral Reef, that stretches approximately 360 linear miles from Dry Tortugas National Park west of the Florida Keys, to the St. Lucie Inlet, and Florida’s Gulf Coast, with some of the worlds best wreck diving. It’s a paradise, and heaven on earth. With any luck, I will dive it all before I die, and shuffle off this mortal coil. So much to do. So little time. It is our most precious commodity. Time. For me, diving is not a sport, but rather, a way of viewing the world, and choosing how you decide to live in it. It’s about self-respect, respecting others, and respecting the beautiful natural world we live in. It’s about challenging yourself to overcome your fears, infinitely grow and discover a world full of wonder. It commands respect and gives no quarter. It’s is simply, life.

At 58, I’ve decided to become a certified PADI Divemaster, to live my truth, and teach others the same. Today, I’m not afraid. Today, I’m alive. Today, I am a diver. Whoever says dreams don’t come true, is full of shit. They are not dreamers of dreams. It’s 2022 and this is just the beginning of living mine…

Thank you Jacques. Thank you Sarah. Thank you Mum (R.I.P. 1939-2016)