This past weekend I found myself embarking on an “intermediate-advanced” dive in the cold waters of Monterey Bay, well beyond the skill level of a newly certified student. The conditions appeared good enough for safe diving: magicseaweed reported 3-5 foot swells, the high’s were in the mid 60’s, and the winds were pretty much nonexistent. Upon arriving at the dive shop, there were numerous divers suiting up everywhere and buzzing about 40+ feet visibility in Monterey Bay. For those of you unfamiliar with diving in the Pacific, this is considered a phenomenon and I was extremely excited.
We attempted the shoredive out to Chase Reef from the Coral Street Beach entry, although it is recommended that one kayaks or boat dives to this destination. Our logic was to simply drop down near Coral Street Beach if we couldn’t manage the surface swim out to Chase Reef. As many of you divers know, the suit, extra weights, and the conditions make the surface swim in cold water much more challenging that warm water. Still, the clear and seemingly calm waters beckoned to us, alluding us to believe we might make it to Chase Reef. How wrong I was.
As we entered the water, the visibility was amazing- well beyond 40 feet, and the swaying kelp was alluring and exciting. We trudged on, fighting our way through the kelp to the outside of the cove. Once outside the cove, we quickly realized that what appeared to be calm waters from the shore was a force to be reckoned with. Rolling waves pummeled us causing a rift in distance between myself and my dive buddy until, after a while, he disappeared from my view. As water began to enter my snorkel, I found myself alone amidst the unrelenting pacific swells. Should I quit the dive, turn back, drop down, or just wait? What had happened to my dive buddy, was he ok? As a novice diver I started to panic, for I had never experienced waves so intense that I was barely able to keep my head above water. Although I had completed many, many dives in warm-water and a few dives in cold-water, I was mentally unprepared for the challenges of the pacific swells. I immediately heard the words of my dive instructor in my ear, “calm down, put your regulator on, and be ready to dump your weights.” I remembered diver Dave Lieberman’s story of a diver who did not release his weights and ended up a 100 feet down in Davey Jones’ Locker, clutching his collection of abalone. I realized how close I was to that same fate if I didn’t calm down and start making good decisions. Upon that realization, I quickly abandoned my snorkel, placed my regulator in my mouth, I proceeded to take several deep breaths until I calmed down. Once calm, I inflated my BC to maximum capacity and managed to get my head above the water just enough to catch a glimpse of my dive buddy between rolling waves. After a long swim against the waves, we were finally reunited and made the executive decision to drop down immediately to commence with a truly amazing dive.
I attribute my sound judgment and good decision making skills to my instructor, who taught me well. After having failed the classroom open-water instruction, I never believed I would have been able to dive in cold-water. Looking back now, failing that course was the best thing that could have happened to me. It led me to seek out quite possibly the best instructor I have ever had, an instructor that took the time to teach me techniques that would someday save my life. Diving in cold water is a much more dangerous and challenging experience than warm-water, and I believe that good training is necessary. My suggestion for those of you who want to dive, do your homework: plan your dives, be mentally and physically prepared, and make sure you are well-trained by a good instructor.