South Africa #3: Dipping below the waves

Hello again! I had an update from my adventures riding on top of the water, and I now have some stories to share from underneath the water! That’s right, I’m talking about scuba diving!

Today was my last day of my scuba diving certification course so I am officially “PADI Open Water SCUBA Certified” now (I get a fancy card and everything!). This process started a week ago, actually, so my story really starts there.

I learned to scuba through the “Underwater Club” on campus. UCT has a huge list of clubs and societies on campus that you can join, though each one costs a fee to become a member of. As International Students, UCT pays the entrance fee to three clubs for us. The three I joined using this free option were the Underwater Club, the Yacht Club (they mostly do sailing stuff, not with actual yachts), and the Mountain & Ski Club (they mostly do hiking and climbing, rarely ever any skiing). The Underwater Club is a group that does a lot of scuba diving, free diving, and snorkeling. They organize tons of trips and courses throughout the year and have a bunch of equipment to rent for really cheap.

Scuba diving is one of the things I was most excited to do while here in South Africa. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t always live up to expectations. After signing up and paying ~$240 USD (which, by the way, is a steal because it included all of the gear rental as well. The gear rental alone in the U.S. is usually around $200 with the certification course being an additional $700) my course began at the crack of dawn last Saturday. On that day the ten of us taking the course together met at the Underwater Club’s clubhouse and spent three hours of the morning going over theory. We had been given a book to read ahead of time and at the meeting we talked through the first chapters of the book, taking tests at the end of each chapter to prove we knew the material. Thrilling stuff, I assure you.

After sitting at a table talking theory for a long time we finally got up and spent the second half of the day getting practical application knowledge. We learned to suit up, put together all of the equipment, and then eventually we took our equipment down and dove into the outdoor UCT pool. This pool was FREEZING, not literally, but somewhat close since the water was around 14˚C. I was expecting to love being able to breathe underwater, but enjoyment is far from the emotions you are having when you perform your first dive. You are awkward, bulky, disoriented, somehow super heavy and way too light at the same time(???), and have no idea how to operate underwater. Add on top of this the facts that in the pool we were swimming in we had hardly any visibility (there was a lot of nasty stuff on the ground being kicked up), the waters we were in were icebergic, and you are still getting used to breathing dry air properly through only your mouth; needless to say my first experience breathing using scuba was far from as glamorous as I had imagined.

After staying in the pools for many hours learning and demonstrating “skills” (different things you need to be able to do underwater), conditions continued to deteriorate instead of improve. By the end of the day I still had frustratingly little control over myself underwater, and the longer you are in the water with a wetsuit, the colder you become, so by the end I was shivering uncontrollably under the water looping the thought “when will this be over, when will this be over” through my brain on repeat. The end of the day’s lesson finally did grace us, and we were allowed to go home and get some sleep before coming back the next morning to do it all again.

That night as I made myself dinner and went about my evening routine, I couldn’t stop the feeling of dread about going back to scuba diving tomorrow. I wanted to do anything else but that, and no matter what I tried to do to distract or encourage myself, I felt nothing but apprehension about the coming day. The fact that this had been an activity I was so excited for added an extra bitterness to the pill I had to swallow. I knew I had paid too much to back out now, and I didn’t want to quit anyway, I just wanted it to be over with.

The next day took a similar structure to the previous one except that there was much less time spent doing theory and almost the whole day was dedicated to being in the pool. We spent about six hours straight in the pool on the second day with only one short break in the middle of it. The water was not any warmer, but this time I wore two wetsuits (one inside the other) which definitely helped in delaying the onset of chill. Also on this day I found myself much more comfortable in the water than I had at the beginning of the day prior and slowly began to pick up more and more small tips that made moving around easier while submerged. The day was spent practicing more “skills” but surprisingly it didn’t feel as long as it really was. I wouldn’t say time “flew by” that day, but it definitely felt much quicker than I had expected it to be. I was very encouraged and extremely grateful by the end of the second day, because I finally didn’t feel miserable about scuba diving and was almost beginning to enjoy being underwater.

The next weekend we finally were given the opportunity to dive at a real beach. We drove our equipment down early in the morning on Saturday to a shore called Long Beach. From there we quickly kitted up and then waded out into the water where we dove under and swam a distance out until we were about 6 meters deep. Being in the real ocean was a much more similar to the pool than I had been expecting. Movement and control was about the same, the water was almost identical in temperature, and because we were on sand the visibility was again pretty low. However, the ocean has the advantage that what you can see is vastly more interesting than anything you are going to find in the bottom of a pool. All around me were floating little particles of all different materials, mixed together with carcasses of different crustaceans that had been eaten, and being stirred by fish making their way about their daily lives – some swimming lazily and others darting around. Most of the fish we saw on this day were cape gurnard, but being in the same space as them was suddenly fulfilling every childhood experience I had ever had at an aquarium where I pressed my face up against the tank and pretended I was in there with the sea life, wishing there wasn’t glass in the way so I could reach out and touch the creatures that were so close.

A disguised cape gurnard!

The best part of the ocean dives were that they were only around 40 minutes each. I found out that nearly all dives, no matter where you’re doing it, usually last under an hour, which was a huge improvement from the six-hour pool time we had spent the weekend before. Most dives also involve a lot of movement and not as much sitting around along the bottom while you wait for other people to demonstrate their skills, which keeps you warmer for longer on regular dives. The two ocean dives we did that Saturday did include a lot of demonstrating skills again, this time in a different environment, but after the skills practice our instructor would show us undersea sights as we made our way back to the shore. On the first dive we saw hottentots, a pipefish, and also an octopus! The octopus was definitely the highlight of that dive because it was so fun to watch, and when you tapped the ground near where it was sitting or placed a piece of seashell near it, the cephalopod would hesitantly reach out its tentacle to examine whatever it was that was disturbing its surroundings. On the second dive we saw an awesome hermit crab, a colorful nudibranch, and got to explore a sunken shipwreck (which was totally covered in seaweed).

Hottentots!

Saturday’s dives put me in a good mood for Sunday, and my excitement was also enhanced by the fact that this was the end of our course. Sunday we set out early for a different beach called “Windmill Beach” which turned out to be absolutely gorgeous and contained even more exciting aquatic life than Long Beach. The day started with a bit of a dip in enjoyment, because we had to demonstrate our final skills during the first dive, and one in particular took an extremely long time. This meant that we were sitting at the bottom of the ocean in frigid water for quite a long time while each person took their turn demonstrating the skill. Not being able to move from that spot, we all got cold very fast and time seemed to drag on forever underwater. We tried playing a few games to entertain ourselves at different points, like rock-paper-scissors and “toss-the-seashell” but the cold made us stop after not too long of either of them. The oceanic current was also a lot stronger on this beach and there were large rock formations that pushed water through them in specific patterns to create a heavy “surge” (the back-and-forth motion of the water as it goes in and out). So as we were all sitting on the sea floor with our arms linked, the force kept lifting us and pushing the whole group to the right and then to left, like an invisible hand causing us all to dance in time.

After that first dive was over, we only had one dive left and it was our “fun dive”. There were no skills that we had to demonstrate, and it was just a regular dive where you swim around for 50 minutes and see what there is to see underwater. The previous dive of the day had turned my attitude towards this final dive into a bittersweet mix of excitement and trepidation. I wanted to view aquatic life and actually look around the sea for more than a couple of minutes, but at the same time I had just experienced what it was like to be under that frigid water for 50 minutes and it had been far from fun. It was with these feelings that I put my gear back on after our break and waded into the water for the final time, desperately hoping that the excitement would win out over the unpleasantness.

Prepping in-between dives

It turned out that I had nothing to fear, because the last dive was amazing! Moving around the entire time and exploring the sea is a completely different experience than sitting silently and “practicing skills” underwater. We saw so many cool things on this dive that I just couldn’t get enough of it. We swam through huge kelp forests, deftly passing through swaying stalks taller than some trees on land. A few of us did a small loop on our own into the kelp and saw a shark! (it was pretty small). We passed by beautiful, multicolored cliff sides covered in sea anemone and starfish. We saw huge schools of hottentots and other fish like a red roman. At one point I was leaning down to closely inspect a large hermit crab and was startled when what I thought was the sea floor began to move and squirm away! It turned out to be a perfectly camouflaged sole, that even as I watched became totally still again and blended in indistinguishably from the sand! We journeyed through more incredible locations and at the end even swam with a friendly seal who darted around us in circles faster than land animal I have ever seen run! When we got to the surface we also saw an African penguin who zipped around us in the water, showing off his swimming skills too.

The real dive was so much better than any of the training dives we ever went on, and it has now boosted my morale about scuba diving a whole lot. If that is what scuba dives are actually like, maybe they are something that I would want to continue doing in my life, and I would definitely be interested in doing some more while here in South Africa. Our group ended the day by stopping for celebratory drinks and food on the way home to commemorate our official status as scuba divers. I can now officially say I am certified and have done a real underwater scuba dive! Another experience to add to the list as I move on with this adventure.

For those of you who participate in prayer

I want to thank you so much for all the prayers you have been sending my way while I am on this trip. God has definitely been listening, and I have been so blessed in so many ways while here.

Some specific prayer requests that you could pray for me right now are:

  • HUGE thanks and praises to God for allowing me to enjoy scuba diving and getting me through the different underwater days. Each day that went well was definitely the result of hours of fervent prayer beforehand asking that I would enjoy them, and God came through as always.
  • Prayers of thanks to God for allowing me to have such amazing experiences while here, like scuba diving. It’s crazy to me to think about how many blessings he is pouring out right now by providing opportunities to do all this stuff. Every adventure I have is all completely a blessing from Him!
  • Continued prayers of petition that I will find close, Christian community while here in South Africa. Battling loneliness has still been a struggle as I put myself out there a lot but can’t seem to find anyone who is particularly interested in forming a deep friendship or getting together to do things in free time.
    • Prayers of thanks that I at least have one weekly outlet of Christian community with my “missions mentorship” group (me and two other girls who meet at a mentor’s house once a week for fellowship and Christian study).
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6 thoughts on “South Africa #3: Dipping below the waves

  1. Thank you for sharing your activities and your emotions. How exciting to have the opportunity to step far outside your comfort zone. But I also identify with your need to connect in friendship. When I was just your age, I moved to a different state with my new husband. Most people were kind but I wasn’t a part of their lives or existing circles. I wasn’t really homesick but I needed at least one friend. It didn’t happen at the level I craved. Not for the whole year we were there. So I will be especially praying for you about a solid CHRISTIAN friend to bless and be blessed in return.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ethan thanks for sharing! I am so happy for you in that you are now a certificated diver. Bruce and Heather both took classes, but it was not for me. Trust you will soon find a good friend. Enjoy every day as in the future you will look back and rejoice for the opportunity you are now experiencing.

    Liked by 1 person

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