Thursday afternoon we embarked on the long car ride to the beach at Santa Catalina. The area is a big draw for surfers especially, but also other water sports lovers and backpackers. After arriving in the late afternoon, we dropped our stuff off at the hostel (Wahoo Rock, one of the best hostels we've stayed at) and walked down the road to Panama Dive Center. When we got there we were able to try on wet suits, flippers and vests. The first suit I tried on was way to small and I put it on backwards. The next suit was a better fit. The staff were friendly and helpful, and most of them spoke a good amount of English.
The First Dive
One thing I wish the staff would have made very clear is the #1 rule of scuba diving:
ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOUR BLADDER IS 100% EMPTY BEFORE DIVING.
Not a little bit empty, or half empty, but as near to 100% as humanly possible.
Of course we knew that there wouldn't be a bathroom on the boat, but if worse comes to worse you can always pee through the wet suit, right? WRONG! Just after we got on the boat to leave the island (one hour ride), I realized that I should have gone before we left. By the time we got to the site, I kind of had to pee but thought I could wait until the training dive was done, or at least just go in the water. To make a long story short, "holding it in" was absolutely unbearable, but the pressure from being deep in water made "letting it out" impossible!! I thought it might be worth forfeiting my $190 just to be able to relieve myself. Finally at the fourth exercise, I gave the instructor my "not okay" sign to go up to the surface. Annoyed, he said "Are we children?" in choppy English and helped me take off my equipment. It was kind of embarrassing, but anything is better than death by exploding bladder.
After that, I was able to better listen to instructions. Even so, I still had a hard time understanding the different exercises and remembering what the hand signals meant. The regulator (mouthpiece) made funny noises. It felt like I was in a hospital on oxygen, and my mind kept panicking. Breathing underwater was unnatural and I felt like I was going to suffocate any minute. A couple times I resurfaced and took the mask off because it felt so wrong. Between taking it on and off, I swallowed saltwater and felt nauseous, and got some up my nose, which hurt. It seemed like the instructor had to take me up to the surface after every exercise and re-explain what was going on. At one point I really wanted to quit, but then I remembered that I felt the same way during the beginning of the motorcycle class I took this summer. This too, shall pass, I told myself. I knew that it would be worth finishing the class if I could get through the hard part.
As we did each exercise, we moved progressively deeper and deeper, without ever going up to the surface to breathe "real" air. After the last exercise, we went down even further for a mini-dive. The instructor pointed out some fish and a few other things, but my goggles/mask was fogging up and I was still trying to use the flippers correctly without panicking about my air running out. My nose still hurt from swallowing saltwater. So, I didn't really enjoy the first dive. Plus, I could feel my bladder filling up again, which was kind of concerning.
Finally the dive was over and we were able to go up and breathe real air. What a relief! As we got on the boat, I noticed that my sister looked pained. "My bladder..." she said, "It hurts so bad! It just hurts!" Then my husband climbed in and complained about the same thing.
"It's weird," he said. "I couldn't go even if I wanted to! I think the pressure must have something to do with it." Needless to say, we were all happy when the boat landed. I wish the instructors would have emphasized how bad it would hurt instead of just saying "There's not a bathroom on the boat."
During the second part of our trip, the other guy in our group (there were just the three of us in Discover Scuba, and one other guy doing a separate program) did his own dive and we had 45 minutes or so of "free time". The dive center had put snorkels in our bag of equipment, so we were able to snorkel around a coral reef for free. This was a lot of fun for all of us. We didn't have to worry about running out of air or using special equipment or following instructions, but we were still able to see a ton of colorful fish and beautiful aquatic life. We went around the reef several times before the other diver was ready to head back for lunch. I wish I would have had an underwater camera for this part, but we didn't.
We had lunch at the main island at Coiba National Park. Lunch was a good-sized sandwich provided by the dive center, with water (we had some fruit after the first dive as a snack). During our 30-minute break, we were able to go through the visitor center and learn a little more about the park, which was actually a prison for criminals from 1919 to 2004. Like the zoo we went to, this visitor's center was a little... primitive. My sister posed for a picture of the whale skeleton display, which was just a bunch of bones on the porch.
The Last Dive
As I had anticipated, the last dive was easier and much more enjoyable than the first. I determined from the start that I would NOT mess around with my mask or mouthpiece (to avoid the saltwater and cloudy lenses). This helped a lot, and of course I was not suffering from intense bladder pain. Going almost 40 feet down the rope was scary, I'll admit. I had to keep telling myself that I would not run out of air, and everything would be okay if I just kept breathing in and out.
We got to the bottom and because of the current, our instructor had us "climb" on rocks at the bottom instead of swimming until we got out of the strong current. This was easy enough to do. After getting out of the current, we went up and around some coral and big rocks. Our instructor pointed out a few different fish, some small sharks, eel-looking morays, and a giant sea turtle. The sea turtle came within a few feet of me. It was crazy! We swam through several schools of fish. This time around I was better able to understand the instructor's hand signals and my lenses didn't fog up. My mouth did get pretty dry and I had to keep reminding myself to breath, but overall the dive was much more enjoyable than the first. Just before we went up, the sea turtle came back to check us out and got right in Hubs' face. I'll admit, I was a little concerned. The turtle was at least four feet wide, at least! Then it was time to go up. Before I knew it we surfaced and it was time to breathe real air again. Whew! I was happy to be done with the dive, but at the same time it was such an awesome thing to literally swim with fishes and be so close to marine life with no glass in between us. Later on the instructor told us that he had only seen a turtle come that close a few times in his life. It was incredible!
After the last dive, we headed back to Santa Catalina to return the gear and fill out some PADI paperwork. After getting back, we returned our equipment, changed out of swimsuits and sat around at the dive center, eating pineapple and looking through fish books. After the paperwork was done, we left around 5:00 pm. It was definitely a full day.
I was absolutely happy with this course, though it was more difficult than I thought it would be. At $170 (plus $20 for park entrance fee) it was cheap compared to other scuba courses and certification. In order to have a certification, we would have had to spend three days and $500 on it... before we even knew if it was something we wanted to do! Scuba diving is quite an expensive hobby, and the Discover SCUBA course allowed us a small taste of it without breaking the bank.
I'm not sure that Hubs and I will do an awful lot of diving in the future, we did discover a fun, safe and cheap alternative: snorkeling! All three of us enjoyed the snorkeling a lot, and it allowed us to see most of the same fish as we did on the real dive (though we did not see sharks, morays, or sea turtles while snorkeling). Overall, I'm so thankful I got the opportunity to try my hand at breathing underwater and swimming with turtles. I've got the best life ever!
Til next time,