People and Places

Chlorine Dreams: Learning to breathe to set yourself free

We’re practising our hovering skills on this late-spring night in west Centretown. Nine of us are submerged at various levels in the pale aquarelle light of Plant Pool — some of us horizontal, others vertical, and a few (like me) awkwardly revolving between the two. A drift of bubbles rises from each diver. I can feel a thin layer of water against my upper cheek — my mask has an imperfect seal — but I’m trying not to let it distract me. Our aim is to be neutrally buoyant, neither rising nor sinking. We have to use our lungs — our primary buoyancy device, as our instructor, Pierre, often reminds us. Breathing in will make us rise; breathing out will make us sink. Find the balance, and we will hang suspended.

I’m not quite there. It takes a bit of practice, measuring your breathing.

Illustration by Suharu Ogawa

For five weeks, Plant Pool is our stand-in for the entire water-brimmed world. The nine of us are enrolled in the PADI Open Water Course, the first level of diver certification offered through Sharky’s Scuba Supply in Ottawa (PADI stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors and is the world’s leading diver training organization). We learn how to gear up, descend, ascend, hover, and (above all) breathe. The most important rule of scuba is “don’t hold your breath.”  Breathe to clear your head. Breathe to clear your path. Breathe when you get a leg cramp. Breathe when you have to swim through hoops under water. Breathe when some aqua-fit keener beats you to the last parking spot at Plant Pool. Always breathe. 

It’s unlike free diving, where you do hold your breath and go down with just mask and fins. Scuba gives you the exhilarating privilege of breathing under water, but there is a price — gear. A lot of gear. You wear a wetsuit and an inflatable vest called a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device). On your back, you carry time in a bottle in the form of a 30-pound air cylinder. Your regulator has not one but two air sources, the second for emergencies. You have a dive computer, an air pressure gauge, and a compass all in one dangling console. You have hoses, buckles, and weights.

And yet all that stuff sets you free. You are no longer tethered by gravity. You are no longer a mammal, in a way. Whales, seals, and dolphins have to hold their breath — not you.

And that’s where the first lesson starts — with air. On night one, we submerged in the shallow end and cautiously enjoyed the strange primordial release of breathing under water. From there, we progressed to clearing our flooded masks under water, recovering our air sources when they slip out of our mouths, and removing and replacing our entire kit at the bottom of the pool. Over the five weeks, we learned small things like how to prevent a new mask from fogging up (wash it with cheap toothpaste) and big things like how to do a controlled emergency swimming ascent when out of air (make an ahh sound as you rise, to exhale the expanding gas in your lungs). From our PADI manuals, we learned that “inappropriate humour” is not one of the signs and symptoms of an unresponsive diver (unlike unconsciousness, say, or difficulty breathing, which definitely must be acted on quickly). And now, with the pool sessions almost over, I’m wondering about the open-water dives at Morrison’s Quarry in Wakefield, which will cap the course and lead to certification. I’m more nervous about them than about the pool dives. Will I be able to hover? Will I be able to clear my flooded mask under water? Will my weight belt come unbuckled, as it did in the first class?

But I knew the course would take me out of my comfort zone.

One of the exercises you do in the PADI Open Water Course is the air depletion exercise: the instructor slowly turns off the valve to your tank, so you experience the feeling of running out of air. When you find it hard to breathe, you signal “out of air” (a slashing motion across the throat) and then reach for your dive buddy’s secondary air source. The course spends a lot of time preparing you for emergency situations like this. Scuba does have risks. You learn the hazards and manage them by “diving within your limits” (another PADI rule).

Dive within your limits, and far horizons will come close. Fish will travel with you. You will leave behind the bulk of the body. Jacques Cousteau once said that after he had taken his first scuba dive, he never again had dreams of flying. Now I know exactly what he meant.