Surf or Dive

photo: Ty Sawyer

photo: Ty Sawyer

Looking out the window on the descent from 30,000ft at the view of a smooth ocean without the usual thick reef cover of white wash, indicating wave action, I was overcome by a mixture of fear and excitement. Trips to Hawaii always elicit those emotions, however the reasons are usually very different. As a professional surfer, I’ve challenged the characteristically large waves of the Islands with my surfboard every winter consistently for over ten years, and while my surfboard was coming along on this trip (never leave home without it!) surfing was not the primary focus.

photo: Robbie Meistrell

Last fall I had the opportunity to learn to dive. My sponsor, Body Glove an industry leader in the manufacture of wetsuits for surfing, also makes dive suits. It seemed natural to create a stronger connection between the two, so the chance to experience something I had never really considered previously was suddenly in front of me. After spending most of my life focusing on the ocean from above the surface as a surfer, notwithstanding the occasional snorkeling experience on a flat day, I had never put much thought into what was hidden beneath the surface, unless it was involved in making waves of course. I love facing new challenges, but the time away from surfing combined with vivid memories of childhood bouts with asthma made me significantly less than ecstatic to take on this particular challenge. Fortunately I wasn’t embarking on the new adventure alone. My Body Glove teammate Alex Gray, team manager Greg Browning, and marketing director Scott Daley, coincidentally a few of my favorite people in the world, were taking the course as well.

Greg filming Alex photo: Robbie Meistrell

Learning with friends certainly added to the fun. The classroom discussions were educational and hilarious with 20-year-old Alex, the class clown, fantasizing about a career as an underwater Chip ‘n Dale stripper. He would later rehearse his skills by removing his shorts at the bottom of the pool and swimming past me to make sure I’d noticed! Scott was planning to use his new skills to take his hobby of searching for gold nuggets to new depths, and Greg planned to get a waterproof housing for beneath-the-sea filming. Me, I just wanted to survive.

Alex is a very funny and good looking kid!

Those first few minutes submerged beneath the warm chlorinated water of the Dive ‘n Surf instruction pool were tough. Previously forgotten fears of suffocation connected to that childhood asthma came bubbling to the surface and it took some mental effort to pop them. I looked around at my friends all happily breathing underwater and signaled with an “ok” sign to my instructor the decision that if they could do it, I could as well. Soon the fun in performing the skill tests completely replaced any traces of fear and I sat at the bottom of the pool looking up at the surface above in complete comfort.
Taking the task to the cold murky Pacific on a cloudy Californian morning was another thing entirely. Coated in 7mm rubber and laden with heavy gear, we trudged down a flight of steps, across the sand, and through the waist high shore break. After being tossed around by the waves, tangled in seaweed, and jostled by the choppy surface while swimming out the buoy, I felt seasick and the fear returned. Kneeling on the ocean floor I was able to focus enough to complete the tasks required but I was far from thrilled to be down there. Alex, Greg, and Scott however, loved it, and in the months following they dove often. I listened to their stories of shark sightings off the coast of Palos Verdes, barbequing lobster snatched from night dives at Catalina Island, and plans to finally check out that old shipwreck that formed the breaking point of a surf spot. I listened with envy and intrigue, but not enough to join them and check it out for myself. The thought of the cold water and low visibility just wasn’t appealing.

Alex, cruising beneath the surface photo: Linda Sue Dingel

So, more than half a year later, touching down on the tarmac at the airport on the Big Island of Hawaii, still a diving virgin, the excitement of trying again in warm clear water was fighting with fear for priority in my thoughts. I definitely wanted to dive, I wanted to experience what had made my friends so giddy, but I wondered once I was submerged again if the fear would return.

Waiting for a ride to the boat, photo: Robbie Meistrell

Getting ready to dive in Kona photo:Robbie Meistrell

In fewer than twelve hours, I found myself perched on the edge of the boat, diving gear in place, and with my first ever, real giant stride, made the mental decision that everything was going to be ok. Cruising down towards the ocean floor, it was ok and over the course of the next two days it would only get better. The fact that Scott Smith, my original dive instructor, was my designated dive buddy for the trip certainly helped. We kicked along reef and rocks admiring the biggest sea urchins I’ve ever seen. He pointed out a spotted eagle ray gliding past and a multitude of colorful fish all easily visible even from a distance in the clear water. While he paused to try to get a cleaner fish to demonstrate its skills on his arm, I peaked up at the surface from so far down, just for a second, to fully appreciate the fact that I was successfully breathing far underwater.

The view from below, photo: Ty Sawyer

That quick sight was enough to remind me of the fear. Fortunately, focusing my attention back on the reef banished it from my brain once again. “This is fun!” I told myself, and actually believed it.

Hanging on the bottom with my instructor/dive buddy, Scott Smith photo: Linda Sue Dingel

photo: Ty Sayer

photo: Ty Sawyer

There were still fears to overcome. That first day while the boys swam into a dark cave to explore, I patiently hovered outside and waited for them to return. I didn’t like the thought, however unrealistic, of getting stuck in there. The second day however, when one of the dive guides flashed a board in front of us with the words “I take you to shark” displayed, I eagerly followed, and seeing that in order to get close to the 4ft long, white tip reef shark would require me swimming into a cave, I didn’t have to think twice. It was beautiful and I wanted to sit there the whole dive and watch it.

Calmly swimming through a one-diver-at-a-time sized hole and into another cave where there were two white tips, one smaller and one larger, I was ecstatic!

A pair of sharks photo: Linda Sue

As a surfer, sharks are a common worry. However, my fear of their teeth is strongly linked to curiosity and respect. Granted these white tips were not the man-eaters I’m usually concerned about coming across. Still, the fact that their description includes the word “shark” made them incredibly interesting and well worth immediately overcoming my fear of caves to put myself up close with them.

Photo: Linda Sue

Greg Browning filming underwater, photo: Linda Sue

Greg, getting the shot! photo: Linda Sue

Those few moments were by the far the best part of the trip. And yes, Alex has already pointed out that it seems a little crazy for me to be less fearful of sharks than caves. I’m not sure how to explain it either.

photo: Ty Sawyer

Heading back to the airport, completely exhausted and satisfied while toting my un-used surfboard, I felt accomplished and serene. I had finally experienced the joy of diving and planted the seed of a new obsession. All it took was warm clear water and a great group of friends. Like everything else in life, it’s the people around that make the difference. Aside from the sharks, my favorite underwater creatures to watch were my friends. So if my previous mantra was “Surf or Die” it has become “Surf or Dive!”

Cheyne Magnussen, Alex Grey, and I, surfers and now divers too. photo: Ty Sawyer

Alex, hotel lobby diving

Watch Alex in action!

and, van diving

Yes, ladies, he is single!

Holly Beck, pro diver? Body Glove dive wetsuit ad

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3 Responses to Surf or Dive

  1. wamber says:

    I’ve always wanted to try scuba diving, mostly because I love swimming and being in the ocean, but also because of beautiful photos like yours. Looks amazing, thanks for sharing!

  2. Jorge Caprichoso says:

    Awesome Pictures! i like your blog so much!

  3. I am glad that you took the plunge from the surface to see what is underneath! The photos are amazing! If you are ever in San Diego…come and dive our ecological reserve in La Jolla with the Scuba Diver Girls!Keep on diving! You are a big help in promoting the sport to women and we love to see that. Scuba Diver Girl Margo

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