There is no way to succinctly describe it because nothing else in the human experience is like it.
I sat on the bottom of the Auburn YMCA pool and I was breathing. I was under the surface, could see everything around me, was enveloped in a cool wet silence that only fish, dolphins and whales know, and I was breathing.
Thanks to Henry MacDonald and some volunteers, I was breathing under water. It seems simple on the surface, but breathing beneath it is surreal.
Before I went under water on March 1 as part of a free scuba lesson at the Auburn Y, I talked to MacDonald, who served the YMCA for almost a decade and a half after serving his country for three tours in Vietnam. MacDonald has been chronicled in this publication beforehand, about once every two years, and rightly so, but he has some righteous scars that I didn’t know about that Friday when I went to go to learn how to breathe under water.
“It is really funny,” that is how MacDonald starts out on how the L-shaped stretched skin near his right elbow.
Mac, as he is sometimes called above the rip of Velcro and hiss of regulators in the acrid chlorine air on the pool deck, has a pretty dry sense of humor behind his thin-rimmed glasses. He has a mustache that is a lot of salt and a little pepper left in it.
“I had the misfortune of being wounded in Vietnam in 1970 as part of an explosion,” Mac said. He served in Vietnam in 1966-68 and went back in ’70. He was a paratrooper and, more dangerously, an infantryman. “It is always interesting in the summertime, when I wear shorts, my legs are pretty scarred up like my arms. It is always in interesting conversation with m oms that bring their children in to learn [about Scuba] diving to get certified. I’ll see them looking and I’ll ask, ‘Do you want to ask about my scars?’”
“And they’ll always say, ‘Yeah, is that from a shark?’” Mac said starting a recollected conversation.
‘I’ll say, ‘Oh, but of course,’” he continued and smiled.
“‘No, no, nothing to do with diving,’” he finally capitulated in the imaginary conversation.
But I was there to try scuba myself that Friday.
SCUBA – which stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus – originally referred to United States combat frogmen's oxygen re-breathers, developed during World War II by Christian Lambertsen for underwater warfare. Scuba as we know it now is the technological progression of the Aqualung developed by Emile Gagnan and Jacques Cousteau. Basically, a diver wears a vest with a cylinder of compressed air attached to it. The air is inhaled through a "demand" regulator and then exhaled into the water. The "demand" means that you have to breathe in. That seems like a pretty obvious maneuver, more on that later on.
The contraption turns a human turns into a very clumsy fish. Well, maybe more accurately, a walrus sans tusks.
But I am not an expert in the field…or…waves.
MacDonald is. He is the owner of Finger Lakes Scuba – the shop on Dill Street where he and his wife, Joan, sell diving equipment, offer lessons, certifications, and set up diving charters – and he spoke to me and four other somewhat-brave souls that signed a release form before we got into the water on March 1.
“You are going to become a mouth breather,” Mac said. “Some of you might not get that, but ask your wives, moms or girlfriends.”
I had never done anything like this before and Mac says to stay in the shallow end or, “you will blow up.”
Even though it is in jest, the sentiment carries some validity.
The school offers a course that starts Friday at the Auburn Y where classroom, pool, and open-water experience combine to create a certified scuba diver after six weeks. In order to be a certified diver a person must complete a surface swim, a float test, answer some medical question, and, of course, complete the course. Classes are three hours a week with half in the classroom and half in the pool. There is a written test and four dives in real world open water. Upon completion, a person can dive in up to 100 feet of water.
As for the “blowing up,” one of the most important things a certified diver learns - other than finding the guts to make the leap of faith that I was about to - is to regulate pressures that actually could cause parts of your body to explode.
“Think about during the summer when you dive to the bottom of the pool and you feel the pressure in your ears,” Mac said as he handed out translucent flippers and florescent rimmed masks. “When you get into deeper water that pressure could tear your ear drum.”
At that point we headed into the water. A few minutes later I was breathing underwater.
The Finger Lakes, though narrow, provide some of the longest natural coastline this side of the Eastern Seaboard. They also provide some of the deepest water around (Skaneateles Lake bottoms out at 315 feet for example). And summer’s warmth makes the lakes some of the most attractive dive spots in the Northeast.
“The history of the lakes goes back to the days of Native Americans,” Mac said. “These lakes were used for logging. There are a lot of historic treasures. There are things that belonged to pioneers. Carriage wheels, burner lamps, and all of them intact.”
MacDonald also dives in the St. Lawrence Seaway, which provides moving water that can reach 72 degrees from surface to river bottom during the summer. The lakes have still water that soaks up heat and light the deeper a diver goes, but the river with its moving water is warmer and brighter. There are wrecks there including The Victory, a 19th century schooner, that are routinely explored by veteran and novice divers.
Then there is the sexier part of diving, the waters of Cousteau, "Shark Week," and where to find both Nemos. Aside from the local spots, Mac and his fellow divers make two big trips annually, one to the Caribbean and one to a more exotic locale.
“No question, coral reefs are sexier,” Mac said. “We make trips to Thailand, Fiji, Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Philippines, pretty much the entire Caribbean. It is different, but an avid diver is only looking for water.”
Mac is an avid diver still. He learned to dive about 20 years ago when he was the Community Outreach Director at the Y working with at-risk kids and families. Someone said Mac needed something for himself since he was giving so much to others. He tried diving, he was hooked, and now he has turned right around and started giving it to others like me.
The first lesson on March 1 was just to give an idea of what it is like to breathe under water and there wasn’t much held back. After I changed into swimwear, flippers and masks were handed out, along with a glob of gel that was smeared on the inside of the mask.
That glob cleaned the mask off, it made the extent of my rookie diving domain, the shallow end, much clearer. We signed a release form and got into the water.
The pressurized tank and all of the hoses, dials, and gauges that regulate things are mounted vests that waited, floated, in the water. After lifting that all on, the vest snapped together and we are ready to do something totally foreign to human instinct.
First, there are three short tutorials. First, the buttons that control ballast (the air that helps you float) were explained, then how to clear the regulator if water gets in it (always an important step), and finally the important safety tip that if you got in distress just stand up (it seems silly, but a reminder is much appreciated).
The regulator is a mouth guard with a hole in it. If a diver exhales above or below the surface extra water is cleared from the piece. The regulator felt just like a mouth guard too, except the hose connected to it held my lips open.
Just like the first swimming lessons everyone has when they are eight-years old, the first one here is basic. Put the mask on, the regulator in, the face in the water, but instead of blowing bubbles out the goal is to breathe in and then make bubbles. After that small leap, I was allowed to explore the tile at the bottom of the pool on my own accord. It is an unexpected freedom to have so early in my scuba-diving career which has lasted about five minutes.
The most difficult step was the second on this journey.
I sat on the floor of the pool and was completely immersed in water and silence. Then an interior, kind of hard to have exterior, monologue began.
“This is interesting, it feels a little weird, but I am certainly interested in learning how to really do this.”
“OK, if anything goes wrong, I can just stand up.”
“Umm, why isn’t this working, now? I put my face in the water, blew the bubbles, and no problems, but now I am not getting air. What is happening? OK, OK, no worries it worked before it will work again.”
There was still no air coming into my lungs.
Then it hit me.
“You have to breathe in still, dummy.”
After years of conditioning to hold my breath when completely under water, I still was. Humans aren’t meant to breathe under water. Even though I could breathe under water, I wasn’t because I chose to hold my breath.
I took my first breath under water.
It wasn’t like pinching the nose and inhaling – even though that was the gist of it – it was physically easy and intellectually, instinctually, incredibly challenging.
I am not afraid of drowning, but I had to consciously remember to breathe in for the night.
I started to move around a little bit then, slowly at first, but then back and forth between the side walls of the pool.
Even though a lot of fans know that Darth Vader’s iconic breathing from the "Star Wars" saga was born in a scuba regulator, I can attest that these regulators sound higher in pitch than the Dark Lord of the Sith.
After a few minutes, I had to stand up. At such a novice level, I needed a break. Actually, and I hate to admit it, I was gassed. I couldn’t breathe through my nose and I never really realized how important that avenue is for respiration.
I had to breathe smoothly, slowly, and pretty deeply the rest of the night underwater, but eventually I got the hang of it. Afterward, I was tired. Not in the traditional weight training or pick-up basketball sense, but my lungs ached.
I couldn’t really take in a deep breath until the next morning.
I went under water, and I was breathing.
It was as unnatural, and exhilarating, of an experience that I have ever had.