You’re invited to a tea party under the sea

It was a fun idea: a crazy underwater photoshoot. Take over a boat, bring cool people, bring a bunch of funny props to the bottom of the ocean, and go a little nuts with the camera. Rich and Jamie masterminding the operation, with this as Rich’s first(ish almost, despite the snorkel test; damn that dive map!) official divemaster lead. They spent a day casing town for props, talked the dive shop into getting us a special boat, and made it happen.

The day before our dive, there was a tragedy that closed the dive shop and canceled all dives. We weren’t certain the dive would continue for the next morning at 8am, but things went as scheduled. After weeks of perfectly sunny and clear days, we got the beginning of a tropical depression and the coldest weather I’ve seen since being on Utila. Nevertheless, we were all still psyched.

Not the most ideal light and conditions for an underwater photo shoot.

We loaded the boat with gear and props, then we waited for our captain to arrive. Wet and cold, we waited. Discussions quickly turned to our dive briefing, photo ideas, and underwater logistics. None of us had done a dive like this before.

Who knew the prop umbrellas would come in so useful?
No captain, no problem! Ben’s on the case.
One hour delay waiting for a captain = baleadas and coffee all around.
A skeptical, wet, and cold Erin. We going to make it?

But the rain lessened and the captain arrived, one hour late. Our planned dive site was scrapped in favor of a closer spot due to the weather.

The rain clearing up just in time for our departure. A delightful Vero, as usual.
Me, ready in pink and purple for an under the sea tea party.
We should have known we were in trouble with this dude in charge… 😛
Finally on our way!
We arrived at Moonhole quickly, the closest dive site to the boat house. First up, buddy checks–yep, we’re all lookin’ good! Next order of business: getting all our props down: a table, chairs, bike, costumes, umbrellas, tea set, kettle, cards, beer, rum, shot glasses, sunglasses, a mango, and more. We were all purposefully overweighted to bring everything down. We all cracked up as Ross rode the bike off the back of the boat; other nearby boats must have thought we were mental. Well, maybe we are a little.
The insanity began:
Rich’s bike made it down to the bottom of the sea and back, totally building character (and rust) as well as improving its resale value.
I broke out the stilletos. Who needs fins?
Perfect neutrally bouyant mango.

The mastermind brothers. Cheers!
Dueling Mary Poppins.
Mad man, free-balling it sans all equipment!
Our sea floor dining room. That’s my landlord’s backyard table.
Brian poppin’ a wheelie…
Vero and Kyle, keeping it cool.
Brian’s dreads always look so BADASS underwater!!
Being a lady, I do love a good cuppa.

It was an odd madness under there. As is normal for diving, it is mostly silent and things move in slow motion. Yet this dive, even though it was still slow and silent, had a frantic and random energy as everyone executed ideas of their own. There was a little bit of scrambling towards the end as air began to run low and communication broke down, but all made it up ok.
We learned a lot of lessons. First, we were brought to a deeper site than planned–18m instead of 5m–so this impacted our air usage, ascents, and prop management. Shallower would have been much better; 18m was too deep to be messing around like this. Second, especially with the silt (even worse than sandy!) bottom we were dealing with we all needed to be more careful about our contact with the bottom and instead try to hover to keep visibility as clear as possible. Third, we spent too much time all in the same location, mucking up the visability and each other’s photos. It would have been better to set up two scenes (table and bike) a little further from each other and take turns. A little extra planning on this would have gone a long way. Next time. But for a first, crazy shot it was pretty freakin’ awesome. 🙂
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Rescue Diver: It’s a beautiful day to save lives

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One step closer to being an underwater NINJA!

I loved my Advanced Open Water course. So much so that during our final briefing I started asking questions because I didn’t want to stop. Turned out that my instructor Maya was starting a Rescue Diver course the next day, as was my buddy Nico, and she encouraged me to take it. There are many practical reasons to take Rescue; you can never have too many rescue divers in the water. Basic first aid, diving-specific rescue techniques, simple tactics to recognize and prevent problems, self protection, and skills to lead or ably assist in an emergency. Plus, everyone who takes it raves about how much fun the course is. I signed right up.

Rescue day -1 & 0: Emergency First Responder
Before you can start the Rescue course, you must fulfill the prerequisite of Emergency First Responder training. I began the two-day EFR crash course with our five-person Rescue crew: we were a serious bunch with a doctor, a nurse, two DMTs, and me. Everyone else had some prior first aid training, but we went over the basics, including lots of catch phrases: Stop think act! Activate EMS! Hello, my name is Erin, I’m an Emergency Responder, may I help you? We practiced CPR, and I treated for shock by tucking people in under a blanket, offering cake, and saying “there-there” lots. Shock treatment is kind of my bag. With basic skills under our belts, we moved into the water.

Rescue Day 1: confined water, off the UDC dock
Our Rescue course started in earnest as we were all getting kitted up on the UDC dock: about halfway dressed, all of a sudden multiple panicked divers were in the water calling for help. Even simulated, it is easy to freeze before you remember what to do. Two of the guys had their gear on already and jumped in with floats. I tossed a BCD and tank in, splitting my fingers open in the process, then hopped in to deliver it as makeshift flotation to one of the faux-drowning victims. Whew, just in time! SAVED. We missed a few points, were a little slow, but not bad for a first time out.

BCDs are the inflatable vest divers wear attached to their tank and are always plentifully on hand on a dive boat. It’s their purpose to float, so they make a great impromptu rescue buoy! Source: Google Images

Once we properly got into the water, our instructors Maya and Matt demonstrated some basic skills: techniques on how to approach and resolve a tired diver, unresponsive diver, and panicked diver both below water and at the surface. (They made them look so easy!) I learned how to fend off someone who wants to steal my air with my left arm while preparing my backup air source to give them. Simple, yet effective. Calm down, I got you. The tactics for approaching panicked divers at the surface are particularly interesting: give a strong push to spin them around or go underwater beneath them to reach their back, then mount their tank holding it in between your legs, and inflate their BCD to get them buoyant, which usually helps resolve the panic.

For unresponsive non-breathing divers at the surface, we practiced simultaneously giving rescue breaths, removing equipment, towing, and exiting the water on each other. I gave Nico more air than necessary by actually giving rescue breaths through the pocket mask and he hauled me out of the water in a dramatic Baywatch style; we had the whole dock laughing.

This day was intense. We learned so much in a short period of time. I had heard rumors things were only going to get more so when we moved to open water the next day. Bring it on.

Tool of the trade: pocket masks keep water out of the face of victims and easily attach to emergency oxygen pumps.
Source: Google Images

Rescue Day 2: open water, Black Coral Wall
We reached the dive site via boat and as we were putting on our gear, suddenly there were people thrashing in the water. Again. Rings were tossed overboard, rescue divers entered the water. I was partially in my wetsuit already, so grabbed my fins and a life jacket and jumped in. Only after my victim was under control did I hear the laughter from the boat and realize something was off: I still had my sunglasses on instead of a proper mask and snorkel. Whoops… Saving in style! It’s the way I roll.

After performing some skills on sandy bottom—buddy breathing, helping someone scared about their flooded mask—we buddied up, hero and victim-to-be, and went for a dive. I was paired with Devin, who played the part of an overconfident yet under-experienced diver. Apart from our rescue training, we saw a school of colorful reef squid, which are my favorite to watch as they flutter and hover. Every time I turned around, our instructor Matt was totally messing with Nico, at one time grabbing at his regulator while flipped completely upside down. Devin gave me a run for my money, getting himself into trouble and panicking often. At the surface, he freaked again, but I got him under control. “Erin, I almost died!!! You saved my life!” After all the exertion, I gave him a tired diver tow back to the boat. SAVED! Your mother can send me a thank you note.

Nico, ON IT!

The boys, Nico and Devin, looking buff during our surface interval.
Crashed out on the boat roof. Fake dying and fake saving people is hard work!

Rescue Day 3: open water, Pretty Bush
Chaos struck as soon as we arrived at the dive shop in the morning. Devin was ready to “dive dive dive!”, had beer in hand on the boat, and we had to “throw him off” the dive for drinking and diving. A medical “emergency” (ketsup was everywhere!) broke out on the dock and first aid had to be administered. During our predive evaluation we discovered that our boat was improperly stocked with safety gear and had to properly prep it.

Again each of us was paired up with an “inept” buddy with little experience: the buddy checks were a mess as each person had something wrong with them. I remembered my first dive after Open Water where I was buddied with a rescue diver; I realize now he was trained specifically to counteract/prevent mistakes I could have made and that he must have been on the lookout for all sorts of stuff to be wrong with me!

At the dive site, we started off again with victims in the water immediately. Our actions in response and timing were markedly improved from the day before. I went after a thrashing Elle, who rejected the float I offered her and attempted to climb on top of me. I fended her off repeatedly, managing finally to have the float be her only option and getting her to safety without me also drowning in the process.

Into the ocean we went for real and began the dive. After about 10 minutes we reached a sand patch and the “OW” buddies went apeshit. A group of ten, we were in close quarters, and we were treated to thrashing and panicking of every flavor. It was a clusterfuck.

Devin going a little mad, Jonathan coming in from behind to save the day.
Cramp removal in the background, and Alex on the watch.
Being ever vigilant in all directions, keeping an eye out for crazies.

My buddy Elle acted like a three-year-old, causing mischief by grabbing at gear, ascending when she shouldn’t, and playing unsafely. In the video below at about 0:10 you can see me trying to channel her energy into something silly yet not dangerous. The rest of the divers swim around us, in varying degrees of craziness. This was not a normal dive.

Even with all the rescuing, there was still a little bit of time for a little sight-seeing!

At the end of the dive, of course people were missing and we spread out to search. Unresponsive divers were found quickly underwater but not far from the boat and pulled to relative safety aboard the boat. SAVED!

Once back on the boat, ready to head home, all of our ears perked up when we heard a *splash*. For once, it was just people headed into the ocean to pee. But I think from now on each of us won’t hear a splash the same way again. It’s always worth a look to be sure.

At final roll call though, bad news: Maya was missing from the bow. We quickly located her in the water, but she was unresponsive. Jonathan and Alex got her safely into the boat and started her on emergency oxygen. The boys rotated simulated chest compressions in two minute intervals as I performed rescue breaths and gave reassurance in her ear the whole fifteen minutes back to shore. As we approached the dock, we hashed out our next steps to get her to emergency services. In Utila, there is no 911 equivalent; you just yell and then try to locate the doctor in one of the bars. We didn’t need to execute our plan, but man were we ready to!

In the aftermath of saving Maya, all the way back to UDC. Pocket mask and shades, that’s how I roll, biyotch!

I left the course feeling a strong sense of confidence, strength, and excitement. Even though I may not hit every single step perfectly, I am far better equipped to handle an emergency, help someone in need, and protect myself. I am a better diver and person. I am capable. I am a RESCUE DIVER!!

Since the conclusion of my Rescue course, I have been on multiple dive boats where other Rescue courses are being taught. I have to say, we got thrown a LOT more shit that these other courses, partly because we were a bigger group. Every time we started suiting up, someone was in trouble. These other groups don’t get nearly the amount of madness we did and they take a hell of a long time to respond. When you are in the middle of an “emergency”, it can feel like you’re not performing as well as you should, but turns out we were actually a pretty kick ass group. PADI-punch!

All photos courtesy of Arnaud.

Thar she blows

Foreboding early strike from Chez Lola beach out over the Caribbean. Two hours later, forks of lightening dramatically coursed the entire sky as we boated home during a break in the wind and rain. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.

I love inclement weather. I think it stems from being raised in Seattle where it is oh so mild all the time, especially the rain that comes down in a mist or sharp, cold little needles. Or maybe it’s my Aquarian nature reveling in air and water coming together so tempestuously. I have a strong childhood memory of wonder from when I was six or seven visiting Tuscon, Arizona one summer: getting caught in a crashing desert thunderstorm, taking refuge under the covered ping pong table at the Arizona Inn, and watching water, thunder, and lightening take over the world. The size of the raindrops was like nothing I had ever seen before and the sound was deafening.

I’ve loved thunderstorms with a passion ever since. During my first summer in Boston there was a night in late June when the sky just opened up. It was on a day when we had been hanging out earlier in a kiddie pool on the front lawn of Phi Delts, and I was still in my swimsuit. I took to the street with a friend, twirling and laughing at the sky and splashing in puddles like a three-year-old. A posse from the house first called us crazy from the window of 1Front1, then came out and joined in. Because it’s damn FUN.

I still always feel that call when warm thunderstorms hit. I love the charge in the air and the visceral sense of insanity from that energy. It makes me perk up my senses as everything seems heightened. There have been three downpours on this trip that have triggered this feeling for me: my last night in Lanquin that went nuts, my final morning in Caye Caulker, and three nights ago in Utila during the opening of Cocoloco (which ended poorly with two lost pairs of jettisoned shoes and a sprained toe after–let’s call it enthusiastic–dancing on a particularly slippery dock). It’s just one more facet of my love story with water on this trip.

The weather in Utila is weird. Even though the days are hot and clear, virtually every night there is a far off lightening storm in the distance. From any dock you can watch the lights go after dark. Only occasionally does it turn into more than a far off display. Two nights ago, I awoke to one such storm. My room has two screen-window walls and had turned into a whipping wind tunnel. The lightening was coming strong at the same time as sunrise, rain slamming against the metal roofs of my neighborhood, wind tossing my filmy curtains into a frenzy. The moment I became conscious, I bolted upright and was drawn to the window. It was a show of chaos and power I couldn’t resist. Apparently in the middle of the night I howl at both the moon and storm clouds.

Is it better to be crying when you feel insane
Or laughing out loud dancing naked in the rain?
Have you ever felt the thunder inside your heart?
Lettin’ go of everything that’s going to rip you apart…

Stability amid transience

I can’t believe I have been in Utila for a month. Things started out slowly, but now I am living an oddly stable existence that is remarkably similar to real life. That is, if your job was diving/snorkeling 2-4 times a day, you lived on a tropical island (I’ve buffed up my beach wardrobe a second time) where rum is cheap, and all your friends were with a two minute walk away and always up for fun. This is Utila. People are learning and experiencing new things every day. For instance, yesterday Nico speared a lionfish; I can’t wait to cook the next one up! I love being a part of the daily rhythm of people I care about; never needing to really catch up because you’re all there together. This is the stuff I miss from college.

Tuesday is for trivia (which we won last week, winner take all pot of 700 Lmps, what what!) and tequila, Thursday is UDC bbq and music, Friday movie night (depending on the cinema schedule), there are snorkel tests often for new DMs, parties on the weekends, and so on. We have a rotating ad hoc dinner party virtually every night amongst my favorite people that I would kill for back in the states. Our cups, silverware, and Doug’s speakers flow from one house to the other. I was going to write a blog post on the food scene here, but for the past two weeks I have barely eaten a meal out. Home cooking for the win.

Pretending I’m back in Belize with a stew chicken, rice n beans, and coleslaw dinner.
Catching a wink from the cook at Spagh Bash 2013.

Homemade cc’ers at Spagh Bash 2013. Who needs measuring cups?
Another delicious bbq, and my men the way I like them: at the grill.

To make things even more normal, I’m about to do some remote work on behalf of my old employer. It feels great to make a little extra pocket money (enough to make a good dent in my diving costs!) and also help out my past colleagues during the busy time leading up to the festival. Everyone wins!

Sometimes it feels like pretend, like this can’t be real life, it can’t last. And yet it is for right now. Eventually the ephemerality will catch up to me as I and my friends move on, but I try not to think about it. When that time comes it may break my heart but there will also be more adventures ahead.

Rosé on the beach at dusk before a private dinner at Chez Lola. Ok, so I do make it out to a restaurant occasionally, and when I do it feels special and fabulous! Especially when it coincides with an epic lightening storm.
Well, I’m on my way
I don’t know where I’m goin’
I’m on my way
I’m takin’ my time
But I don’t know where…

Adding injury to injury

Why don’t cuts, scrapes, bruises, and maladies heal in Utila? My feet are still torn up from using the dive shop fins. Every time they get close to blistering over, I forget my socks and bust them up again. I’ve got a stuffy nose that just won’t quit. (In moments of self-denial I tell myself this is the reason I have been slacking on diving. In reality it is because I’m cheap and distracted.) My hands are torn up from tossing BCDs into the water in Rescue two weeks ago, carrying tanks, and surely other blunders since. I’m still recovering from a crap bikini wax from last week. I’m a mix of sunburnt (complete with a white handprint on my stomach, oi) and the most tan I’ve been in my entire life. I’ve got a huge scrape on my right knee from a late night out that hurts and is turning purple.

WTF Utila? Why won’t you let me get better? Well, it’s humid, hotter than hell (100+ daily now), I’m in salt water often, and I’m betting all the rum doesn’t help. Luckily, I’m surrounded by people with first aid training… time for another gauze tune up.

Snorkel vanity shots

I may be slacking on my diving, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been in the water. The dive boats still go out twice a day and always have room for a snorkel hitchhiker, especially one who brings cookies for the group. The only challenge is tracking down a snorkel, as they are often all checked out, but somehow I always manage. It’s a chill and cheap (ie, FREE!) way to spend an afternoon, and still be part of my diving community. The other day I had company of a snorkel buddy, Robbie, who graciously took some fabulous mermaid-esque photos of me free diving. Finding the little rainbow reef squid below was such a treat!

Photos courtesy of Robbie Labanowski.

AWOL in Utila

It’s been a little longer than usual between posts. In fact, I just got a ping from my Dad to make sure I’m ok. (It feels nice to have the check in, just in case!) So I thought I’d catch the rest of you up on my radio silence too.

In essence, Utila got me. Everyone said it would, and they were right. Different than most places on the road, many people are in Utila for a month or more to complete their divemaster training so it’s more socially stable and possible to connect on a longer term basis. Habits and friendships form. I’ve been taken in by the lifestyle and relationships I have started here.

So what has actually been up? I finished my Rescue course over a week ago and since have been a Utila bum: hanging out, coming second in pub quizes (1pt off, so close!), eating delectable food with even better company, exploring more of the island via ATV for half price, getting sunburnt snorking for free off dive boats, restarting Mad Men from episode one, doing too much grocery shopping hungry, contemplating a specialty dive course but not getting my act together, defending the honor and reputation of the Great Julia Child, injuring my hands and componentry constantly and mysteriously, drinking my signature rum and ginger, hitching late night rides on golf carts going way too fast, not sleeping enough, and the big news: moving into an apartment with my favorite dive buddy Nico.

Some highlights where a camera was present:

Best dinner in Utila. 🙂
Host/chef with the mostest, tending the grill.
BBQ–can’t get enough!  //  The art of a perfectly poached egg. Respect.
ATV-ing it up, Pumpkin Hill bound!
Dive dive dive! Nico rockin’ out, about to head down.
Ladies chillin’ up top and hanging off the side.

Screw PADI certifications, I think the fact that I now have a proper Utila “address” is what makes me a officially a diver. Nico is here for at least another month doing his divemaster and one day when talking with him about where he was moving it just clicked that we should get a place. Even if I just stayed for a short time more it made sense financially and logistically. I first signed on for one week, then starting admitting the addiction and saying two, and now even as every day passes I still say “about two weeks”. Stay until it feels time to leave, right? It’s nice that even though we’re not dive buddy-married anymore that we still get to chill so much. “So, how was your day?…” 😛

Our house is bright aqua blue, cute, on stilts, in the best part of town, and has a dive weight as a door stop. Amazingly easy to obtain, we talked with the landlord and signed up within minutes, moving in that very night. It’s $450 a month for a two bedroom, about the going rate in Utila. It has been a new element to life figuring out how to buy electricity, gas, and water and take care of other household logistics. Set far back from the street, some who have fancy boardwalks at their apartments might call ours “in the ghetto” as we are above the swamp. 😛 I call it elevated waterfront property where the crabs scuttle in the gutters eating our scraps and if we open the windows just right the breeze makes a wind tunnel perfect for hot Utilan nights. It’s Nico’s first apartment, and I realized that the same could be said for me too in a way–it’s my first time having a room all to myself, unless you count the Waltham house back at Brandeis.

Nico waving from the new pad, plus our 2lb dive weight door stop.
My room and our beautiful kitchen.
Ok, so we might be a *little* swamp ghetto.

Our first order of business? Housewarming party! Two days after moving in, our house was filled with our good friends from the dive shop.

Housemates! 😀

The most repeated pot luck contribution was rum. As our freezer started to fill up, I thought we’d be set later with leftovers. I didn’t give our guests enough credit!!

Pot luck Utila style. Luckily Doug, Richard, and Vero are here to help.

We most definitely had food support too. Set before the gas for our stove was delivered, I made cold apps of mango guacamole and apples with honey-peanut butter. Both went over well and I was surprised the apples apparently gave non-Americans a punch of Americana novelty. Richard’s pasta and curry gave us some much needed substance, and then Danielle topped everything off with a dessert of oreos and m&ms.

Yum! Pot luck spread.
Digging in.

Our Advanced class trio of me, Nico, and Tim gathered together for a photo-op. It was one of Tim’s many “last night”s here in Utila before he finally pried himself away. Miss you lil’ bro!

Advanced team unite! Yeah, I think I’m going to stay out of the nipple pinching though…

So our house is thoroughly warmed and life is good. I have a kitchen, friends, a space of my own, fun to be had, and time. What more can you ask for?

P.S. In preparing this post, I discovered that I am over favoring the “yeah”-mouth-open look in my picture selection and probably need to learn some new camera face poses… I have the same expression in virtually every shot. What is up with that?!