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THE RELUCTANT NOVICE : Fathoming the Deep Sea : After shelling out a lot of clams for scuba equipment, don't hold your breath. Just relax.

September 27, 1990

"Diving is a lot safer than it used to be," the salesman says. He is trying to be reassuring. Until now, you haven't really thought much about the danger factor. You just want to take some underwater pictures around the Channel Islands, and to do that you need to take a course and get a diving certificate. That, and buy a lot of expensive underwater equipment.

You are standing in front of a bewildering display of face masks. The salesman tells you it is a good idea to buy a very expensive mask that won't leak. You try on the one he suggests. It resembles something on the face of a teenage mutant ninja turtle.

You buy the very expensive mask, and a very expensive snorkel. Then you buy the following very expensive items: scuba flippers, foam rubber diving gloves, foam rubber diving booties and, of course, a color-coordinated diving belt. You think you are set until the salesman explains how you could get caught in kelp or in a fishing net. At such a time, he says, your life could depend on your ability to cut your way free. You buy a very expensive diving knife that straps onto your leg. It has a blunt end for prying open abalone. He is a good salesman.

To get your scuba certificate, you will have to study a textbook, take two classroom sessions, go through two swimming pool sessions and two closely supervised days of diving. The course includes the rental of a wet suit and all the diving equipment that you didn't buy. You pay for the course and the very expensive equipment and head home, calculating how to keep the spouse from knowing what you've spent.

Your scuba text is a paragon of good advice. The first chapter, in a lesson on the effects of water pressure, says, "The most important rule in scuba diving is to breathe continuously and never, never hold your breath." That seems like a great rule. It pretty well sums up the whole goal of diving.

Any fool can swim underwater, hold his or her breath, and then stop breathing for a very long time. It's a good book.

The next week, you return to the dive shop to pick up gear for the first pool session. The salesman measures you for the correct-sized wet suit. "A good wet suit is like a good woman," he says. You let that line run around your brain a few times, think of a dozen responses, and wait. "A good wet suit can be a pure joy, but a bad wet suit can make your life pure hell." He isn't joking.

Your first scuba instructor is a big, funny guy. He patiently shows you how to hook up your scuba equipment. There's the tank, with 3,000 pounds of air, a regulator and a jacket, which looks like something Batman would wear. After you put everything on, he shows you how to jump into the pool and still remain intact. Suddenly you're surrounded by bubbles. You hesitate. You are underwater. Instinctively you hold your breath. Then you remember the most important rule in scuba. You inhale.

The air is cool and clean. You are underwater and breathing.

You practice flooding your expensive mask with water and then blowing air though your nose to clear the water. You practice an underwater maneuver called either fin pivots or pin fivots. After 15 minutes under water, your ears flood and you have a little trouble hearing.

You return home full of enthusiasm and continue studying your book. Your ears are still flooded, making you feel as though your head is stuck in a fishbowl. Nonetheless, you eagerly await your first dive in the Pacific Ocean.

Dave is your ocean diving instructor. He is another big, patient, cheerful guy who supervises you as you strap on your wet suit, batjacket, tank, regulator, ninja turtle mask, flippers, and blunt-nosed kelp cutter.

You resemble a large, black bug.

The boat is anchored near Anacapa Island. You and a dozen other students and their instructors check in with the dive master and jump in.

You are instantly aware that this is not a swimming pool. The water is choppy, cold, and rather murky. Dave jumps in behind you and you swim around to the anchor line at the front of the boat. Down you go.

Your wet suit feels tight and it is hard to breathe. Your mask closes in tight around your face and you feel claustrophobic. Farther down, there is a sharp pain in your ears. Following the advice in the book, you try to clear them, but the pain in your right ear won't quit. About halfway to the bottom, you stop and signal to Dave to go back up.

Back on the boat, Dave is cheerful and supportive. He suggests making some adjustments and trying again. You're scared, but his attitude is calming. You gather everything together and jump back in.

It's a disaster. The batjacket comes loose and the mask floods and you aren't even under water. The last thing you want to do is go under water. You are in a dead panic and can't even make it to the anchor line.

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