Serious Water 

Just don't disturb the octopi

Just don't disturb the octopi

Late last month, I was in the northwest corner of Costa Rica about an hour south of Nicaragua, in a region called Guanacaste on the Gulf of Papagayo. The trip was a reward for surviving a tough few months work-wise, making the deadline on my latest novel, and getting through tax time with enough left over to make my mortgage payment.

I didn’t go there to dive. In fact, I hadn’t been in the water in six years. I love diving, though, and I’ve missed it. Life and work just got in the way and let’s face it, there just aren’t a lot of great dive sites in the Middle Tennessee area. Not if you like visibility, anyway.

I was out of practice, rusty. As any diver worth his wetsuit will tell you, when you’ve been out of the water for a long time, that first dive back tends to be high anxiety. A friend with a lot more experience than me went off the boat in Hawaii after a couple of years away from it all and immediately went into a 10.0-on-the-Richter-scale panic attack.

He got over it and had a great dive, but that story kept reverberating through my head as I looked out over the Pacific from our hotel room and knew, just knew, that I had to get back in the water. There was just no other way. This had to happen. The local dive shop had a German guy—a blonde, skinny, sunburned Aryan—who went into the pool with me for a quick refresher.

The next morning I was on a boat with a couple about my age from Las Vegas and two young marrieds who came along to snorkel. I was by myself, so Mauricio, the moreno divemaster with the dreadlocks down to his shoulders, agreed to buddy up with me. There are only two absolutely unbreakable rules in diving. Never hold your breath. Never dive alone.

So after a half-dozen years away from water, I went over the side and a few minutes later was 95 feet down, which is serious water; at that depth you’re only 35 feet above the absolute low-point for recreational divers. The water pressure is an incredible four atmospheres, only you don’t feel it.

What you do feel is hard to describe in words, but I’ll give it a shot. Diving is sensual, and once you let go of the initial anxiety, it’s incredibly relaxing, comforting. Experienced divers know that the one thing you don’t want to do underwater is work. If you exert yourself, you use up your air faster and the experience is over sooner. Like all sensual experiences, you want it to last. So the best divers relax, move slowly, and let the water and the equipment do the work.

Diving is the perfect sport for men and women to do together. Once in the water, everybody weighs the same: zero. Muscles and macho don’t mean squat. In fact, women make better divers because they use less oxygen and can stay under longer. Men—as more than one woman has reminded me in my life—suck up an awful lot of air.

We stayed down a bit long that first dive, so we had to take an extended surface interval to purge the residual nitrogen out of our systems. As Mauricio kept telling us, the nearest recovery chamber was in Panama, so nobody wanted to get bent. I took the break to pump fluids and check equipment, but mostly I just wanted to lie in the sun and savor it.

We went shallow on the next dive, motoring over to a reef and going off in only 35 feet of water. I’m tracking along slowly behind Mauricio, checking out the stingrays, the reef, the dozens of varieties of fish, not one of which I can name. Suddenly, Mauricio hovers over a section of reef and points downward. I swim over next to him and look down, only I don’t see anything.

I shrug. He points again, this time animated. I look down again. It’s all coral and rock to me. Whatever he’s pointing at is well-camouflaged.

I shrug again. Mauricio pauses for a moment, then drops down right on top of the reef, sticks his hand in the rocks, and yanks this live octopus up off the surface. It’s maybe two feet in diameter, and it’s really pissed. A cloud of black ink grows around us and slowly dissipates as this thing thrashes about on the end of Mauricio’s arm. I’m trying to remember not to let my jaw drop. Mauricio has the octopus by the head as it wraps tentacles around his forearm. With his free hand, Mauricio tries to rip the tentacles loose, only like I said, this little critter is mightily upset.

Mauricio finally pulls the octopus off his right hand with his left, but then the little guy wraps himself around that arm. I’m two feet away as Mauricio wrestles back and forth for what seems like forever before finally freeing himself of it and dropping it back on the reef. I follow the octopus down and watch wide-eyed as it disappears again into the reef.

“Okay,” I’m thinking, “this is cool.” And I was reminded once again how I got hooked on diving to begin with.

Steven Womack is a Nashville-based writer. His latest novel, Dirty Money, will be out later this year.

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