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Learning to Breathe Underwater: My First Experience with Scuba Diving

scuba diver in pool

The first rule of scuba diving is to breathe. If you are breathing, then everything is fine.

That's what scuba diving instructor Jared told our group of new divers during a short orientation before we took our first dive, which was an in a 12-foot indoor pool. He rattled off names of equipment, what to do if your ears weren’t popping and how toothpaste is a great anti-fog tool for your goggles. Above all else, though, we needed to remember one thing — "Do not hold your breath."

In case you aren't familiar, scuba diving is underwater diving where the diver uses a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (aka scuba), usually by carrying a tank of compressed air. Picture scientists studying marine animals, like sharks, in their own habitats or recreational enthusiasts exploring coral reefs and ancient shipwrecks.

Of course, as a Lung Association staffer, I'm intrigued by the role lungs play in scuba diving.

To learn more, I signed up for an introductory one-day class with Learn Scuba Chicago, a local non-profit scuba shop. It allowed me to test out the equipment and get a feel for breathing underwater before committing to more intensive certification courses.

Getting the Scoop on Scuba

Before my class, I spoke with Bob Huff, the Course Director at Learn Scuba Chicago and seasoned diver. The biggest challenge most new divers have, Bob said, is learning to breathe out of their mouths. We know that nose breathing is best for your lung health, but with the scuba equipment, a diver must breathe out of their mouth with the help of a regulator that is connected to an oxygen tank. Bob said it may feel unnatural at first, but eventually their bodies adapt. For practice, Bob tells people to take showers or baths and put water in the mask to get used to breathing with water on their face.

Another worry Bob often hears from new scuba divers is that they are not going to get enough air, but he explained that scuba equipment is made so that if the regulator needs service, it will stick in the open position so that air will still flow.

"As long as there is air in the tank, they will be able to breathe," he said.

A real concern, though, is divers coming up too fast and harming the lungs. Gas is more compressed the deeper you go, so it takes more air to inflate the lungs. If divers don't take their time allowing their lungs and the air to slowly return to normal levels of compression, the gas expands resulting in  too much air  in the lungs. This can cause tears in the lungs. To prevent this, divers need to return to the surface slowly (a rate of 30-feet per minute).

With all that information in hand, it was my turn to try scuba diving. Before that, though, I had to fill out a medical questionnaire, noting any issues that could cause problems. While I was cleared to dive, if you have a lung disease, such as asthma, talk to your doctor before you dive.

Gearing Up and Getting In

scuba gear

Once I arrived at my scuba diving class, the first thing the instructors did was pick out gear. Fins, mask and a snorkel, and then I was fitted for a buoyancy compensator device, or BCD, which is like large vest. Weights were put in the BCD to counteract my body's natural buoyancy. Last, I was given an air tank and an octo regulator (the breathing apparatus).

Sitting on the edge of the pool, I put on the equipment, and Amy, another instructor, inflated my BCD so that I would float at the top of the surface until we were ready to dive. All I needed to do was lift my body, so the tank didn't hit the side of the pool, and hop in.

I am not uncomfortable in water. I swam since I was 5. I've snorkeled in the Caribbean, swam with dolphins on the coast of New Zealand, and free dived in the Red Sea. But, as I sat on the edge of that pool, with an air tank strapped to my back, my heart was pounding like I was about to take a leap off a 10-story building. With several experienced divers in the pool, two life guards on duty and the surface a few arm pulls away, the chances of drowning were nearly zero. Still, this was not like my other experiences with water.

Trembling, I pushed off the edge and hit water. Because the BCD was inflated, I floated, just like I would if wearing a life preserve. I didn't need the regulator, or my mask, but I decided to practice breathing underwater before we moved deeper. At first, I did exactly what Jared and Bob told me not to do—I held my breath. It's like I had forgotten how to breathe out of my mouth, but once I made a conscious effort to take big breaths from the regulator, it was OK. It also felt a bit unnatural not to pop my head up for a breath; I could stay face down and still get all the air I needed.

Time to Dive

Next, it was time to go underwater. Amy was my diving buddy and she gave me a thumbs down which meant it was time to dive.

Using a button on my BCD, I deflated the vest, allowing me to sink to the bottom of the pool. At the same time, I had to blow short puffs of air out of my nose, while pinching it, to keep my ears from popping. It took just a few seconds until we reached the bottom of the pool, and Amy made a signal for me to kneel and then another to ensure I was OK.

On the pool deck, before we dove, the instructors taught us a couple of skills. These skills help determine a diver's advancement in a certification course. Because this was an introductory class, we would learn just two—taking the regulator in and out of our mouths and clearing our mask from the inevitable water that would leak into them. In the water, kneeling, Amy asked me to perform the first one. I was scared to take my regulator out and losing my constant source to air, but I had to do it. So, once I had the signal, I took it out and demonstrated that I was not holding my breath—still a no-no—by blowing a bit of bubbles. After two seconds, I put the regulator back in and cleared it of water the way the instructors showed us. It was easy enough. I wasn't gasping for air, and once I had the regulator back in, I returned to my normal breathing. Clearing the mask was a bit harder, but after a few attempts, I did it. Then came the part I had been waiting for—swimming.

For the next 20 minutes, I followed Amy around the pool, touching the bottom and scooting past other divers. Like I said, I had been in pools before, but this was much different. It felt like I had never really experienced water before. I could swim from corner to corner and breathe like I would if I was on land. Looking up to the surface, even in the old pool, I could see why people would travel to remote corners of the earth to do this.

Again, upon Amy's signal, we resurfaced. I wasn't gasping for air. My lungs didn't hurt. I wasn’t even physically tired. I was just excited. And, Jared was right, as long I kept breathing, everything was fine.

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