If you distill all the rules and protocols of scuba diving, there is one fundamental principle: breathe. Perhaps this seems redundant. On land, the physiological process of taking air into one’s lungs and then expelling it is also pretty essential. Yet when PADI, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors, declares, “always breathe slowly and deeply and continuously,” in their Open Water Manuel, they aren’t kidding around. Even several meters below the surface, divers should never hold their breath. The physical effects of changing depths, caused by tremendous fluctuations in pressure, must be regulated by a continuous cycle of inhalation, exhalation. Failure to do so could lead to arterial air embolism, pneumothorax, mediastinal emphysima, subcutaneous emphysima—conditions whose names alone are enough to scare most divers.
Luckily, I am not scared. Or at least, I am not as nervous as expected. I am a first time diver, but I am learning from a Divemaster who is patient, thorough, and reassuring. I came to The Island School this fall as a Teaching Fellow for the Human Ecology Department, and was offered the opportunity to be scuba certified alongside our students during orientation. Like the students, I am excited, anxious, and ungainly as I flop around on the deck of the Mary Alice with flippers, mask, and air tank. Our gracelessness ceases, however, as we roll backwards, one by one, off the boat’s side.
Below the water, below the undulating ceiling of the sea’s surface, below a point deeper than most of us can free dive, we hover. We are weightless, after all, mobile in three-dimensions, aquanauts in an alien landscape. We glide through space, suck air through our respirators, release bubbles that stream upward and seem to carbonate the sea. We breathe.
And yet, as our instructor finishes the day’s scuba skills—how to clear a mask of water, how to supply a dive buddy with air—and allows us to explore, breathing is suddenly less straightforward. As we pass by colorful coral reefs, through caverns teeming with marine life, it is hard not to gasp. Seeing a sea turtle or a sting ray or a baby nurse shark is like seeing a shooting star—it is a flash, a small miracle—something you can neither anticipate nor readily manifest. They are moments that take your breath away.
As I, like the students, settle into the semester here at The Island School, I am also looking to the journey ahead. For teachers, as well as students, this is a place to challenge yourself and grow. Our days will often be long and exhausting. We will all push ourselves to be better thinkers, athletes, and community members.
That being said, I hope there is also time to pause. Just as scuba diving grants an individual the opportunity to hover in space, The Island School’s remote location offers a similar kind of suspension. It is important to pause here as well; to watch cumulous clouds tower up, to listen to the story of a new friend, to taste the sweet flesh of a fresh sugar apple. In the semester ahead, amazing things are going to float past and surprise us. All we have to do is remember to breathe.