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I had always associated a certain glamour and sense of excitement with scuba diving — the thought of leaping into the depths of the ocean as a mere human, only to emerge from those same waters an hour later feeling like the ultimate female adventurer. But as I lowered my body into the 38-degree, ice-covered waters of a Pennsylvania rock quarry, I quickly took note: Scuba diving is neither glamorous nor a fun sport when practiced in a climate that is less than warm. January, Pennsylvania, and scuba are three words that do not often get strung together, and for good reason. Although my instructor and I dove with dry suits — designed to keep your skin dry, unlike wet suits, which allow water to move through the suit — diving in icy water is a bone-chilling experience, in both the temperature- and fear-related senses. It all started last summer on a balmy evening in South Hampton, N.Y. My boyfriend asked me if I’d be game for a trip to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef this winter, and about two heartbeats later I accepted his invitation. There was only one catch: I had to become a certified scuba diver in time for our trip, or else I’d be spending a lot of time on the beach — alone. But while standing waist-deep in freezing waters in Pennsylvania, I wondered if a few hours on the beach alone really sounded so bad. Actually, I had always wanted to learn to scuba dive. One of my fondest childhood memories is of lying on a beach in Costa Rica, waiting for my father to emerge from the water and trudge upshore with his face obscured by what looked to me at the time like a pair of oversized goggles and a tangle of hoses. So, in September, I called the YMCA to ask about their scuba certification courses. The YMCA program, which met once a week for eight consecutive weeks, conflicted with my schedule. So when I called the National Dive Shop, on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C.’s Friendship Heights, and found out about their two-weekend intensive course, I signed up, sent in my $275 tuition fee, and started discussing with Michael Gurevitz, my future instructor, when and where we could do my certification dives. From inside my cloud of enthusiasm, when Michael uttered scuba, rock quarry, and Pennsylvania all in one sentence, it didn’t seem like an insane collection of words. PHASE ONE: THE COURSE The first of my two weekend sessions went reasonably well. I made it to class nearly on time both mornings and had a generally good attitude about the seemingly endless hours of ’70s-era films we were required to watch. Day One: I met the nine other students in my class. Like me, they were all preparing to embark on trips where scuba diving is the main draw. I immediately bonded with Patricia Murret, an associate at Restructuring Associates Inc., a labor-management consulting firm in D.C. who was heading off to visit her parents in Micronesia. Patricia and I were the last two students to arrive at class on Saturday morning and, with all the choice seats already taken, were left to sit in the back of the room. Later that morning, Patricia and I emptied our wallets to pay for the $240 package of equipment we would need to complete the course: mouthpieces, mask, snorkel, fins, boots, gloves, and a weight belt. When we broke for lunch, we spent most of the time assessing if the cost of the course was worth the eventual benefit of certification. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the internationally recognized group of so-called dive masters who train millions of terrified would-be divers every year, has the world’s best business model. Without PADI open-water diving certification, no PADI-associated dive shop will allow you to rent equipment, no PADI-associated dive boat will take you to a dive site, and certainly no PADI-certified dive master will take you 30 to 60 feet underwater. Basically the sales pitch is: Get certified by PADI, or dive with the most rogue and possibly drunken element on the water. It’s a pitch that works extremely well. Did I also mention that PADI makes diving sound more dangerous than jumping out of an airplane, which, by the way, takes less training and carries a less hefty price tag? Day Two: Sunday. The three-hour pool session proved much fun. We swam around doing buddy exercises like sharing our regulators — no, not the agency kind, but the mouthpiece devices used to depressurize the air in the tank to make it breathable. I also got a mood boost by “winning” the eight-pool-length-lap swim test we had to take, beating all my classmates by at least two laps. It wasn’t a competition, of course, but it turns out that imaginary trophies can have extraordinary powers of self-affirmation. One weekend down, one to go. As part of our classroom requirements, we had to read PADI dive manuals and complete quizzes. I ended up doing my reading and completing the exercises on Friday night, at work, while an article I had written for Legal Times was being edited. That’s when I landed my first big, thus unearned, reward. As I sat grumpily in the conference room of our offices, a number of co-workers asked me what I was studying. “I’m learning how to scuba dive,” I boasted, watching their usual jaded expressions give way to sheer admiration — at least, I think it was admiration. That alone is worth the $525 price tag. But sadly, my newfound love of scuba vanished midway through Day 3. Patricia and I had taken a longer lunch than we realized, and by the time we made it back to the dive shop for the afternoon session, everyone had left, including our ride — a nice older man whose name we could never quite remember. We were about 30 minutes late to the pool, and by the time we arrived, had convinced ourselves that we would surely be kicked out of the class. But to our relief, Michael, our drill sergeant of an instructor, was only moderately annoyed by our tardiness, and ordered us to get into our wet suits and gather our gear ASAP. That day, Michael taught us how to equalize the pressure in our ears by pinching our noses and blowing hard, as well as how to execute a standing water entry. (While wearing a tank, weight belt, and fins, taking a giant step forward into a pool is no easy feat.) By Day 4, I was ready to take my exam. After a quick pool session, during which we performed a number of skills to Michael’s satisfaction, we went back to class to review for the written test. We reviewed the most difficult part of the written material: using dive tables to calibrate how long we could dive at various depths before succumbing to decompression sickness, otherwise known as the bends. About an hour before the class ended, Michael handed out the multiple-choice test to the class. I felt as though I had been transported back to high school in Edina, Minn. Sweating profusely, I played the eenie-meenie-minie-moe game with a set of particularly vexing questions. Despite my anxiety, I passed with a 92 percent score, lower than I had hoped, but good enough to get me to the next step on my way to certification. PHASE TWO: THE DRY-SUIT DIVE On inaugural weekend, Max, my boyfriend, came down to D.C. from New York to learn how to dry-suit dive. Because diving with a dry-suit requires learning how to manage buoyancy by using the suit, rather than a buoyancy control device (the vest divers wear), Max and I needed an extra day of pool and class instruction. The dry suit, which looks like a space suit, is somewhat uncomfortable. When the suit gets “burped” in the water there’s a not-so-little squeeze effect on the body. I understand this is more painful for men than women. But Max and Michael got no sympathy from me that day. Michael, Max, and I had planned to go to the Pennsylvania rock quarry on Superbowl weekend, but a last-minute call to the quarry managers revealed that the water had been completely frozen over and we would have to find a new site for our dive. Michael suggested that we try diving in a cooling pond in West Virginia that weekend instead. We arrived at the diving site, located on the appropriately named “Mt. Storm,” on Saturday afternoon. It was snowing so hard and was so cold that I didn’t want to get out of Michael’s car, let alone enter the choppy gray waters of the pond, which was a very large lake with its own weather system, it seemed. Michael went into the water alone to check out the conditions. When he returned 20 minutes later, he declared — between deep breaths — that he could hardly get back up to the surface because the currents were so strong (who knew cooling ponds had currents?), and that we would have to reschedule the dive for the following weekend. When the next Saturday arrived, Max couldn’t make it, so Michael and I headed by ourselves to the Pennsylvania site. The week’s warm weather had melted some of the ice that had prevented our dive the previous weekend. Once I had suited up and entered the water with my air tank and mask, I grew extremely nervous. I had been one of the most confident students in the class, but after I had submerged my face in the water (Michael insisted we do this prior to the dive), the alarming coldness of the water shocked me into a state of panic. “I hate my boyfriend,” I repeated several times. “This is insane.” Michael, sensing my fear (“I’m scared, Michael!”), soothed me with a few calming words: “Remember Nietzsche? ‘That which does not kill me can only make me stronger.’ “ I would’ve strangled him if my hands weren’t so numb. We swam on our backs out to a buoy in the middle of the unfrozen section of the quarry. I released all the air in my buoyancy control device and descended slowly onto a submerged platform roughly 20 feet deep. I sputtered through the first few breaths I took from the regulator. I had taken a thousand breaths from my regulator in the pool with no difficulty, but it was much harder during my dive. I was scared and cold and could not move my fingers and body as well because my extremities felt numb. But a few minutes into the dive, I had already completed a number of skills: clearing my mask of water, recovering my regulator, and sharing air with my diving buddy (that would be Michael). Then Michael took me on a long swim around the quarry. I was surprised at how easy it was to attain neutral buoyancy — in the pool I always sank to the bottom when I tried to swim. The feeling of weightlessness was such a thrill that I nearly forgot I was in freezing waters. Michael let me hold his hand while we swam along the bottom and inspected some of the submerged boats in the quarry. By the time our first dive was over, I was elated. My fingers and toes had gone numb, but I was happy with my performance and the fact that I had conquered my fears to perform such an amazing task. Ice diving isn’t for the weak of heart — it helps to have a loved one’s love on the line as an incentive — and it isn’t for the weak, either. Like relationships, the sport takes a strong tolerance for pain. Still, heating myself over a cup of coffee at the Round-the-Clock Diner, a greasy spoon just off Interstate 83, I couldn’t stop smiling. Australia should be a breeze, as long as the sharks don’t get me. Tatiana Boncompagni is a reporter for Legal Times. While scuba diving in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, she saw numerous species of fish, a few turtles, and one lone shark. She still has all her limbs.

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