Swimming is good exercise. It gives a particularly good aerobic workout if you are a poor, untrained, inefficient swimmer. One fellow offered me this advice, “quit kicking; you are just slowing yourself down.”
With that background, I was not enthusiastic about a SCUBA diving course at a resort in the British Virgin Islands in the early 1970’s. They call them “resort courses” and allow one to dive under the supervision of a master such as the owner of the dive boat, Bert Kilbride.
Alie said, you are the one who always says “try it; maybe you will like it.” It also helped the instructor was Bert’s girlfriend, a young woman who subsequently became the stand-in for the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset in the movie The Deep.
Most divers will not remember a time when a tank of air came with a “J-valve.” It was a long J-shaped wire hooked to a valve. When air ran out, one pulled the J and released five more minutes of air to get back to the boat. On my first dive, I spent the entire time wondering if it would work, if I had accidentally used it or had bumped it into something.
I decided I had tried it, and that was enough. But we had lunch in a bay barely protected from six-foot seas. The only calm place where I was unlikely to get seasick was under the water, so I went on the second dive. No longer worried if the J-valve would work, I relaxed and began to look around. It did not matter that I was a poor swimmer. The long flippers made kicking easy — and I had air. The fish were wonderful. I was hooked on SCUBA.
Over the next seven years, we went back to the same resort every year, and I went diving with Bert. After a couple years, it occurred to me Bert might not always be around, so I became a certified open water diver. Eventually Bert allowed me to assist with some dives and help him with some work for the BVI government, and he didn’t charge for my dives.
The J-valve was actually an improvement over the equipment Bert used when he taught himself to dive in the late 1940s. He started using surplus Navy equipment with dual hoses and discovered by accident that when he was vertical, the air supply cut off.
Bert was a character straight out of a movie or novel. We sat around many a night drinking and telling tall tales. Or rather, Alie and I sat around listening to Bert’s tales never quite sure if they were all true. But every one was fun.
He knew the waters around the Virgin Islands like they were a swimming pool — and a small pool at that. He enjoyed taking new divers out to a spot in the ocean where there seemed to be no landmarks at all (before GPS), only to find ourselves above a wonderful reef or wreck.
He said his Eustachian tubes were “the size of quarters,” and I watched the 65 year-old man free-dive eighty feet and carry up an anchor that became tangled on a wreck — “you just can’t get good help” he joked about his crew, myself and one of his many children.
Bert taught me to move slowly watching for small creatures, not just the big fish. Once he and I swam out over what seemed to be nothing but a mudflat. Out in middle was a small cup-shaped bit of coral, and inside the “cup” was a pretty little fish.
Called the “Last Pirate of the Caribbean” for his rugged looks and roguish ways, you can find Bert in the Guinness Book of Records. He holds the record for being the oldest diver at age 90, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also had the record for diving the most years except I doubt he kept records in the 40s and 50s. He passed on at 93.
My Eustachian tubes are the size of fine threads. I had to descend and ascend very slowly. As my hearing had been damaged in military service before my first dive, eventually I gave SCUBA up for fear pressure changes might do more damage. My last dive was in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef.
I tried it; I liked it.