English was not Atilla’s mother tongue, and the pace the past six months of learning about and engaging dive shops, diving and finally getting certified, had instilled a sense that hobby requires patience and persistence. But the delay had me concerned about with whom or whether I could actually do any certifications while in Pompano. I had called at least four shops to inquire about course availability and costs; even though it’s 2019, and you can learn the price of a grape in Bangkok in less than two minutes, dive shops rarely post the price online, and usually don’t process payments online. Forget about dates. Everything is “flexible.” So after a week of texting back and forth, in English, Spanish, a little German, I was concerned that this Atilla fellow might not actually be able to help me get nearer to my goal. But last night we had arranged to meet at 8 am on the docks. I arrived at 7:30, stopped in the office at Sands Harbor, signed a waiver and was directed by the receptionist to get back on the Aqua View and Atilla would meet me there. Around 8 am he struts onto the boats and walks up to me and says, “You Donald?” I said ‘yes,’ and he shouts, “What you need? What you need? I text you everyday for week and you tell me different. How many dive shops you call? What you need?”
I was taken aback, wondering if I should explain, apologize or just say, ‘hey, fuck you’ and walk. Who the fuck was he to bark to me like that? But I followed him back into the office and we sat down and wrote down some options of specialties. This was a good idea because part of my confusion and indecision, and the bases of my temporary humility, was due to the convoluted manner of progression in the SSI scuba diving formation. Basically, one must be Open Water certified to have tanks filled and dive at any site. More complicated still, deeper or treacherous sites require more certifications, such as Advanced Open Water. But some say you have to do specializations and then become Advanced, while others offer you a package of multiple Advanced experiences. So honestly, I didn’t know “what I need,” other than I wanted someone whom I could trust to point me in the right direction, and the only person I knew in the industry was taking 48 and 92 lackadaizical hours to reply to any of my email inquiries. And Atilla wasn’t winning trust points with his erratic behavior, but I knew that any window of opportunity that Pompano may be offering was closing as time marched on.
In less than 60 seconds he drew a diagram of the different paths, the difference of Advanced Open Water and Advanced Adventure and I agreed to complete a Deep and Navigational specialty, which would put me within one specialty from Advanced, since I had completed Nitrox in New York. My final specialty would be Underwater Photography, which I hoped to do in New York with more serious photographe. $720 later we were loading back on the Aqua View, heading to Lady Luck, a deep dive wreck about 110 feet down. As Atilla warmed up on the open ocean the persona of Viktor Orban wore off, and we discussed the dive plan.
The current was about 2 knots moving to the north. A dropline lead to the wheelhouse, just ahead of the stern. We would walk down the line, hand over hand, as Atilla explained, using small muscles of the forearm to preserve air, down to about 80 feet, drop onto the boathouse, crawl with our hands over the bars, swim up toward the bow, turn around, go through the wheelhouse and make it back to the rope. Stop at 50 feet for an extra safety stop, then ascend to 15 feet, stop for 3 more minutes, and return for the boat. Atilla estimated about 20 minutes at depth.
I was one of two students on the boat; the other was a kid finishing his Advanced Open Water. The rest of the boat were technical divers with double cylinders. Immediately in the water, the intense current rushed against us, almost pulling my mask off. We were labored onto the rope against the northward push. Total blue, perforated by the bubbles of those who had dove before me, filled my field of view. Looking down on the water-swept hair of Atilla, who slid his grip down the rope two hands at a time before looking back at me to make an ‘ok’ hand sign, which I returned, before he snuck further down, appeared suddenly heroic. It was beautiful, dramatic, and intense.
Lady Luck had been a barge that operated between New York City waste treatment plants, hauling wet human excrement from plants that could not dry it across the city waterways to facilities that could dry it out, prior to hauling it away. The barge had been purchased for pennies on the dollar by Shipwreck Park, a local nonprofit that aims to make Pompano Beach a world-class scuba diving destination and artificial reef sanctuary. My ongoing fascination with solid waste management, the crisis of our urban existence and symbolic placement of this link of civic infrastructure at the bottom of the ocean called to me.
We dropped off the rope and drifted away from the wreck, even though the structure partially blocked the current. I reached for the railing, covered with barnacles and hoisted myself over, then followed Atilla around the wheelhouse onto the stern. We scrambled over the exposed structure to try to conserve energy and air. Tiny sea life was everywhere, over every inch of the wreck, which I tried to avoid destroying. Atilla went around a stairway and I followed but passed too close, scraping my right leg on the sharp, calcium carbonate growths. The twenty minutes went by very fast while I was looking at fish, fighting the current, checking the gauges, maintaining buoyancy and trying not to scrape against more barnacles, before ascending back up.
We were first in line on the rope, but the current was too strong, so too much air had been used and people were having too much difficulty just holding on, so we skipped the 50 foot safety stop, and went to 15 feet, and waited in the garden of bubbles. Back on board, Atilla, the anti-hero, was beginning to warm up more. He complimented my equipment, which I took as complete insincerity, a surrogate for an apology for his being rude earlier. He hung off the stern chain smoking before handing me a package of peanut-butter and cheese crackers. A fair amount of time was spent discussing how other instructors misbehaved, either by lobstering while teaching, or misleading their students in conventionalities, such as the arrangement of my octopus. I wasn’t surprised; in a predominantly male hobby, competition is the lingua franca, and if you can’t be best, you undercut the rest.
The captain decided the current was too strong for a second dive, and a storm was rolling in, so we headed south and stopped at Sunkist reef. Compared to the Lady Luck, the reef was tranquil, almost boring. We came upon a green turtle tip-toed on the sand, which it lifted up and away. Atilla considered this lucky sign. I saw two lionfish, gathered under a ledge. As I put my camera into the hollow, they both opened their fins, exposing the venomous spines, but I realized that getting a spear near them would be no issue.
We conducted two navigational exercises. Reading the compass from the side, while holding it with both hands, arms extended at eye level, and staying on a zero, or north reading, then returning on a 180-degree, or south reading, and moving in a square, rotating at 90-degrees. While deep diving is more adrenaline-inducing and pushing the limits of no-decompression diving, or even decompression diving, navigation is the intellectual pursuit on the ocean. It’s aquatic-applied math. The compass is a tool that can be used for triangulating your position on the water's surface, where no marker can be placed, direct you where nothing can be seen or calculating trajectory. Still, I didn’t see any divers using their compass.