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Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2000

Sick of holding your breath? Suit up for the real diving deal


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

I could have kicked myself -- and I might have done had I not been wearing flippers.

Below me lay a garden of colored coral, some moving gently in the current and populated by bright, darting fish. The diver waved his legs lazily and sank deeper before stopping to hover above a cavernous opening that was once a funnel on a military resupply ship.

Ben Leibson (left) puts one of his students through his underwater paces in the waters of the Pacific atoll of Truk.

As I peered down to watch him maneuver around the superstructure and a mast still standing more than 50 years after this Japanese vessel was sunk by torpedoes from a U.S. aircraft, a feeling of utter jealousy came over me.

He is within touching distance of naval history in one of the most spectacular dive sites in the world -- the pristine waters of the Pacific atoll of Truk -- while I float above him, effectively tethered to the surface by the amount of air I can hold in my lungs. And that isn't much.

After a frustrating few days of snorkeling -- and surfacing spluttering and choking after trying to stay under for too long -- I swore that the next time I ventured out to a Pacific isle, complete with golden sand, warm water and incredible underwater sights, I would be down there too. There would be no more lurking on the surface for me.

Time to talk to the professionals.

Diving instructor Ben Leibson first picked up diving as a 16-year-old off the west coast of Florida, learning to read the conditions and ocean and exploring the reefs, wrecks and drop-offs until he knew whole areas like the back of his proverbial hand.

After a stint in the U.S. Army, he arrived in Japan six years ago and went back to his great love -- dry suits and decompression tables, depth gauges and getting wet of a weekend.

For a novice like myself, the mythology of diving can be intimidating: Stories of divers getting "the bends" or becoming trapped inside labyrinthine wrecks and the specter of "Jaws" loiter in the back of my mind.

"Sure, there's an element of danger in diving," says Leibson. "But there's a risk to everything we do, isn't there?"

Initially, learning to dive is no more strenuous than watching a series of five videos, reading five chapters in the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) manual and taking the written tests at the end of each section.

The early stages tend to state the obvious -- "This is a snorkel" sort of stuff -- but toward the end, where PADI introduces charts factoring in residual nitrogen times, actual bottom times and adjusted no-decompression limits, you need to concentrate. And that's not just to pass the tests -- fouling up decompression times could cost you your life.

"You need to be able to read the charts and understand the effects that breathing from a tank under pressure has on the body," says Leibson, "but it's pretty common sense stuff and you very quickly get the hang of it so it becomes second nature."

He coaches me through the initially confusing dive planner so I can determine my maximum time underwater, sketching out a profile and enabling me to figure out how deep I can go on a second dive. Watch it done a couple of times and it's a lot less alarming.

With the book-work completed, it's time for a dip in the pool to put the theory into practice for the five confined-water dives.

In my black wet suit I feel -- and probably look -- like the Michelin man in mourning. With a weight belt, flippers, BCD (buoyancy control device), air tank and four different hoses snaking over my shoulders, I feel ungainly and uncomfortable. In the water, however, it's a different matter altogether.

With the merest flick of my fins I am able to power around the pool, rising as I send air into my BCD vest and sinking as it is vented. It's a whole different world down there -- and I'm only in a square-sided, flat-bottomed pool.

Leibson is patience personified as we go through the drills for the next two hours: removing and clearing the regulator (without choking), ditto the mask, taking off the gear underwater and putting it back on again, practicing buoyancy control and a host of other skills that enable a diver to deal with a worst-case scenario underwater.

I'll probably never have to use most of them, Leibson says, but it is definitely better to be safe than sorry.

"I have to train you to be able to deal with any given situation, but the chances are that it will just never crop up," he says. "It's really all about giving you access to what is just a fantastic sport."

Once the confined-water dives are completed, four open-water dives are required for the full basic certification. With that under your weight-belt, there are numerous specialized off-shoots that can be studied, including underwater naturalist, photography, search and recovery, dry-suit diving, night diving and wreck diving.

"They say the sky's the limit," says Leibson, "but perhaps they should really say that the ocean's the limit."

Contact Ben Leibson at Pacific Adventure Diving at (03) 3722-1393 or e-mail bent@tkk.att.ne.jp


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