I’m finally scuba diving near the bottom of a tank at the Aquarium on the Bay in San Francisco. There’s a small shark swimming near me. This should be an awe-inspiring moment. The whole experience is being captured on video. But I’m not filled with wonder, or terror, or exhilaration. I’m filled with shame. I hate myself and my physical incompetence.
I pride myself on knowing and accepting my limits. I can’t drive. I’m cripplingly shy. I don’t like any of the Star Wars movies.
That doesn’t stop me trying new things. It’s too easy to talk yourself out of fresh experiences if you focus solely on your limitations. So when I got invited to San Francisco by GoPro for its Hero3 launch, I accepted, knowing that a whole day of extreme sports-style activities was part of the agenda.
There are land and air streams, but I’ve ended up in the sea group, and basic scuba diving with (non-aggressive) sharks and various other marine animals at the Aquarium while wearing a head-mounted camera is the first item on the day’s agenda. It sounds like it should be fun, and it’s a pretty unique experience: not just any tourist can rock up to the Aquarium and ask to swim in its tanks. I’m excited.
I never presumed I’d be particularly good at scuba diving — any skill requiring co-ordination takes time for me, and always has. Learning to dive properly takes repeated practice and has a complicated certification process. That’s the reality for everyone. But you have to start somewhere, and I didn’t think I’d be hopeless out of the box. I didn’t think my legs would betray me.
There are small stupid moments beforehand in getting set up, which is part and parcel of trying any activity for the first time. I manage to put the wetsuit on backwards, and it takes an age to find a suitable mask because of my beard. But I absorb all the pre-dive training carefully and hit the water, ready to try a smaller, less deep tank before moving on to the main attraction.
As soon as I’m in the water, I realise the flippers have essentially rendered me immobile. I can’t cope with them at all.
With flippers on, I somehow have no control of my legs whatsoever. And my legs are the strongest part of my body. My arms are scrawny, my pectorals are non-existent. When I swim, my lack of form is evident, but my legs can always get me through the water.
Not in a beflippered state, though. It takes every ounce of willpower I possess to stop my legs floating hopelessly to the surface, and more often than not I fail at even that. They twitch hopelessly out of control, cramping, floundering. Even loaded with extra weights and with my BCD deflated, I can’t make any headway down towards the bottom of the tank, where the good stuff is. And if I can’t master this shallow tank, there seems little point in moving to the larger one, where the sharks are.
Maybe it’s my breathing, my instructor suggests. I’m not exhaling enough, perhaps. It could be different flippers will work better. Maybe I need still more weights. We try all these things, but nothing makes any real difference. My body won’t obey me and head below the surface.
Other journalists aren’t having this issue, even those who (like me) have never dived before. I see them swimming past several metres below me, excitedly spotting marine life and quickly graduating to the main tank. I am only just submerged, and that’s only because my instructor is holding me underwater. Eventually, and repeatedly, I lose control of my limbs and give the signal to ascend. As we’re barely a foot under water most of the time, this doesn’t take long.
My instructor Terry is determined to crack the problem. He’d probably find it easier to deal with if I was filled with blind panic, which apparently isn’t uncommon. I’m not worried by the water or the breathing. I just can’t control where my body moves. A dugong would have more elegance.
Eventually, and after consulting with several colleagues, Terry decides to take me into the tank regardless. We’ll add more weights, use a weighted rope for assistance, and he’ll guide me down. All the instructions I absorbed this morning on monitoring air tanks and clearing the regulator and managing buoyancy are no longer my problem. He’ll do all the work. All I have to do is point my legs downwards.
This is massively harder than it sounds, and it requires all my concentration. Terry has to signal to me repeatedly to remind me to look at the sea life going past. On my fourth attempt, I do make it to the bottom, but I’m effectively lying down and my camera is capturing nothing of any use.
This isn’t the fault of the technology. I’ll be writing a fuller review of my experience with the Hero3 next week, and it does have issues (most notably in terms of battery life), but the ability to capture video underwater isn’t something I can fault it for. The fact I have no worthwhile footage to show for the experience is because I’ve had to concentrate so hard on not floating that looking at my surrounds was all but impossible. It’s a blur of bubbles and sand which is often upside down.
I haven’t learned how not to hate myself when this kind of thing happens. I feel like the experience has been wasted; someone else would enjoy it properly and have a decent video to show for it. All I’ve got is sore legs and the knowledge that another potential skill has been crossed off my list.
Yes, it’s beyond a first world problem, and yes, I should calm down and enjoy the rest of my time in San Francisco. But getting there might take a while.
Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained. Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to San Francisco as a guest of GoPro.