Before he starts teaching, Omar Rodriguez takes another drag from his third cigarette. “The key to diving,” he cackles, “is lung capacity.”
His cackle becomes a throaty cough, erupting from him as he stubs the filter into the ashtray. “Do as I say, not as I do,” he says. “On the test, when it asks what you shouldn’t do before a dive, put drinking alcohol and smoking. I know I smoke on the boat, but I’ve been doing this for 17 years.”
Taganga, Colombia is a dirty jewel of the country’s Caribbean Coast. A small fishing village that exploded when wannabe divers from all over the world wanted to take advantage of its status as a cheap place to learn to dive. Omar, a certified instructor by both PADI and NAUI, works for Under Pressure.
Diving it seems is defined by do nots: don’t hold your breath underwater as your lungs can rupture; don’t remove the regulator; don’t disturb the seabed. Do have “fun” and soak up the “adventure”.
Omar spends most of his morning smoking cigarettes on a small diving boat surrounded by students and day-time adventurers. Everyone fights for space, jostling between other people and the pair of diving tanks in front of you: one tank for each dive, two dives in the morning.
My office is the sea and I am doing something I love
Right now, on a choppy sea, Omar is the only relaxed person, his arms splayed across the edge of the boat. It is as if he is lounging in a club waiting for his next drink to arrive.
“I am from Cali,” he shouts over the churning propeller. “The home of Salsa. I love to dance, but I love to dive even more.”
Cali is notorious for its nightlife, a buzzing metropolis far from the sleepy bay of Taganga.
“I came here as a child and fell in love,” says Omar. “If I stayed in Cali I’d have to work in a shop or office. Here, my office is the sea and I’m doing something I love.
“Santa Marta is over the hill, so if I want a nightclub, I just go there.”
The boat stops by a cliff. The reef below is home to a number of crustaceans and other aquatic species. Omar straps on his oxygen tank, secures his flippers and checks his weight belt is correct.
“Your weight belt should drag you under but only to just above your eyes,” he says, tracing his index finger across his eyebrows. “Too much weight and you’re in trouble!”
He tightens his goggles and falls backward into the water. His Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) is already in the water and he swims over to put it on. His student follows, and after a safety check, they submerge under the water.
Once you’re under, it is a different world. It’s quiet, beautiful, relaxing
Seconds later they’ve surfaced. They try again and surface again. Omar talks to the panicking student. It isn’t as simple as putting on the mask and going underwater. As the water pressure increases, air pockets develop in your ear canal. If you don’t equalise the pressure, the pain is terrible and can permanently damage your hearing. This pain is all consuming and can make you forget how to breathe with the regulator.
“The hardest part for most students is going under in open water for the first time,” says Omar back on the surface. He eventually coaxed the student under and they had a great dive. “The process is no different than when you’re in the pool. It’s just bigger and that can be too much.
“Once you’re under, it is a different world. It’s quiet, beautiful, relaxing.”
Finding the perfect buoyancy underwater is challenging. But when you do, and all you have for company is fish and all you can hear is your breathing, you realise that it is better down where it’s wetter.