by Terri Uttermohlen
Includes photo of Terri Uttermohlen
This article appeared in the Braille Monitor, April 2004 edition, published by the National Federation of the Blind.
From the Monitor Editor: This charming story will make you yearn for Caribbean islands and tropical breezes. It appeared in To Reach for the Stars, the 25th in the Kernel Book series of paperbacks we publish to educate the public about blindness. It begins with President Maurer's introduction:
When Terri Uttermohlen considered the possibility of fulfilling her long-held dream of diving in the sea, her blindness was not what she feared. What she worried about was whether she would find an instructor willing to work with her. Here is the delightful story of her adventure:
Jacques Cousteau, the French oceanographer and inventor of the Aqua-Lung, has always been a hero of mine. When I was a kid, I used to dive vicariously by watching him on television. The fish and other sea life brought to me by his camera fascinated me. I also admired the younger French divers as they fell backwards into the sea -- clad in wetsuits, masks, fins, and tanks. It seemed like magic to me to be able to enter another world so close, and yet so different, from the one inhabited by those of us dependent on air for our survival.
It may not surprise you then to find that I wanted to try diving on a recent trip to a small island in the Caribbean on my belated honeymoon. My husband Jim and I planned the trip for months. Though we had both traveled out of the country several times before, it would be our first trip alone together. Jim and I are blind, a circumstance that led us to some unusual speculation about how we would be received and what techniques we would use to maximize the freedom and pleasure we would have on our trip.
After much Internet research, planning, shopping, and contemplation, we still had many questions as we took off from the Madison, Wisconsin, airport. Would our inadequate French be enough to help us get around? Should we carry our canes in the water the first time we went in? Did we have enough money for all the shopping and fine dining we were hoping to do? Would dive shops freak out at the idea of a blind person wanting to dive in the sea?
We had been on the island two days when I ran into Sebastian, a small man from Paris who ran the activities desk at our hotel. "Is there any way I can help you with water sports?" he asked us after pointing out a bench for us to rest on while waiting for our tour guide.
"I would like to scuba dive," I said boldly, anticipating an argument.
Instead he responded, surprised but willing, "I can help you arrange that."
Reassured this dream might be realized, I told him I would call the dive shop later to set something up.
On Tuesday, I stood nervously in front of the activities desk wearing a sarong, my swimsuit, a hat, and enough sunscreen to grease a car. My transportation to the dive shop arrived, and we were introduced. Mark, my instructor, drove us across the island, over a steep, poorly graded road to the hotel that housed the dive shop. We conversed a little on the way. His English was fairly good, and he seemed only a little nervous about my blindness.
When we arrived at the pool, Mark showed me the fins, mask, regulator, and tank. He was a good instructor and explained step by step what he wanted me to do. He held my hand and said I should squeeze his hand twice if I was having a problem and once if I was okay. He taught me how to inflate my tank vest using a valve to control buoyancy.
The first time into the pool he had me simply place my face in the water and breathe through the regulator. Since I made it around the pool a couple of times successfully doing that, he guided me deeper and deeper until we touched the bottom of the pool.
Finally he asked me to sit on the bottom. My only challenge was, being well blessed by Mother Nature and an abundance of fine Wisconsin cheese in my diet, I had trouble swimming below the surface. Some weights solved that problem, and I soon sat cross-legged on the bottom until Mark signaled me to rise. Lesson over, Mark said we could dive the next afternoon in the sea. I was pleased to have passed the test and even more pleased that he had relaxed considerably with me.
The next afternoon I stood on the warm boards of the marina, trying to squeeze my ample Midwestern flesh into a wetsuit. I succeeded in stuffing myself into my new skin and handed Mark all of my land clothes for safekeeping. I reached for my cane and discovered it had taken a walk with the curious eight-year-old son of the dive shop owner while I was occupied with the wetsuit. It was quickly retrieved. Finally equipped for my adventure, I clambered into the boat.
The tropical sun beat upon me as I rested on the bench at the back of the boat. I was the only American on board. As the dive boat moved into the harbor, its roundly inflated sides pulsing with the impact of the waves, I sat and listened to the French-speaking voices around me. Was I really there? I felt as if I had been transported into the Jacques Cousteau films I used to watch on TV. I sat hoping I would enter the water before the commercial break.
The ride to the dive spot was brief. Mark and I waited on the boat while the other divers and their instructor made their splashes into and under the waves. While I waited my turn, I let the French conversation between Mark and the mother of a particularly young diver pour over me like sun-warmed wine. I could understand only a bit and instead focused my drowsy mind on imagining the scene around me.
Eventually the others returned, and I donned the fins, re-zipped the sausage wrapping, put the mask on, and jumped off the side of the boat into the warm Caribbean. Mark swam to me and helped me put on the tank and the weights.
Because of the wetsuit, the weights had to be very tight on me before they would stay where they were intended. The first attempt had them sliding almost immediately to encircle my thighs. Since I had no aspiration to emulate the swimming style of a mermaid, I suggested we try again. After much giggling on my part, we finally successfully put them around my waist.
Being cautious, Mark repeated the exercise of the pool. First we swam around the boat with my face in the water, making sure I was comfortable breathing through the regulator. I reassured Mark several times by squeezing his hand once in response to his questioning squeeze that I was okay. I was far better than okay, but we hadn't worked out a signal for "wow!" Eventually we began to descend in the water.
My first impression of the dive was Mark's reassuring hand in mine, the bubble of my breath rising from around my face, and the sun-warmed water surrounding me. We slowly descended to the bottom. As we swam, I ran my hands along the surface of the coarse sand of shell fragments. I hoped Mark would warn me if I were about to grab one of the Caribbean's less friendly residents.
As we swam, Mark would tap my right arm when he wanted to guide my hand to show me things. I touched rocks bearded with algae, a tiny closed clam, and a conch shell that I believe still encased the conch. I saw sea plants that looked like firmly planted garden weeds and beautiful slime-oozing strands of tall sponges shaped like kielbasa. Mark placed my hands on coral, stubby sponges, and sea fans. One type of sea fan made of fuzzy finger-wide tendrils seemed to pull itself away from my touch. Another type had wide, rigid leaves that didn't move at all.
I was amazed when I touched coral. This variety was a hard globe with a pattern of lines and swirls incised into the surface. After touching the coral, my arm began to burn. I pointed to it, but of course Mark was unable to explain at the time that it was fire coral. Instead, he squeezed my hand to ask, "Are you all right?" Since the burning was minor, I squeezed back reassurance, and we swam on.
Finally I noticed my tank was emptying of air. My throat was dry from the regulator, and I knew my time under the sea was almost over. Mark gave the signal, and we rose. On the surface of the water Mark told me he had been surprised a moment before by a three-foot-long Great Barracuda. The fish barely noticed us and swam peaceably around ten meters from us. Mark had forgotten that I wouldn't see it and was momentarily afraid I would panic. Had I sensed fear from him, I might have been afraid, but my trust by then was absolute.
We swam back the short distance to the boat. Mark removed my tank and handed it and my weights to the other instructor. I handed up my goggles and asked if I should remove the fins. Mark responded, "As you like."
Next came the least graceful moment of the excursion. As I said earlier, I was stuffed into the wetsuit. The boat was round, rubber, wet, and about four feet above the water. There was no ladder or rope to hold onto. In my younger days it would have been relatively easy to pull myself up onto the boat. These are not my younger days, however, and years of heavy computer use have left my hands and arms weak.
I stretched my arms up to grasp the upper side of the boat. Helpful hands pulled on me like a Thanksgiving wishbone. Mark pushed from below. I was laughing and out of breath, so I could not explain that the men pulling on my arms were making it impossible for me to help myself get into the boat. After much pulling, pushing, squealing, and laughter on the part of the slim Europeans who surrounded me, I was finally able to say, "Let me try." Thus I finally flopped aboard, relieved and a little embarrassed.
As we made the short, bouncy trip back to the marina, Mark handed me a small, beautiful snail shell. Of all the shells I had examined when diving, this was the most perfectly formed. He presented it to me as a keepsake. I inquired to make sure no one was occupying the shell. I didn't like the idea of evicting a small creature from the water. Nor did I relish the possibility of that same creature emerging into my hand to register its complaint at the rude treatment.
I could not express my thanks to Mark for understanding and respecting my desire to experience the sea. He said he had really enjoyed the experience. After we arrived at the dock, Mark helped me peel off the wetsuit. (Without his aid I would have needed a shoehorn and about a quart of WD-40.) I threw my clothes on over my swim gear, and we drove back to my hotel. When I returned, I found Jim contentedly sunning himself on the beach.
The rest of our honeymoon trip was wonderful--romantic and sun-filled. We arrived home after an endless day of cancelled flights and plane malfunctions. As soon as we arrived, we unpacked to ensure everything had traveled safely. In the bottom of one of the suitcases I found the perfectly formed, delicate, gray and white shell. I marveled at the beauty of the shell and the fact that I had finally lived that long-held dream of being under the sea.
Thank you, Jacques. Now you are even more my hero.