I’ve got to say I was the most excited about my dives on day three: the tech try-out dives. Utila Dive Center has two resident experts, Mary and Guillermo, in sidemount systems and rebreathers respectively. Each proved to be a great teacher, and their enthusiasm was infectious (I lost count of how many times Mary said 'good stuff'). The winds were up, so conditions weren’t great, but everyone on the boat was anxious to try something new.
After an onboard briefing, Mary suited us up — each group was broken into three divers per instructor — and we jumped in the water sans tanks. The sidemount BC bladder reminded me in both shape and size of a CamelBak water bottle; the harness reminded me of a rock-climbing harness. Mary maneuvered us into our tanks (two each) at the surface and we dropped down to around 15 feet to practice some skills. We swam through what resembled a square hula-hoop, squeezing through an opening much smaller than one a traditionally mounted tank could manage. Then it got interesting — each of us was outfitted with two additional tanks, just to get the feel for true tech diving. I felt well-balanced with one under each arm, but with four? I felt like Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Mary assured us (and I guess I believe her) that with a little practice diving with that many tanks is a breeze, but I’ll admit I was glad when she unhooked the two extras and left me with one under each arm. I felt positively svelte.
Next up was the rebreather tryout, and this one I was really excited about. That's me in the picture, all suited up before we jumped in. Who hasn’t wondered what it’s like to dive in silence, with no bubbles? Let me be the first to tell you: it’s weird. I kept thinking I wasn’t getting any air (no bubbles), and watching the group struggle with buoyancy (myself included) was comical. Guillermo guided us through it though, and we practiced on a sandy bottom, so no harm was done by errant hands or fins. Once I became accustomed to it, diving with a rebreather really was an amazing experience. One bladder fills with carbon dioxide as you exhale; it’s cleaned and treated by a computer in the back tank; and with your next breath you take in oxygen from the other bladder. Feeling a little too buoyant? Breathe out through your nose and both bladders shrink, causing you to sink. Would I want to dive with either sidemount or rebreathers on a regular basis? The jury’s out, but the experience was one I’d highly recommend to any traditional diver.