How to Breathe Underwater
With Captain Noel in front of Orbit Marine’s vibrant undersea mural, painted by Dan Kowalsi.
Ican barely breathe. I feel like I’m drowning.” This is not what I want to hear from a fellow scuba classmate as I’m at the edge of the pool, waiting for my turn to dive in. I’m not a strong swimmer, so I’m wondering why I’ve agreed to gear up with instructor Bill Hurley and shove myself into a pool. But I do.
The day starts off at Orbit Marine Dive Shop, located in Bridgeport, a stone’s throw from Fairfield. Founded by Captain Noel Voroba in 1973, it’s Fairfield County’s biggest and longest-running dive shop. Admittedly, the squat building does seem to be in a random area, hidden among apartment buildings and an Indian grocery store. The giveaway is the outside mural of sea life.
“I started diving here in Fairfield when I was thirteen, fourteen years old,” Captain Noel says. At sixty-six, he’s as energetic as someone half his age. He tells stories breezily while leaning over a glass case that is filled with dive loot. When Noel shows off a brass compass base from the late 1800s or an intact coffee cup from a sunken German U-boat, his excitement is youthful and contagious.
The shop, run by Noel’s father, started off selling bait. Noel took over the business after leaving the armed forces, where he served as a dental tech during Vietnam. Though vision problems kept him from his dream of joining the Marines, it didn’t stop him from diving with this elite crew, off-duty. After leaving the army and graduating from UConn, he took over the business. He transformed it into a diving hub and doubled its size.
Noel offers a host of services related to scuba and snorkeling. He organizes trips to some of the most stunning dive spots, like Dubai and Bali. But the shop’s most consistent draw are the scuba classes.
Noel says it’s a good idea to get scuba certified before a vacation, so “you’re not wasting your precious vacation time taking lessons.” Certification at Orbit Marine is a commitment. It involves time in the classroom, hours in the pool, and four training dives to hone your newly learned skills. Noel takes students out on the Long Island Sound for these two half-day dives. Yes—the Sound. Noel admits that reduced visibility can be a challenge. But it’s one with a big payoff. If you can handle the cool water and less-than-crystal-clear visibility of the Sound, diving in pristine Caribbean waters will be a revelation.
The Deep End
At the pool at Bridgeport University, I submerge—and panic. I know it’s safe to breathe, but my lungs don’t buy it. I force them to take that first deep breath from the regulator. Then, it’s easy. I expected to struggle to inhale, but it’s not so. The air has a slight metallic taste. Underwater, everything moves in slow motion. In the sound-muted environment, the Darth Vader–hiss from the regulator is surprisingly soothing. My ears need to pop. I’ve heard that we know more about space than we do about the deepest part of the oceans; I find myself enjoying this hint of what it feels like to want to explore.
Bill goes over skill drills. He mimes actions, like we’re playing a game of Charades. Water in your mask? Press your palm into the center of the mask and blow air out of your nose. Drop your regulator? Don’t panic, just lean to the right and you’ll find it floating next to you. I settle into a rhythm and dolphin-kick deeper. My hands follow the slope of the pool floor. Even with all the gear on, underwater, I feel lighter than air and take a deep breath.
More at orbitmarine.com.