NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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The Dreaded Swim Test

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This is the first entry in my blog about the cruise on the NOAA ship Oscar Elton Sette. Cruise number SE-09-08, Leg II. In a nutshell, we’re heading up the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands chain to remove marine debris (mainly derelict fishing gear) from shorelines and shallow-water habitats. We’re just getting underway as I type this, but I’m going to back up a bit, to one step that led up to today. I’m going on this cruise as a “scientist,” but not actually as a diver who cuts the nets off coral heads and hauls them to the small boats. However, I was told I’d be able to go out on the small boats and, pending successful passage of a swim test, get in the water to take photos and snorkel around. Now, you might think that snorkeling doesn’t require a rigorous swim test like you’d have to pass to take, say, Divemaster training or get in the Marines. Guess you’d be wrong.

I looked up the NOAA Diving Program swim test online (you can too) and felt my stomach clench at the second requirement: “25 yards (22 meters) underwater swim without surfacing – Individual is to swim underwater, without fins, a distance of seventy-five (75) feet without surfacing.” Breath control has never been my strong point. I had practiced while at the hotel pool in Miami three weeks earlier. Tried it six times and made it (barely) once. So it was theoretically possible that I could do it. Since then I’d asked all my swimming and diving friends for tips; most popular was to glide a lot. Others included adding a dolphin kick to the frog kick, breathing out a tiny bit as you go along, hyperventilating (broadly disparaged online, for obvious liability reasons), and understanding that most of it is mental, not physical. I’d spent most of the morning of the test googling tips on how to hold your breath longer (mostly they recommend practicing a lot, which wasn’t very helpful at that point).

Ray Boland is the NOAA dive officer in Hawaii, and given both our travel schedules, yesterday was the first day we could find to schedule the swim test. Ray picked me up at my office and we carpooled out to Schofield Barracks’ swimming pool. The thunderstorm that threatened to cancel our permission to use the pool never materialized and the downpour that soaked us before I even got in the pool let up. Things were looking up. Also, Ray is a very relaxed and relaxing person, so I felt calmer about the whole test. First up, by my choice, was the underwater swim. After all the hype, I did it on the first try. About three-quarters of the way into it, I wasn’t sure I could make it but just decided to keep going so as to avoid having to try again or, worse, facing the pitying looks if I didn’t manage to pass on subsequent attempts.

After the underwater swim, next up was a 500-meter swim with no stops, to be completed under 15 minutes. This one I figured I could do since I’d once swum a mile in 39 minutes, the crowning glory of my advanced swimming class. I haven’t swum laps in years, but came in at 13:30. Not quite triathlon pace, but I’d have been thrilled with a 14:59.

Not on the NOAA dive program swim test, but a little bonus for this cruise was showing that I can snorkel. A couple laps with mask, fins, and snorkel, followed by a few surface dives to the bottom of the pool. By now I was pretty tired. One more breath control test was holding onto the edge of the pool and submerging myself as long as I could. The trick was I had to count down with my fingers the last 10 seconds before I needed to surface. There wasn’t apparently a passing score (I barely made it 30 seconds); this exercise was to teach me what it felt like to have a 10-count of breath left. Ray suggested that when I felt like that I should start back to the surface so that if anything went wrong (say, a derelict net caught on my fin), I’d have enough breath to deal with it and surface before I had to get a breath.

The final part of the NOAA swim test is treading water for 30 minutes. That part wasn’t half bad. I’m reasonably buoyant. Ray and I talked about marine debris to pass the time; chatting does make it a bit tougher since having your lungs full keeps you more buoyant and talking actually requires emptying your lungs. I finally realized how tough the test was (or how out of shape I am) when I swam to the edge of the pool under the lane lines. Ray may have been reassured that I’m comfortable in the water, but I learned that I’m not going to mess around with currents. Just paddling around in fairly sheltered water should be plenty of challenge for me.

So, we’re still fueling up in Pearl Harbor. We’ll depart in another hour and spend several days heading northwest up the chain. During that time I’ll give a little more background on the ship, our mission, and some of the other folks on board.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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