Tera firma

Posted on June 20, 2018


She emerged from the water, head first. Her hair bleached blonde from the sun. Still wearing her mask and snorkel she reached her hands out of the water and handed me her black fins, beaming.

Gripping the handles of the stepladder she climbed slowly, setting foot onto the boat stumbling forward like a toddler uneasy on their feet. Her heavy Aluminium tank strapped to her back. Gripping the tank valve from behind I steadied her towards a seat.

“So……? Are you certified now?”I asked titling my neck down to her face to look into her pretty clear, blue eyes. She broke into the broadest smile I’ve seen in weeks. “Yes,” she said triumphantly . We high-fived and I let out a whoop.

Tara’s (pronounced Tera) journey to get her Advanced Open Water PADI certification has not been an easy one. The 16 year-old from Cincinnati, Ohio, got badly sunburned on her face during the first week of the Early Alpha programme and was banned from the water while she recovered- hence my nickname for her, Tera Firma. The sun here is so strong, even for an ethnic woman like me I cover myself in factor 50 daily and wear long sleeves as much as possible.

Today she confessed with a cheeky grin,“I wanted to go back home and show my friends my tan because I’ve been in the Caribbean, so I didn’t actually use sunscreen.

“I put on my daily SPF 15 moisturiser. We’d gone onto another boat for a lesson on anchoring, when the anchor broke. I was laying out and I fell asleep in the sun. When I woke up I knew something was wrong.

“It felt like I needed to seek shelter. You know when your phone overheats and needs to cool down before you can use it again? That’s how I felt, like I’d overheated.”

I remember that day well. Tara’s face went red first and then blistered.

“The day I got burnt, we came back to the boat and Danny said to me,” You have bubbles”. He thought it was because of the diving and they were nitrogen bubbles. I told him it was fine and that it was just a sunburn.

“When we went to bed I kept waking up in the middle of the night. My face felt swollen, I could hardly open my eyes. I could tell it was nasty. I was so embarrassed the next day when I saw my face. First impressions count and I thought this is what everyone will be looking at, my marshmallow face.”

I was the staff member who was asked to do the Med Run with her to the clinic in Tortola. Her condition was diagnosed as first degree burns, she was given anti inflammatory pills and two creams, one a low grade steroid to help heal the skin. She was banned from diving and all water activity and anything that meant she’d be exposed to the sun. We nagged her to wear a hat and cover up all the time.

Tara told me, “When I heard it was a first degree burn I thought this isn’t a normal sunburn. This is serious. It didn’t hit me though until I spoke to my mom. I sent her some photos and she said, “Tara your face looks terrible.” She was so concerned. And I thought everyone probably thinks this as well and that’s when I started crying.”

She was told at least three to five days before she could dive again. She had only just started her Advanced certification and now all the other kids were finishing the skills and she was worried she’d leave the programme without completing it.

“On the fourth day I hurt my toe so badly. I was on Sandy Cay and the rocks are the same colour as the sand and I smacked my toe hard. I didn’t want to report it because I knew I wouldn’t be able to dive.”

Her toe is thankfully not broken but it did cause us some concern. The tip went purple. But she was able to waggle it and after a couple of days it was more like a throb.

Her accomplishment is all the more poignant because diving was something her father really supported. James Lang died of lung cancer last September. He was diagnosed in July of 2017 and his decline was fast. This Father’s Day was not an easy one.

“My dad totally wanted me to do diving. He supported me a lot and wanted to me to try everything and it makes me want to dive even more. If he was around he’d tell me he was really proud.

“Last year Dad made sure I had lots of vacations to keep my mind off the cancer. I didn’t know how serious it was right up until the last minute. He never told me. He wanted me to be happy and to travel and dive. He was so excited for me to do it.

“He loved travel. If he wasn’t a dad he would probably have been on a ship somewhere.”

Even after Tara’s face healed there was some uncertainty whether there’d be time in the schedule for her to complete her certification. She questioned me nightly as I am one of the dive instructors. But the schedule is out of my hands. It was awkward. And at times she looked crestfallen.

She said, “I feel relief today because I was so mad when I thought I’d leave without getting certified, it was heartbreaking to hear that.”

This is Tara’s second time on the Early Alpha programme. She came to the programme last summer and loved it.

She added, “I liked the Sail Caribbean experience because of the people. Last year I got to meet people from all over the world. It was cool because I made a lot of friends and we’re still in touch. Poor planning meant we didn’t come all the together for the Early Alpha.

“I remember on my very first dive I was crying underwater because I was freaked out. But now I’m fine. When I was out of the water I missed diving so much. On the fifth day I was so ready to finish my course. I feel so accomplished now I’m an Advanced Open Water Diver.

“I’ve had a great time this year and I promise I will wear a higher factor next year.”