My daughter Ava is no girly girl. Sure, there was a period where each of the 433 stuffed animals in her possession was named Cinderella (around age 4). There was the phase where every piece of clothing in her closet was pink or purple (age 8). At age 11, though, she wore temporary tattoos featuring the kanji characters for Warrior Princess. And when she’s mad, she delivers a straight overhand right Mike Tyson could appreciate.
But Ava’s no tomboy either. She will happily rifle her mother’s vanity and steal her most expensive cosmetics. And she never leaves the house without Nigel, a pocket-sized, formerly-white polar bear turned gray with time and affection.
Our normal father-daughter activities consist mostly of Ava dragging me into stores and demanding I buy her things. This summer, however, we decided to take a scuba diving class. Translation: Her mother (a veteran diver) decided the kids were old enough to learn scuba, our 14-year-old Cole decided he was way too cool for that, and I decided to tag along with Ava.
Which is how we ended up crammed into a noisy utility room at the back of a dive shop with Brad, a world-weary instructor in his late 20s, three beefy guys serving in various branches of the military, and one skinny surfer dude.
“Scuba,” Brad shouted above the thrumming of machines generating compressed air to fill the tanks, “is one of the safest sports in the world, ranked 34th between golf and billiards in the frequency of injuries.”
He then listed the various reasons we could end up being medevac’d to the nearest hospital – decompression sickness, pulmonary embolisms, garden variety drowning. Because no matter how injury-prone it might be, billiards does not involve strapping on 40 pounds of gear, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and swimming with sharks.
The key to safety, Brad explained, was the buddy system. Ava and I were buddies. If she got in trouble, I would step in. If I ran out of air, we’d both breathe from her tank.
We started out using our gear in a swimming pool, then a lake, and finally in open water. I don’t know which of us was more terrified to simulate an out-of-air experience in that pool. The lake was so murky we had to virtually touch masks to see each other. We ended up lost and sputtering on the surface more than once. Then again, so did all those macho guys. It was gratifying to watch my 85-pound daughter hold her own with the paratrooper and the surfer.
Ava’s mom joined us for our open water ocean dive. So the three of us, together, explored an artificial reef created by a sunken liberty ship. We saw schools of spadefish, rays, scorpion fish, a lot of spare tires.
Afterward Ava was lit up in a way I hadn’t seen before. “That was cool,” she said. “When can we do it again?”
A few days later we were strolling on the beach and, as usual, she handed me her bag to carry. I looked inside.
“Where’s Nigel?” I asked.
“Jeez, Dad, I don’t bring him everywhere.” And then she punched me.
Now Ava says she wants to be a marine photographer when she grows up. Next month, of course, that might change to veterinarian (or possibly prizefighter). One thing I hope won’t change, though, is that we’ll always remain buddies: diving deep together, helping each other when one of us gets lost, sharing the same air.
Note: This piece originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Family Circle. Everybody is a little older now.
Image: I will probably get sued for using that image, but I found it on DVDverdict (so please, Disney attorneys, sue them first).