Maximizing Your Surface Interval

By Michelle Smith

My legs were cramping. I could feel them begin to buckle and I still couldn’t see the summit. The guide assured us it was just around the corner, but when I got to the top, I just saw a rickety old tourist stand with beers and fruit for sale. The sweat was running down my forehead, my shirt was drenched from the humidity and my body heat was fogging up my sunglasses. Then, out of the corner of my eye, as the mist began to clear, I saw it.

The view had literally taken my breath away (or possibly the climb nearly killed me), but either way it was life changing. I had completed what only 30% of tourists set out to do and it was amazing. As I sat looking at the view of Saint Lucia below from the Gros Piton, I knew that my land adventures were just as important as my underwater adventures. 

Looking down from the summit of the Pitons to the Piton dive site I dove the day before was spiritual. I had spent time climbing all 2,619 feet up the treacherous mountain, spending time with the local guides and learning about the island and the culture. The experience was intoxicating.

piton summit - saint lucia

Figure 1 View from Gros Piton Summit, Saint Lucia

Exploring Land and Sea 

I was rewarded the next morning with legs like jelly and a body so sore, it was barely able to move. However, nothing would stop me from my morning dives, and I knew the water would help to relax my aching muscles. Waddling to the dive boat, shadowed by the mountain I had conquered the day before, I knew that I would no longer just plan my trips around dives, but I would also maximize my surface intervals. 

I needed to explore the land as well as the sea. This lesson would change my dive trips forever and I began creating my criteria for how I would spend my time off gassing. Each dive trip would include the opportunity to give back to the community, absorb the culture around me, give myself a challenge, and take a moment for gratitude.

Giving back

At the beginning of that week, when I had signed up for the invasive lionfish tracker certification, I was excited to learn a skill that would help preserve the reefs that I had come to love. However, I didn’t realize how satisfying it would be to be able to use my vacation time to help give back to this island that was so welcoming. 

The added bonus of being able to do so while diving was enough for me, but having the unique opportunity to prepare and package the fish for the locals to take home was a cherry on top. It was a rewarding experience. Our two-hour surface interval was spent cutting off spines and munching on lionfish ceviche surrounded by the sounds of crashing waves. 

As a visitor and an ambassador for the diving community, this experience motivated me to use my privilege for volunteer work. Not only does it give me a sense of purpose, but it grants experiences that I would otherwise miss. It was simple. I didn’t change a community, but I made a small impact for a few people. Maybe my next trip would only include cleaning up the beach, or maybe I could volunteer for a local organization. Big or small, it would be impactful to me.

Seeing the local culture 

Staying at an all-inclusive resort was convenient. It included excursions I wanted to try, and of course, diving. But I realized that it isolated you from the culture of the island. One of the front desk workers I had gained a rapport with, mentioned she was attending the annual Carnival and asked if I had plans to go. Ignorantly, I hadn’t researched events on the island. My vacations were usually dive-centric, dive all morning, then early to bed to be well rested for the next day. But I just couldn’t pass on her offer to join in the festivities. 

It was a celebration of the Saint Lucian way of life. I was lost in the sights, sounds and smells. Found myself dancing to the reggae and calypso beats, admiring the beautiful clothes everyone wore, and stuffing my face with tasty morsels. The culture and people left an island-shaped dent in my heart. Had I not been asked if I was going, I would’ve missed this opportunity to spend my surface interval immersing myself in the community around me. I no longer wait for an invitation, but seek out the possibility to engage.

Hiking the Pitons 

I didn’t leave all my plans to diving. I had made one goal, to hike the Pitons. When I first researched them, I knew I couldn’t visit the island without visiting the impressive peaks. But I couldn’t find many personal experiences about the actual trek. There were pictures from the bottom, pictures of the summit but very few of the trail. It wasn’t until I was covered in mud from the knees down and slipping on the rain-ridden trail that I realized why there were so few pictures. 

The trail was so intense, you didn’t have time to pull your camera out. It was a literal staircase climb. Slipping on nearly every rock and holding on to the railing for dear life, I had to constantly remind myself to stop and take a picture. Of course, my guide was casually walking while snacking on a bag of fruit gummies in her perfectly clean khakis, becoming an instant heroine in my eyes. 

I had joked to my partner, weeks before, that we would make it to the top even if it killed me. And it nearly did. But the sense of accomplishment I felt while taking in the view was worth every moment of near defeat I felt along the way. Now when I come across a challenging task, I think to myself, “if I can conquer the Gros Piton, I can conquer this”. I will never regret using my surface interval to challenge myself physically and mentally.

Gros Piton - saint lucia

Figure 2 The trail to the summit, Gros Piton, Saint Lucia

Reflecting on my travels 

I am privileged. I have a beautiful home in a beautiful country and live a beautiful life that allows for me to travel. Diving is a priority for me and is the focus of the majority of my vacations. Traveling around the island to different dive sites allows access to different styles of life. I get to encounter every level of economics, social statuses, governments, climates, even elevations and each is eye opening and life altering. It’s helped me to gain an appreciation for all that I have and all that diving has exposed me to. 

Not many other hobbies bring so many different people together. Just on my dive boat alone, there were people from eight different countries. It’s a hobby that creates an atmosphere where you instantly bond with a stranger. There are no language barriers under water. Relaxing on my final drift dive of the trip, I couldn’t help but reflect on the places I visited and the people I have met and how grateful I was to experience it all. 

As I’m sitting here, planning my upcoming Bahamian adventure, I’m making it a priority to use my surface intervals to give back to the community, immerse myself in the culture, challenge myself and gain an appreciation for the beauty and life around me.

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