The first time I tried scuba diving off the beaches of Koh Tao, Thailand, I hated it. Bubbles swarmed my mask as I breathed in and out, going hand by hand down the slimy mooring line which stuck into a rock far below. My instructor Emma, from Sairee Cottage Diving, which I have to say she and it is truly awesome, beckoned me to follow, her eyes big and alive, a murky blue void beneath her, like nothingness. I breathed in, then out, accidentally through my mouth AND nose, and again, my mask filled with water. I couldn’t easily pop up and breathe like I could in the shallow waters of the swimming pool, where we had trained for hours the day before . There were feet of water above me, pressing down on me, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt claustrophobic, suffocated, and I grabbed Emma’s arms with my eyes wide and made the signal to go “up.” I was aborting this dive. I wanted to get back on the boat and never do this again. I closed my eyes and gripped her tightly as she led me back up the mooring line, where I tore off my mask and regulator to take in huge sips of real, muggy air.
“You’re breathing out of your nose,” she told me. “That’s why your mask is coming off. You were breathing fine in the pool yesterday. Remember, don’t breathe out of your nose. It’s not good for our bodies to go up and down over and over. So, let’s try again. You ready?”
Going down again was the last thing I wanted to do, but I agreed anyway. I knew I did great in the pool. I was able to take out my regulator and put it back in. I knew how to empty a flooded mask deep under water. I knew how to breath out of my alternate regulator, or a buddy’s regulator, in case of a problem. I knew how to make all different types of ascents. You can do this, I told myself, don’t be a wuss.
Once again we let out air in our BCD (buoyancy control device) vests and slid down the mooring line. I grabbed the line with one hand and plugged my nose with the other, making sure I wasn’t breathing out. My mask didn’t take on so much water, and I could see. This was a start. We took the line down to 12 meters, or about 36 feet. I still disliked the experience, and felt trapped, knowing if there was a problem, there’s no easy way out. My mind flirted with What Could Go Wrong scenarios, and I struggled to quell my anxiety. Adrenaline shot through my body and my hands trembled. My breathing felt ragged. I closed my eyes several times, reminding myself to “Breathe in, breathe out. You’re safe. You have air. You can survive down here. It’s okay. Look at the fish. Breathe in, breathe out.” I pretended I was meditating, or doing yoga, trying to put myself in the present and look at the beautiful coral and fish around me. I plugged my nose with one hand the entire dive, even during the exercises of partially flooding our masks while kneeling on the sandy bottom far below. I don’t remember much of this first dive, just my efforts to calm myself, the silence underwater, the fact that I could breath sweet, dry air in a watery world that humans should not have access to. I couldn’t wait to go back up.
When my feet hit the deck of the boat I was so relieved. But then, Emma said we had another dive that day. I didn’t know if I could handle it. I almost wanted to quit. But instead, the second time I jumped in, I hovered at the surface, practicing breathing out only through my mouth. I could do it!! I went down the mooring line with more confidence this time, my mask sticking firmly to my face. When we began to swim and practice our buoyancy at the bottom, I felt a sense of euphoria. I was doing it! I was swimming alongside beautiful tropical fish, schools of them darting in and out of the coral. Underwater plants swayed in the currents. It was a beautiful underwater world. No longer did I feel a sense of claustrophobia and suffocation. We practiced sharing regulators, doing controlled emergency ascents, losing our regulators, completely flooding our masks. I felt proud of myself, that I’d conquered something so unnatural and terrifying.
I did two more dives the following day, and each time, I felt more and more comfortable and confident underwater. Our final dive was just a “fun dive”, and I felt euphoric. I was weightless, the same feeling an astronaut would feel high above the earth. I was so mesmerized by the colorful tropical fish and coral that my instructor had to wave her light to get my attention several times. There were coral that looked like coils of brains. Another coral that looked like a hollow tree stump. Another that looked like a pink boulder. More that looked like spindly branches reaching from rock to sky. Others that looked like trees, swaying with the currents. I saw spiky sea urchins. A school of yellow fish moving in formation above me. Nervous tiny fish darting and flirting with the plants. It was incredible, and I felt so fortunate to be experiencing such teeming, exotic life. Scuba is opening up a whole new world for me, where I can be even further connected to our natural world.
I’ve come to realize that scuba diving is all mind over matter. Believing the equipment will work. Trusting in myself. Staying in the present. Breathing slowly and deeply. Moving carefully and slowly. Observing life around me. Knowing my body can handle two, three, four times the pressure of the atmosphere above water. I am strong. I am knowledgeable. I can do this. I am a certified open water scuba diver, and a world of ocean is waiting.