Our trip to Tonga has been booked for September. We’ll be catching five flights to get to one island, but it will definitely be worth it. I’d love to be able to see some pristine coral reefs in some place not many people go to. Corals are fragile and even touching them with your hands can kill them. Or standing on the reef. Most of the corals I have seen have been damaged, whether by humans or by crown of thorn starfish or by bleaching from warming temperatures. Tonga will give me a chance to see some pretty incredible reefs, so I figured, now is a good time to get certified to dive.
I thought it would be easy. My approach was pretty cavalier–read the books, do the course, get certified, go diving. It will be just like snorkeling, except with air, and underwater, and everything will be fine. After all, I can repeatedly stand being thrown around, choked every which way, crushed, punched, kicked (I do krav and jiujitsu), so scuba will be easy.
During the confined water session, we all gear up, and step into the warm saline pool. This feels right, I thought to myself. I can now be a fish. Just like I have been wanting to do for years. This is easy, lots of people get certified. I have to tell you, the moment I dunked my head underwater, my airways constricted, and all I could think about was, I cannot breathe! This is not right; this is not natural. I stood up, not once, not twice, but several times. It took me quite a few tries before I can coax myself back underwater, telling myself, that yes, I can, in fact, breathe. We do the skills, partial mask flood, full mask flood, underwater breathing no mask for one minute, replace the mask, and clear. By the end of the night, I’m feeling pretty good, floating around the bottom of the pool. I’m confident will I do fine in Monterey during the open water session. I got this. No big deal.
If anything is going to remind you about your childhood traumas, it is being faced again by those traumas. I don’t know what I was thinking or how I could have forgotten that I have nearly drowned three times in my life. The first time, I was a little girl playing with a stick, a fishing line and a rock tied to the end. My father was an avid fisherman, having been raised in a fishing village, so we would wake up before the crack of dawn and head out on several hour long road trips to the middle of nowhere just so he could set up the line and stare at the sky. One day, he decided I should learn how to swim, so he did what was done to him: throw the child in the water, she’ll figure it out. Have you been to Pacific Ocean? It is frigid–cold, cold, cold!–so on top of gasping for air, I was freezing. That did not make a happy experience for me at all. The second time, I was rollerskating around the pool, fell in, and swallowed a lot of water. Someone was able to pull me out by my long hair floating on the surface. The third time it happened was probably the only time I was ever under actual threat of drowning. We went white water rafting. We hit a rock, I yelled high side, and a few of us went into the water. Down, down, down the rapids I went. A girl got caught in what was called the Devil’s Bowl. I saw her head bob up and back down she would go. Over and over. Meanwhile, I could feel my hands scraping along the bottom of the river, and I knew I was underwater. I had come to terms with the fact that this was where I was going to die. Well, I didn’t die. I don’t know how long I drifted, who pulled me out, but I just remember being on a raft, shaking, and drinking a ton of water. I was so thirsty.
Back to Monterey. We were supposed to be an even group. One person didn’t show up. I didn’t know how it was going to work. We are suppose to buddy up. I’m not very good with strangers, and I can be awfully uncomfortable and shy to the point where I may come off a little stuck up. It’s not that I am, it’s just that I’m used to be being alone and am socially awkward–that’s all. We are given these 7mm wetsuits with a jacket. Boots, hoods, gloves. Crystal, the woman helping us out, gives me this suit that looks like it would fit a 10 year girl, albeit a very tall 10 year old girl. Looking at her through one open eye and an arched brow, I say, “you have got to be kidding me.” She assures me, no, that in fact, you want to get into the tightest fitting possible wetsuit to stay warm. It takes me thirty minutes to pull this thick, neoprene skin over me. I broke a sweat. I strained my forearms. I can grip a gi and toss people around, but pulling this over me? Oh. My. God. It was awful.
While I was struggling to get into my second skin, I find out, everyone has paired up, leaving me the odd one out. No big deal, I thought. I can totally do this. I am independent, strong, smart, and capable. After assembling our gear, I put my hood on. John, the Dive Instructor, helps me. Thinking back on it, people did try to help me, but I was just too oblivious to recognize this. I do everything myself, including slinking into 90-100 pounds of gear by myself, securing it by myself, doing the BWARF safety check by myself. We get into the water. Everyone else is going down in pairs, and I’m going alone. I get down to the bottom no problem. Then I look around me, and the water is so stirred up by sand, I can only focus on how constricting it is. I tell myself, I can breathe, that’s the important thing. First dive is over, everything is okay.
I had a problem with my mask. The straps kept loosening and water kept leaking in. I’m nervous, on edge, and I think, what a shitty thing to have happened. Add to this, my growing dread of the mask removal and replacement drill. I was fine doing this in a pool. I could see in the pool. But this water? This murky water? I tighten the strap. Meanwhile, the sun is out, and it’s in the 70s. In Monterey. I’m sweating in my wetsuit, really need to use the bathroom, and I cam barely pull it off and on, but I manage (roll it down, roll it back up). I think back to the documentaries where I see the Galapagos penguins standing in the sun, eyes closed, obviously uncomfortable, and then they torpedo into the water and are at ease. I am those penguins. I am a Galapagos penguin and I desperately need cold water. After the break and getting our tanks refilled with air, we reassemble our units, and head back to the water. My hood is loose, my mask is too tight, everyone else is already in the water, masks on, fins on. I am alone on the beach, fighting with my strap, fighting with my hood, trying to tuck my hair under my head while the sun relentless beats down on me. Other divers form other groups are in the water and they are effortlessly moving around, and it seems like everyone is looking at me, waiting for me. FInally I managed to get in. We do our tired diver towing, and I ask the person closest to me to do my skill. Once we get to the buoy, we descend. I am trying very hard to do it slowly, and as I go down, to equalize as much as possible. Well, turns out my mask just doesn’t fit right at all. It’s slipping. I don’t want to remove it. Being able to see is the only thing preventing me from not completely panicking underwater. I get to the bottom, find the line, hold on desperately to the rope, but I keep floating, I cannot control my buoyancy, the water is moving, I feel that my air is too restricted, too little. Rule number one: never stop breathing. I breathe and breathe, controlled breaths, counting to two, and eventually I am able to calm myself down. By this point, I am rethinking the whole thing. What is wrong with just snorkeling, I think. It’s fun, you breathe surface air, you can free dive, it’s practically the same right? Maybe diving is just not for me.
We surface and head back after performing our skills. I tell John my reservations. I tell him, I don’t think diving is for me. We get onto the beach. My eyes are flooded with tears as the possibility that I might just have to give up. I tell John I don’t want to do the mask removal. The tears are coming and I’m getting even more frustrated that I am so frustrated. He reminds me that I’ve already completed all the skills in the pool and any hesitation is psychological–I am making it much worse in my head. Yes, I realize this, I know that it is my mind playing tricks on me, and my mind is telling me, no, don’t do this, turn around, and go home. I decide to stick it out just a little longer, develop a plan of attack for the mask. It’s just water. It’s just a a mask. As long as I can breathe, I am ok. We get into the water again, after the break. We descend. I can’t see anything in front of me. My heart is pounding in my chest. The sound of the bubbles from my regulator and the beating of my heart are all I can hear. John gets to me, does the signal for the mask removal. I pinch my nose, thinking through the task, doing it slow. I get the mask back on, my heart is beating faster, the water seems heavier, the particles in the water are blooming, everything is getting murkier. I am frightened. Terrified. I am telling myself to stay calm, do not panic, clear the mask, breathe, breathe, breathe. The mask is not on right. It floods again. I clear it. I am panicking. My breathing is short and quick, staccato beats. John tries to fix my mask as it’s twisted and the seal is bent all over my face. It floods. I can’t see. I clear it, hard, fast, then I try to breathe quickly, clearing it again. I don’t know what happened. Maybe I cleared too hard, causing the mask to come off my face. I inhale water. I cling onto John, looking him in the eye, trying to work though my panic. I must have tried breathing through my nose. For a few seconds, I was able to talk myself down, to remain calm, but then I started more swallowing water. Air. So as long as I can breathe, I am ok. Except I can’t breathe. I’m swallowing water. More and more water. I make a kick, thinking, fuck this, I need air. John pulls me back down and I know that he is telling me to go slow. Do not make a panic ascent. I go as slow as I can, which probably was still not slow enough. I go past my bubbles.
At the surface, I cough up water. I cough up so much water. I leave my mask on, though. John comes up, takes my mask off of me, and puts into the float. He tells me to stay on the surface. I nod my head. I say, “There is no way I am going back down there.” He tells me, ok. He says, “You did well, you did the skill, you don’t have to do it again.” It takes another ten to fifteen minutes for everyone else to surface. We head back to shore. He tells me that I am very close to certification, and that if I want, we can stay and practice the skill in the shallows. I shake my head no. It’s 5pm, and I just want to go back to my motel room, and veg in front of a tv. Please, I never want to be in the water again.
I get back to the room and replay things in my head. What went wrong. Why was I so anxious. I come up with a number of things. I spend the evening watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Steve points out that perhaps it’s not the best thing to watch when my nerves are so frazzled. I tell him that I hate the water. He pulls up photos of our trips. French Polynesia. Bali. THe BIg Island. Hawaii. Belize. I’m in the water, I’m smiling, I’m free diving, I’m snorkeling, I’m happy. Big, bright beaming smiles. ”You love the water,” he says. I do love the water. Maybe it gets easier. Maybe it will be better in the South Pacific, where the visibility is easily 40 meters/ 131 feet.
For our last and final dive, I was a wreck. I stayed calm, though, and worked through it. I turned to a pair, and say, you know, I’m terrible with a compass, could I buddy up with you. It’s quickly determined one would be the leader. We get back into the water, and descend on our own, and I feel safe with the group. We are all keeping our eyes on each other. I don’t feel so alone. We do the navigation, get back to the rope. Then a quick little tour. I’m having buoyancy problems. I can’t remain neutrally buoyant. I’m falling on the starfish, kicking the anemones, stirring up the sand and I might have whacked another diver with my fin. Seeing as how I’m such a disaster near the bottom, I decide to inflate my BCD just a little to see if I could hover on top of the other divers. I start to float. This is bad, I’m thinking. I’m going too fast. I dump the air. Still going up. I can’t stop it. I pop up to the surface and hang out for a few minutes until the other divers come up, too. When we are all at the surface, we realize we are missing a person. John is starting to fret, we’re all freaked out. The diver pop us a great distance from us, and eventually we’re all together. John repeats again, “If you do not see your buddy, for the purpose of this dive, search only for a few seconds, then surface. Do not proceed.” We get together, and I tell our leader about my buoyancy issue and she gives me some advice. John asks if we ok to make an underwater swim to shore. He checks all of our air. We nod our heads.
We descend again, and taking the advice I’ve just been given, I find myself neutrally buoyant. I’m comfortable, I’m relaxed. I see fish. I see kelp. I see other divers. I see. I breathe. I relax. I make little movements with my fin, use my compass, and before I realize it, we’re at the shore. As we surface, I am smiling. We take off our fins and masks and walk back to take apart our gear. We’re all getting certified.
This has been a really long post, but it’s reminder to me that even in the grips of anxiety and panic, not to give up. To try and be work though the problems. Really, was it that bad? Most of it was just my mind playing tricks on me. The worst thing that happened to me was that I swallowed some water. A lot worse could have happened. A couple of things I will remember form my certification process I will not ever forget:
1. Never stop breathing. As long as you can breathe, you’re okay. If you can’t see, if you don’t have your mask, if you don’t know where you are, DO NOT PANIC. Breathe. Then decide the best course of action.
2. Never underestimate the importance of a buddy system. It was completely idiotic and stupid of me to think I’ll be okay to do this without a buddy. Considering my anxiety level when I began, my fear of drowning, not being able to see, getting into the heavy gear myself, I should have been more on top of placed into a buddy group. People tried to offer, but they were likely as shy as I was or maybe they thought I really wanted to be by myself. People are not mind readers. Once I got myself buddied up, I could relax a little. They got my back and I got theirs. Everything is fine.
I’m happy I didn’t give up. I’m still nervous about diving, but this is a much healthier approach than my previous cavalier attitude. Buoyancy control is hard and I don’t want to crash into coral. I don’t want to collide into aquatic life. I will have to be more aggressive with getting a competent buddy. Tonga is coming up soon, and I’m looking forward to being that crystal clear water, hopefully relaxed and hovering perfectly fine, and even better if I could have the Dive Master by my side, until I get more competent under water. I hope that I will be able to log many, many dives in my future.