LIFE SAVING EQUIPMENT. LIFE SAVING EQUIPMENT! I typically don’t partake in anything that requires LIFE SAVING EQUIPMENT!!!!
But I recently did. I completed my PADI open-water scuba diving certification. And, much to my surprise, I survived. I even liked it, which is to say that by the end of the required three-day training course I did.
Scuba diving. What is it? A sport? A hobby? A death wish? I thought it was the latter before actually doing it because:
- I grew up watching Shark Week, which conveniently coincided with our annual family vacation to the beach each summer. This only added to my fear of the beasts, which was something handed down from my dad…the guy who one time saw a fin in the waters off Rehoboth Beach and started running along the shore yelling “Shark! Shark!” and flailing about like an idiot until he was told by a lifeguard to “Chill dude. It’s only a porp.”…as in porpoise. The same guy who also used to laugh when the “experts” on Shark Week said that sharks were normally harmless animals that weren’t at all interested in eating humans. “Are you smoking dope?” he laughed to the idiot on tv. I imagine he would be saying the same thing to me now even though we saw no sharks in the Thai waters.
- It seems stupid to turn over the very thing that keeps you alive — breathing — to a device that supplies you with oxygen that’s been stuffed inside a metal tank that was put there by a human. It’s not hard to imagine the many things that could go wrong with this, folks.
But I got over my fears so that Iggy could carry out his birthday wish of getting certified. Since it was a milestone bday — the big 3-0 — I had to. I dove into (ha.) the e-learning course we signed-up for and I suppressed my anxiety as I went through it lesson by lesson, learning all the how-tos (there aren’t many) and not-to-dos (there are many) of diving. I suppressed the anxiety I felt as I learned about “the bends” and the importance of carefully surfacing to avoid getting run over by a speedboat. I breathed through the tightness that swelled up in my chest as I sat at my kitchen table and clicked from one PowerPoint slide to the next. I took comfort in the enthusiasm for the sport (?) that our neighbors had, being the experienced die-hard divers that they are. I ignored what my brother had told me after getting his certification — that it would be extremely claustrophobic at first, but that I would get used to it. After all, he was the same guy who walked out of a Bikram class and never went back. “Ha!” I said to myself. “I am a Bikram lover! Master of yoga breathing! Excellent swimmer! I will be able to do this!”
I kept thinking that way until it was time to prove it in the pool — the place you first go to learn the basic scuba diving skills before you hit the open water, which for us meant the bright blue bays of Racha-yai off Phuket. Our diving instructor was cool. She quickly showed us how to hook up our equipment and made us practice doing so. Done and done. Then she bought us lunch and gave us time to complete our final test. Check. Then we put our gear on and hopped into the pool. Easy cheesy. Then she made us go underwater. Never before in my life have I freaked out in three feet of water. But I did then. After going down and coming right back up a couple of times, I was done. I stood up, ripped my mask off, and spit the stupid regulator out of my mouth. Claustrophobic? My brother was right. Damn him and damn scuba diving were my thoughts at that moment. Damn Iggy too for making me do this. But it wasn’t anyone else’s problem. It was mine. I just couldn’t get over the unnaturalness of being dependent on something other than myself for breathing (god forbid I ever have to go on life support).
I was on the verge of not only giving up but of tears, which is when Iggy and Alexia, our instructor, did an intervention. They talked me off the ledge and I reminded myself that I didn’t want to disappoint Iggy, let alone myself. I got it together and with their support and patience kept going. It was a brutal couple of hours, but over the course of the afternoon, I got the hang of it and gained some confidence. For those of you who have never done scuba diving, let me tell you, it is not as easy as those cushy commercials for resorts in exotic locales make it look. Scuba diving isn’t about all those magnificent underwater creatures at first. It’s about learning how to respond in emergency situations like when you’re out of air. Or learning how to not panic if someone kicks off your mask underwater. And figuring out how to equalize on the way down so your eardrums don’t explode and how to slowly surface so your lungs don’t. As I alluded to before, learning how to scuba dive is really learning how to not kill yourself scuba diving.
By the end of the day, I had done it. I could scuba dive. I was ready for the ocean the following day. When Alexia asked us if we would have any trouble jumping off the boat the next day, I responded without hesitation: “No!” I grew up on a lake. We had a boat. Never was I scared to jump off and it into the murky water…well except for that time its engine caught fire and I had to be thrown off. But, hey, I was like eight and was in my pajamas and didn’t want to get in trouble by my mother for getting them dirty. Anyways, I really felt ready and was excited to dive in the ocean. No one was more surprised than myself when I woke up at 5am the next day with the same anxiety I initially felt in the pool. I kept telling myself over and over again that I would be fine. I could do it. I told myself that (and so did Iggy and Alexia) even when I actually did cry on the boat as we made our way to Racha-yai. Seriously. I cried a little. Talk about embarrassing. But then the boat stopped and there was a mad rush amongst the other divers and instructors on the boat to get in the water. I didn’t have time to panic and not jump in — LIFE SAVING EQUIPMENT — and all. So I went for it. Again, I survived.
In a way, diving in the open water was easier. Sure we still had to practice the goddamn skills we learned the day before, but since we were at the bottom of the ocean and I was still deeply afraid of surfacing too quickly and over-expanding my lungs, I knew I didn’t have the option to just stand up out of the water. I knew the sooner I showed Alexia that I could take off my stupid mask and change from my regulator to Iggy’s back-up in an emergency situation, the sooner I could get on with floating through the deep, warm water and checking out its awesome sights. And once you get to that point — the actual diving — it was pretty easy and nice. Still a little scary, but thrilling to see fish and creatures that I never could’ve imagined existed. With each dive we made, I got a little more comfortable. By our final dive, I had no trouble going through the last round of skills…even if Iggy did since he almost refused to complete the final task of taking off his mask. His only moment of struggle with scuba diving. Lucky him. Lucky for me too, since I needed him to get me through the whole experience. Turns out it was a happy birthday for him and a new adventure for us both.
*Please note that with the exception of the pool photo (which is mine as are all the other photos and content on this site), all photos are courtesy of our dive instructor, so please don’t use them for your website, blog, or anything else. Xie xie ni!