Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Darling it's better - down where it's wetter - take it from me

Divers Surfacing

Maybe the title of this post is an overstatement, but I will say that is scuba diving is better than I expected. I have been afraid of water, and specifically “living water” (not Jesus, but water with fish and other living things in it), for as long as I can remember. When I get in water that goes above my chest, my lungs feel tighter, my heart beats faster, and I start looking for ways to get out. At one point in my life I could swim somewhat well – I was on the swim team as a little kid, but this fear eventually made it so I could not swim (until this past fall when I learned again!).

Two things happened earlier this year that lead me to work to overcome this fear by learning to scuba dive. First, Oprah had a show about women overcoming fears and becoming more adventurous. Second, Timika and Rory invited me to go on a trip with them. When discussing possible trips one jumped out as the perfect option.

Goa, India is a short plane ride away (okay – short compared to flying from the US to India… only 4 hours or so from Doha), and had many options for learning to scuba dive at a reasonable price. With our minds made up, we reserved the trip, booked the classes, and I began working through my fears. As we got closer to going I starting thinking of backup plans – I brought cards to play solitaire while everyone else was underwater. Timika kept calming me down and promising it would be fine. With that comfort, I boarded the plan and we were off to start out adventure.

We flew out late Thursday after work, and flew back early Sunday before work – so there was no need for us to take any vacation time. We landed around 4 am and began our Indian adventure. While some of you might be picturing the packed streets of Mumbai and the crazy traffic, Goa is much different. It is a region of India with wonderful landscape, trees, and the Arabian Sea. The driving was a little crazy… but not bad at all compared to Doha, and the city was crowded with people, but not too many. In all it was “India Lite” compared to what I had expected – I had built up an idea of what India was based on images of major cities, and was somewhat relieved to see that my preconceptions were wrong.

Travel Gnome taking the PADI class

Friday began with breakfast outdoors overlooking the ocean – amazing!. We then caught a taxi to the scuba center. Timika was already Open Water certified, so just Rory and I would be taking the classes, as we worked towards becoming Scuba Diver certified (we can dive 12 meters with a master diver or instructor). I will admit that at one point in the long morning of watching video training, I fell asleep. I jerked my head awake just as the video was saying “and that is the regulator system.” I remember thinking “shit, the regulator is what you use to breath and now I know nothing, shit…” Thankfully, after the video classes and before the practical classes in the pool, the instructor reviewed the equipment again.

Instructor Andy

My instructor was Andy. Andy is a big British guy with substantial tattoos. He was likely in his last 40s, possible early 50s, and looked like an ex-navy seal. Even with his tough exterior, he also had the energy of a kindergarten teacher, incredibly patient and kind. It turned out that he was a member of the British forces (no idea which forces), but he sadly has never been a kindergarten teacher.

Rory and I were joined in our classes by a 12 year-old boy and 14-year old girl. I started with the false assumption that at least these kids would have more trouble than me. Oh, I quickly learned that not to be the case. In our first pool session we geared up and go ready to kneel in the pool (the pool was only 4 ft deep). I started to freak out, but eventually got my head under the water. My breathing was incredibly fast and my chest was tight. I lasted a few breaths then stood up. My instructor calmly got me to come back under water. For the first half of our pool session, I kept standing up in the middle of skills… WARNING… YOU CANNOT STAND UP AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA AND EXPECT TO BREATH AIR. After messing up a breathing skill that involved switching between a snorkel and the regulator, I started having a minor panic attack (I say minor because I have no idea what a bad panic attack looks like, but I am almost positive it would be worse than what I felt). I stood up and refused to kneel back down. The instructor had his pool aid hold onto my back and wait with me while he tried to convince me to go back under the water. Eventually I agreed and completed my class.

Things did not look good as I got ready for my dives on Saturday. I studied Friday night so I would know the technical stuff. We got geared up and I was waiting to step off the boat. I was hesitating and kept shacking my head no. Andy waiting in the water signaling me to jump in, never pressuring me to jump… although Timika told me later she considered pushing me in. Once I jumped in and signaled to the boat that I was ok, Rory jumped right in, and we were ready to begin our dive. Andy had told Rory that he was going to hold onto me and Rory should just follow behind until I was ready to go on my own. I didn’t argue with this approach. As we swam to the back of the boat to follow the anchor line down, I felt very anxious and was considering backing out. Eventually was grabbed the line and got ready to go under. This is by far the worst part of scuba diving. As you start to go down your mouth is underwater while your eyes are above water. Breathing through the regulator does not make sense when your eyes see the open air. I stopped fighting and went under. I kept my eyes on Andy and slowly descended. I stopped every meter to make sure my ears were ok, but I was breathing and that is all that mattered. We left the anchor line, made sure we could maintain our buoyancy underwater and began swimming. I never took my eyes off of Andy and just focused on breathing. About 15 minutes into the dive I realized I had not looked around for Rory or looked for any fish during the dive. I tried to find Rory but could not figure it out. Andy gave me to ok sign and pointed to where Rory was behind us. At that point I decided my only job was to keep breathing. After several more minutes passed, Andy gave us the signal to accend and we began kicking our way up. I was very relieved to reach the surface. Once on the top and back in the boat we realized we had finished well before the other two dive groups. Our 45 minute dive, ended at 30 because Rory was low on air… to be honest I was glad it ended.

We got ready for dive number two. This dive was a skills dive. We would be tested on some basic skills prior to exploring the world under the sea. I was more confident going into the second dive and even looking a little forward to it… but I was not looking forward to the skills tests. I passed the first few surface skills and we began going down. Once at the bottom we deflated our BCDs so we were resting on the sea floor. Rory began by doing his tests, and then it was my turn. The first test was to fill your mask half way and clear it. Success. The second test was to fill the mask all the way and clear it. Fail. I panicked and could not clear it. I began breathing in water and freaking out. I gave the trouble signal followed by the up signal. Nothing… Andy did nothing… what kind of instructor is that? I gave the trouble signal and up signal again and didn’t wait. I started going up. As I was going up I kept trying to clear my mask and trying to clear the water from my breathing. I felt Andy grab me and hold me from going to the surface. He signaled what I should be doing and mimicked the steps I should take. When I cleared all the water from my mask and the regulator, he signaled for me to calm down and breath normally. HELL NO. I was freaked out, in case you didn’t know, you are not supposed to breath underwater. He was very calm and gave me time to start breathing normally. After about a minute he began bringing me down. Once on the bottom he signaled for me to finish my test. I signaled, No. Eventually I calmed down and did pass the remaining tests (and did pass the test I initially failed). After calming down and passing the tests, I was able to somewhat enjoy the dive. We saw many fish and rock/coral structures. Even with all of this, I was just focused on breathing. This time when we surfaced, we completed a full 45 minute dive.

It was not until several hours after I finished diving that it set in. I overcame my fear and learned to scuba dive. It was not as bad as I thought it would be… but it was not as great as some said it would be. While some think fears are irrational, it does not change the fact that your body reacts to that fear. I hope that in the future I will be able to dive again, and be able to make it one step farther in completely putting this fear behind me.

Rory (above) Timika (below)


  1. I am so proud of you! You did it! next is to scuba dive in the carribean when you come near home. I understand that parts of that area is the most beautiful.

  2. Congratulations, Annie!! What an amazing experience. I'm proud of you, too!