Scuba Diving, Not the Sport for Neurotics

Omar, the teacher who held my hand through underwater panic

Seven years ago my friend and I snorkeled for the first time in Maui, and saw the most mesmerizing and colorful fish. I loved it. Later I saw a bunch of people in scuba gear, and thought, Who needs all that cumbersome equipment, the expense of it?! Snorkeling seemed good enough.

On this big trip through Brazil and now Colombia, I decided that I should take advantage of my time and the relatively low prices and learn how to scuba dive. Colombia is one of the world’s cheapest places to learn to dive. The time had come for me to wear a wet suit and a big tank of pressurized air on my back to dive 30 meters into the sea.

On my first day in Colombia, I checked out diving schools in the fishing village-cum-hippie hangout Taganga on the Caribbean coast. I found a school that offered a three-day diving course in Tayrona National Park. It would be a “beach safari” with meals provided and accomodation, a hammock. And I would get certified as an open water scuba diver.

my underwater hairdo

And so the adventure began. Learning to scuba dive was more than a journey to the depths of the sea for me. It was a journey into my mind, a metaphor for life, for staying present to beauty and not giving into panic.

First, though, everything I loved: Seventy percent of the world is covered with water, so diving gives us a peek at the majority of the earth. I loved diving for this view of the world underwater. Much of the coral looked like giant, fantastically colorful brains. The fish were gorgeous shocks of color (those fish are so fashionable!). I saw eel and octopus. When another diver was below me, his or her bubbles of breath floated past me, and there was something beautiful about that. The ascent to the water at the end of the dive is also very special. There’s something about the way the sun hitting the water looks from below. Diving can feel like flying. Another way of inhabiting the earth.

The course included physics and physiology classes on the beach, skills sessions in which we learned what to do in all kinds of emergency situations, for example, what to do if the regulator (the mothpiece you use to breathe) comes out of your mouth and fills with water or if you run out of air. We learned the sign language that scuba divers that use to communicate underwater (thumbs up means let’s go up). We did five dives to enjoy and practice all the skills we learned. Now I am certified as an open water diver to dive in similar conditions, calm waters, i.e. no big waves or currents. To get certified for night dives, which are said to be magical, I would do an advanced course.

Science class on the beach

Ignorance might have been bliss when it comes to learning all the science and resultant dangers of diving. My teacher Omar was very detailed when he talked about all the risks of holding your breath or coming up too fast: the bends (decompression sickness), nitrogen narcosis, drowning, oxygen toxicity. Hyperbaric chambers are specialized medical facilities where divers with injuries resulting from air pressure changes are sent for treatment. I did not like the sound of a byperbaric chamber.

After my physiology class, it was hard to not worry about a million and one worst-case scenarios.

After the first skills session in shallow water, my instructor and I went out to dive alone. I was calm, purely absorbed in the coral and the magnificent fish. I didn’t even stop to check my gauge to see how much air bars I had left because I was so entranced with the experience. We slowly made our way to surface, and then, paused for our three minute safety stop five meters below the surface. The difference in pressure between the first ten meters of depth is the greatest so this is the most important place to stop and equalize the pressure in your lungs and sinus cavities.

The next day the dives were more typical—a large group going out in a boat. The fact that we were a crowd–and now I had too much to think about–probably did me in. Getting the wetsuit on and making sure the equipment was hooked up properly under a deadline with tons of other people stressed me out. I’m not very technical at all. I ask friends to put together IKEA shoe racks for me. What if I didn’t attach the regulator to the tank properly and ran out of air?

Once we got in the water, falling backwards off the boat with the tank on James-Bond-style, I couldn’t stop thinking about dehydration. Omar told us the day before that breathing the tank’s pressurized air can be dehydrating so it’s important to drink water before and after a dive. That became the first obsession. What if my mouth gets dry and I have a coughing fit? Those are horrible enough on dry land. How bad would that be at 20 meters deep? I started to think, OK, I can’t drink water . . . but at least I can drink in air, and then I started to think, what if I am drinking in too much air. What about hyperventilation?

Then I started to worry about what would happen if my regulator, was knocked out of my mouth. I learned how to blow the water out in my practice session and resume breathing but would I be able to do it at 20 meters depth?

I barely paid attention to coral and the fish. I felt like I was in survival mode and started to gulp in air. Apparently my weight belt (we all wore weight belts to adjust our buoyancy) was too heavy and I had to work too hard with my fins to keep moving. The too-heavy belt in combination with my semi-panic meant that I was consuming a lot more air than the other three people in my group. I held my instructor’s hand for about ten minutes. There is no substitute for the calming effects of human touch. I completed the rest of the dive but felt like I had just survived.

After a more calm and happy dive with my dive buddy

Apparently it is normal to feel panic when beginning to learn to scuba dive. Scuba diving is an incredible metaphor for life. There was so much rare beauty to observe in those 30-minute dives, so much that could have distracted me from my internal dialogue, but until I had run through every worst-case scenario and realized I was going to be OK, I couldn’t relax.

The more experienced divers and my teacher told me I was thinking too much. Apparently all of South America thinks that I think too much.

What’s amazing about going through this rite of passage–learning to scuba dive–is that you alone have to talk yourself down from the panic. You can communicate with your buddy, you can hold your buddy’s hand (which for me was magical and merciful) but ultimately only you can soothe yourself. A friend has recently described a semi-panic attack on an airplane. All of a sudden she felt how bizarre it was that they were all inside this flying box thousands of miles in the air, but there was nothing she could do. She had to pass through it. And so it is with scuba diving. You have to talk yourself through it, breathing more slowly, with a deep inhalation and a long slow exhalation. That is a powerful skill.

Ny last two dives were much more tranquilo. I was able to see the beautiful underworld again.

Sometimes I think that traveling is just one push out of my comfort zone after the next.