The Time I Almost Got SCUBA Certified

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The main purpose of this blog is to share my travels with my family and friends back home. The adventures I have, the people I meet, and the obstacles I have to overcome along the way. So I want to start off on an honest note. Because despite our best efforts and intentions, traveling (and life) doesn’t always go to plan.

But I had a plan. I am about to embark on a 5-week trip to Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand (which may or may not turn into an extended trip as I currently have no return ticket and a visa pending approval). My plan was to get SCUBA certified through PADI before leaving in June. Because who goes to the Thai islands and the Great Barrier Reef and passes up an opportunity to do that?! I knew if I had the opportunity to go diving and I didn’t have the certification, I would regret it. And in the back of my mind, it was always something I had thought about doing. But a SCUBA certification takes time and money. My impending trip was the catalyst I needed to finally drive me to action.

So on March 17th, I looked up dive shops in Portland. Under Water Works came up as the best rated and was conveniently the closest to my house. There was a 5-week Tuesday night class with room for 10 students starting on March 29th. I told myself that I had to at least call. If there was still space, I would sign up. I visited the shop the next day to pick up my class materials.

There is a lot that goes into getting SCUBA certified. I had assigned reading, homework, quizzes and pool time every week. At the end of the course, you must pass a final exam before completing 4 check-out dives to demonstrate you have mastered the skills learned in class. Now, I am the kind of person who thrives in a classroom environment. All of that knowledge and prep work I had down to the last detail. But I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous to actually go out in open water (paralyzing 46F water in Hoodsport, WA to be specific).

But as I mentioned before, plans change. I had completed the class, but I found myself cancelling my trip to Hood Canal and booking a plane ticket to Florida as my aunt’s battle with cancer was coming to an end. I thought it was an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons and decided to find a dive shop in Florida to finish my certification in much warmer water.

The day came, and I headed to Sarasota for two days of diving in the Gulf of Mexico. I got fitted for my gear and drove to Venice Beach (yes, there is one in Florida) for two shore dives. I do not know why I expected shore dives to be a less stressful introduction to open water, but I was VERY misguided. I assembled my SCUBA kit just fine, but then had to be zipped into my wetsuit and walk from a parking lot across the beach with 40 lbs of gear on my back. I was sweating before I even got to the water. The next task was putting on fins standing in a foot of water without being knocked over by the incoming waves. I was already feeling as if I was in over my head, but I had made it this far and forced myself to go on.

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The group of us swam out far enough from the shore to reach the necessary depth of 20ft for the first dive. The only thing keeping me calm was that the first dive only tested two skills underwater. The most basic skills that I learned on my very first day of class in the pool. 1) How to clear a partially flooded mask underwater and 2) how to retrieve your regulator should it somehow come out of your mouth while diving. Things weren’t going smoothly the moment we started to descend. First of all, the visibility was 1-2 feet. I could barely see the fins on my own feet. If I were to get too far away from my buddy or the instructor, the chances of me finding them again easily would be slim. This was already a very different experience than any I had had in the high school pool. My ears were not dealing with the pressure well, and my regulator was letting in a little water with each inhale, which instantly threw me off and put me in panic mode. I managed to compose myself long enough to make it through the first mask clearing skill. The regulator retrieval skill consisted of taking your regulator with your hand, extending your arm as far away from your body, letting it go, and following with a sweeping arm gesture down the side of your body and around to locate it again. Simple enough…and I had done it several times in the pool just fine. I don’t know if it was the unfamiliar equipment, the buoyancy of the salt water or my already panicked mind, but despite my attempts, I couldn’t locate it. Honestly, I couldn’t even see it even if it was right in front of my face.  I was running out of air and instead of dealing with it in a calm manner, I resorted back to panic mode, momentarily forgot that I had a second regulator strapped to me and shot to the surface for air. It was not my finest moment, and I would have to go back down and repeat it another two times before calling it good.

It was a long swim back in, and we were scheduled to do a debrief of the first dive before switching out our tanks and going back for the second. For a brief moment I considered walking away. I didn’t have to do this. I was the one who signed up for this because it was supposed to be fun. Even my buddy was throwing up from ingesting too much salt water from a snorkel malfunction. I stalled getting all of my stuff back on, but decided to give it one more shot. Dive two went a lot more smoothly (maybe because I knew what to expect this time around) until the very end when another regulator skill came up. Needless to say, it did not go well and I learned that my basic instinct when I am underwater in that situation is to panic. But I also managed to pass that dive. Day two was a go.

I went to bed fully prepared (and wracked with anxiety) to board a boat and travel seven miles off shore to complete the final two dives. But once again, plans changed. I woke up severely congested. If you know anything about diving, then you know that you can’t dive if congested or sick. I have to say, I have never been more relieved. I texted the instructor and had a legitimate excuse to sit it out. But with the relief came questioning. Does this mean I am not cut out for SCUBA diving? Does this make me a ‘quitter’? (Why is there so much guilt associated with deciding something isn’t for us anymore?) I finally had to realize that there is a difference between quitting and listening to your instincts and acknowledging your own limitations. Something about the situation didn’t feel right. And I am ok with that. If anything, the whole experience was a great reminder of that…especially as I prepare to travel to a different region of the world for an indefinite amount of time. And if or when I finish my certification, I know I’ll be ready.

When we travel, we find ourselves in new environments and situations. We are, by being in a new place, already out of our comfort zones. So does this make us more willing to try things we normally wouldn’t?

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