I have a love-hate relationship with the ocean.
Seeing the ocean, whether in person or in picture, has always given me a sense of calmness. Standing on the beach, feeling the salty wind brush against me, touching that cold seawater, it has made me feel free and relaxed. But the moment I imagine myself at sea, swimming in that dark blue, murky water, I take a step back and say, no thanks.
Well, that’s not completely true. Though I’ve never been a fan of swimming, compare me to a cat if you will, I have gone snorkeling in the past and loved it. So perhaps my fear of the ocean is better explained as a fear of drowning, the fear that my whole body is so far below the surface and I have to struggle for a breathe of air. And being out at sea creates a very possible risk of that.
So imagine my complete and utter horror when all of my friends decided to go on a scuba diving trip for our school’s expedition week and I agreed to go with them. It wasn’t an easy decision to make and I did change my mind from going a camping trip instead, but ultimately, I decided that it would be an incredible experience and opportunity where I could finally try to face my fear head-on. In retrospect, I am thankful I was able to think that way, since it allowed me not to forget my fear, but to challenge myself in spite of that fear. In this way, this was the first obstacle I overcame, well before the actual trip.
The trip was relatively straightforward, composed of 5 days, 2 of which would be dedicated to traveling out to sea and scuba diving. We, a group of 30 students and a couple of teachers, travelled to Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, where we trained with PADI, a professional scuba diving instructing company. We were given a textbook, from which we were told to study and learn about scuba diving, its risks, and the safety procedures. At the end of the trip, after demonstrating our scuba diving skills at sea and passing the textbook-based test, we would receive our ‘Open Water Diver Certification‘.
The first night, I was extremely nervous for the upcoming day, when I would finally scuba dive out in the open sea, submerging myself several meters underwater and somehow survive. We had previously practiced using our equipment in a pool, but I knew that would be nothing like diving out at sea, especially comparing the shallow pool and the seemingly endless depths of the sea.
While anxiously awaiting the morning, I also had to study the textbook, where I read about the sea and the mechanics of scuba diving, learning about decompression sickness, non-verbal signals, how to breathe underwater. I found that understanding the sea, how I could keep myself safe and how to respond to potential risks left me feeling more in control and prepared. Which, I attribute to the science-lover part of me, as understanding new things about the unknown has always excited and interested me, so my nerves was forgotten in that moment.
Nevertheless, when morning came and a boat took us to where we would be diving, I was extremely scared to jump into the water. I was never a strong swimmer, so questions like, What if my equipment malfunctions and I’m unable to swim to the surface? What if the current sweeps me away? raced through me. Even as our instructor guided us through putting on our equipment, led us into the water, and prepared us to begin descending, my heart was beating incredibly fast and I had to remind myself of all the things I had been learnt, knowing that I really didn’t have to be so scared.
When I finally descended and touched the ocean floor (we went around 5-7m deep), incredulity hit me. I was breathing underwater. Touching the ocean floor. It was surreal, knowing that I did it! I really had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, even if it wasn’t that deep, and was breathing (did I mention underwater?). I was filled with a sense of triumph, knowing that I conquered my fear as I kneeled on the ocean floor touching the sand and seeing so many little fishes flit around me.
Later came the harder parts, we had to complete drills underwater to mimic what we would do if our equipment malfunctioned or detached. The most difficult one for me was taking my mask off, putting it back on, and clearing the water out of the mask. Although we still had our mouthpiece so we could breathe, I had to shut my eyes (since I had contacts), which was terrifying. There is something completely different between being underwater and seeing what’s around you, and being underwater and not being able to see. The moment I took off my mask, panic took over. I was 5 meters under the surface, seeing only darkness. I struggled to put my mask back on as I momentarily almost forgot to keep breathing. Although not knowing what was around me was petrifying, training kicked in from when we practiced in the pool, and the knowledge that I had done the same drill before calmed me. During that dive, I practiced the same drill a few times more. Though in each time I experienced the same terror of not being able to see, every little practice gave me more confidence and dissolved my anxiety.
In the second day of diving, we continued the drills and also did some free diving, where we swam around the reef, looking at the beautiful coral and the many sea creatures that lived amongst it. It was an amazing feeling, swimming with the coral on my left, using my equipment to navigate through the water smoothly and steadily; I felt as if I was one of the creatures that lived there! That free dive, looking at the beauty of the underwater world, reminded me of why I loved the ocean so much. While the ocean can definitely seem dangerous, it also has the serene, beautiful, and calm side to it, and I am grateful I was able to see that side.
Looking back now, I can still understand my apprehensiveness of scuba diving – it’s not as if diving took away my fear of drowning – but I am thankful that I pushed past that fear and went out of my comfort zone to allow myself to take part in that unbelievable journey, and truly see the natural beauty of the sea.