So this was supposed to be the blog post where I tell you about all the amazing things I saw in my first scuba dive, from a lovely resort in Northern Bali. It didn't quite work out that way, but I still learned something important about myself.
Yesterday, my travel group met up at a local scuba shop to purchase a scuba tour of an old wreck called the USS Liberty. While expensive, it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore underwater this shipwrecked boat in a beautiful setting. David, Kim and Karen, who had scuba'ed several times before, signed up for the full tour of the wreck. Warren and I, complete newbs, eagerly arranged for the $125 "discovery" dive, which would include instruction and constant assistance by a local dive master.
There was one critical bit of information about myself that would turn out to make it a very different day than I had planned.
Yesterday morning, a van came and picked up our group and drove us half-way around the island to the dive spot in Northern Bali called the Matahari Resort. It took several hours but gave us a good view of much of the island, at least rushing by in the speeding van.
Once at the resort, Sarah, our sweet German dive master, gave our entire group the spiel about the dive, what we were likely to see out there, procedures for signalling for help and our status, and what the day would look like. While the experienced divers went to get suited up, Warren and I got oriented to scuba diving, how to operate the equipment, and what to do in various situations like your mask getting water in it. This took about 10 minutes and seemed fairly straightforward to me, at least in the abstract.
Then we went to get suited up. The wet suit, the tank, the various tubes, weight belt, booties, and flippers went on awkwardly but seemed to all function fine. We waddled over to the water, the surf coming in quite vigorously to me, but Sarah assured us that it was much calmer than she had anticipated. I waded in clumsily, the waves buffeting me back and forth. I must have swallowed several mouthfuls of salt water as I struggled to get on my flippers. After the flippers were on, we put on our facemasks, then our mouthpieces. I breathed in the air from the tank, which tasted wet and salty. I felt my lungs labor and my heartrate quicken.
Sarah directed us to push the button on our BCD controls, which caused us to sink into the water, deflating the air in our vests. The waters rushed up to meet me, my face plunged into the ocean. I felt incredibly vulnerable and uncertain of what I was supposed to do. The air from the regulator still tasted salty and wet to me, and I felt my lungs labor harder and harder.
Sarah gave us the "ok" sign, as a question. I "ok'ed" her back, more out of habit than surety. So we continued to descend. The deeper we got, a few meters at time, the surer I became that all was not right with my equipment. Whether it was true or not, I felt like I was taking on water in my mouth, which was going directly into my lungs. It was painful and scary.
After a minute or so, I gave her the thumbs up — which means "go up" not "things are good." She gave me a quizical look, trying to figure out what the problem was. But soon she pressed the button on my BCD controls, which filled it with air, ascending me to the surface in a few seconds.
Once on the surface, I coughed up my guts, explaining what I was feeling. She assured me that the tank was feeding me just pure air, not water, and that I must have swallowed a bunch of water initially and that was what I was feeling. She held my hands, urging me to calm down my breathing and explaining that everything was going to be fine. Then we tried again.
For what must have been just a few minutes, things seemed okay. I swam along underwater with Sarah and Warren, looking around at the fish and coral around, which already were quite beautiful and colorful. I wanted to just float there and get used to the sensation of being underwater, breathing through this weird device, seeing through this mask, and moving around with my flippers. Nothing in my previous experience prepared me for any of this.
The moment passed and Sarah urged us deeper, to get closer to the wreck and the coral reef. I followed for a minute or so, and then started taking on water in my mask. I felt the pressure building in my ears. The air in the mouthpiece tasted salty and wet, my breaths coming to me in raspy, rapid succession. Everything seemed to be going wrong at once and my attempts to deal with all of them at once didn't seem to be working. All I could think about was getting to the surface. In short, I was panicking.
Sarah signed to me if I was okay. I shook my head and gave her the "go up" sign. I point to my mask, and she demonstrated how to clear it of water. I pointed to me mouthpiece, and she indicated that it was fine. She shook her head and signed to me that everything was okay. Nothing felt okay though, everything felt wrong.
I kept signing up, and eventually she helped me to get to the surface. On the surface, she tried valiently to calm me down, but at the moment that I surfaced, I knew that I need to get to land. I was not ready for this.
I somehow managed to fight my way ashore, struggled up the beach, and dragged my gear back to the resort. I felt physically drained and more defeated than I have ever felt.
The rest of the day passed like a dream. The other scuba divers returned with tales of all the awesome fish and coral they saw. Warren was absolutely glowing from his first dive. We lunched together, and the rest of them went back out to the water. I spent the time catatonically watching the surf, listening to the rain that came and went, listlessly playing with my iPhone. Eventually the day ended and we took the even longer van ride back to our villa.
I'm still disappointed in myself the next day. In some alternate reality, I plunge into the water and have a life-changing experience along with my companions, getting up close to the barracuda, clown fish, sharks, and enormous seastars. I travel the world, visiting the choice diving spots in the Philippines, Australia and Fiji.
Instead, I learned that I'm deathly afraid of open water. Which for a Pacific Islander from California seems so wrong on so many levels. I think it's possible that I can overcome this fear, and imagine a time that I could do fairly easy dives with a guide or experienced companion. But the ramp up to that will be quite slow, beginning with more instruction, lots of time in the pool learning and practicing the basics over and over, and a gentle and slow introduction to open water.
Whether or not the goal is worth the effort is ultimately up to me. I think it would be worthwhile, from a personal and character level, as well as for the experience itself. But it would take time and money, more than I had anticipated or hoped. It's one of those things that I wish came easier to me, the way that others seem to take to the water like mermaids.
But I am who I am, fears and flaws and all. Accepting and loving my whole myself and moving on is always a valuable experience. I just wish it didn't cost me $125 and a whole day of travel to realize that all over again.