“Okay, clear your mask”
“…clear your mask!”
“CLEAR YOUR MASK!”
“Allison! What’s the problem??”
What went through my head: Oh, I don’t know, maybe the problem is that I’m over-weighted and uncomfortable, or maybe it’s because the waves are crashing into me, or maybe because this is the third time in my life I’ve used a snorkel mask, and second time using a regulator, or maybe because this whole experience has been overwhelming so far, or maybe because I have contacts in and salt water burns, or maybe because you’re yelling at me, or maybe I just need a second to compose myself mentally, or MAYBE the fact that you keep calling me Allison and it’s starting to get annoying (no offense, Allisons!).
How I responded: *shrug* I just need a second.
This time, take 5, I told myself to hold the top of mask and breathe hard through my nose. I closed my eyes, broke the seal of my mask for half a second to let it partially fill, took a slow, deep breath, and cleared my mask.
Then I was pushed underwater and the instructor motioned for my dive buddy and myself to follow.
Back up to early 2017: I was at my family’s annual reunion and having a conversation with my cousin (hey Kayla!) about her and her brother’s trip to Iceland. Along with the typical touristy stuff, they got their SCUBA certs to dive in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. I had always thought it would be cool to get certified, but it wasn’t until hearing her experience that I decided to do it. At the time, however, I was an unemployed grad student, so that goal was set aside to some corner of my mind.
Now, living back in Korea, and having a paying job and generally free weekends, I decided to just do it and called a local dive shop to get started. After reading the course material and acing the test, I was SO EXCITED to get in the water. WELL. First of all, scuba is a lot more difficult than I thought it’d be. I mean, I could swim, I went snorkeling once in Thailand, and the PADI instruction material mentions multiple times how anyone of any age (although there are depth restrictions for young divers) or of varying abilities and capabilities can scuba dive. Use a wheelchair and need physical assistance? No problem. 60 years old and need help carrying gear? We can help. The only type of swimming you can do is a doggy-paddle or frog-kick? GET IN, THE WATER’S FINE.
So, I’m thinking, “sure, it takes me a minute to get used to breathing through my mouth, but if someone can START diving at 60, surely I’ll have no problem?” Well I definitely had problems from the first session in the pool. I had problems equalizing (or, popping my ears… it makes me cringe driving through mountains. Add that to the pressure of a dive instructor sitting at the bottom of the pool waiting for you, and it’s a bit nerve-wracking). Then I had problems where I was breathing too hard and too much (I was nervous!! I thought I’d get the bends! ((IN A 13 FT POOL?! Lol, Alicia)). Then I had problems hovering (pretty sure I had way too much weight in my vest; I practically sunk right to the bottom, and then had to add a ton of air to my BCD ((vest)) just to hover for a few seconds. Then I had problems bumping into other scuba divers (if you know what you are doing why are you hovering above the very obvious beginner). But I survived, and passed all the pool skills. Next stop, ocean dive!
I had to wait about a month to do my ocean sessions, due to work and the instructors coordinating with another student. Since we had to drive four hours to the east coast of Korea (water is waaaay more clear), and the four dives would be split over two days, it didn’t make sense for them to do two separate trips for two students. But I’m super glad I had a dive buddy; there’s comfort in knowing you aren’t the only one. I think we had similar personalities and levels of nervousness but she grew up near the water and was a lifeguard for a while so she was definitely more comfortable in the water than I.
Circling back to the beginning of this post, we had just gotten in the water (first red flag was the instructor getting really impatient with how long it took us to put on our fins… it wasn’t our gear so we didn’t know how to tighten them, the waves were getting rough, and we were already unbalanced from the weight of the tank???), and luckily my dive buddy requested we practice doing the first skill (partial mask clear), at the surface of the water before trying it 20ft under). I didn’t have problems doing this skill in the pool (just had to have my arm tapped or squeezed so I knew my mask was clear and could open my eyes), but I’m really glad we spent extra time doing it otherwise I honestly think I would have panicked at the bottom and possibly quit right there.
Once I got my mask cleared at the surface, I was good. I had to remind myself to breathe and tell myself “you’re okay, it’s okay” over and over AND OVER again, but I aced the rest of the skills on the first day, and actually relaxed enough to notice the starfish, sea urchins, and little albino octopus (??). Despite the cold water (16C or about 60F), and the constant criticism about how bad I am at using fins (IT WAS MY THIRD TIME), we did all the skills in the first three dives, so we were both officially Open Water Scuba Divers after the first day. I took the win!
The second day was just one dive, but a fun dive. We were going to learn how to use a compass underwater (spoiler, it’s the same as on the ground; thank you Army Land Nav!), and then just swim around for 20-40 minutes, or until one of us got too cold. I went to bed exhausted, but super excited for the next day. No more skills meant no more pressure. I told myself that as long as I get my mask on properly and get past that initial breath under water with the regulator (always nervous that I’ll breathe in water) I would be able to trust my equipment and just focus on my buoyancy and take in the views.
But I was not as comfortable this time around, to the point where I heard a voice saying “this isn’t fun, I want to be done” and I finally signaled that I was cold even though I wasn’t, just so that we could get out. Basically I had trouble staying down (I kept having to force my body upside down and kick hard to go deeper) and water was in my regulator making it difficult to breathe. But it really came down a near-panic attack.
Did anyone else’s brother dunk them underwater at the local pool growing up? Like to the point where you thought this is it and you were going to drown and so you would panic and thrash around until you kicked him in the groin? Well mine did (HEY JOE!), and so, yeah, if I’m 20ft under water, water is leaking into my regulator (causing me to be super conscious of my breathing so that I can breathe around the water), and I’m way under-weighted this time (didn’t find that out until AFTER the dive) so that I’m having trouble staying down, and a 300lb man pushes me downward from behind, I’m going to signal “something’s wrong.” And if that 300lb man does it again, YEAH, I’M GOING TO PANIC AND THRASH AROUND AND HIT YOU.
Yes, he was just trying to help me stay down, and yes, he is an experienced instructor so, no, I did not actually think my life was in danger, and no, he probably wasn’t actually 300lbs. But when we were still at the surface and I was testing my regulator I told him it had water in it. And we both knew I was a little under-weighted (when we did the weight test at the beginning we had added some weights, but later we found out that the other instructor mistakenly took out two weights from the back of my vest and we didn’t know). So one would think that he would have been more aware that I was less comfortable today.
BUT REGARDLESS. It took every strain of my self-control to not say, “fuck this” and swim to the surface by myself. I’m pretty stubborn and if I don’t want to do something, or exit from an uncomfortable situation, I will not do that thing or exit freely; especially if it comes to safety. But one of the rules of diving is to always have a buddy, and if for some reason you need to surface, you signal to your buddy and you surface together (the exception is if you run out of air and for some reason your buddy is too far away to share air). So I had to consider which was worse; surface by myself and not signal to anyone (land Alicia leaves parties all the time without saying bye lol), or continue to breathe around the water in my regulator while also trying to control my buoyancy just enough to keep me down but not angled in a way that allowed more water to leak in. I opted for the latter, for about five more minutes, before signaling “I’m cold,” so that we could make our way back. As soon as we were waist deep and I could take out my regulator, I explained all the things that went wrong. My buddy said she could tell right away that I was not as comfortable as the previous day, which was actually comforting; in the future I’ll look for perceptive dive buddies.
Despite the second day, I’m so glad I stuck with the course. Getting through some of the skills was daunting and mentally challenging, but the feeling of weightlessness and seeing an entirely different world is pretty freaking amazing. I’m already making lists of places I want to dive, and plan to get my Advanced Open Water after a few more open water dives.
My main purpose for this post was twofold: to share my experience and initial thoughts, but also to write about comfort tolerances. I mentioned that I’m stubborn, but stubbornness can also be positive, as in the sense of sticking things out. And I will stick things out as long as I am not in danger and it’s something I know I can do.
I’m also a strong believer in doing things that scare you, because it forces you out of your comfort zone. And I think this is always good. Of course there are some experiences that turn out to be negative, and I never do them again. But every single time that I’ve followed through with something, even if only because I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try, I’ve been proud of myself. Every. Single. Time. It may sound cliché, but that sense of accomplishment is such an amazing feeling that it makes me think I can do absolutely anything. And then I take that sense of accomplishment and tuck it away, until another uncomfortable situation or intriguing challenge approaches and that accomplished feeling crawls back out and says, “You did X, you can at least try Y. Fuck it.” So I invite everyone to challenge themselves every now and then. Say fuck it, and get out of your comfort zone (and maybe into the photic and neritic zones). Either way, you’ll have a new experience and you may surprise yourself.
Ah, c’est la vie de plungée.