30 metres down and counting: Why I keep doing what terrifies me
There’s nothing natural about scuba diving. You are under water, sometimes quite far down under water and you are breathing air. So far, in my two-year scuba journey, I have been terrified out of my tiny brain twice. The only thing that comes close in terms of fear was a ride to the airport in Turkey with a lunatic at the wheel. But still I voluntarily put on all that ridiculous gear and go back in the water. Why? In the fear itself lies the key.
L is for learner
We were most of the way through our initial training. Day 3 is the final day, and our first deep dive, down to 18 metres. It was a boat dive, and all the way out I felt nervous as hell. I had hated the first day of training. It was in one lane of a pool and we spent the whole time crashing about on top of each other like fish in a crowded restaurant fish tank. So I’d almost walked then.
But the money was paid so I continued. The 2nd day was much better. We were under the pier in Rye. There’s loads of beautiful stuff down there, believe it or not. Intricate soft corals and sponges, brightly coloured small fish, slugs, purple urchins, even a stingray. The reason for diving is immediately apparent.
My first deep dive
The boat drops anchor, far from the shore. We let the experienced divers get in the water first and they quickly drop under the surface and are gone. We do our big step into the sea, get our masks ready, and wait for the word. Then a woman in our group has a panic attack. She won’t go down. Our instructor K is very calm and patient with her, and she eventually persuades her. But it’s unnerving to say the least.
I’m slow to get down, I’ve got skinny Eustachian tubes so it takes a long time to equalize. Dropping down through the blue is both exhilarating and scary. At the seabed we’re to kneel and wait for K to come around all of us where we go through another training exercise which is flooding our masks with water and clearing them.
Actually getting down to the seabed is harder than you’d think. You’re pretty weightless in the water, but all beginners, myself included, are far from elegant. When you become anxious you tend to over-breath, filling your lungs with air and increasing your buoyancy, which lifts you up off the seabed. So it’s a battle against your own instincts all the way.
Kneel and wait
I’m actually doing all right until I finally settle on my knees and wait for K to get around to me. I guess before this time there’s so much going on that my mind has been occupied.
Now, in repose, panic suddenly overtakes me. A black fog fills my head and my heart starts thumping and my brain starts going I can’t breath! I can’t get enough air! I must go up to the surface! I must go up to the surface! I can’t breath! Of course I am breathing. There’s plenty of air. But my brain is screaming at me, it’s completely overwhelming and I almost act on it. Almost. My first instinct, a good one, is to clutch onto J’s arm. He’s my diving ‘buddy’, and partner in life. But he just looks at me, probably wondering what the hell is going on.
It’s the standby instructor who sees my face and he knows what to do. He starts to gesture with his arms, slowly out from his chest, then slowly in. I remember what he told us about breathing to calm down.
So I began to count. In one, two, three, out one, two, three. The panic doesn’t go immediately, but soon it begins to abate. I pass the test, then we are off on an actual dive. As soon as we start moving, following K, and looking at all the fabulous sea life, I’m fine. It actually turns out to be a good dive. We do another dive in the afternoon, not as deep, and I’m nervous before I go in, but I’m fine under the water.
The reptilian brain
Still, I am shaken that I could have such a strong and illogical reaction. I wouldn’t categorise myself as a nervous person and I’ve never had a panic attack before. Carrying our gear along the wharf from the boat I have a conversation with an experienced diver and he reassures me that it’s very common. We’re not meant to be under the water, he tells me, it is a place where we can’t breath. I think about how our frontal lobes, the sophisticated part of our brain, is rusted on to a very old brain, dating back many thousands of years. Was it my old brain speaking, or screaming? A primitive part of myself filled with fear at finding itself in a place where humans aren’t meant to be?
I was pleased that I had managed to resist its exhortations, but disturbed that it had such a powerful pull.
Advanced Open Water
More than once in the reading for the next scuba course (Advanced Open Water Diver) I read about over exertion, and what to do if it happens to you. This seemed a pretty crazy thing to worry about, I mean what were people doing under the water? Lifting weights? So here comes my second terrifying experience.
J is keen to do the advanced course so we can go down to 30 metres, which is better for many wrecks. The first part of the course is back under Rye Pier where we are meant to hone our buoyancy and navigation skills. But the course has too many people in it and it’s back to that crowded fish-tank feel. We’re both a bit frustrated by the time we come to the second day and two deep boat dives out past the Port Philip heads.
On the way out in the boat I’m again a bundle of nerves. The first dive goes okay, it takes me a long time to get down but it’s pretty cool down there, with great kelp beds swinging to and fro in the current, and a dark trench plunging away to our left. The boat moves for the second dive and we anchor over the HMAS Canberra, a war ship sunk for diving pleasure. I’m really looking forward to this.
Like running for the train
Once again I take a long time to get down and J, and J the instructor (confusing I know) come with me and we drift away from where the wreck is, and the other divers. Finally at the right depth J (instructor) gets out his compass and then indicates that we need to swim into the current to get to the wreck. And off he goes. There’s quite a strong current so we have to kick hard to keep up with him.
Finally the wreck looms up out of the blue like a great grey wall and we slow down. But just like running for the train, I’m puffed. And now I can’t catch my breath. What I want to do above all else — and this is totally counter intuitive — is take out my respirator and breath. Breath what? The water? My brain fogs up with panic again and there is that voice screaming at me that there’s not enough air and I must, I absolutely must shoot straight for the surface.
I remember what I’d read about over exertion. I slow right down, I start to count my breaths, and I force myself to look at the wreck, to find small and interesting things to distract myself with. After a very long and horrible moment this combination of relaxation and distraction starts to work and I’m starting to breath normally. I’m relaxing. The panic is over. I actually enjoy the rest of the dive as we make our way around this dystopian hulk, lonely on the seabed.
Why go again?
These two experiences have been very unnerving, but they have also taught me something about myself and my brain. I’ve learnt that I am not my brain, that I can overcome it, distract it, ignore it’s almost overpowering urges, that I can make rational choices when everything in my head screams at me to do otherwise.
Plus, I really believe this stuff is good for me. Where else in our middle-class life do we get these kind of immediate physical and mental challenges? Most of our lives are spent in very safe situations, wrapped in our comfort zone. Putting yourself into a place where you can die is scary, but also exhilarating. I tell you, when I get out of the water after a dive, I feel so very much alive. So that’s why I keep going.