How I Overcame my Fear of Death: Diving for the First Time

In the water I fully felt how small I was in the vastness of the ocean. Any wrong move — ascending rapidly without exhaling, going deeper under than I had been trained, or equipment failure had a looming possibility of death. This was amplified by being in the ocean with nothing but my heavy equipment with classmates who were also in the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water course. This was my first day diving in the Perhentian Islands of Malaysia. In the ocean I had to fully face one of my deepest fears: death and the fragility of human life.

I grew up in New York City, a city of concrete parks and sidewalks. I come from a family of immigrants and spent most of my life in the education system. None of my friends and family have ever been diving. There was no one I knew who I could ask for advice or foresight into what this sport would bring.

Yet my love for water and the ocean propelled me forward. At beaches, I need a minimum of two hours floating on my back and swimming around. I thought diving would be an extension of that. It wasn’t. It was day three and we were descending to 18 meters (60 feet) for the first time. At 10 meters, my ears had a hard time equalizing under the atmospheric pressure. I struggled, ascending a little and trying to get my ears to unpop so I would feel comfortable underwater. I was tearing into my mask by the time my ears cleared. After that dive, I wanted nothing more than to stop diving. I rationed that divers have lost a bit of their minds and that it was okay for me to have met my fear. I had so many existential crises about the insignificance of us as people in this world feeling so physically small in the sea. I realize I was panicking because I was entering an entirely new world that had always been there but unknown to me.

Underwater, you defy gravity. Not in the literal sense of floating off into space, but it’s the closest feeling there is to it. Diving this week took me back to high school physics and chemistry classes. You see, underwater, there is a lot of buoyancy. Buoyancy is an upward force that acts on any object in a liquid. The displacement created by the object is equal to the weight of the water displaced. By breathing in and out (making your lungs, and therefore, entire body, rise and fall), you can become neutrally buoyant, i.e. suspended in the water. It’s an incredible feeling similar to what astronauts feel when their bodies are no longer confined to moving vertically on earth. This was a new sensation for me and my body felt so discombobulated in water; wearing fins, a huge air regulator in my mouth connected to an airtank where I would get my oxygen, suspended midwater. All of it amazed me and entirely terrified me at the same time.

What’s more is that our Open Water Course training focused largely on accounting for accidents and awareness of possible sicknesses from diving. We learned underwater skills such as clearing a mask full of water, what it feels like to run out of air, and clearing water from an air regulator that accidentally came out. All of this did not contribute well to my anxiety and fears of being in the ocean. I soon learned about the dangers of holding your breath while diving, decompression sickness, and gas narcosis. In retrospect, all of that was necessary to prepare me. But after struggling to equalize, I told myself I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep diving and I kept from doing so the next day.

One night I decided that instead of holding in all of my worries and fears that were really getting to me, I let them out and articulated them to the people around me.

When I got back to the dorm room at the dive shop, I unraveled my fears to my dive buddy, Rodrigo, an Argentinian who was paired me with in the water. I told him how doing this was giving me a lot of existential crises and bringing forth my fears of the fragility of our lives. He told me that for him, he remembers that he’s not doing this alone. That he’s in the hands of qualified instructors and others who are trained to do what’s best for us. At dinner, I told the dive shop owner, Anand, a Punjabi man from the nearby town of Kota Bharu, that I didn’t think it was possible for me to go deeper than 18 meters because of how difficult it was when I tried. He said that 10 meters are the hardest and after that, any depth really feels the same. I skeptically listened. He kept encouraging me to continue to the advanced course. I told him I likely wasn’t going to. He told me that our ears are doing things we’re not used to doing all the time and so it’s going to take some time.

Sending hearts out to the sea.

In my time diving, I learned that I didn’t have to rely solely on myself. I could let go and put my trust in the people around me. My instructor had been doing this for years and incredibly, in the company of new classmates I soon called friends, they would be there for me too should anything happen in the water. With all of this encouragement, I ventured deeper into the water and decided to continue into the advanced course. I made the next dive of 18 meters, taking my descent slower, made sure I was mentally calm in the process, and finished it without any issues. I was beaming that day and running around proclaiming to the staff I would soon be an expert. One of the divemasters, Kelly, from England said, “Once the bug catches you, you’re addicted and you can’t go back.” It was day six and I fell in love with diving.

Backrolling from the boat into the water, full gear on, became habit. I focused less on the overwhelming greatness of the ocean, all the dangers that I imagined could happen, and came to love it.

Day six, I found myself ready to wreck dive, going to explore a ship that sunk over a decade ago while carrying sugar from Indonesia. The currents were stronger here and the visibility a little more muddled, but I was in the hands of trusted people and we were looking out for each other in the water.

My dive buddy in front of Sugar Wreck.

I still think divers have lost it a little. We are trying so hard to explore something that makes up such a great part of the earth, but that is little understood. With more research, I’d learn about how safe diving really is compared to the accidents that can happen on land. Anand told me that there are more accidents likely to happen in learning to drive than to dive. As a land creature, it’s hard for me to fully fathom, but all of it is true. In learning to dive, I learned about things that never crossed my mind: that there is a little fish called a goby that lives at the entrance of the home of the shrimp. The shrimp cleans the house and cohabitates with the goby while it stands guard at the door and alerts the shrimp of the danger. Like strange terrestrial creatures, we all hovered around the little goby at the bottom of the ocean and watched it. I learned that as you go deeper underwater, there is less light that reaches through the ocean, so colors like red are the first to go and look more brown. Yet I still saw the most radiant red anemone and blue damselfish. Underwater, sound travels four times faster than it does on land so everything sounded closer than it was. I will never forget seeing a swarm of jellyfish and hearing all of the crackling sounds perhaps from them and the fish swimming through the reef.

I soon learned that the 40 meters maximum allowed for recreational diving only makes up the top 1% of the ocean, and even then, it would take a lifetime to explore it all. The insignificance of even what we were doing in terms of exploration strangely gave me comfort.

We are just humans trying the best we can to see the magnificence of the rest of the 70 percent of earth.

Embracing the sea and the awkward brilliance of defying gravity.