Journey to Open Waters

Overcoming phobias to join the fish

There are things about diving I will never enjoy. The relentless chop of the wind whipping your fringe every-which-way as you motorboat, or the minutes after surfacing where you wonder whether the wicking of the wetness on your skin after you’ve shed your wetsuit is the bends bubbling forth. However, my bleary 7am vacation eyes and blue icicles forged to my palm seem to be less staying than the deep serenity that comes from the drop into the blue.

It’s true, diving is a scary prospect only made scarier when your diving teacher is hearing impaired from what you hope was not a problematic equalizing incident. My initial hesitations are often echoed by those who have yet to seek the experience— claustrophobia (tight spaces), asphyxiphobia (suffocation), and lets not forget thanatophobia (death). There are also the sometimes insurmountable requirements that one does not have asthma, and can reliably ear-pop that keeps a number of would-be divers from grabbing their fins. One imagined limitation is girth. As long as you are able to fall out of a boat with a BCD vest (and there are generous plus sizes available), then being lithe has no advantage in the water (unless you are cave diving).

To best appease my inner demons, I opted to seek out a NAUI certification. I judged this older scuba institution with more stringent classwork requirements would best prepare me with the deepest of understanding for the mechanics to manage my anxieties. The dive master’s poor hearing left us communicating with hand signals and repeated corrections in response to correct answers. It was as if to exercise (or emphasize) the difficulties of underwater communication.

Shore Entry Dance

Our first dives were taken off the shore of Monterey Bay, California. The excitement of reenacting our pool-only encounters were dissolved with the reality of a 50ft shore-entry waddle strapped into a 40lb tank, and 22lb weight belt fitted around a 8mm neoprene wetsuit rubber-banding my legs capped with floppy fins.

Once meeting the sting of the Pacific March waters, an exhausting swim followed to reach beyond the surf. This is where I faced an unexpected aqua-phobia. My confident broad-shouldered swimmers’ strokes exasperated me and I began to feel the water salting my lips despite a fully inflated vest. Those around me serenely progressed forward as I slipped behind, beginning to thrash as my adrenalin began to spike. The irony of death by swimming with scuba gear marquee’d through my mind. Thankfully, our dive master kayak’d by with the nonchalant observation that I was likely overweighted. With the lightening of my load, I managed to find my breath and mentally recover enough to appreciate the biting water temperatures, low visibility, strong current ebbing away at my sense of control, and constantly fogging goggles.

There was little I found to enjoy about my first dives. The kelp forests of my Avatar-esqe dreams were instead these nightmarish tangles dwarfing and threatening to engulf me with their talons.

There were areas where the kelp gave way to calm, sandy current-marked bottoms and the highlight was perhaps the scallop our dive master’s assistant managed to shuck and eat.

It is true however, that the lack of enjoyment and ability to manage my fears and thorough discomfort yielded a confidence I’ve since enjoyed. Immediately following the completion of the course, my dives in Ko Phi Phi Don and Khao Lak in Thailand finally gave birth to the sense of awe you read about in the magazines.

Jellyfish the size of a soccerball

I have now acquired my advanced open water certification, and rounded my 20th dive mostly in Pacific and Caribbean waters. I recently went on a dive in Cozumel with a group of far more experienced (100-300+ dives) divers and marked my progress with the comfort I felt floating alongside them.

The peace I find begins with the descent. This is typically done as quickly as your Eustachion tubes will allow. Depth and air gauges are checked, eye contact is made with the dive master, and I begin to find a rhythm to my bubbling breath. For me, the adventure always begins with an awareness of slight discomforts such as the dryness of my mouth and the chaffing of my feet against the loaned flippers. Pockets of shade chill through the suit, and my weight belt likely needs a bit of a jiggle. At first, there appears be nothing besides the obvious. Only, through hand signals and some earnest flipping to peek beneath the right ledges, the group begins uncovering hidden lives.

Shy Sharks

Nurse sharks are often uncovered resting at the base of coral towers. They startle easily (especially at night), and are gone in a flash.

Green moray eels waters are often tucked behind a wall of yellow stripe.

Dead giveaway a Green Moray is back there…
Movember Lobster

Lobsters typically nestle between crevices, often groups of them will be shoeboxed together with their mustaches poking out.

At night, the fish each look as if they have their own spot to call home. Perhaps it is just a result of finding shelter from the current, but the arrangement looks so precise, it is difficult not to draw the parallel to our own human world. Their eyes remain open but they do not flinch as our misshapen shadows pass. The sound of bubbles encourages my own narrative of life, under the sea. My minor discomforts have dissolved into serene curiosity and wonder. With a current, the dive becomes a dream as fish stream past as if sitting too closely to an IMAX.

In these moments, I breath imagining my gills and my fins are a part of me. I am full of phillia, love for all things living. I fight to hold the beauty of the waterlogged images in my mind, knowing the true details will escape the lens. Light dances across brain coral, the trumpet fish slides soundlessly by. The surface approaches and I feel the return of weight, my day-to-day phobias, the sharp light cutting across air. The ascent has now become the antithesis of all that I feared in my descent to open water.

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