8 years ago, I went to visit my awesome roommate Steve in Hawaii. I wanted fun and adventure, so he booked us a scuba dive excursion. There was minimal training. The instructors explained basic procedures, communication signals, and then they took us out on a boat. We donned our scuba gear and dropped backwards into the warm and wonderful Pacific Ocean.
I will never forget that first breath I took under water as we began to descend beneath the surface. There was an alarm going off in my brain, telling me that this wasn’t natural and that it shouldn’t be possible. Instinctively I knew that I shouldn’t be able to breath under water. But here I was, in the warm and crystal clear Pacific Ocean, floating and breathing. It was incredible!
We began our descent and I felt the pressure of the water overwhelm me. My instructor, communicating now only by hand signals, reminded me how to equalize my ears to relieve that pressure. It took a couple tries but it helped. There were a few moments where I felt terrified and disoriented underwater, but my instructor was great and she was able to keep me calm. Slowly we descended down to 40 feet. The visibility was amazing. The waters were crystal clear. I saw so many beautiful fish. I even remember a giant sea turtle, bigger than any human, swim by us. I was in a whole new underwater world. When I finally emerged at the surface, I was amazed at the experience I had just had.
One day, I would learn to scuba dive, I promised myself.
Eight years later, that day finally came. My Padi Open Water Certification Course was set up in two weekends. The first weekend was a day of classroom and a day of swimming pool training. The second weekend would be all open water diving in a “nearby” quarry.
Saturday of the first weekend was a full day of classroom. Honestly, I actually really enjoyed it. I loved studying over the entire PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) textbook. I enjoyed all the review, videos, and gear demonstrations in the classroom. We went over all the information taught in our PADI guide books, and took several quizzes and a test at the end. I left that class a little tired, but a lot excited about this whole new lifelong adventure I was about to embark on.
The next day we began the training at a nearby swimming pool. This is where we would learn scuba basics in a safe and shallow environment. I was pretty excited about this day. I expected it to be really fun and fairly easy. I was so wrong.
As soon as I walked in, they made me start the morning with a 200 meter swim test. I’m not a great swimmer as it is, and can’t remember the last time I actually had to swim laps. The pool was crowded, cold, and it was so early. I managed to swim the laps, but once it was over, i was tired, cold, and hungry. And the class hadn’t even begun yet.
After everyone swam their laps, we had to put on our scuba gear and return to the pool. I was feeling a bit nervous. The gear suddenly felt so complicated. We had fins to wear on our feet which made it hard for me to move around. We had a mask and a snorkel which blocked me from breathing through my nose. We had this big inflatable vest around us called a BCD. And attached to that inflatable vest (BCD), we had air cylinders on our back. With our BCDs inflated full of air, we all awkwardly floated around in the pool as everyone slowly got geared up for class instruction.
Once everyone was properly geared up with masks, fins, their full scuba gear, and air tanks, we started our first lesson. This was basically just deflating our BCD (the air inflated vest) to sink down below the surface and experience breathing underwater. I put the air regulator in my mouth and started breathing through it. Then i began releasing the air from my BCD and slowly dropped below the surface to the bottom of the pool.
Next thing I knew, I was breathing underwater! This was less of a mind warp than the first time I did it in the Hawaiian ocean 8 years ago. But it was still really fun, even in a shallow and confined swimming pool! Everything was blue and everyone around me looked bigger, brighter, and slightly distorted. Everyone moved in slow motion. Sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. The sound of my breathing through the regulator echoed in my head, and fun bubbles would tumble out of my regulator every time i exhaled. The experience felt completely surreal, almost like I was in a dream. It was really cool to just get used to the experience of being underwater and breathing.
We floated back to the surface, and my instructor began explaining some of the exercises we would do the next time we went back under water. The first skill would be to take the regulator out of our mouth. She emphasized how important it was to have a slight exhale while doing this.
Then I was back underwater, looking upward and watching the light dance on the surface of the water from below. Even in a shallow swimming pool, breathing underwater is a little bit scary. The thought of taking my source of air, the regulator, out of my mouth was even scarier. It ended up being a fairly easy task however.
Next we had to “lose” our regulator by taking it out of our mouth and letting it go somewhere behind us. The instructor had explained the process for recovering a lost regulator. Lean to the right side and sweep your arm. It worked well, but it was interesting how unnerving it was to let go of my air source. These exercises were good and I gained a little more confidence.
Things started to get more complicated though. Next we had to break the seal on our mask and let it fill up with water. We would have to clear that water out by exhaling through our nose. The girl next to me was the first in our group to try this skill. I watched her attempt, struggle for a few moments, freak out, and then float back to the surface. Watching that did not instill me with confidence.
When it was my turn, the instructor grabbed my arm. I closed my eyes and broke the seal from the top of my forehead. I could feel the cold water suddenly wash over my eyes, rush over my face, and cover my nose. Off in the distance there was a looming sense of invading panic, but I focused on breathing through the regulator. As instructed, I held the top of the mask, looked upward and exhaled several times. I felt the squeeze of my instructor on my arm, indicating my mask was clear. I did it!
The mask clearing drills continued, each one more intense than the last. We had to take our mask off completely, put it back on, and clear the water from it. I watched the other students struggle with this, and that validated my own sense of unease. Fortunately, I managed to do this skill successfully.
Then we had to take off our mask and keep it off for a full minute, breathing underwater. This was crazy. I closed my eyes and took off the mask, holding it in my hand. With my eyes now closed, I was all alone in the underwater darkness. There was only the echoing sound of my regulator breathing to keep me company. One minute feels like a long time underwater when you can’t see anything. It felt like I was completely alone in the entire universe. I kept focusing on my breathing and finally relaxed, and before I knew it, I felt a squeeze on my arm. The minute was already up. I had to put the mask back on and clear it. I tried to rush this, and this time I was unable to clear the mask! I had to bolt up to the surface. This shook my mask-clearing confidence for a while.
After that, we picked a “buddy” and we did several drills where we simulated being out of air, communicating to our buddy that we needed to use their alternative air source, and removing our regulator and switching to theirs. This seemed fairly straight forward.
The class had been really fun for a while. I liked learning all the new skills and loved the experience of being underwater. But I found myself growing more uncomfortable as the day continued. My leg had developed a weird cramp that gradually got worse as the hours passed. We didn’t get a lunch break so slowly I got really hungry. I started to feel very cold after being underwater for so many hours. And each skill seemed more complicated than the one before. After a while I developed a constant dread of what the next even more complicated activity would be. I felt sure that at some point, I would reach my limit and be unable to pass the subsequent task.
And the tasks kept coming. We did a few underwater laps with our buddies and some drills on how to control our buoyancy so we didn’t float too high or sink too low. We had to take turns towing our “tired” buddy around the pool. I was already tired, so this was no fun.
Then came the worst task. I had to close my eyes and completely remove my mask underwater. My buddy would then lead me across the pool as I swam with my mask off and my eyes closed. I was so cold and tired, and this activity just stressed me out. At the same time, it gave me an eerie realization of how dangerous scuba diving could actually get. I could easily lose a mask deep underwater and would need my buddy to lead me to safety. It was so important to learn these skills now in the safety of a shallow pool. With my mask off, my buddy led me across the swimming pool while I focused on breathing through my regulator. I felt a squeeze on my arm and knew I had reached my instructor. Now I had to put the mask on and clear the water out of it again. I went slow this time. I reminded myself that there was no rush. I had plenty of air, I could breath through the regulator. There was no reason to panic, I wasn’t going to drown. So slowly and deliberately I put my mask back on, made sure it was properly sealed, and then did a few slow and steady exhalations through my nose. I felt the squeeze on my arm and realized my instructor was telling me the mask was clear. I opened my eyes but the world was very blurry. I did one more clearing breath of the mask, and the world was in focus again. I did it!
Towards the end of the class I had to go under water, completely take off the entire scuba unit underwater, and then put it back on. This sounded so horrifying to me. Each skill was getting more and more insane. However, it turned out that it wasn’t too hard. I was just so cold and exhausted by this point. I had spent the last few hours just wanting to be done with the swimming pool so I could go be somewhere warm and dry. Instead, I was being inundated with an endless barrage of increasingly complex and tiring skill tests.
Then we had a “final exam” where we had to swim all these laps with our buddy underwater, and our instructors would tell us certain skills to do while swimming. Even the mask clearing was easy by this point. But I was so cold, hungry, and tired. Each lap felt like a nightmare, and all I could think about was being done.
Finally the class was over. I was so excited and ready to leave that damn swimming pool. But then our instructor casually mentioned that before we could go, the class had to tread water for 10 minutes. I was sooo exhausted. I accepted that I was probably going to drown during this last activity. I laughed at the irony of struggling through this entire class only to drown in the last ten minutes Fortunately staying afloat for ten minutes was much easier than it sounded. I didn’t drown, and the time actually went by quicker than I expected.
I was happy to be done with the pool experience. The class was well taught, the instructors were great, patient, good at explaining and demonstrating. But halfway through I became very hungry and cold and tired. And I experienced a bit of stress facing my fears of water during the class. I was pretty thrilled to spend the rest of the day warm and dry. But after this, I was definitely nervous about the weekend of open water dive, and even considered skipping the rest of the certification process. But I could worry about that later. Today I was going to celebrate getting through the class by taking a hot shower and then curling up with some warm, dry blankets!
Adventures can be exhausting at times. But stepping out of my comfort zone was never supposed to be comfortable in the first place. I had faced some underwater fears, persisted when I wanted to quit, and had a cool new experience. By those standards, the first weekend of scuba training was a great success!