Overwhelmed and Underwater
Crystal clear waters. The wings of a giant manta gliding above me while I float, weightless, in the ocean. This was how scuba diving was sold to me. So how did I end up throwing up over the side of a boat with blood trickling out of my right nostril?
That morning I was sitting on a dive boat, stuffed into a wetsuit, snorkel in hand. It was the final day of our PADI open-water experience. The clouds had cleared and the sun was bright across the deep, blue surface of the Pacific. I touched the oxygen tank beside me, reciting the safety checks we’d carried out three times already. Hugh, my dive-buddy, looked over at me.
“You okay?” he asked.
No, I thought, so I smiled and nodded.
I don’t trust the ocean. The combination of anxious immigrant parents and growing up in Australia where most things in the ocean want to kill you has always made me wary. However, I always thought that if I could just see what was down there, I’d probably quite like it. So I’d decided to take the plunge.
The boat tore across Callala Bay. With white sand and turquoise waters, this beach was hugged by limestone arms, protecting it from the rough waters that lay beyond. I focussed on these distant rocks, distracting myself from the queasy feeling in my stomach.
The boat stopped outside the inlet. I wrenched on my tank and inflatable BCD and waddled to the back of the boat. I leaped into the water, desperate to escape from the rocking deck.
“Down you go!” yelled the instructor pointing to the fluoro line dangling down the side of the boat. Hugh and I looked at each other. Was that all the instruction we were going to get? We plunged under the waves.
The second I descended, I was engulfed in murky, grey silt. I couldn’t see past my outstretched fingertips. My flippers hit the seabed. The image of sting-rays and stonefish hiding under the sand flashed in my mind. Just breathe, I thought, forcing myself to look at my surroundings. There were flippers above me – the other divers – and a shape in front of me. It was my instructor. He was telling me to inflate my BCD. I did. Too much. I shot up to the surface.
The group was scattered chaotically below; one girl sat desperately trying to empty her mask. I deflated my vest, going to join them, but this time, there was a pain in my ears. I tried to pop them, like we’d been taught, but the pain built to a burn. I hovered meters above the other blurry shapes. Panic started to build. They were so close but I couldn’t shout – no one would hear me.
Calm down. I told myself. Go slow. I held my nose, pushing hard against the pressure in my ears. I tried to sink a little, but my eardrums would squeeze so tightly that I thought my brain might burst. The shapes below had started to move. They were going to leave me here, levitating six feet above the ocean floor! My heart started to race. But suddenly, a flipper brushed past me – people were heading to the surface!
I followed, clambering onto the boat. “What happened?”
Our portly instructor climbed in behind us, exasperated, “When I said ‘Go down!’ I meant, follow the line – one at a time!”
The six of us stared at him. Bedraggled, exhausted – and now confused.
“How were we supposed to know that?” Hugh asked, infuriatingly polite. The boat started to rock, moving us to our next destination. My nausea returned.
The instructor narrowed his eyes, contemplating confrontation. He opened his mouth – but I couldn’t hold it in. Destroying the tension, I flew towards the edge of the boat and chucked up the contents of my stomach.
I slumped onto the floor, looking at Hugh through watery eyes. “Your nose …” he said.
I touched it. My fingers came back red. While trying to equalise, I’d busted a capillary. I lay there – a broken, bleeding, pathetic lump of a human – shooting daggers at our instructor, until we reached our second site.
The group geared up. I had two options. I could stay on the boat with my head in a bucket, letting the sway of the boat cradle my queasiness, or I could get in the water. And if I got in the water – I had to dive.
I pulled on my snorkel. I could feel Hugh’s eyes on me, hoping I wouldn’t bail. I hadn’t seen anything reminiscent of that blissful ocean experience yet – I’d just flailed around in some mud. I had one more shot.
I approached the edge of the deck, stopped contemplating the hundred ways this could go wrong, and jumped in.
The second dive was a success… mostly. We made it 16 metres deep, but the sediment floating through the water made sharks look like shadows and blue coral appear brown. PADI training conveniently omits that aspect of diving.
Was it worth it? No. Am I less scared of the ocean? Also no.
But at least I know I can survive it.
Cover by Laya Clode