If you’ve ever—even for a fleeting moment—considered learning how to SCUBA dive but waved the thought away out of fear that you wouldn’t succeed (“I’d totally freak out!”; “I’d just float away!”; etc.), I’m here to tell you that you absolutely are capable and 2019 is the year to do it.
I was afraid at first, too. In fact, my fears were realized. In 2011, I signed up for a Discover SCUBA class at a local dive shop, where a group of ten or so of us received an hour-long briefing before heading to a local indoor pool. We strapped on what felt like hundreds of pounds of gear—hoses flying everywhere, buttons a-plenty—and jumped in, eventually migrating to the deep end. There, in a moment of panic, I tried to kick my way up to the surface only to realize I couldn’t keep my head above water with all the equipment. I struggled to the ledge of the pool, pulled my way to the shallow end, and called it a day. I’ll stick to snorkeling, I thought.
Snorkeling, though, always seemed to fall short. The lightest current would send water into my snorkel or up my nose. I got the worst sunburn of my life snorkeling in the Florida Keys one year (turns out the backs of your legs take a beating when you’re floating face-down at the surface). And, of course, I could never get close enough to really take in what I was seeing beneath the waves.
Joining Ocean Conservancy in 2017 was the push I needed to revisit SCUBA. As you might guess, many of my colleagues are certified divers, and being surrounded by so many ocean travelers gave me a renewed confidence that I, too, could learn to dive.
This past August I signed up for a full SCUBA course at the very same dive shop I had gone to so many years before. This time, instead of a one-hour briefing, I sat through two days of lectures learning about the sport (did you know that SCUBA stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus!?) and why all the equipment was designed the way it was. For example, modern SCUBA masks are contoured around your nose so that you can easily equalize (basically, pinch your nose and pop your ears, like you might on a plane) as you descend. A buoyancy control device (BCD) jacket—which resembles a life vest—not only secures your air tank to your back, but allows you to adjust your buoyancy by filling with air (from your tank) or emptying out through various release valves. It’s this ingenious contraption that lets divers float effortlessly at the surface so that they’re not kicking furiously to stay above water (the way I was during that first Discover SCUBA class).
Taking the time—some 14 hours in the classroom in one weekend—to really understand all these different elements was critical in helping the pool experience go smoothly this time around. After another eight hours in the pool, I felt ready for the real thing.
In December, my friend Ashley and I joined a group of other dive school “graduates” in Grand Cayman Island for our open-water (i.e. ocean) certification dives. It was a perfect destination for beginner divers: great visibility, warm, calm water and many reefs to choose from.
Admittedly, that first dive felt a little wobbly. My weight belt (you need added weights to help you descend) kept slipping around my waist, throwing off my balance as I awaited instructions from our guides at the surface. When it was time to descend, it took me a few moments to remember that I couldn’t deflate the BCD (to reduce my buoyancy) because I hadn’t extended the hose enough when pressing the release button. Once at the bottom, I got water in my eyes from a messy first attempt at clearing my mask—one of the skills you have to demonstrate to get your certification.
But surrounded by others who faced similar setbacks, and encouraged by our instructors, I and my dive buddies kept at it. Over the course of three days we did nine separate dives, going as deep as 100 feet below the surface to explore a reef wall. By the end, I was no longer intimidated by all the hoses, buttons and gear and could finally appreciate the feeling of weightlessness, and how everything seems to slow down under water—your movements, your breathing. Watching the fish flit about or float perfectly still, sometimes nearly face-to-face, underscored for me how foreign the ocean is to us land dwellers, how we’re really just visitors to an alien world that didn’t really invite us in. A few times during the trip I saw and grabbed pieces of plastic—two cups, a straw, a shredded plastic bag—and thought, looking at the creatures below, Wow, we are the worst guests. On our last dive, though, surrounded by a small fever of stingrays gently brushing their wings against our legs—begging for treats like a cat—I felt that we still totally belonged. It was a truly magical experience.
Of course you don’t have to learn to SCUBA dive to appreciate the ocean or help protect it, but it certainly enriches the connection. Why not make 2019 the year you take the plunge?