For as long as I’ve known A, one of my closest friends and a diving enthusiast, I’ve been privy to breathtaking videos and countless stories about the mysteries and magic of the underwater world. It was a matter of time before I experienced scuba-diving myself, but first I had to learn how to swim!
What held me back was my fear of deep water, a phobia I’ve carried since I (marginally) drowned as a kid.
Last year, while on a sabbatical from work, I decided it was time to overcome my fear. I enrolled myself in swimming lessons and over the course of a month, I went from being terrified of the deep side of the pool to loving how weightless I felt in the water, particularly when my feet didn’t touch the ground!
Now that the main hurdle was out of the way, I enrolled for the PADI Open Water Diver course with a dive shop in Goa. I was excited to see fishes, sea turtles, sea urchins, sharks, octopuses, and all the other water babies we associate with underwater life.
Little did I know what I was in for…
My First Scuba Diving Experience
My first scuba diving experience turned out to be the most terrifying experience of my life!!!
I was overwhelmed by the theory modules even before I reached Goa. Just reading ‘buoyancy’ and ‘air pressure’ took me back to my maths and physics exams in school and made me nauseous.
Further, I wasn’t expecting to be tested on skills like mask and regulator clearing, wearing and removing one’s Buoyancy Control Device underwater, emergency actions in case of no oxygen, etc. — in the deep sea! All I had imagined was playing with fishes…
It didn’t help that the underwater visibility in Goa was very poor (between 2-5 meters), leaving me overwhelmed, scared, and wondering how I got myself there! (Needless to say, I was mad at my dear friend for misrepresenting the experience to me.)
After four grueling days of theory sessions, confined water dives in the pool, open water dives in the sea, and very supportive peers, I miraculously cleared all the skill tests and theory exams (even scored the highest in them!). However, my Instructor refused to submit my papers for certification.
Despite clearing all the tests, I was visibly terrified and under-confident underwater. He asked me to come back before the diving season ends and do a few more dives with him to build my confidence before he submits my papers to PADI for certification.
To be honest, by this point I couldn’t care less about being certified. I’d taken the theory a bit too seriously, and with my anxiety kicking in (leading to a lot of unnecessary overthinking), I’d spent the last few days (and nights) constantly visualizing myself shooting up like a balloon and bursting my lungs — an example given in the modules for what might happen if you don’t adapt to pressure changes underwater on time!
I could see what a huge expectation mismatch there was between what I thought I’d be doing and what the course actually entailed, and all I craved by the end of it (the last day of the course also happened to be my birthday!) was solitude, a drink, and some sleep. Screw the certification. I was just glad to be alive!
Over the course of the next few weeks, I looked back at the experience and pondered over what I could have done differently to have had a more pleasant experience. While I was overjoyed (and equal part amused) at the amount of physics I now knew (sparking a newfound interest in the subject), I recognized the role that my fear and anxiety played in offsetting my experience. I understood that at the end of the day, it was a mind game, and if I could train my mind to overcome my fear and anxiety, I would be able to sail through this.
This week (three months later), I came back to Goa to complete two dives with my Instructor. I knew that if I didn’t give it another shot (sooner than later), I would always carry the fear with me, and it would only get worse with time.
As I revised the fundamentals and assembled my kit, I thought to myself- this is it. I took a deep breath, put on my gear, sat on the edge of the boat, held my mask in place with my fingers, and did a back roll into the sea. Splash!
Three hours later- I am a certified PADI Open Water Diver 🙂
While I had quite a topsy-turvy experience, the feeling of weightlessness in water is unparalleled, and apart from scuba divers, it is only experienced by astronauts in space. It’s also fascinating to see a whole different world underwater, oblivious to the happenings of the world on land.
Life Lessons from Diving
Going through any challenging experience that is far outside one’s comfort zone invariably brings with it numerous life lessons. Needless to say, this experience taught me a lot about myself and my fears, and I write this post to share a part of this with you, in case it benefits anyone else out there.
Additionally, understanding the curriculum of the PADI Open Water Diver course and being fully aware of what you’re signing up for can go a long way in ensuring you have a great experience from the onset. So, I’m also including some practical information and tips towards the latter part of the post for those considering pursuing the course.
Lesson 1: There’s no other way to face your fear except to FACE IT.
As they say, the fear of X is often scarier than X itself. And once fear takes over, all rationality goes for a toss.
So what does it mean to face your fear?
As I see it, it’s a four-step process:
The first step is to accept and acknowledge your fear, not with anger or resentment, but with peace and equanimity. Everyone has fears, the object and degree might vary, but we have all felt it in some form and at some point in time in our lives.
The next step is to observe it, not just at the superficial level, but as deeply as you possibly can. Where is the fear stemming from? What is the root cause? How do you feel? How do you respond to it? What are its triggers? Are your concerns rational?
Once you understand your fear, try to visualize what overcoming it looks like. What is it likely to entail? What will you do if the fear creeps in? How would you feel when you overcome it? Visualizing success is often half the battle won, as it instills a certain degree of confidence and hope, rendering what you’re seeking to do as a realistic possibility.
Visualizing can help give you the necessary ammunition to act. Beyond a point, you just need to tell yourself to take that leap of faith and jump into it head-on. If you succeed, it’s worth rewarding yourself, and even if you don’t, celebrate the fact that you had the courage to give it a shot. Remember, the journey is more important than the destination 🙂
Lesson 2. Control your breath, control your mind.
All emotions, including fear, impact our breath. By focusing on your breath, you’ll also be able to realize and acknowledge that you’re afraid, and then direct your mind back to the present moment, so that you can pause your mind from ruminating over whatever it is you’re afraid of.
While this is a universal skill that is relevant for anything you do, scuba diving, in particular, is all about breathing. By controlling the speed and frequency of your breath, you can control your buoyancy underwater.
Ultimately, it’s a mind game, and given that the mind has both a conscious and an unconscious side to it, by being aware of your breath and gaining control over it, you can also gain control over your mind.
Lesson 3. Be like water, my friend.
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
– Bruce Lee
You can’t control water, so the best thing you can do while diving is to adapt to the environment rather than fight it or try to control it. Be aware of when to ride into, against, or parallel to the current, and you’re likely to be fine. The more rigid and tense you are, the more likely you are to panic and mess up.
Lesson 4. Don’t take perceived failure and perceived success seriously.
When I did the course in January 2019, I was the only one who didn’t get certified, because what I lacked was confidence, not knowledge.
There were other students who weren’t as thorough with the theory but were comfortable in the water, and so with a few extra hours of work on the theory, managed to complete their tests and clear the course.
I didn’t take this as a personal failure; I was proud that I’d gotten out of my comfort zone and didn’t give up even after realizing how mentally unprepared I was to go through this experience. But I won’t lie- I did feel quite shitty for not getting certified (especially since I’d cleared all the tests).
This week, as I set out for two fun dives, purely to build my confidence and comfort in the water, I happened to be the only one on the boat who had dived before (not counting the instructors and divemasters). Everyone else was a first-time diver doing a 20-minute introductory dive with an instructor, just to get a feel of scuba diving.
After the dives, while everyone was chit-chatting about the low visibility and how they’d underestimated how difficult it would be to equalize underwater, one of them turned to me and exclaimed “Ila, you’re a pro!”. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and exchange glances with one of the divemasters, who knew how daunting the whole experience had been for me and that I was far from a pro!
This exchange reminded me about how we often get so caught up in perceived failures and perceived successes. At the end of the course the first time around, I was the only one who hadn’t been certified and well-meaning people shed encouraging words, but it sounded more like they were pacifying me about a failure. This time, it was the exact opposite, with people considering me to be far more proficient at diving than I actually was.
Perceptions are so contextual and relative that it’s futile to take them seriously. It’s best to accept things as they are, and simply strive to get better with each attempt, pushing the bar you set for yourself, rather than getting caught up with what others think.
Ultimately, you’re the writer of your own script, and if you believe you can do something, that’s all that matters, and that’s enough to get you to your destination — sooner or later. What’s the rush anyway?
Tips for Students
For the benefit of those considering the PADI Open Water Diver course, I’m listing below a few tips and suggestions:
- For beginners who may not be very comfortable or exposed to the sea, I’d recommend doing the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course (or the Introduction to Scuba Diving variant in India) to get a feel of scuba diving, before deciding to do the Open Water Diver course.
- After completing the PADI Open Water Diver certification, you’re required to dive at least once in 6 months, or else you’ll have to take a refresher course. Assess how often you’re likely to go scuba diving after the course.
- Some dive shops suggest that you need not know how to swim in order to dive, however, the PADI Open Water Diver course includes a 200m swimming test (any style, approx. 6 laps of continuous swimming) and a 10 minute back float. More importantly, being comfortable in the water can go a long way in enhancing your experience.
- Low visibility can be scary and unnerving for first-time divers and novices so I would recommend doing the course in clearer waters, even though Goa is likely to be the cheapest option. Within India, Andamans, Lakshadweep, and Netrani islands are some options. Outside India, Indonesia, Thailand, Maldives have clear waters and plenty of good dive shops.
- While PADI is still the most popular certification authority, SSI is fast picking up and may not be a bad option to go for (for one, it is slightly cheaper).
- Do not take the course theory lightly; it is better to go through the modules at leisure prior to the course (keep at least a week for this as it can be a lot of information to process in one go). The course has 5 modules that cover different aspects of scuba diving, from basic physics and scuba skills to details about scuba diving equipment.
- The practical side of scuba diving is a whole different ball game! People who might be good at theory may struggle underwater, and people who aren’t very strong with their theory might actually be like naturals in the water. So don’t take either of them lightly!
PADI Open Water Diver Course
I did my PADI Open Water Diver course with Dive Goa in Candolim, Goa. The course runs over 4 full days, certifies you to dive up to 18 meters/60 feet anywhere in the world, and costs approx. INR 24,000.
The same team also runs Dive Netrani in Murudeshwar, Karnataka, where the visibility is better, but the course costs slightly more at approx. INR 26,500.
Have you tried scuba diving? How was your experience? Tell me in the comments below.
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