Note: While the focus of this post is to share key learnings and takeaways from my first scuba diving experience, I have included some practical information about the PADI Open Water Diver course at the end of the post. Cover Photo by Pascal van de Vendel on Unsplash.
For as long as I’ve known one of my closest friends, I’ve seen numerous photos and heard countless stories about the mysteries and magic of the underwater world. So it was only a matter of time before I wanted to experience scuba diving for myself…
As someone who couldn’t swim (I’ve carried with me the fear for deep water ever since I marginally drowned as a child), the first step was to learn how to swim. I enrolled myself into swimming classes while taking a sabbatical from work, and over the course of a month, traversed from being terrified of the deep side of the pool, to loving how weightless I felt in water, particularly when my feet didn’t touch the ground.
Now that the first step was out of the way, I enrolled for the PADI Open Water Diver course with a dive centre in Goa a couple of months later, without much clue about what I was getting myself into- except that I really wanted to see fish, sea turtles, sea urchins, sharks and all the other water babies one associates with underwater life…
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), not to mention performing the diving skills that are a part of the course, like mask and regulator clearing, wearing and removing one’s Buoyancy Control Device in water, etc. It didn’t help that the underwater visibility in Goa was quite poor (between 2-5 meters across dives), leaving me overwhelmed, scared and wondering how I got myself here!
After four grueling days of theory sessions, confined water dives in the pool and open water dives in the sea, I miraculously cleared all the skill tests and theory exams. However, my Instructor refused to submit my papers for certification given how terrified and under confident I was, even by the end of the course!
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 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 had been between what I thought I’d be doing and what the course actually entailed, and all I craved for by the end of it (the last day of the course also happened to be my birthday!) was some solitude, a drink, and some sleep.
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 (thus sparking a new-found curiosity for 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, I came back to Goa to complete two fun 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 with my Instructor and assembled my kit, I thought to myself- this was 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 other than scuba divers, 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!
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.
Further, I think simply 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. And 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 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 failures and perceived successes 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 underprepared 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 it.
After the dive, while everyone was chatting about the low visibility and how they’d underestimated how difficult it would be to equalize, one of them turned to me and exclaimed “Ila, you’re a pro!”. I couldn’t help laugh out loud and exchange glances with one of the divemasters, who knew how daunting the whole experience actually was for me, and that I was far from being a pro.
This exchange reminded me about how we get so caught up in perceived failures and perceived successes. At the end of my course the first time, I was the only one who hadn’t been certified, and well-meaning people shed encouraging words, although it sounded more like they were pacifying me about a failure. This time around, 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 get 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.
- 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 plenty of good dive shops.
- While PADI is still the most popular certification authority, SSI is also fast picking up and may not be a bad option to go for (for one, it is slightly cheaper).
- Study Tip: 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. At both places, the diving season runs from October to May, and both PADI and SSI courses are offered. The instructors at Dive Goa are great, have a good degree of attention to detail, are patient and very encouraging.
Other Recommended Dive Centres in India
Other Recommended Dive Centres in South East Asia
Have you gone scuba diving? How was your experience? Tell me more!
And if you have any questions, please feel free to drop a comment below.