Big Island, Hawaii

Not a long time ago, if you threw me into a pool of water, I’d have sunk like a rock. On the other hand, put a piano in front of me and I can play a nice one-handed rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. See, my parents, being a stereotypical Asian parents, believed that playing a musical instrument is one of the most important skills to have in life. Swimming? The ability to survive in what covers 2/3 of this planet? Not so much.

So Jack was surprised when I told him that 2013 is the year we were getting scuba certified.

“But hun, you can’t swim!”

Phooey. What is diving but controlled sinking, anyway?

Photo credit: NAKANA

Photo credit: NAKANA

I’d wanted to learn to scuba for as long as I remember, but the fear of water had always held me back. Then somehow, every place we traveled to last year (2012) was filled with water-related activities: we swam in Yucatan’s cenotes and we even went swimming with whale sharks. In December, I went island hopping around a remote island in Indonesia. By the end of 2012, I was more comfortable being in water than I’d ever been.

It didn’t mean I could swim. It just meant I didn’t freak out being in water. Major milestone, I’m telling you.

We were already going to the Big Island for a wedding so I took this as the universe’s nod of approval that not only were we getting certified, we were going to get scuba certified in Hawaii. I signed both of us up with a diving operator on the Big Island and paid the 50% deposit before I could talk myself out of it.

I begged for advices on our Facebook page. There were many good advices given, but one of them stood out (thank you, Didi):

“Whenever I’m on a new dive after a while I try to breathe in for 5 secs and out for 5.”

I later learned that taking deep, deliberate breaths is one way to control rising panic during times when… say, you’re 30 feet underwater, your ears are in pain, your mask is flooded with water and snot, and you’re fighting a massive urge to swim up, forget the whole stupid diving thing, and do normal Hawaiian things like lounging on a beach with a colorful drink.

You know… throwing a random scenario out there. Didn’t happen of course.

Our dive boat

The skills we had to master included clearing our mask underwater, taking off our regulator and clearing it, and finding our regulator in case it gets accidentally knocked off our mouth. The latter 2 I was doing ok with, but I was having major issues at clearing my mask underwater. Many times I ended up with not only more water in my mask than I started with (it defies physics!), but blood and snots as well.

I was grossed out and frustrated.

(Jack, on the other hand, has always been a really good swimmer.. Soon enough he was swimming circles around me, clearing his mask every time I glanced his way. Such a show off.)

Our awesome instructor promised that the first day is supposed to be the hardest. “Tomorrow – when we go diving off the boat, you’re going to love it!”

In a way, he was absolutely right.

When I wasn’t obessing about my mask or fighting a panic attack (see below), I understood. I understood why people get hooked on diving.

When I wasn’t yo-yoing up and down from trying to control my buoyancy, I felt like I could be in space – gliding weightlessly through colorful corals and big schools of fish. We saw eels and turtles. We heard whales singing. Jack even swore he saw a shark.

by kanuck

Photo credit by kanuck

I loved the times when the underwater beauty around me made me forget my fear.

I started to see things I never noticed before: the subtle hues of colors on a fish, the way they swim, and the shape of their mouths and fins. I started to notice how rich and saturated the colors were. I loved the way the light makes things sparkle and shimmer underwater.

I still had moments of panic. Everytime I looked up and see the sun waaaay up there, I felt claustrophobic. Everytime I looked up I was reminded that we have evolved out of fins.

So I handled it in the way I handle my fear of height when climbing: avoidance and denial. I never looked up. I looked at Jack. I looked at my instructor. I tighten the seal around my mask and take deep breaths.

Breathe in, breathe out. 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out.

My instructor and Jack were looking at me, making sure I was ok. I gave them the “a ok” sign. I took more deep breaths, and everything was ok again.

It was nothing short of a miracle.

At the end of the 3 day course and a total of 5 dives, we were officially scuba certified! Our instructor decided that he could trust us to go diving on our own without killing ourselves and signed off our certification. I couldn’t believe it.

Our SSI scuba cards

Our SSI scuba cards

My brain decided to chime in, “You did it! Now let’s not EVER do this again.”

And I was agreeing with it. I thought diving wasn’t for me.

But now enough time has passed and the terrors of the experience have receded to the back of my mind, I’ve found myself saying, “Well, that ain’t so bad. It was actually kind of fun.”

My brain plays cruel tricks like that. Now I actually start to miss the feeling of being underwater.

And I start to wonder… where should I go to diving (aka: have my panic attack) next?

Behind the Scenes

I found Hawaii was one of the more expensive places to get certified. We have no regrets though. I believed that the warm water, great visibility, and plenty of life to see made things a lot easier for new divers.

If you’re nervous about getting certified, I highly recommend getting a private or semi-private instructor. Knowing that I had my instructor’s undivided attention made me feel a lot more relaxed underwater.

Choosing an instructor is more important than the dive shop. We really liked our instructor, Jason, who was at the time working for Kona Honu Divers.

We chose SSI over PADI because SSI doesn’t charge for their online course –> $125 cheaper.

Just to be clear, we didn’t take any of the underwater pics. I was too busy having panic attacks.