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Panic Attacks at 10 Meters Under the Water

Or, I'm a Certified SCUBA Diver Now


Many of you know that becoming a certified SCUBA diver was the first thing I had planned to do in Thailand. I booked my SSI Open Water course with Scuba Junction on the island of Koh Tao two weeks before I left for Bangkok.

Some people had asked me about my experience and reasoning before I had left.

Q: But you're a pretty terrible swimmer, Sam.
A: SCUBA diving is more like gliding than swimming. I'm not worried!

Q: Have you ever swam in the ocean?
A: I stuck my toes in the Atlantic at Coney Island. Does that count?

Q: Ever been snorkeling?
A: Naaah.

Q: Weren't you the kid who cried at a sleepover during the game where people put a sleeping bag over your head and pushed you in a circle? And you said you couldn't breathe in there, even though everyone else thought the game was fun.
A: I wasn't aware that anyone remembered that. But yes, that was me.

Q: So you think you'll like SCUBA diving?
A: Well, yes. You see, I've always been interested in marine life. And what better way to experience it than diving. And all of the colors, and ooh sharks and then what about... (Five minutes later.) So yeah, I know I'll like it. I'm not worried.

Yup, you can see how prepared I was for diving. It's just breathing underwater, I had thought.

But the thing that no one tells you when you're first thinking about diving is the way one's body violently reacts to the act of taking in breaths while submerged.

Our first exercise was to simply put the regulator in our mouths, stick our heads under water and breathe. Easy right? No. As soon as I sucked in that first breath, my body began to thrash like a fish trying to breathe out of water. The panic alarms were sounding in my head. I only lasted for about 10 seconds, half choking, half trying to calm the F down.

Yes, my dear readers and dissenters, diving is not as easy as I had imagined. Laugh, that's fine.

We spent the first day learning basic skills, like finding the regular if it slipped from your mouth (horror!), clearing water from our masks (so terrible) and fully removing and replacing the mask while underwater.

Removing the mask underwater proved to be the most challenging for me. The first time I tried, the water shot up my nose, and I shot up out of the water, convinced I was going to drown. It's just that subconscious signal your body sends to you. I find it difficult to ignore mine I guess. At one point I asked myself, "Is this what water-boarding feels like?" That bad.

But after only one failed attempt, I successfully placed the mask back on my face and blew all of the water out with my nose. Not the most enjoyable experience.

The next day was our first real dive. But before the dive, we had to prove we can swim 200 meters to pass certification. The waves were quite choppy that day. I really can't even swim in a flat, serene swimming pool. I knew I was going to struggle with this -- my first time swimming in a body of water bigger than Lake Sakakawea. I waited for the three other people in my group to say no, but they all just dived in. So I followed.

The waves weren't really that big. I'm just that terrible of a swimmer. And I tend to panic easily. I actually don't like the water. All it took was one shot of salty salty water in the face, and I was done. Except you can't really just quit swimming when you're without a life jacket and in the middle of the ocean. Boo. So I struggled, doggy paddling and floundering on my back until I reached the boat's ladder. Badly shaken, I admitted defeat to Avery. "I just can't do this," I said. "I don't want to do this." He told me it was okay to back out. I almost did. But then our instructor gave me a pep talk. In summary: it would be really dumb for you to quit right here. We're nearly to the fun part. So I continued.

During the dive, I focused on my breathing, which made it a lot easier. But then, my mask filled with water. Panicking, I blew through my nose like we had practiced. But as soon as I cleared the water, it would fill up again. Saltwater burning my eyes, I swam to the surface, untangled my mask strap (which was causing the leaking) and descended again.

Then it got easier. Some a lot of cool fish, a barracuda, some pretty things, a giant batfish, lots and lots of coral. There were several times I had to remind myself that I was actually swimming under the water; that this wasn't a giant IMAX movie screen. Then I lost control of my buoyancy and scraped my knee on some coral. Wah. But it wasn't too bad.

The seas were calmer on the third day. No major mishaps. Lots of fun. For our final test, we had to take our mask off completely again -- but this time 10 meters underwater.

And I did it! I was proud of myself. Had that kneejerk I'm drowning feeling, but I got through it.

I bought the videotape from our dive as a memento of my diving experience.

  • ***

So far, the weather in Koh Tao has been beautiful. And Koh Tao is a beautiful island. It's so green and lush; I love the jungle foliage. The Gulf of Thailand's water is crystal clear, and the beaches' sand is the perfect consistency. Love it.

We've been eating a lot of good food. Avery is loving the curries, and I'm loving the seafood here. Tomorrow we're heading to Koh Phangan. The Full Moon Party was on Sunday, so I'm not sure what the crowd will be like. We decided to skip the FMP. We're just too curmudgeonly these days for that kind of scene I guess. :p Diving the last three days has been quite intense and tiring, so we're looking forward to some quiet beach time.

In other news, Bangkok left me with a rather nice memento of my stay there: heat rash. I thought we had made our amends, but then she comes back swinging with a vengeance. So I'm left sitting in front of a fan, waiting for this redness to disappear. Boo. Better leave quickly as I want to get into my swim suit ASAP.

Avery really needs to write a post soon. I promise he's here with me. And he has the camera cord, so I can't upload any pictures until he does. Bla! I think he's off lunching somewhere. He left me to deal with the rash by myself. Don't blame him. Haha. :)

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 23:55 Archived in Thailand Tagged diving scuba koh_tao

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Ack! It sounds a bit terrifying, but I'm glad you got through it! Yay for adventures!

by Laura

Hahaha! i did laugh at this and I am so glad you are doing a blog! Although you are doing a wonderful and entertaining job Sam, i would like some input from A Sauce :) Im glad you got past your panic attacks and the saltwater to the eyes and nose left no serious damage so you could enjoy your dive. Eat some shrimp or something for me! You should post some recipes if you come across anything super good, i would love to try them out! UNTILL NEXT TIME! soak up some sun for me :)

by Alyssa

Congratulations on successful diving! I panic sometimes snorkeling, and I'm a good swimmer, so I'm really proud of you and relieved to know it can be done. Thanks for letting us travel vicariously with you. It is sleeting here now, so your posts are heavenly.

by Melanie

I read your posts and pretend like I'm you. It's a pretty nice life.

by Annie

This is a perfect description! I felt like I was there with you (it feels kind of like I am right now, too, because I'm under my flannel sheets and heated blanket).

Was the coral terrible?! Remember how I said I was terrified of it when I was snorkeling? I'm glad you were able to complete your testing and get certified!

P.S. I totally remember the whole "put the sleeping bag over the head and push the person in circles". We were really...smart.

by Sarah H

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