Taking a plunge: surprise scuba day

The ocean is a big place. I’ve always been drawn to it but also a little intimidated. Offshore ocean swimming has never been something I’ve been able to do with comfort– worries about rip currents or concealed sea creatures have never let me get into the zone of distance swimming for any length of time.

Right now I’m in Cairns in Queensland, Australia– on the east coast in the tropical north. And when in Cairns, one heads out to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling, to see for oneself the incredible variety of sea life there. I signed up for a trip to the outer reef (30–40 miles from shore) with a small and superb outfit called Seastar cruises.

Unlike lots of reef trips, which ferry 200 people out to floating pontoons where they all snorkel en masse, Seastar takes no more than 36 folks at a time to a couple of lovely locations for snorkeling and diving. The staff are young, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and really supportive. They had all the worries covered– from sea sickness to fears of the water, they had ways to make us feel comfortable.

I had been planning to snorkel on the reef; I’ve snorkeled several times before on reefs and found it lots of fun. As a pretty comfortable swimmer, snorkeling isn’t so hard– you have to play around with getting the right fit for the mask and learn how to clear water out of the breathing tube, but that’s about it. My friend Rachel and I snorkeled off the northwest coast of Bali and really enjoyed it (even if we both got a bit seasick from swallowing salt water– hence the importance of clearing the breathing tube).

When I told friends back home I was planning on going to the Great Barrier Reef, several said, “oh you should do a recreational scuba dive.” I replied, “no thank you.” Scuba has never appealed to me. I thought the weight of the tanks plus the water above me would feel claustrophobic. Then there are all those critters, swimming and slithering and squishing around. Nope. Snorkeling will do me just fine. You can see a lot, and that’s cool.

Well, as we were boarding for our trip, I spotted a bunch of scuba gear sitting out.

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Bridget, one of the dive instructors, asked me if I was diving that day. I said no, that I hadn’t ever had any instruction. She responded cheerily that they could do that today and take me for a dive. I said I’d think about it.

Then to my utter surprise I found myself, one minute later, saying “yes, I’ll try it.”

Why did I do this?

I have no idea.

But as we approached the first stop at Michelmas cay, I didn’t feel dread or regret, just curiosity. This was downright odd.

We all got geared up in our stinger suits to protect us against the actually deadly box jellyfish that prowl/squish their way through these waters (although mainly in the shallows along the beaches– great, huh?). Here’s me in mine, which includes a hood and mitts to hold over your hands.

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I still had the chance to pull the plug if I had a change of heart. But instead I put on the vest with tank, regulator, gauge and other doodads we didn’t have to worry about today. We practiced breathing, clearing our ears, clearing our masks and a few other things, and then we stepped into the water. Splash!

Immediately I felt awkward and panicky. Buoyancy is something you have to adjust and I didn’t have much control over my limbs or orientation in the water. Then we had to go under, hold onto a rope that was tethered to the bottom (about 25 feet down) and breathe, clearing our masks of water and clearing our ears. There were three of us newbies and Bridget. We were all in various stages of shock, and she glided from one to another, futzing with weights, signaling to clear ears, checking to see we were okay. Still, the first five minutes I was dying to bail on this whole enterprise. I really didn’t think I could do it.

But then the five minutes passed. I calmed down and made my way along the rope down to the corals and fish in that incredible seascape. We saw a giant clam– this guy was a meter in length, with bluish purple photosensitive spots. If you put your hand near its opening, it would, well, clam up. Cool…

In short, it was an incredible feeling– gliding along almost weightless along coral rock walls, through schools of fish. I loved the feeling of swimming under a lot of water. It wasn’t scary. It was exhilarating.

So when we went to our second reef spot, I did it again– my second dive, this time in 45 feet of water. There was the same unpleasant five minute period of disorientation and panic, but this time I knew it was coming, so I hung on until it passed. And it did. We visited a lion fish, some gorgeous lavender corals and a zillion beautiful creatures. Before resurfacing, Bridget was doing backflips in the water. I tried some synchronized swimming twisty moves. Here’s a shot of us doing a cheerleading number under water.

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So what’s my message here? Go to the Great Barrier Reef? Try scuba? Try what you fear? All these are good advice (in my humble opinion…). But what I want to share here is two things I learned:

1) letting yourself be impulsive about some new activity sometimes is a good thing. And the delight that comes from the impulsive act exists on many levels.

2) many new activities are unpleasant at the start. I’m always unhappy the first 10-15 minutes of a road ride. This wasn’t all that different. Realizing that such feelings were part of the deal reminded me that they also pass into other feelings, like absorption and pleasure in movement. And enjoyment of the scenery as you glide on by…

So readers, have you ever tried some activity on impulse? What was it like? Did you go ever go from fear to pleasure?

About catherine w

I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.

8 thoughts on “Taking a plunge: surprise scuba day

  1. akmal999 says:

    What is not being eaten shark?,,

    Like

  2. G says:

    Wow! This is a tremendously casual way to start scuba diving and wasn’t anything like my experience (pool dives, class work, then open water). Seems a little risky, but it sounds like you guys had supervision– and a lot of fun! And I’m jealous– the Australian reefs are a dream dive for me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • catherine womack says:

      Hi– yes, you are right; they do provide some very quick and rudimentary instruction, and we don’t go very deep (about 8 meters, so can get to the surface quickly if needed), but it went fine (thank goodness). Of course now I want to get properly certified so I can do this with more confidence (and for longer periods). Definitely go to the GBR if you can sometime– the trip is worth it!

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  3. where we are says:

    Glad you were able to push through the panic! I tried scuba in a similar manner about 6 months ago, but I didn’t make it past the first 5 minutes of panic. ☹️ I ended up just snorkeling instead. Sounds like your guides were more patient and chill though. I felt a lot of pressure to hurry up and quit panicking! Lol.

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    • catherine womack says:

      Hi– I totally get the panic, and it easily could’ve been me bailing out before the 5 minutes were up. I do wish they had told us about the panicked feeling, and that it would pass; I bet it would’ve helped. Try it again sometime if you like, but honestly, snorkeling is lovely too. You can see a lot that way, and I enjoy being able to swim around on top of the water too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Helene says:

    Loved reading this, thank you!
    I especially liked reading the second thing you learned “many new activities are unpleasant at the start… These feelings pass into other feelings…”
    Enjoyed meeting you yesterday,
    Helene (the girl who found the new activity of snorkelling unpleasant…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • catherine womack says:

      HI Helene– yes, I enjoyed meeting you too! Sorry for the delay in response– work has been busy… Glad you were able to try it and also say when you had enough. We can enjoy nature from a lot of different vistas, and they are all interesting. Hope your trip back home went well.

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