Oahu Hawaii was the very first place I ever tried scuba diving. I remember it as exciting, a bit scary, and absolutely magical. I was completely enthralled watching all the fish swimming around me, amazed to look up and see the sun shining through the water’s surface far above my head, and generally just tickled pink by the entire experience. I was hooked. Once home, I immediately signed up for the next available certification course. And, since then, scuba diving has been a huge driving force in my life. It has taken me to far flung places I never imagined I’d get to visit. It has brought me many new wonderful friends, as well as the love of my life (now my husband), and it keeps me engaged both physically and mentally, as there is always some new skill to master or concept to understand.
So when we planned for our honeymoon to start in Hawaii, I figured we should sneak in a day or two of diving….for old time’s sake. I wanted to revisit the place where it all started for me, and see it through an entirely different set of eyes.
We set out with Island Divers Hawaii (the same company I did my Discover Scuba Diving experience with a few years earlier) bright and early on April 15th. We were signed up for a 2 tank “advanced” morning dive, meaning we would visit deeper and more challenging sites than the easy shallow ones used in the afternoon for training new divers. Nothing out of the ordinary for us.
The wind was blowing pretty good and the farther out of the bay we got the choppier the water became. As the crew secured the boat to the mooring line we received our briefing. We would be diving The Corsair – a remarkably intact WWII plane wreck. It sits in about 105ft of water. There was a strong current, surface waves, and a fair bit of swell to deal with too. I started to feel a little nervous, wondering if I’d be up to the challenge. I hadn’t done an open water dive since Thailand, which was over a year ago.
It was a rough ride at the surface, trying to hang on to the buoy line so the current didn’t push us off the dive site. I started my descent on the line, pushed back and forth by the swell as I tried to equalize quickly so I could get below it. I was breathing hard with the effort and my nerves and started to feel panicked. I popped back up to the surface a few times, took a few deep breaths and tried to talk myself out of my anxiousness. By this point our guide clued in that I was having a problem, and did what every dive professional, including myself, is trained to do – make eye contact, stay close, encourage some deep breaths, and try to resolve the problem. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt anything worse than anxiousness underwater. That “stomach in knots” feeling combined with hyperventilating is just awful, and in no time at all I was over breathing my regulator and starting to feel starved for air. I made it 25ft down and then I had a moment where I thought to myself “this anxiety is either going to get better as I get deeper or it is going to get worse”. I pondered this for a short minute, as the swell jerked me back and forth, doing nothing to help me relax.
On the rare occasions I’ve felt anxious on a dive (almost always on the descent and frequently on the first dive after a long dry period, especially if its a deep one) it usually gets better when I reach the reef. Usually, I can talk myself down and then I’m just fine, continuing on my dive as if nothing happened. But this time, it wasn’t getting better. Every second I stayed down there my desperation to get back to the surface seemed to grow and it was all I could do not to take off. I knew trying to continue down was a bad idea. If my anxiety grew then the deeper I got the harder it was going to be to resolve. And did I really want to find out just how far I could push myself before I actually did crack and make a totally unsafe run for the surface, putting both myself and others in danger? Not really. I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t think my situation through, and frankly the only thing holding me back was my pride. How embarrassing I thought, I have the training and experience for these conditions. What will the crew and the other divers think of me? What will Warren think of me?
In the end I signaled to the guide I needed to end my dive, there on the line at 25ft. I made sure Warren had a new buddy before he continued down and I surfaced safely, never more relieved to get out of the water. I was pretty down about it. In over a hundred dives I’ve never had to bail out like that. I sat on the boat by myself, getting sea sick, feeling disappointed, worrying this was going to be a recurring problem. I sat out the next dive too, a shallow reef site in much calmer seas, because I just wasn’t feeling like myself yet and wasn’t ready to find out whether I would be anxious and then be embarrassed and bummed out all over again.
I have been so lucky throughout my training with exceptional instructors (here’s looking at you Matthew, Kari, and Warren) to have been taught over and over that any diver can end any dive, at any time, for any reason. No judgment. And that isn’t just lip service. Every one who has ever said that to me has meant it, and I in turn mean it too every time I say it to students. I know I made the right choice, and eventually the embarrassment faded and I was left feeling proud of myself. Proud to have put my safety above my pride. Proud to have put my money where my mouth is when we teach our students not to make dives they don’t feel equipped for, whether that’s mentally or physically. Proud to have a buddy who wouldn’t judge me, or think any less of me as a diver.
When we got back to the shop I asked that we be switched to the afternoon boat for the next day, so that we could do some easier sites in the hopes it would ease my anxiety. While I was confident in my decision not to dive on the 15th, I was super worried that this would be a problem I couldn’t shake. We are headed to Indonesia next to do a TON of diving and the thought that I might miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime to dive some extraordinary places over some sudden anxiousness was devastating. I spent time on the boat ride out the next day visualizing a dive going well and am pleased to report I did just fine. I felt some residual anxiousness, which I think was a result of how much pressure I put on myself to not feel anxious (figures) but after a few minutes on the bottom I was relaxed and had no issues. And after all that…the diving off Hawaii Kai in Oahu was terrible. The sites have been picked clean of shells and starfish (at the urging of the dive staff no less), hardly any fish and no corals. I was not a fan of watching our guide lure in fish for customers by feeding Sergeant Major eggs to the other fish either. I wondered if he even knew what those purple patches on the rocks were as he waved them around.
My lesson for today is simply this – if you don’t feel up to a dive, and can’t shake off that feeling, then don’t make the dive. It doesn’t really matter why you don’t feel up to it. Maybe its the conditions. Maybe its the depth or type of dive, or some concern you have about your readiness. Or, like me, maybe its just a weird combination of all the above that on any other day wouldn’t have bothered you. It doesn’t really matter why actually…the important thing is just to know yourself. Know your limits, then respect them. Your dive staff, and your buddy, will thank you for it.