Scuba Diving in the ocean is fucking terrifying

I had my first two dives in the ocean today.

First thing to note – all the training materials have pictures of happy smiling people, wearing naught but a short wetsuit, diving through sunlight crystal clear waters in the tropics while flashing perfect teeth.

Well, welcome to north west Canada MOTHERFUCKERS! Diving here involves 25lbs of weight on  a weight belt, even more in the BCD, a full body drysuit, full hood and gloves and several layers of clothes. All kitted up, it felt like we were going to the moon.

Second thing to note – I was in no danger here at all at any point. It was all in my mind.

We waded in from the beach and the first thing I noticed (aside from the crowds of gawking tourists) was the water was pretty damn cold. I started feeling real glad I was doing this in a drysuit rather than a wetsuit.

Then, we floated out, went through the pre-dive checks, and went under. I had been fine while diving in the pool – diving in the ocean was totally different.

First thing I noticed was the shock of the cold water seeping into the neoprene wet hood and gloves. I had a momentary panic that it was getting inside the suit, but then calmed myself when I realised it wasn’t getting past the neck seal.  The visibility was ‘ok’, but everything looked very different from the pool. Bits of debris flew past in the current and everything was tinted a strange colour. I realised I had let out too much air out of my BCD and just plummeted like a rock, and THEN realised I had forgot to equalise my ears. Doing so caused this loud squeaking sound inside my head and the pressure cleared.

I tried moving forward and found I was having a lot of trouble – after a lot of effort I could get myself going where I wanted. Kind of. Also I couldn’t seem to keep at the correct depth and had to keep futzing with the inflater, resulting in my alternatively smashing into the seabed and helplessly floating upwards.

My mask kept trickling a steady stream of water – probably due to my lip facial hair getting in the way of a seal. We kept getting deeper and deeper as we made our way out alongside the breakwater.

Sarah, my dive partner also on her first ocean dive seemed to be having a lot less trouble than me and was poking at various holes. We stopped for a while while they pointed something out to me – I didn’t look, I was too consumed with not panicking. I started getting salt water in my mouth, which I could not get rid of. I couldn’t tell if it was a equipment leak or me just using the respirator wrong, but it added to my misery, and I became aware I was on the edge of terror.

I’ve been scared a bunch of times – first time I flew a plane solo. Running into a bear while hiking solo in Alaska. First time docking my boat solo. Getting on the tube the day after the bombs went off. Having the engine fail while flying and realising that we were going to hit the ground in 30 seconds.

Each time the fear is different. This time it was gradual – it came on slowly, until I had a flash and realised I was fucking terrified. Everything was different, completely alien, the sounds, the light, the way everything moved. My body stopped trying to process sensations and smacked the big red ALARM button. I felt simultaneously claustrophobic and acrophobic, as if I could get crushed by the water around at the same time as being sucked away into nothingness. My nose was full of salt water, and every breath I took I heard all the way through my body. RAAASSSSSPPPP. Suddenly I became intimately connected with my breath – and was very very aware that it was the sound of my life. Every time I had to swallow a little salt water back it caused a pause in my breath and increased my fear,

Nobody dies in 20 feet of water parsons! You are not in the fucking mariana trench! my sensible inner voice kept yelling at me. Stop being a fucking idiot wuss and concentrate! Concentrate!

Finally, we had one exercise left, taking your respirator out, chucking it away and then retrieving it. I half-heartedly tried and then realised that I wasn’t going to do it. The sensible voice got overridden and I realised I’d had enough.

Trudging out of the water I felt awful, and was seriously thinking about never going in again. I’m no stranger to failure, but this one seemed so complete, so overwhelming that I didn’t see why I needed to put myself back in that situation.

So I went and warmed up and talked to my instructor Matt and my dive partner. And slowly, I started to feel better. Matt told me not to be so hard on myself and that that didn’t even start to break into the top half of worst first dives he’s seen. Freaking out on your first dive is apparently incredibly common, especially in cold water diving. Sarah admitted to me that she cried in the hot shower she’d just taken, and gradually I relaxed. I said ‘I’m just not used to being so bad at things’ which made me sound like a huge dickhead but whatever.

At the debrief it turned out the main problem I’d had was I kept fucking around with my inflater, which I shouldn’t have really been touching at the shallow depths we were at, causing me to wildly swing up and down and more importantly, making me feel completely out of control which just added to the effect of me not really being great with fins yet. We went over how to swim (yet again) with fins and how to change depth that way. A hot lunch helped wonders as well.

And… we went back in. And it was a thousand times better. I didn’t feel afraid, I did the exercises just fine, and I even managed to relax enough to see some fish. I managed to stay at the depth I wanted at least 80% of the time, and I started getting the hang of moving with fins, and I was even starting to enjoy myself. Next two dives are tomorrow.

I got this.

 

Matt

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