Change. Audible groans normally ensue after hearing this word. The idea of “change” is difficult for many people to wrap their heads around. It’s in our nature to want stability and to find comfort in the consistency of our day-to-day routines. The negative connotation that comes with the word “change” often comes as a result of people not wanting to stray outside of their comfort zones. There’s such a stigma around this word, which I sometimes don’t understand. I am unique in the fact that I actually like change- or rather, I am used to it. In the past eight years, I have learned how to live in two separate homes. I move back and forth between my mom and dad’s house every two weeks, needing to re-adjust for different expectations at each house. It hasn’t been easy and I have gotten sick of moving back and forth between their houses, but a lot of good has come of it. Because of my unique upbringing, I do not struggle adapting to change as much as others, especially while traveling. Throughout my three weeks in Belize, I did not have a difficult time adjusting to the language barrier or the culture or the food. The challenge of being in a foreign country was more fun for me than anything. However, learning to scuba dive literally threw me off the deep end. Diving put me into an extended period of discomfort and forced me to experience a lot of change, both physically and emotionally.
After spending 2 weeks in Big Falls and Punta Gorda, our final destination in Belize was Placencia. Our sole purpose was to get our scuba certification over a 3-day course with our partner, Splash Dive Center. We spent our first day in a classroom, so I felt very comfortable learning in that type of environment. After spending hours and hours watching videos about safety, hand signals, equipment and everything in between, we took a variety of quizzes and then went onto our final exam. After getting a 91% on the test and 100% on my RDP dive table test, I was more than confident going into the next two days of actually diving. It was a slight mistake to be that confident.
As we got onto the dive boat the next day, I knew I was in for a challenging two days. The dive instructors were barking orders at each other while simultaneously going through equipment with their students while also directing people on the boat, all while rain poured down to the point that it was painful on my skin. After spending an hour on the boat, we made it to our island and were instructed to get all of our gear on and enter the water with the “Giant Stride” technique. I got into the water and felt both anxious and excited as I swam towards my instructor and two dive buddies. We went through four confined water dives, which are mini skill-building courses underwater. We went through the motions of clearing our masks, taking our masks off, swimming without a mask and even briefly swimming without our air source, among a variety of other skills. I did not like these skills. When I first cleared my mask, I panicked and rushed to the surface (important thing NOT to do while diving) and got charley horse cramps every time I panicked, which did not help with my level of anxiety at all. I “mastered” the required skills by the time we finished our confined water dives, but I was not confident about going into the open water dive next.
After resting and eating lunch on the boat, it was right back to the water for our first open water dive. I used the Giant Stride technique and followed my instructor to forty feet below the surface. As we descended, a wave of excitement and optimism came over me. I could breathe easily and when we reached the bottom, I realized that enduring the miserable skill building was worth it. I was at the bottom of the ocean! I was in absolute awe of where I was and what I was doing. I was at peace for the first time since starting the day and it gave me even more respect for my mom, who is a passionate scuba diver. I felt like I could finally get a glimpse of something that has always made her so happy and it felt very special. After swimming around for a bit and exploring the diverse marine life, we had to perform our skills. The skills went surprisingly well and I felt prepared to take on our next dive.
On the next dive, I almost died. Okay, not actually, but that’s what I’ve been telling people. It may be a slight exaggeration, but what happened was one of the scariest experiences I’ve had. We had just finished swimming around on our second open water dive and it was time to perform our skills at a greater depth. My instructor motioned to me that I needed to get air from my buddy’s second air source. I signaled “out of air” to Alice and she grabbed onto my arm as I reached for her back-up regulator. Her regulator wouldn’t come loose of her BCD so I had to swim closer to her torso and force the regulator in my mouth. I breathed in and no air entered my mouth, only a few big gulps of sea water. I tried again only to experience the same awful result. I noticed we were floating up to the surface and at this point I was in a complete frenzy. I was out of air and didn’t know what to do. My mind went completely blank. I lost my ability to think. My instructor finally put my own first stage regulator into my mouth and as I got air, I shrieked into my regulator out of a combination of fear and relief. I regained control of myself and we all continued with the dive. I was very cautious for the rest of the dive and made sure to remember to keep breathing. When we surfaced, my instructor explained that I had been trying to use Alice’s regulator upside down. I made a mental note not to do that again. We headed back to the dive center, cleaned and put our equipment away, and we were done with the day. I felt so relived to be on land and didn’t want the next day to come because I knew that meant more scuba and therefore even more discomfort.
Despite my wishes, that next morning did come. I promised to myself that I would stay calm no matter what happened during the day. But… I broke that promise upon surfacing from my first open water dive of the day. Our instructor told us to take off our BCD’s, inflate them, and then use them as flotation devices to relax in the water. I took my BCD off while struggling against the big waves and then had difficulty inflating it, so I was just swimming against the current while holding my heavy BCD and cylinder without any means to help me float, aside from my own body. Needless to say, my anxiety level was high and I was not calm. After about ten minutes of struggling, my instructor came over and helped me. He repeatedly told me, “stay calm,” which everyone knows does not help in stressful situations. My whole body was so exhausted from fighting the waves and the weight of my equipment. I just wanted to be on the boat. He spent about twenty minutes with me in the water, helping me perform this skill with my BCD. I finally got it on my own and the boat came to pick us up. We all had lunch on the boat and for lack of a better phrase, I was not having it. I had so much salt water in my sinuses, felt fatigued and sore, and the last thing I wanted to do was go back in the water. I said, “I don’t want to go back in” multiple times, but after eating something and laughing with friends I found the strength to force myself back in the ocean. I wanted to get certified and I just needed to push through.
I am so proud of myself for having the grit to continue because my last open water dive was incredible. We descended to sixty feet and didn’t have to perform any more skills, so we were able to explore and swim around. Alice and I made little dance routines underwater, which was hilarious and quite a thing to be able to do underwater. At one point, our instructor blew his whistle and signaled that there was a sound up above. We stayed neutrally buoyant and just looked above to the surface. I saw a shadow a couple times, but thought it was a boat. Alice did the “shark” hand motion to me, but because we had been dancing earlier I thought she was joking. When we surfaced, our instructor told us that it was a Blacktip reef shark, which are known to attack people. I had no idea that there was actually a shark in the water with us, so I was relieved that I didn’t know that while being underwater. In hindsight, it’s pretty cool. I swam under a shark that is known to attack humans. Badass.
I am proud of myself for the way in which I went about learning to scuba dive. Well, I am not particularly proud of how panicked I got at times, but when I look at the big picture, I did something that made me very uncomfortable and I really grinded it out. For the first time in a long time I experienced change that I did not take positively. And I could have let that ruin the entire experience for me. But I didn’t. I embraced the change and I was the change for myself. Change can be good and change is good, especially when you force yourself to dive off the deep end, whether it’s literally or figuratively. -AN.
Check out this video Anna put together about her time in Belize.