For many years, a prominent member of a short list I maintained of things-I-must-do-before-I-die was: scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. In December 2007, I went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and a few short minutes later, it was all over. I was back up at the ocean surface, gasping for breath, relieved to be alive, my heart pounding. Back on the boat, my diving instructor suggested I discontinue diving. I nodded my head, disappointed, yet secretly overcome by a wave of heartfelt relief. I had realized the truth of a statement I had always subconsciously subscribed to: I was more comfortable hiking 15,000 feet above sea level than I was swimming 15 meters below.
Three days prior to this disaster I had enrolled in diving classes run by a dive operator based in Cairns, Queensland. The classes were part theory, part practice in a swimming pool. On the very first day, the claustrophobia induced by the scuba apparatus became apparent to me as I struggled to overcome the instincts evoked by the wearing of a device that made it seem like a Darth Vader heavy-breathing soundtrack was on continuous loop. Still, I somehow worked through the various drills with the rest of the class, lagging at times, and often requiring an instructor to check in on my progress.
At the end of the second day though, it wasn’t clear I had mastered an essential emergency drill, that of being able to replace a mask and breathing regulator underwater. I went back under to practice again, and emerged triumphant. Sort of. Even at this early stage, I had mixed feelings; I wasn’t feeling comfortable underwater, and while I had been able to carry out all the emergency drills needed, I wasn’t sure if I could actually carry them out in a good-to-honest crisis without panicking.
I soon found out. The next day, we headed out in a boat to the Reef, and got into the water. I headed down to the bottom, ably escorted by my diving buddy, one of the very patient instructors that had worked with me to make sure I had mastered the emergency procedures. A few minutes later, my mouthpiece came loose. Even as an electric bolt of fear ran through me, I reinserted the mouthpiece and blew through it to clear it (as trained). But the taste of salt water in the mouthpiece persisted, and nothing at that moment could convince me that I wasn’t about to drown. My entire body convulsed with panic again as I grabbed my ‘buddy’s’ arm (and as he desperately tried to calm me); I wanted up and out, and waved frantically upwards. We headed up for the surface.
Diving was a surreal experience; I was stunned and entranced by the beauty of coral reefs and their flora and fauna, but that beauty could not override the tremendous claustrophobia and lack of freedom I felt in the scuba apparatus. I spent some time snorkeling later so that I could continue to check out the Reef’s attractions, but I knew diving was not for me.
There are times when I am struck by the silliness of it all: I must be member of an exceedingly tiny minority that is not able to scuba dive. Kids do it; old farts do it; but I can’t. The fear I experienced that day was real, and all my training was unable to overcome it. Still, I suppose, there is some virtue in having tried it out under the shadow of a known fear, in an effort to master it.