I am hyperventilating, sucking air as fast as I can. My arms and legs are flailing wildly but I can’t seem to get any control of my body. My eyes are wide and I am in full-on white-eyed panic-attack mode. If I were a horse, my legs would be reared up and I’d be neighing as loud as I could. But I’m not a horse, I’m a human, and I’m in the Red Sea with about 20 kilos of weight on me. My PADI dive instructor Tarek, whom I call Yoda, is laughing at me with those big, smiling eyes of his, even though I have him in a white-knuckled death grip. The worst part is that I am paying for this experience. “What’s wrong?” he asks me. “I can’t breathe!” I gasp at him. “Of course you can breathe,” he says. “If you can talk, you can breathe. So what’s the problem?”
The problem is that I’m terrified of scuba diving. I’m petrified to put my face into the water and breathe manufactured air through a mouthpiece connected by a hose to a tank on my back. I’m afraid I’m heading toward a painful, watery death. Once I’m underwater I know I will have no control over what happens, and I am really, really afraid of having no control.
“I hate this!” I shout at him. “I just want to quit!” Yoda just laughs and tells me I don’t get to quit, no matter what. It’s exactly what I want to hear. I’ve signed up for scuba certification knowing full-well how challenging it would be for me. Years ago I started taking lessons but quit during a panic attack in my third lessons. Even snorkeling was terrifying the first dozen times I did it. Something about putting my face in a situation with no oxygen makes me anticipate immediate and painful death. I don’t know why I have this fear, but I’ve felt it as long as I can remember. I even freak out when someone buries my face under the covers in bed. Who knows, maybe my older brother held my head underwater 30 seconds too long in the pool when we were kids. I just know that for 25 years I’ve been living with the narrative of “I can’t scuba dive,” and I’ve decided that now is the time to change my story. I forced myself to snorkel even when it was uncomfortable, and now it’s as natural as breathing. I keep telling myself scuba will be the same.
A few minutes later Yoda’s calm manner has me breathing normally enough to descend. Once below, he gives me the “all ok” sign with a question in his eyes. Yep, I signal. Todo bien. Tutto bene. Alles gut. It’s the strangest thing – as panicked as I was on the surface, once I get below I’m totally calm. Maybe it has something to do with the spectacular scenery. With its white sandy bottom, calm, clear water and brilliant coral, the Red Sea is known as one of the premier snorkel and dive spots in the world. Last week I snorkeled on the other side of the Red Sea off the coast of Aqaba, Jordan. This week I’m south of there in Sharm El Sheik on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Both sides are equally stunning.
I follow Tarek along the bottom at 9 meters depth. We fin through coral gardens, hands clasped lightly in front of us. I’m conscious of every breath I take, and I fill my lungs greedily each time. “You don’t have a buoyancy problem,” he tells me later. “You have a breathing problem.” It’s no problem as long as I get enough air, I think to myself. On each side of us coral grows in every color of the rainbow. I see deep violet clams accented by bright yellow butterfly fish. Look! I found Nemo! He’s hiding in a juicy pink anemone. Tarek points at his eyes and then points to the ocean floor to show me a giant stingray burying itself in the sand. Cool!
A few meters further he points to a 6 meter length of rope on the sea floor. This is where I’ll have to simulate a controlled emergency ascent, one of the skills required for certification. “Don’t worry if you need to do it a few times,” he told me earlier. “No one gets it on their first try.” Except for me: I nail it. We high five underwater and celebrate my success with a swim around a different part of the coral reef.
Breathe in, breathe out. Check depth and air levels. Keep buoyancy consistent. There’s so much to think about when I dive, but there’s also so much amazing stuff to see. I feel like we’re playing in my own personal aquarium.
Next he signals the skill test I’ve been dreading: ditching my mask, putting it back on, and clearing the water out of it. “Salt water in your eyes won’t kill you,” Terek tells me. Easy for you to say. I don’t even open my eyes in the shower. Somehow I get through it. I don’t even freak out when the mask gets caught up in my hair. I just sit there calmly, eyes screwed tight, while Tarek frees it. A long 60 seconds later he taps my shoulder to signal it’s time to put it back on. I struggle a bit and feel the panic rise when I have trouble clearing it, but eventually I succeed. It’s far from graceful, but it’s enough to tick the box.
In all, we do four dives as part of my certification, and unlike most places, we do them all in open water (most places do half in the pool and half in the ocean). Because I’m taking a prescription medication with risks associated, I’m limited to 12 meters depth with an instructor as my buddy. I’m initially disappointed by this, but as I’ll discover on my next few dives in Asia, I’ve actually won the lottery because I get to have my own private underwater guide at no extra cost. I decide I like being up-close and personal with the pretty fish when diving, but I prefer the silent peacefulness of snorkeling. The sound of my exhaled bubbles is a constant reminder of how vulnerable, how utterly out of control, I am under the sea, and even though I’m certified, I’m a long way off from truly conquering the fear. It’s a great start, though, and I promise myself I’ll dive as often as I can in Asia. After all, if I could conquer my fear of needles by giving blood every 56 days, I can do this too. And this is so much more fun!