All my life I have been a water baby, spending my summers up in northern Ontario, doing my level best to transform from girl into dolphin, or at the very least, a mermaid. Some girls spend their childhood in gymnastics or ballet lessons, but those hours I spent each day swimming about in the lake that abutted my aunt’s property, those were my dance lessons as I learned to move my body with agility and grace while in the water. My brother and I would challenge each other to see who could swim the farthest or hold their breath the longest or dive the deepest, dredging up slimy, cool fistfuls of the clay-like sand as proof of how far down we had managed to go; from early on, the water was our playground, and while we respected it, we never learned to fear it. One summer, we swam unassisted across that lake, from my aunt’s beach to the privately owned one, my dad trailing behind in our rowboat, just in case. It took us three or four hours, but I float like a cork, so whenever I got tired, it was easy enough to just stop paddling and lie back, letting the waves cradle me as I bobbed there gently, gazing up into the cottonball clouds that drifted across the sky as easily as I did the surface of the water.
When I wasn’t frolicking about in the water, I had my nose buried in a book. Like many girls growing up in the 90s, I devoured the salacious thrillers of Christopher Pike, which revolved around teens living much sexier and more dangerous lives than I ever would. My particular favorite was the novel Bury Me Deep, which involved a girl who vacations in a tropical location and ends up making some bad choices that obviously come back to haunt her. I think the central tension may have revolved around a car accident in which the heroine and her friend decide to bury the body (hence the novel’s title) rather than report the crime… Honestly, I was more interested in the tidbits about SCUBA diving that were thrown in here and there, though my fascination became mingled with terror when one of the climactic scenes involved the heroine’s weights being cut from her by a homicidal maniac, resulting in an uncontrolled ascent, which would put her at risk for “the Bends” when bubbles of nitrogen form in the bloodstream. There was no doubt that SCUBA sounded cool, but it also sounded kind of scary and not really like something I would ever do.
Fastforward two decades. It’s still a few years before Tony & I will leave on our trip, but we’re starting to think more seriously about taking some time to see the world. A random conversation with my good friend Simona brings SCUBA back into my life: she and her partner have recently received their open water certification and returned from a dive trip to Costa Rica. As she gushes about how amazing neutral buoyancy is and all the beautiful things they have seen underwater, I wonder what the hell I have been doing in a landlocked state for so long. When I hang up the phone with Simona, I turn to Tony and I am resolved: we are going to learn how to dive. For about two weeks, I fastidiously research the ins & outs of learning to dive, places we could do our training in Nashville, theoretical costs. And then, as was so often the case, I let the flame in the torch I carried burn low, and my dreams of diving turned to wisps of smoke.
Although I could not hold my intention to dive in my hands, I did not let it slip away from me this time. I may have relegated it to the shadows, but I knew it was simply hibernating, safe in the darkness until my life transitioned into spring and so many of my dreams began to thaw. In the years we spent dreaming up our trip, adding destinations and activities at a frantic pace, one of the few constants through it all was that we would go somewhere where I could finally dive.
In our first three destinations in Asia—Japan, Hong Kong, China—diving was the furthest thing from my mind. But, when we decided to cut China loose and head to the Philippines, I knew the moment had finally come to make a dream a reality. For our first two weeks in the country, I entered a vicious but familiar cycle: I would begin researching possible places to learn how to dive, get sidetracked by reports of dive-related injuries and all the things that could go wrong when you’re a hundred feet below the surface of the ocean, and completely psych myself out, saying that I didn’t think diving would be for me. Nevertheless, a few days later, in a new location, the idea would get me in its grips once more and I’d find myself cautiously investigating possibilities once again.
Tony likes to poke fun of me for putting faith in “the universe”, but sometimes I feel like things just fall so elegantly and perfectly into place that there has to be something more than just random coincidence guiding our journey. Since leaving on our trip, we’ve been blessed with numerous amazing and awe-inspiring experiences and moments that I never could have counted on and never could have planned. I’ve spent hours mulling this over, trying to figure out how things not only always seem to work out, but often just when you think you’ve hit a wall, as you grope about blindly, your fingers find a keyhole to a door you could not see; miraculously, when you muster the courage to step through it, what’s waiting on the other side is the thing that is exactly right for you. So it was when it came to learning to dive.
Through a series of internet searches that I could never hope to replicate, I stumbled upon information about a diving homestay on a tiny island off the coast of Negros Oriental on one of those municipal aggregate websites. Who even knows why I pursued this thread as the homestay in question had no personal website and only had a phone number and a hotmail email address as means of getting in touch. Normally I shy away from talking on the phone and like to get as much information about a place as I can without actually speaking to anyone, but for whatever reason, I sent an email asking about prices and availability. Suddenly we were in contact with a guy named Mario who had grown up on the island, actually acting as the village chief for 10 years, and who had logged over 8000 dives there. I knew that as skittish as I was about diving, Tony was even more so—in all our discussions about hypothetically learning to dive, we had emphasized that a safe, supportive environment was key (we had no interest in learning to dive alongside 20 other newbies). After talking briefly with Mario, we both immediately felt in our guts that he could offer us the diving experience we were looking for. So we took a deep breath and took the plunge, booking ourselves in for a discover scuba dive with the option of extending on to do our PADI open water course if all went well.
That night before our discover dive, I was a bundle of nerves about what the next day would bring. “I’m not ready for this!” I wailed to Tony, over and over again. He reassured me that everything would be fine, Mario would make sure we were safe and wasn’t this all my idea in the first place? “No! I’m not ready to give up the dream of diving…” I clarified. After years of dreaming about diving, I was more than a little shell-shocked with the reality that come the morning, I would no longer have that dream to look forward to anymore. Tony has never really understood this about me, that I actually enjoy the anticipation and planning of a thing sometimes more than the thing itself. I imbue my plans with all my hopes and desires and they are what keep me moving into the future. I like knowing that I have something really good to look forward to, whether it’s that one last Jane Austen novel I’ve never read (because I hate thinking of living in a world where there are no new Jane Austen novels for me to discover for the very first time), or SCUBA diving.
I didn’t want to let go of my dream, but I swallowed my fear down deep and faced our orientation session in the morning with a smile as watery as the ocean we were about to submerge ourselves in. As Mario talked us through our equipment and basic exercises we would be performing underwater, panic spiked through me as he repeated the cardinal rule of diving: DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH. All of a sudden I couldn’t remember if this is something I did while swimming; what if all my instincts and habits formed over the years proved wrong and I ruptured a lung?
It turns out that the first rule of diving is a good one for life in general: when in doubt, just breathe. Give yourself time to pause and focus on the stream of air that fills and leaves your lungs; that breath, that moment, that is you living your life, and 90% of the time, that’s all you need to do to make it through a situation. As we sank to our knees on the ocean floor, regulators in our mouths and took our first breaths underwater, my fears evaporated. The core techniques that had sounded so daunting in theory on the surface, like taking our regulators out of our mouths—you know, the things that supply us with air!—while maintaining a steady exhalation, came like second nature once we were safely underwater. There is something magical about being beneath the waves; it is as though I can feel time slowing to a standstill and I suddenly exist in a place where my brain does not race but I can simply focus and be.
That’s not to say that I took to our first dive like a fish returned to her home; far from it! I was relatively unfazed by the actual act of breathing underwater—while other divers have marveled at breathing while being surrounded by water, I trusted our regulators right from the start and breathing with my head submerged didn’t really strike me as that novel. When Mario was confident that we had the basics mastered he and his divemaster, MacMac, slowly guided us deeper down as we would reach a maximum depth of about 8 meters and do a small tour of the reef right off the beach. This is where my frustration kicked in as I had a really hard time regulating my buoyancy early on: I either sunk like a stone or shot up to the surface like a runaway balloon, but I could not find neutral! Having never struggled or felt inelegant in the water before, I had been expecting I would be a natural at diving, so spending those first five minutes or so not being able to be where I wanted to was really aggravating. With his unflappable calm, Mario helped me eventually get my buoyancy control device adjusted just so, and then for the next 10 minutes dragged me around the reef. That’s not hyperbole by the way—I was so pleased to be neutrally buoyant that I refused to kick my fins or propel myself in any way for fear of ruining it, so Mario literally did have to drag me around until I finally felt confident enough to swim for myself.
I won’t lie: in the first 20 minutes of our discover dive, I was happy to finally be diving, but also mildly disappointed. SCUBA was neat, but it didn’t feel as groundbreaking or unbelievably weird or cool as I had thought it would and it was certainly more difficult and I felt far more ungainly than expected. It wasn’t clear to me just how much of an advantage over simply snorkeling I was gaining. But as we sunk farther and farther down, my perspective began to change: suddenly I was seeing the reef up close and noticing things that I had never seen before while paddling about on the surface of the water and because I wasn’t having to struggle to change my position when moving up or down, the fish largely ignored us and didn’t seem at all concerned or frightened by our presence meaning we really had the chance to observe them rather than feeling like we were constantly chasing after them. The colors were so vibrant and so vivid, and even though we were only about 7 meters deep, when I paused and looked up and saw a boat pass overhead and I realized just how much water was above us, tears came to my eyes because I truly felt in that instant that I had crossed through the looking glass and had entered a completely perfect new world.
I felt so happy and so free as Mario pointed out trumpet fish, clown fish, needle fish and even a sea snake, all of them darting in and around some of the largest and healthiest coral I have ever seen. I had always maintained that I didn’t want to learn to dive at the Great Barrier Reef because it would likely spoil me for all future dives; I think that in its own way, this place may have been even better. It was so beautiful it was almost painful, and I just tried very hard to focus on being present and enjoying the moment. I didn’t know how Tony was feeling as he was being guided by MackMack, but I knew that if he wasn’t loving his experience as much as I was, then this might be my only chance to have this.
Our discover dive lasted about 45 minutes, but the last half of it felt like it went by in the blink of an eye. As Mario led me back to shore and I watched the sandy floor slope upward to the sky, I felt like things were ending too soon. As my head broke the surface, I looked about frantically for Tony, wanting to see how his dive had gone and determined that he not feel pressured by my own enthusiasm. When I saw him, his eyes were wide and unseeing, and I feared the worst… but to my amazement, he was positively gushing, the words tumbling from his mouth as he crowed about how this was the coolest thing he had ever done and all he wanted to do from here on out was dive. I was so proud of him, not because he loved it as much as I did (honestly, I think he loved it even more!), but because I knew what a triumph this was for him as I had never seen him so enthusiastic about anything involving water before. I didn’t even have a chance to ask him if he wanted to continue on and get his certification because he was already miles ahead of me, itching to get back under the water as soon as possible.
So, of course that’s what we did. We spent the next week on that island, diving every day until we were certified open water divers. In between all the studying and the diving, I had a lot of time to think, because there wasn’t much else to do on our little hideaway when we weren’t exploring the world below. During those periods of reflection, I realized that even though in many ways my dive story was as far removed from Tony’s as one could be (he’ll be sharing his own tale in our next post), in my own way, learning to dive was a triumph for me too. I may not have feared the water the way Tony did, but I feared something bigger: that the reality of my life could never be as big or as bold as the dreams I had spun for myself.
I’m really good at dreaming, but actually doing things scares me. My brain fixates on what I will be losing, not on what I’ll be gaining. The dream of diving had fueled me for years, but I knew that in comparison, that first dive would be over in an instant. Ironically, I worried that in honoring a dream, my world would feel smaller, that some of its potential and mystery would have vanished. I feared that living out a dream meant ultimately killing it as well, and I was scared that I would not have it in me to find another desire to nurture and grow.
But now I know that this isn’t how dreams work. When you see a dream through, take the possible and make it real, you only expand your universe and what you believe you can do. After all, the world is over 70% water, so before I learned to dive, I was limited in how much of it I could ever explore. Now, there’s one less barrier holding me back, including myself.