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.

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Me and my brother during one of our many childhood summers spent in North Bay, ON

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.

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A trumpet fish skulking about a Filipino reef

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.

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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.

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Getting ready for a Giant Stride entry!

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.

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Practicing modulating my buoyancy just using the air in my lungs

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.

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Another dive, another Nemo… they suck at hide & seek

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.

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The island where we learned to dive is also home to a turtle sanctuary!

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (21)

  1. April 8, 2013 at 8:21 am
    Apr. 8, '13

    I love this post! It’s great to see what your thoughts were about diving. Sounds like quite the experience.

    • April 11, 2013 at 1:41 am
      Apr. 11, '13

      It was an amazing experience! And despite the fact it was the culmination of many years of dreaming, it did not disappoint one jot.

      I know you feel a lot less confident in the water than I do, so I hope you’ll check out Tony’s post on diving. It might just be the push you need to give it a try one day! 😀

  2. April 8, 2013 at 9:33 am
    Apr. 8, '13

    Wow, what an experience. I love the water too (although, I always sink like a rock) and as appealing as diving sounds, the IDEA of breathing with something in my mouth makes me panic. I hope that will change.

    • April 11, 2013 at 1:44 am
      Apr. 11, '13

      Well, the great thing about diving is that: a) you want to sink; and b) when you’re in neoprene, everyone will float! Even Tony, who also sinks like a rock.

      Maybe before you try diving it would be good to do some snorkeling; it’s best in shallow water and might get you more used to having something in your mouth that is supplying you with air, but without the added pressure of being below the water. The great thing about SCUBA is that you really go nice and slow, so the first time you take your first breaths under water, you should be in a location where if you really start to panic, all you have to do is stand up and you are only waist deep. And of course, having an instructor you like and trust is key. Mario was the ultimate zen-master… I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to panic with him around!

      • April 16, 2013 at 9:04 am
        Apr. 16, '13

        I asked my husband if he was interested in scuba and to my surprise (and dismay) he said he is interested. Crap, this means I need to face my fears. Good suggestion on the snorkeling. I will probably try that before we invest in any scuba lessons.
        Carmel recently posted..Easter Rising

  3. Amanda
    April 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm
    Apr. 8, '13

    This is really cool!!! I adore the water and experienced snorkeling for the first time last year, but i never really considered scuba diving before. I’m not sure if it was the same book – though it might have been, it sounds familiar and i read a lot of those – but I read something when I was a kid that equally terrified me about the bends, haha! But reading this makes me think I should really try this at some point!!

    • April 11, 2013 at 1:54 am
      Apr. 11, '13

      Yeah, my fear about the Bends is somewhat legendary amongst close friends! Damn that Christopher Pike!

      In all seriousness though, if you love snorkeling and are at all interested in diving, I say you should at least give it a try. The great thing is most places offer a discover scuba dive that is quite reasonably priced and is a great way to see whether you like the experience; if you do, then it is easy to transition into the full Open Water course. I am so glad Tony & I both faced our fears and gave this a try, because diving is absolutely one of the coolest and most blissful things I’ve ever done!

  4. April 8, 2013 at 7:04 pm
    Apr. 8, '13

    I loved literally every sentence in this post. So proud of you two for taking a leap and trying it!! Now to convince you to head to Roatan for a dive trip… hehe 🙂
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Life here is like camping 24/7.

    • April 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm
      Apr. 11, '13

      I’m glad you enjoyed the writing—this was yet another incredibly personal post for me to write, and I always appreciate it when readers let me know that they responded to my oversharing… 😉

      No need to get out the thumb screws! Once Tony & I have conquered Asia & Europe, all parts of the world south of the U.S. are next… and yes, we intend to dive everywhere we can! Would love to have you as our divemaster! 😀

  5. April 8, 2013 at 7:57 pm
    Apr. 8, '13

    Fabulous Steph! What a wonderful place to have taken your dream to the next level!
    Gillian @OneGiantStep recently posted..Monday Moment: Chumphon, Thailand

    • April 11, 2013 at 1:59 am
      Apr. 11, '13

      I literally could not imagine a better place to take the plunge than where we did! Dreams are great, but they are nothing compared to seeing yourself breathe real life into them!

  6. April 9, 2013 at 12:08 am
    Apr. 9, '13

    Sounds like an amazing experience; I love the pics, especially of you as a kid Steph! Diving is something Andrew is keen to do while we travel but for a variety of reasons (contact lenses, fear of deep water) I’m still not sure about it – this post has made me reconsider, perhaps I can give it a go after all. How much did your course cost?
    Amy recently posted..Adapting to Travel

    • April 11, 2013 at 8:11 pm
      Apr. 11, '13

      So glad you enjoyed the pictures—underwater photography is very challenging! My brother actually posted that picture of the two of us on facebook a while back and I thought it was hilarious and I knew I had to include it in this post…

      If you have been able to snorkel, then you shouldn’t have issues diving. Contact lenses are actually completely fine for using with a mask, though they can pose a problem if you flood your mask. Depending on how poor your vision is, you may not need to wear them while in the water, as the water magnifies everything quite a lot. Alternatively, you could always do as Tony did and invest in an optically corrected mask.

      Please go and check out Tony’s post about learning to dive! He had a lot of mental barriers to overcome when it came to diving, and so I think you’ll find his own story very inspiring. If you’re at all curious about learning to dive (or giving it a try), then when you hit the Philippines (or Indonesia!), this is the perfect time to try!

      • April 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm
        Apr. 14, '13

        I am pretty blind without contacts – I didn’t realise that you could get optically corrected masks though, that could be a good option. Both of your diving accounts have been very inspiring, maybe we’ll give it a go in the Philippines too. I particularly like the sound of having private lessons instead of learning in a group in case I do something embarrassing (like paddling backwards when we went night kayaking in New Zealand!).
        Amy recently posted..Hiking on Fox Glacier

        • April 17, 2013 at 5:03 am
          Apr. 17, '13

          My corrected mask works great, and I am essentially blind without my glasses. I have a -5 on both eyes, and that seems to work for me, but see if you can find somewhere that will let you try different grades or go to an optics shop and have them test you. Despite being essentially legally blind without my glasses, the magnification factor of the water allows me to even see a little without a corrected mask, so diving really is no problem for those of us who can’t see so well.

  7. April 10, 2013 at 10:05 am
    Apr. 10, '13

    I love the picture with you and the sea turtle! SCUBA is something I have wanted to do for a while, as I have done enough snorkeling and SCUBA seems like the next, logical step for water activities. It is great to hear your take on learning. Congratulation on crossing another goal off your list!
    Brian recently posted..Pigeon: The Most Worldly Creature In The World

    • April 11, 2013 at 8:24 pm
      Apr. 11, '13

      Just you wait… we have much better sea turtle shots coming up! In those early days of scuba, it was hard to get my buoyancy just right, and I didn’t want to risk crushing the turtle (or terrifying him!) before the picture could be taken. My instructor kept motioning for me to get down lower, but in the water, I felt I was already plenty close!

      I really hope you do make time to try SCUBA at some point. There really is nothing like it! I still love a good snorkel, but now I’m a diver through and through!

  8. October 8, 2013 at 1:27 am
    Oct. 8, '13

    lovely… beautiful pictures and well written post, Steph.. Your experience shows that how much you love and comfortable in diving.. I enjoyed reading this post.. Thanks 🙂
    West Bay Tours Roatan recently posted..Roatan to Cayos Cochinos Marine Park, all day snorkel trip

    • October 9, 2013 at 1:20 am
      Oct. 9, '13

      Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed it and I hope others are also inspired.

  9. August 12, 2014 at 1:56 am
    Aug. 12, '14

    I like reading this post because in some ways I find what you felt about living a dream and not having something to look forward to anymore similar to how I feel sometimes. And also, the thought of what I will lose rather than what I will gain overpowers me. This is very inspiring and thank you for sharing. It gives me a better outlook in the future. Mabuhay from the Philippines.

    • August 12, 2014 at 11:39 am
      Aug. 12, '14

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Katrina! I’m so glad to hear that this post resonated so much with you and I hope it also inspires you to tackle some of the dreams you’ve been putting on hold; I’ve found on our trip that whenever we have made a dream come true, several even better ones sprout up in its place!

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