This past week, I took a boat trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. I had the option to snorkel or scuba dive on the reef, but years ago, I never finished my dive certification, so I didn’t really think it was an option. It turns out, even if you don’t have a certification, you can do a beginner dive with the instructor. I thought about it for about 2 seconds and decided to just snorkel because I had prior negative experiences with diving.
You see, about 13 years ago, shortly after moving to Los Angeles, I was living with 2 roommates and we all decided that it would be fun to get a diving certification. We signed up for a course, got all of our brand new diving equipment, and started our weekly classes. I realized three quarters of the way into this 6-week program that every time we were in the water, I was freezing cold. I don’t like the cold and I wasn’t enjoying the process as much as I thought I would. In addition, I was a little frightened of the dark, massive ocean filled with organisms and fish that were not well known to me. Then, out of the blue, I got sick and couldn’t finish the final class or the dive test. My roommates finished without me and by the time I was well enough to reschedule and finish during another session of the course, it seemed like too much work for something I wasn’t enjoying. It was a long commute to the center after an even longer days work and with no partners, I had no car pool lane, so that was the end of it. The agitating part was that I paid a lot of money for the course and the equipment at a time when I didn’t have a disposable income. I also don’t like quitting, so it always bothered me that I didn’t finish. For years, the equipment sat in my closet reminding me of my failed attempt. Frankly, the thought of diving now was just bringing up all of those past memories and feelings of regret and failure, so I didn’t want to dwell on it for more than 2 seconds.
We arrived at our first spot on the reef, Michaelmas Cay, and the boat crew briefed us on the types of fish we might see, which included reef sharks, barramundi, angelfish, and all sorts of other colorful specimens including jellyfish. They completely glossed over the fact that these waters are home to the box jellyfish, the most deadly jellyfish in the world, and that this is the season they’re found on the reef. Instead, the crew showed us the smaller jellyfish variety, which rarely stings and when it does, it feels like a tingle (so they said). However, no one was allowed into the water without wearing a stinger suit. Now, I’m an adventurous person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have fear. And let me tell you, I was definitely feeling something that resembled fear. Perhaps I could best describe it as trepidation. Fortunately, it was all tangled up with excitement and curiosity, so I took a few deep breaths, pulled on my stinger suit and mask, and jumped in the water.
What I encountered was … jellyfish… dozens of jellyfish!! No, no, it’s ok, the crew was right. This jellyfish variety really didn’t sting. And I was wearing a stinger suit. “It’s O-K”, I told myself. “Just push them away.”
After I moved through the wave of jellyfish, there were stacks of coral unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There were ribbons of color, schools of the most unusual looking fish, and even things like sea worms, sea cucumbers, and giant clams!! A-MAZ-ING. I spotted a black tipped reef shark and Wally, a Maore Wrasse fish, who has now been named because he has apparently been living near this part of the reef a long time. I spent almost 2 hours in the beautiful, clear, warm water and had so much fun swimming with the fish that I actually had the thought, “maybe I should try a dive. When would I have a better opportunity without having my certification?.” As soon as I got back on the boat, I talked with the captain, crew and the dive instructor to see if they would allow me to do an afternoon dive. Our trip was broken into two different locations on the reef with two hours at each location. If you were a beginner diver, you were supposed to go during the morning session so I had to do a little convincing to assure them that I was very comfortable in the water, a good swimmer, and a fast learner. Many of you know how persuasive I can be, so I’m sure you have no doubt what comes next.
As soon as we reached our second location, Hastings Reef, I was waiting with stinger suit already on. I was instructed to snorkel for about 20 minutes, come back to the boat to get my dive vest, and then we would dive for about an hour. I had to complete some basic tests like clearing my mask and my mouth piece in case water got in them, equalizing my ears by pinching my nose & blowing out, and underwater sign language. Alexa, my dive instructor, asked me to perform these tests underwater while holding on to the anchor line. Once I completed them successfully, we started our descent. Equalizing my ears was not working very well in my right ear, so our descent was slow. I kept having to come back up a few feet, try to equalize again… down a few feet, up a few feet. I was getting a little frustrated and I wasn’t familiar with the intensity of the pressure that I was feeling in my ears. The ocean was 6 meters (18 feet) deep at this location and the deeper we got, the more massive the ocean felt. I could feel a little bit of panic creeping into my body. I had just flown into town the prior day and I was just getting over a cold. What if I made a bad decision and it was too soon following both of those factors to dive? What if I couldn’t get rid of this horrible pressure in my right ear? What if I just wasted money and would have to give up? Was I really going to fail at this after finally having the courage to do it… after convincing the crew to make an exception for me? Fortunately, Alexa was fantastic. She had 10 years of experience and I was the only beginner diver with her thanks to my earlier coercion. She was literally holding my hand the entire time, had the patience of a saint, and with her underwater sign language, she got me through the descent process.
Once we reached the bottom, Alexa gave me a few moments to just take it all in. We were surrounded with all of the creatures and organisms that I had seen while snorkeling but now, I was up close and personal. Along my travels there have been plenty of moments during which I have felt so very small, but this was different. This was an environment unknown to me. I could see almost 60 meters in any direction. I was surrounded by tons of fish and coral. More than any other experience, I felt like I was inside of another world and I was just a tiny observer. It was very important not to disturb the coral by touching it, however, Alexa did pick up a sea cucumber and encouraged me to feel it. It was squishy and slimy on the top and had short little legs all along the bottom. Next, she waved her hand over top of a giant clam so that we could watch it close up. We spotted a miniature reef shrimp and I got to see all of the colorful creatures that live in the coral. It was fantastic! Once our hour was up and our air was running low, we ascended to the water’s surface. As I stepped back up the ladder and onto the boat, it suddenly felt strange to walk on two legs after wearing fins for so long and my mind was still swimming with emotion trying to process what I just experienced.
I learned so many lessons in this one day but the most important were patience and persistence. Fear is like a compass showing us where to go. If we’re kind and patient with ourselves, we can persist, and growth happens. Here’s the ironic part…
As I was downsizing my life in preparation for my travels, I decided that if I owned anything that I had not used in the past year, it needed to go. My boots, fins, mask, and dive textbook had actually sat in my closet taunting me with failure and regret… for 13 years!! I finally placed those items for sale on Craigslist, advertised them on Facebook, and had a yard sale. No one bought my diving paraphernalia. And somehow, I just couldn’t bring myself to donate the items either. They are actually the exception that made it into my teeny tiny storage unit. Now I know why.
Still revelling in gratitude.