I was a scuba course dropout
... But at least I gave it a try.
It’s 8 o’clock on Saturday morning and I’m standing in a row of people along the side of a large rectangular pool, trying to breathe. The air in here is stuffy; rain has begun to pour down outside and dark clouds jostle together outside the large windows. The potent smell of chlorine permeates the pool area and the sounds of splashing water, clanking gym equipment and people chatting all bounce off the concrete walls. Up and down the long lanes the swimmers spin their arms to the end, somersault, and repeat.
A dozen of us stand there sweating, stuffed from neck to toe inside tight, black neoprene wetsuits and boots, clutching masks and snorkels, with weighted belts cinched around our waists. We’re about to put on BCDs (large inflatable vests) as well. The BCD is fitted with tentacle-like tubes, with a regulator mouthpiece to breathe through, a second mouthpiece in case a fellow diver gets into trouble, a compass, a computer gauge showing the air supply, and two buttons: an ‘inflate’ button to help me surface and a ‘deflate’ button to help me sink. Sink!
Strapped to our backs will be the most important item of all: a steel tank filled with pure oxygen. Lugging the 25kg tank from van to pool proved challenging; I thought my arms were relatively strong from swimming, but no! A tall young man, witnessing my struggle, volunteered to help. I gratefully accepted but managed to refrain from saying, “Thank you, young man.”
Signing up for a scuba diving course had seemed like a great idea a couple of months earlier, as the natural next step in my water journey and a great way to discover more about marine life. I also have a constant need to push myself and take on new challenges, and I’m very fortunate that my life and my body mostly allow for this to happen. But sometimes I push myself too far, mentally if not physically. Standing on the edge of the pool and feeling as if I’m nine months’ pregnant again, weighed down and breathless, I couldn’t help but wonder: what was I thinking?
The PADI open water diving course is recognised around the world and this one is expected to take us four days to complete (two in the pool. two in the sea), over two weekends. We’ve done the meet-and-greet at the dive shop and been fitted for wetsuits and boots. (Is it too strong to say I hate wearing full-length wetsuits? I certainly see their value but being appraised for size was not my favourite thing, nor was needing assistance to be hauled out of said wetsuit once I’d tried it on in the shop. Mammy and Scarlett struggling with the corset in Gone with the Wind springs to mind.)
A week earlier I’d sailed through the online learning component of the course, which we were told to complete before we showed up at the pool, but what is theory compared to practice? Today we’re in a small and contained body of water for training but the ocean is much deeper, with currents and chop and tides to navigate, and no edges to grip. All communication will be through hand signals underwater. Panicking and quick exits won’t be an option. Just take it step by step, I remind myself.
We finally get in the pool and as my wetsuit expands with water I feel instantly cooler, which is a relief. I pull my BCD straps over my shoulders, buckle and tighten them, and the oxygen tank is now pressed against my back. Everything feels lighter in the water, but still – the gear is bulky and it’s hard to get my balance, especially once I put on flippers. I stick the regulator in my mouth and breathe in, breathe out. Good, it’s working! While diving, slow, even breaths will be necessary to conserve energy and oxygen. The breathing also slows my racing heart.
Our instructor whips through a bunch of underwater hand signals (a flat hand slicing back and forth across the throat means ‘no air!’) and then we all submerge.
Today’s pool session will involve a series of underwater exercises and each one needs to be checked off (confirmed by an underwater handshake from our instructor) before we can advance to the next task. Despite feeling initially that we were all in the same boat as beginners, it immediately becomes apparent that this is not the case. Firstly, I am not wearing enough weights and can’t sink properly, so have to be ‘adjusted’ with more weight added to my belt. Next, the underwater demonstrations go too quickly for me; I get flustered and have to resurface to calm down. I really just want a few minutes to get used to being in all this gear and the feeling of breathing underwater. But there isn’t time.
After about five minutes everyone else moves ahead to deep-end practice while my friend, who I’d encouraged to sign up with me, and I remain in the shallow end with an instructor whose job it is to help us catch up. He is very patient, but also aware that we are falling behind. My friend and I are both over 40 – is that why we’re behind the others? But we are both reasonably fit.
I push myself on. I learn how to quickly and calmly(-ish) retrieve my regulator if it falls out of my mouth underwater. I learn how to empty my mask underwater if it fills up. I learn how to share my air supply. I learn what to do if my own air supply stops working or runs out. I learn how to become neutrally buoyant: to use my breathing and control my BCD so I can float underwater. Moving through the water wearing diving gear, while certainly easier than it was on land, still feels like a lot of effort. Oops! I’ve overinflated and am rising to the surface. Oops! I’ve deflated too much and hit the bottom of the pool. Is this what it’s like for astronauts on spaceships, gently bouncing around the capsule in bulky suits?
The morning ticks by. I can’t say I’m having much fun. I knew the course would be hard and push me physically and mentally, but I did not expect it to be this hard. After four hours I am so exhausted that I even need help removing my flippers. “You can catch up tomorrow,” says my instructor encouragingly.
After I shed all the gear and get dressed, our instructors announce that today we’re also supposed to swim six lengths (200m) of the pool without touching the sides and then float unaided for 10 minutes. This makes sense to ensure we can capably swim and float in the sea, and normally it would require very little effort because I swim all the time. But I am 100% done for the day. I am also feeling quite grumpy by this point, because the morning was hard and because I’m very hungry (hangry?) and really need some coffee.
One of the instructors sees me sitting by the pool looking deflated. “Tired?” she smiles. “I found that really hard,” I confess, “and I’m not 100% sure about coming back tomorrow.” She nods. “Sometimes people come and go. I know several instructors who quit this course multiple times.” This makes me feel a little better: if even the instructors sometimes take longer to do it, maybe it isn’t such a big deal that I struggled.
“But then again, if you’re not enjoying it…” she shrugs.
I decide to not go back the next day. This is quite out of character for me; I usually persevere until the bitter end to prove some kind of point to myself. But this time, I just feel relieved. I email the dive school to explain and they suggest a private lesson instead, so maybe I’ll try that at some point. I can see how with practice, like driving, the steps would become more intuitive. And doing it in the sea would be far more interesting than in the pool.
Despite not continuing I feel proud of myself for giving it a go, for completing that first session and getting to the point where I was lying flat at the deep end of the pool and removing my mask for a full minute, then replacing and clearing it underwater. That took real focus and my friend said I looked like I was in a trance while I was doing it – which I sort of was, to keep calm and also so I wouldn’t have to do it more than once!
The next day was Sunday and I attended my usual harbour swim, in the silver sea beneath a faint drizzle of rain, wearing togs, cap and goggles. My body (and mind) felt tired so I just had a short swim and swam alone. I moved my bare arms through the cold, silent water, turning every few strokes to breathe in real air, kicking my flipper-less feet through my own underwater world.
To a landlubber like me it sounds terrifying and the rewards must be wonderful. BUT if the learning is not fun...You made the right decision.
I'm an ocean swimmer and couldn't for the life of me learn to scuba dive. I applaud you even having a go!
I have severe vestibular issues and have had to adjust my life in the sea to fit.
I too hate wetsuits but will wear them to winter swim. I do feel though, that there's nothing like just normal swimming in the sea, diving down with a mask (and/or snorkel) and looking at the world beneath, feeling the cool salty seawater against the skin. Congrats!