I have wanted to become a SCUBA diver virtually my entire life. The thought of diving underwater and coming face to face with all of the creatures I had seen in books and documentaries always enamored me. Unfortunately, diving is a very expensive endeavor and thus it was never something that was within my reach. I spent many years of my life desperately hoping that one day I would become SCUBA certified, but for me it felt as though that day was very far into the future.
Last year I had enough funding from grants to finally make my dream a reality. I took the class and purchased my first set of gear, and before I knew it I was diving regularly. I was in disbelief: I had waited for so long for this dream to come true and now I was 30 feet underwater breathing relatively naturally while a congregation of curious Bluegill fish surrounded me. I felt so comfortable and calm underwater, and I quickly became obsessed with diving. I wanted to do it all of the time and wanted to learn everything I could about it. I couldn't stop talking about it, I was simply so elated to finally be diving.
Over the past year I worked diligently to practice my skills underwater and make them second nature so that I would be prepared to dive in Chile. The diving conditions in Chile tend to be rather rough due to the natural currents, sometimes strong waves and cold temperatures. It was important to me that I was prepared enough to handle the rougher conditions so that I could be an asset to my lab when diving, and therefore I treated every practice dive seriously and worked arduously to hone my skills. I dove as frequently as possible even when I had tests looming over me because becoming a proficient diver was so important to me.
Diving is something that is best learned through constant repetition. Descending beneath the surface with the intent of improvement greatly increases your growth as a diver, and constantly and consistently working on skills makes them more like second nature. One of the critical skills that I worked on was controlling anxiety. The last thing you want to do when diving is panic, so as a naturally anxious person I trained myself to remain calm at all times when underwater. Whenever I felt myself becoming nervous, I forced myself to immediately breathe slowly and deeply in order to convince my body to relax. I am so calm underwater, something I need to work on transferring to times when I am above water.
Every time I dove, I envisioned my first dive in Chile. I was excited and a little nervous, but as the time came closer, I was ready to make the dive that I had been training for during the past year.
I had done every conceivable thing on my end to be prepared to dive in Chile and help my lab with research dives. I woke up at 5:00 AM and drove an hour and a half every Sunday morning to the dive site and paid for my air out of my own pocket to make sure that I was ready. However, I knew it would be an uphill battle to get myself to dive at the station due to conditions out of my control.
I had been told "no" many, many times before for various situations, often due to my inexperience. In terms of SCUBA, I decided that "no" would never become a stopping point for me and that I would never give up. Diving was too important to me and I had done too much to lay down and die. Unfortunately, however, it appeared as though getting me diving was not nearly as important to others as it was to me. My lab mates understood (to a degree), but it wasn't up to them. After being told "no" and being treated as though I had no experience on three separate occasions within a two week span, I was quite frankly devastated. Everything I had worked so hard for didn't seem to be appreciated and seemed to be crumbling around me. I had brought all of my own gear and everything, but it didn't seem to help the situation. It looked as if I would never be considered despite my rigorous training. Part of me was concerned that it was because I was a woman (plus I am very petite) and part of me wondered if my first ill-fated snorkeling trip was still lingering around the edges.
And then before I knew it, my first dive was about to happen. We needed animals for an upcoming project and I would be assisting with the collection. The dive would only be two people, me and my lab mate, and we would do a shore dive. I was relieved that it would only be the two of us; focusing only on one person would make the situation less stressful for me. I also had good communication with my dive buddy and trusted him, both of which are important for diving, especially in unfamiliar areas. I was excited, but I was also very nervous. I felt a lot of pressure to be the perfect diver. I felt like I had to do absolutely everything correctly or I would never be able to dive again. I had a lot of weight on me (quite literally). I kept repeating my training in my head over and over again and reminding myself of everything I had to do. I had all of the possible situations and appropriate responses mapped out in my head in case something were to happen, and I had gone over the dive plan countless times. I was pensive to say the least.
On a frigid but sunny morning, I looked out to sea and prepped my dive equipment for the dive I had waited to do for most of my life. Diving in the ocean had been my dream for so long, and I was only minutes from realizing that dream. I was nervous, but I was ready.
My plan for everything to go perfectly went out the window in about five seconds. Things that had never gone wrong during all my 22 previous dives went wrong during this one. I fell twice while entering the water (once because my lab mate tripped on my fin and once because there was a drop in the sand and I wasn't very stable with all the weight), my mask flooded at least five times (it wasn't tight enough, but I have since fixed it and haven't had more leaks), I was severely overweighted since this was my first time diving in saltwater and I wasn't sure how many weights to use (meaning achieving neutral buoyancy was very difficult), my fin came off, my regulator leaked and my BCD and tank slid completely to one side and started pulling me down during the surface swim since I had to readjust all of the bands for the new tank setup. But, I relied completely on my training. I stayed calm, breathed deeply, and did exactly as I was trained. Regardless of everything, however, it was one of the most rewarding dives of my life.
We surface swam to the location and my buddy pointed to a particularly shallow area and said we would descend there. I was immediately concerned. I wear a 7mm full wetsuit plus a 7mm hooded vest, meaning that I have a 14mm neoprene core that makes me super buoyant. My suit doesn't normally compress until about 15 feet/5 meters, so anything above that is difficult to dive because my body wants to float straight to the surface. "Can we go somewhere a little deeper?" We found somewhere only slightly deeper and I decided to just go with it and hope for the best. I didn't have any reason to worry. With all those extra weights, I went down immediately with no trouble, as a matter of fact a little faster than I would have liked to have descended (you want to descend very slowly). I slowed myself and regained my composure, then slowly followed my buddy as we descended into the kelp forests. In central Chile the kelp forests are more akin to bushes, and the environment is made up of boulders haphazardly settled around the rocky or sandy bottom with groups of kelp bushes along the boulders. For years I had only heard about this ecosystem, and now I was seeing it for myself. Everything began to fall into place and my understanding of my research and the ecosystem itself began to come together rapidly in my mind.
We made it to our destination and my buddy signaled for me to stay in one spot for a second while he collected the nearby animals. I chose a spot and hovered above it with one hand on a rock below to steady myself as I acclimated to this foreign world. I was situated underneath a few kelp bushes that were swaying in the surge and current. I had never experienced surge or current having only dove in a tranquil quarry, and while at first swinging back and forth out of my control was a bit unnerving I eventually got used to the feeling. All around me animals that were either minding their own business or that were slightly curious about me continued their everyday lives as I watched in complete awe. This was something I had dreamed of for years, and now all of the animals I had known from photographs or from seeing in the lab setting were right in front of me in their natural habitat. Amidst the swaying kelp fronds that tossed the incoming light across the rock faces, I saw scores of red shrimp emerge from behind boulders and small fish dart out from their hiding places as I melted into a world I had only dreamed of seeing.
My dive buddy signaled for me to follow him to another site and I followed him closely as we glided over the unfamiliar landscape. I checked my gauge and dive computer and everything seemed to be going well. We collected animals from a few more sites (and I was attacked by a rather angry crab), and I began to feel more and more comfortable. When you train in the same equipment and dive repeatedly, you become comfortable and confident within the sphere of yourself and your equipment, so when you dive a new site it is more like adding a new element to your dive rather than the dive itself being a completely new and unnerving experience. I had worked constantly to feel comfortable with myself and my gear underwater so I wouldn't have to focus on fiddling with unfamiliar equipment or with trying to achieve neutral buoyancy for example (for non-divers, this is the feeling of "weightlessness" while diving where you can hover without having to strain yourself to stay afloat over the bottom) while trying to also get used to a new and unfamiliar site.
We traversed over craggy rocks and beneath the canopy of brown algae fronds. The turquoise waters danced around us as we ascended over the forests and I breathed out a sigh of pure bliss and relief. I had made it. It had taken me so many years, but I was finally diving in the place I loved the most. Ocean diving had been a far off dream and now, at last, I was here.
At one point we were crossing through a rocky underbrush of kelp and suddenly I felt my fin come off on a rock. At first I felt a pit in my stomach and felt myself begin to breathe more rapidly and my heart rate increase as my dive buddy drifted away from me, but I immediately yelled "NO" to myself and slowed my breathing. I calmly turned myself around and saw my fin floating gently behind me. I retrieved the fin and swam up to my buddy, got his attention, and we remedied the problem. In that moment I was horrified that it had happened because I felt as though it made me look inexperienced (I had never had a fin come off during a SCUBA dive previously but of course it had to happen now), but I was also very proud of myself because I had calmly resolved the issue. My dive buddy and I also had excellent communication, which is critical when diving and greatly decreased my hesitation. I've made it a habit to use the "Okay? Okay!" signal any time I make eye contact with someone underwater (which has transferred to above water activities, too), and I try to use clear signals so that my buddy(ies) understand my exact intentions. The habits I had developed served me well as my dive buddy and I communicated only through hand signals.
We quickly collected all of the animals that we needed, but both of us had quite a bit of air left in our tanks. My buddy decided to take me "sightseeing" around the nearby area, just for fun and not for work. I followed him as he did a little spin just to show off (granted, I've been dying to try the spinning trick and I love to do it when snorkeling), and I felt my body relax further as the craggy rocks opened up into a turquoise blue expanse of sand and open space. I saw my very first rollizo (a long, dark fish with white spots running in a line along its body) as it darted out in front of us. I saw a school of fish with species I had never seen before, and my buddy pointed out a lovely little sea slug. I don't think he will ever know how happy, relieved, and proud I was in that moment and how much that dive meant to me.
We eventually had to end the dive so that we could bring the animals with us to the marine station, and as we soared over the dancing kelp forests and ascended back into the terrestrial world, I couldn't help but feel a pang of sadness that it was over. But, I had so many dives in store. I still do.
That dive was perhaps the single most important one of my diving career thus far. I had finally accomplished something I had fought for so long to achieve, but I also realized a few very important truths. I had placed so much unhealthy pressure on myself to be perfect because I felt like I had to be perfect in order to dive more or even at all. I did everything in my power to make myself a self-sufficient diver. I even practiced putting on all of my gear with no help because I was so terrified that asking someone to help me zip up my BCD for instance would make me appear weak or inexperienced. I couldn't show any weakness or inexperience, only proficiency. However, in a certain sense that was unnecessary. My skill set alone was enough to speak for itself. It's okay to ask for help sometimes. It's okay to be inexperienced. I didn't have to be completely perfect to achieve my goals. I didn't have to be terrified that losing a fin would cost me my entire diving career in Chile. I often catch myself feeling as though I am inadequate because I don't know as much as the rest of the lab technicians. However, I can't be expected to know everything. There are bound to be techniques and concepts that I won't know, won't understand, or need to be taught in order to understand. But, there are things that I know and understand that they don't. I cannot allow myself to fall into the trap of self-doubt and I cannot allow others to make me feel terrible for not knowing how to do something. Once you can separate yourself from how others think of you (or your perception of how others see you), you can accomplish so much more and you can find inner peace.
Diving teaches you so much more than just how to breathe underwater. It makes you more aware of our precious underwater world, gives you valuable techniques that you can apply to your terrestrial life, and empowers you to grow and develop as a person. I feel like such a stronger person now that I am a diver. I feel like I can do almost anything I put my mind to. I am thrilled to dive for the rest of my life. My first ocean dive was a tremendous accomplishment for me. I am thankful for everyone who helped me train, and I am forever grateful to my lab mate who accompanied me during the dive. There will be many more dives in my life, but this one will always be special to me. Everyone remembers their first ocean dive, right?