“Don’t be nervous. Your instructor is waiting there for you.” As these words left the mouth of another Buccaneer Diving instructor – and after my slight agreement – I was gently pushed backwards off a boat. It was just the bit of encouragement I needed for my first time scuba diving. There were a fair amount of rolling waves on the ocean surface, but within a minute we began our slow descent to 12 meters. Underneath the surface of the Indian Ocean the water was still and turquoise. It is rainy season on Zanzibar, so visibility in the water is not as high as at other times of the year. Still, I could see around me enough to feel comfortable and be fully satisfied with the creatures seen on my first dive. There were unexpectedly purple coral reefs, Finding Nemo fish of various striped and colored varieties and some with oddly shaped fins, big drab fish, sea snakes, small gray fish with neon colored stripes, lion fish, a flounder..and the list goes on! Scuba diving has a truly strange and otherworldly feel to it. Something about being engulfed by water, the constantly and noticeably moving environment, kind of made my mind spin. To this, add all the beautiful creatures and the fact that you can get face to face with them and you’ve really got a weirdly cool situation.
Scuba diving is something I never thought I would do. Then again, so was travelling on the African continent and here I am. Before deciding to scuba dive just days ago my fears went something like this: what if a shark eats me? What if I drown? What if the boat forgets me and I end up as the main star in an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive? On the morning of the dives, my worries were more like this: What if my lungs blow up? What if my brain explodes? What if my ears won’t pop? What if I drown? What if I have a panic attack?
“You’re not going to go all Buster on me, are you?” Alex asked, referring to the nervous behavior and frequent panic attacks of the youngest brother in the brilliant TV series, Arrested Development. I answered an unsure ‘no’ to this.
As we walked to the dive center with the tune of all my worries ringing in our ears I was reminded by Alex of my recent personal conquest to cut out a good majority of the ‘what ifs’ and ‘buts’ in my life. Of course it is a good idea to be cautious and knowledgeable of the legitimate risks of any sport, but I tried to suppress the more outrageous concerns. I knew that the reward for overcoming (or just ignoring) my nerves would be worthwhile. I was doing the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course, which involves pool instruction and then at least one open water dive. With this, the participant is awarded a diving certificate that is good for one year and also counts toward any future coursework in getting full certification. After a skills session in the pool with my instructor, I was still feeling nervous and, honestly, unprepared for an open water dive. In the pool I learned how to clear my mask of any water that might get in, how to find my regulator (the mouthpiece supplying air to you on a dive), and how to share my alternate regulator with my dive buddy if they ran out of air. Learning all of these skills, and at a measly 2 meters, had me kicking for the surface, gasping for air, and blowing water out my nose. I couldn’t seem to get the hang of pacing my exhale if I lost my air source and of not trying to breathe through my nose (odd, because this is a general rule of swimming and I’ve done plenty of swimming). At the bottom of the pool I thought at least once that I would just pay the instructor for the pool time and skip out on the open water all together. My new knowledge of the risks and skills needed had me more worried than before. Sure, knowledge is power. But also…ignorance is bliss.
In committing to the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course, the uncomfortable pool skills were required and I was therefore forced in the direction of ‘knowledge is power.’ In reality, of course this is a good thing. I quickly asked my instructor if we could just swim around close to the ocean surface for a few minutes before descending. I am sure I sounded nervous and shaken and he assured me that we would descend slowly. Alex, who is certified in open water diving, also assured me that I most likely would not lose my regulator or have to clear my mask on the dive. So away we went in the bumping boat!
We reached our dive site within minutes and were, much to my surprise, still within easy sight of the shore. There goes my fear of ending up on I Shouldn’t Be Alive…it certainly looked close enough to swim if I had that kind of life or death adrenaline! As we swam under the surface, my curiosity finally trumped my nervousness and I was at ease, free to go about as I pleased. The 40 minutes of the first dive passed so quickly that when we returned to the surface I was asking, “Are we done already? It’s been 40 minutes?” I had planned on doing one dive but was definitely playing with the idea of going down with Alex and the instructor on the second dive. As does any good Tanzanian salesman, our instructor insisted gently that he would give me a very good price. Unlike most Tanzanian salesmen, though, he actually did (I would have done it without the random 10 percent discount!).
When we got back to the hotel after diving, I was lazing around and thinking about the odd things that happen in my brain when I am out of my usual routine and comfort zone. Of course, certain unpleasant things occupy spaces of my mind that wouldn’t be there at home, like being on the lookout for someone who might rob me, having to watch my bags, not walking very far at night, and trying not to think about the fact that the people who cook the food in local restaurants also wipe their butt with their hand. Moving on….
The deeply fun part about travelling, or living, somewhere outside my comfort zone is that my curiosity perks up a whole lot, I am more relaxed, and I tend not to be concerned with the same things I am concerned with at home. With just a dash of caution, these changes in thinking have led me to some of the best places in life: up mountains, across hundreds of miles of Yellowstone’s trails, and, now, down into the Indian Ocean.