“Move forward until your toes are at the edge of the platform. Put your left hand on your mask and your right hand on your weight belt. Stick your foot all the way out and step into the water.” Splash! I’ve just plunged into the Caribbean Sea for my first scuba diving experience. I feel an immediate panic. I can’t breathe in water, I have tons of equipment on, my mind is racing to account for all of the lessons I just learned in the practice pool. And then my dive instructor swims up to me, mellow and relaxed as always. He asks me how I’m doing, and I feel his calm transfer to me. I give him a thumbs up. I’m in safe hands.
After we do our surface practice and tests, we begin a slow descent together. Under the water my breathing is labored at first, I’m working too hard and feeling anxious. I work to control my breathing and my heart rate as we slowly descend, equalizing my ears every few feet. As I become more comfortable in this new environment, I look around me and take in this underwater sensation. I have snorkeled and swam before, but this is unlike anything I’ve experienced.
I am like a fish, weightlessly floating around underwater, free to explore. I can hear nothing, so I look at my instructor for pantomime instructions. He basically is a fish, more comfortable underwater than out of it. And his ability to express directions, dialogue and emotion through his hand gestures underwater is impressive. His joy here gives me hope that I will sometime feel natural with a mouthpiece providing air, and it sets my imagination in motion, dreaming of being an avid diver.
The dive continues as I clumsily work to find my balance in supine position, not floating up too high and not sinking too low. The adjusting is constant, as I’m new at this and prone to overcompensating. We forge ahead, stopping whenever we see a neat fish or coral-dweller. The parrot fish are beautiful, the Finding Nemo gang is all here, and probably my favorite were the coral-dwellers that retreat in hiding as I swipe the water near them. We even see a barracuda fish! We swim through coral structures, stopping to perform the tests and checkpoints needed for my certification, and as we near a low oxygen level we work our way back up to the surface.
The pace of life underwater is slower, more calm and easy. Between the lack of hearing and the resistance of water to movement, I am forced to slow down and appreciate what is around me. As soon as I’m back on the boat though, the energy is buzzing and everyone is comparing experiences and fishes seen. The camaraderie of the boat between dives is fun and energizing. Everyone is here for the love of this sport, for the opportunity to defy nature and breathe underwater.
The weekend is filled with lessons and dives and by the end of it I can hardly believe I have to go home and live out my normal, dry life on land. The underwater world is captivating and it draws me back for more. I had so much fun that I hardly realized I was in class, and I’m grateful for the instructors at Rainbow Reef Dive Center for making my experience relaxed, enjoyable, and informative. They are a fun and laid-back crowd and I’ll definitely be returning to Key Largo, Florida to dive with them again!