The Wooky’s Story
In February 2013 we went on a snorkelling trip in the Con Dao Islands in Vietnam. We shared the boat with a couple of divers who surfaced from the deep with tales of an amazing underwater world of huge fish and amazing coral and the Wooky decided he wanted some of that.
Several weeks later he had embarked on his PADI Open Water course with a German outfit in Sihanoukville, followed by the Advanced Open Water which he combined with a liveaboard trip (which we liked so much we went on a second a few days later).
The Wooky then proceeded to jump in the water with a tank on his back at every opportunity and another obsession was born.
But it wasn’t easy…
The Wooky’s Scuba journey is a story of steely determination. Throughout the first day he spent in the sea on his Open Water course he could barely descend more than a few metres because he had problems equalising. At the end of a very frustrating day, he returned to our beautiful (but, we discovered later, scorpion ridden) wooden hut up on a hill on Koh Rong Island overlooking the sea with a thumping headache, excruciating earache and a nosebleed. Visibly disheartened and distraught he explained that his problems were so severe that he may not even be able to complete the course. He had pushed himself (and his ears) to the absolute limit that day. He was utterly dismayed and although Peter (his amazing dive instructor) had been cautiously optimistic, it was one of the rare occasions that I thought the Wooky might actually accept defeat.
However he awoke the following morning with renewed resolve and marched off down the hill determined to conquer his difficulties. He returned that evening positively beaming and brimming with stories of fish and other creatures he had encountered under the water, the pain and frustration of the day before already forgotten. His stubborn determination had paid off again. It had been painful but he had succeeded in completing his first dive. His ears, however, suffered for about a year afterwards but he is adamant that it was a price worth paying.
Equalising difficulties and post dive headaches continued to vex the Wooky but he developed strategies to minimise the effect of these problems. He began to descend more slowly, he kept hydrated and started to take rehydration salts and/or paracetamol before or after a dive. These were tips he received from other divers and they considerably improved his overall diving experience.
But what I remember most when the Wooky returned from that second successful day in the water was, as he regaled me with a description of the colours and the fish and the coral, he stopped and turned to me and said he hoped that one day I would summon up the courage to dive with a tank because he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that it would be an experience I would never forget.
The Scaredy-Cat Other Half’s Story
So, when it came to me finally taking the plunge (pun intended) eighteen months after first becoming a diving widow, I had had plenty of time to contemplate reasons why the whole thing would be a complete disaster, particularly for me.
Firstly, I can be scared of my own shadow and my startle response is second to none. Take that into the water and you are opening a whole new can of worms or more precisely, sharks. I’m terrified of them. To be more accurate I am terrified of the idea of them. I am a child of the Jaws generation and any time I venture near water, the soundtrack pops into my head.
Now I know it is safe to go back into the water (except along coastal New South Wales where people are eaten on a regular basis at the moment) but irrational fear does tend to get the better of me sometimes. When splashing about in the sea I usually work on the basis that so long as there is someone a little further out at sea than I am then I am safe – the shark (because there is one out there) will see them first and they will be dinner, not me. However, if I look up and around me, and find that I am the only person in the water as far as the eye can see in both directions, I tend to panic and make my way back to shore as quickly as I can without losing all my dignity until I can feel the sand between my toes again. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am: it could be Cornwall which is not known for its Great White Shark population but never let rationality get in the way of absurd paranoia.
Step 1 – Master the Snorkel
I cannot remember not being able to swim. I am a good strong swimmer and at school I taught older children how to swim. From that perspective I am fairly confident in the water (sharks aside). However my first proper snorkelling trip in the Con Dao Islands had me panicking about all sorts. My visual perspective was all wrong (I thought I was swimming in 2 inches of water), I didn’t like to get too far from the boat (even though the shore was within easy reach), the tiny waves and gentle tide in the bay were freaking me out, and I just wasn’t sure about all those fish everywhere. I couldn’t relax and seemed to be in a constant dilemma – I wanted to be in the water but as soon as I was I wanted to be out again. My mask meant could see everything around me (which is obviously the point) but my confidence in the water diminished to such an extent that I thought I wanted to enjoy it but I couldn’t relax enough to enjoy it properly.
As we continued our journey through Cambodia and spent more time on the coast (on and in the water) I persevered and pushed myself to stay out in the water longer than I was comfortable, and as a result I started to become more relaxed. I concentrated on judging perspective and simply breathing (and not panicking). Ultimately I able to enjoying my snorkelling experience without worrying about sharks eating me.
Then we decided to buy an underwater camera and that changed everything. When you view the world around you through a lens you find yourself slightly removed from it. Snapping away underwater I almost instantly forgot my fear and anxiety and fell completely in love with the remarkable marine landscape and all the amazing wildlife in this incredible underwater world that had opened up to me.
Much credit must also be given to Lea Bettinelli. Boris and Lea were our neighbours on the pier in Pulau Derawan and Lea and I shared an irrational fear of Jaws and a childlike love of Finding Nemo. Each fish we encountered could be named (Nemo, Dory etc) but we reassured each other that fear of larger fish was entirely healthy – fish do have teeth after all (have you ever see the legendary Titan Triggerfish up close?). We effectively validated each other’s irrational fear and at the same time we boosted each other’s confidence in the water.
Lea’s support in the face of so much good-natured ridicule from the boys helped me face my irrational fears. My confidence returned and I slowly started to think that diving with a tank was a possibility.
Taking the Plunge
I spent 18 months convincing myself I could have a go at diving. I considered the all the possible problems I could encounter. Equalising was a common problem and given my pain threshold is nothing compared to the Wooky’s there was every possibility I would fall at the first hurdle. I already knew my capacity for irrational fear was equal to none, as was my propensity to panic (what would I do if I saw a shark?) and there was always the possibility I could get lost or die from compression sickness. There was no getting away from it – Scuba diving is a dangerous pastime and the worst that can happen is that you can die. It was a lot to consider.
I read a lot about diving and was reassured by the obvious and apparently universal attention to safety. By the time we decided on a 2 weeks holiday at the Prince John Dive Resort, in Donggala, Sulawesi I had decided that I would at least attempt a try dive but nothing more. The Wooky was fairly surprised but encouraging without pressuring me at all.
We arrived in Donggala and spent the first few days snorkelling, trying out our new underwater camera, marvelling at the house reef and getting a bit sunburnt. The Wooky had a few teething problems with his ears again but the resort had great antibiotics which cleared up an infection. By the end of the first week I had psyched myself up for a try dive. I muttered something about maybe, perhaps, possibly doing my Open Water but I didn’t want to commit to anything.
Friday morning I bit the bullet and went off on my try dive. I was crapping myself. Anna was my dive instructor and she was amazing. She calmly explained all the equipment and the basic safety procedures, and we went through the all-important hand signals. At every step of the way I was made to feel that I was in complete control, able to stop at any moment without question, no pressure whatsoever. As I might have mentioned I was quite nervous but I believe that diving is one of those situations where nervous is good. When the worst thing that can happen is you can die I think it pays to take heed of all the advice you can get, be on your guard and have all your wits about you.
Once we had gone through the basics, we geared up and made our way down to the shore. The Wooky was observing from his sunbed as I staggered across the sand, struggling under the unfamiliar weight of the tank and the bulky BCD.
We stood in the shallows and then came the moment of truth as it was time to start breathing underwater using the regulator. I didn’t think I would be claustrophobic (a common problem) but frankly, it being me, I wasn’t ruling anything out. I was ready to back out at any moment having long ago decided that pride came before drowning.
So Anna and I knelt down together in the shallows and I submerged myself, breathing for the first time from the regulator. It felt strange but OK and we just kind of hung about like that for a few minutes, breathing and using the hand signals that means “Are you OK?” and “Yes I’m OK” quite a lot.
After a few minutes we ran through the exercises we had gone through above the water, signalling, taking air from the other’s octopus, relocating your regulator using the backward underarm swing, asking how much air we had left and responding using the appropriate hand signals; general basic safety procedures that you need before you go on a try dive but that also go some way to increasing your confidence.
We took all this very slowly and calmly and spent several minutes overall just kind of floating in the shallows breathing.
Into the Deep
After about ten minutes Anna motioned that, if I was ready we would head out to the house reef which was, I figured, supposed to be the fun part of the fun dive so off we went. I didn’t have time to be nervous, I concentrated on equalising and as we descended a few metres I just became so excited by what I was seeing. I found out afterwards we had gone down to about 12-13 metres (which may not seem a lot to all you hardened divers but I was really chuffed).
My buoyancy was all over the place and Anna might as well have had me on a lead. I was letting air out of my BCD too fast one minute and sinking like a stone, and the next minute I was letting in too much and shooting up towards the surface. Anna was fantastic and had hold of me (or grabbed me at the last minute) to prevent me making a complete idiot out of myself.
After about 25 minutes or so, I signalled to Anna that I wanted to go back. I had enjoyed the experience beyond my wildest dreams but at the back of my mind I didn’t want to pushed myself beyond my limits. I wanted to get back on dry land while I still felt confident and calm about what I was doing. We slowly made our way back and swam up to shallows near the shore before resurfacing.
And it was at that point that I saw the Wooky emerging from the water at the same time. He had watched from his sunbed as we were going through the motions in the shallows, expecting me to resurface several times before getting my bearings. When I failed to do that and he saw us head off he grabbed a snorkel and mask and followed us. He watched from the surface as I bobbed up and down like a cork but could also see how much I was looking around and enjoying my surroundings – not panicked as we had both expected me to be.
I was absolutely exhilarated by the whole experience; from a personal point of view I was simply thrilled by what I had achieved but the activity of diving itself had exceeded my expectations.
I signed up there and then for the Open Water and spent the next couple of days reading the book and concentrating on the theory to get that out of the way. My course proper began on the Monday and I was certified by Thursday and although, at the time of writing, I have only 8 dives under my belt, I cannot wait to get back into the water and now know what all the fuss is about and how it can easily become an obsession.
And when I saw my first shark it was just as when I have seen everything else underwater for the first time: it was with a sense of wonder that I watched this beautiful graceful creature alternating between curiosity and apprehension as it swam towards me and away and then back again, and I knew exactly how it felt.