Who isn’t curious about the ocean and what lies deep beneath the surface? My grandmother has always taken me to an aquarium in Monterrey, California each year essentially since I was born. I remember pressing my face up against the multi-level tanks full of creatures from oceans and seas around the world. Furthermore, I’ve always wanted to “swim with the fishies” ever since watching Finding Nemo as an impressionable and Disney-animated loving young child. I even made an “Aquarium Playlist” on Spotify with songs that randomly remind me of kelp forests or crashing waves or the beach. I’ve also been lucky enough to have gone on many exotic trips with my family. While growing up with two parents who both traveled a lot for work, I learned how to snorkel at a relatively young age and fell in love with plummeting through the water, tunneling through schools of fish on coral reefs close the surface, and even swimming with hammerhead sharks and turtles.
Thus, when I was given the option to learn how to scuba dive over one of the recent school breaks on a trip with my family to St. Kitts, I was ecstatic. If aquariums and snorkeling could simply already reveal this much of the ocean world to me, what might scuba diving, a much more intensive experience, provide?
Now, getting certified is not as easy as it may seem. As a base line, you need to have a recent check-up with your doctor and be healthy and medically approved so you’re good to go. Before leaving, I had to find time to do almost 20 hours of online slides, reading, and subsequent tests in the weeks leading up to the trip, in addition to balancing my regular course load. But I was excited and made time as best I could, squeezing about the last half of the work in the couple days before we left. When we finally arrived in St. Kitts, it was gorgeous. At one place on the relatively small island country, you can even see the ocean on either side of you, it felt as if no matter where you were you could hear the gentle hum of the waves in the distance.
Now, with regards to obtaining the diving certification, once you have completed all the tests and such, you begin training and “diving” in a pool. Normally there are three lessons but we squeezed ours into one long pool session, learning how to breathe through the tubes, inflate/deflate to get the right buoyancy, put on/take off the tank and jacket, various emergency procedures, some tricks with the mask, and much more. To be completely honest, it was all very difficult to remember in such a short amount of time.
Next thing I knew, it was the morning of our first ocean dive, of which you do three at various level and go through different procedures, which are essentially “tests” with your dive master that you must achieve (survive) to his/her satisfaction before you can become certified. That first day, we were meant to complete the first two dives, leaving only the third for the next day in order to achieve our certification. As we were driving out, the water became increasingly choppy and it was one of the first days where a frightening storm kept coming and going, alternating rapidly with the sunshine; quite intimidating for one’s first real diving experience. Eventually we reached the destination. It didn’t look like much to me from above the surface on the boat, just choppier water, but apparently below was a real sunken ship with corals growing on it and plenty of sea life to call it their home. I was eager, but had a strange feeling. We geared up and my parents jumped in first, then my brother, and I was last before the dive master. I was starting to get nervous but in I jumped feet first out from under the “shelter” of the boat and into the storm. We were bobbing up and down on the surface when a panic attack hit me and I couldn’t breathe. I kept trying to breathe into my tank but I couldn’t even make it a few feet under water without my heart feeling like it would stop.
I ended up having to climb back on deck in order to calm down while my family continued the dive. Luckily, I didn’t completely miss out on the experience; my brother (an avid go-pro user) documenting the whole day and the subsequent trips. Never have I ever been more disappointed in myself in my life, but how was I to know I had some obscure fear of deep water or a reliance on technology in a (literally) pressure-induced setting. I never completed my certification and learned to dive but my brother took gorgeous videos of all three he did, and there were still plenty of opportunities for me to relax on the beach as well as snorkel and swim at my own comfort level, both on this and subsequent trips. And though I wish I could have experienced what was deep beneath the surface, my brother records it all for me on his go-pro, and I still have to say it was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life that everyone should try if given the opportunity, and that I hope to be able to complete in the future.
~Allegra Dobson '18
Photos by the author's brother, Alistair Dobson
© 2014 Princeton Traveler