My breathing has turned ragged as I struggled to calm myself down. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Didn’t work. I started singing the first song that popped into my head.
The quick inhale-exhale continued.
I frantically looked around for my dive buddy. In doing this, the current had lifted up my mask, flooding it with a bit of water. It was too loose, forcing more water in, the more I moved.
I tried to relax and pushed on the top, blowing out with my nose to clear it. Fine. Wait, there was more water. Shit.
Ragged breathing. My heartbeat in my ears. A slight chill down my spine. I looked forward, kicking hard against the current to get to my dive leader. I watched as the strong current swept everyone sideways and then down. A million thoughts raced through my head…
“Stupid mask, not again. Where is my dive buddy? Can I touch this coral? Should I hold on? Shit, is there a down current? What if I get swept down? I don’t have a dive watch, how deep am I? Agh, my depth gauge isn’t working. Shit! Whoa, I’ve sucked down a lot of air. Shit shit shit.”
The current swept us to the side again, knocking me into some coral. Ragged breathing continued. My thoughts screamed at me to calm down because I know that a panicked diver is the most dangerous thing.
But, to no avail. I could feel the tide of my anxiety rising, reaching a point of no return.
I sucked in air, desperately trying to avoid a panic attack. My air was full of salt water. I sucked in again, more water entered. I signaled to my dive master that I needed air and he promptly handed me his yellow alternate air source.
In my panic, I fumbled with it, as bubbles billowing up toward me. I opened my mouth for it, still scrambling, and gulped down even more water.
This was it. This is when I drown. I couldn’t bolt to the surface, although all my instincts were forcing me up, because I hadn’t done a safety stop and I guessed we were at around 18-19 meters.
I eventually saw through the murk in my leaky mask to place the mouth piece in my mouth. I purged the regulator, the sharp intake of air making me gasp. I breathed as slowly and calmly as I could. My eyes swiveled around wildly as I clutched the dive master’s arm for dear life.
He gave me a second, then gave me my own alternate air source to suck on. I had to switch again, fumbling around once more. All the while, the current was floating us this way and that. Disoriented was an understatement for what I was feeling.
Luckily, Rafe finally swam up to mimic breathing in and out slowly. It took a minute, while I adjusted my mask to suction it back on my face. I tried yet again to calm myself, to bring myself down from the brink of panic.
But, then the embarrassment set in. I’m not a new diver. I know how to handle these things, yet I didn’t. I hadn’t done what I was supposed to. I swam around, looking to hide under a rock and never resurface.
I fought the current as best I could, sticking behind the dive master, eagerly waiting for this dive, this insane drift dive, to finally be over.
We finally emerged to the surface and I was ready to throw in the towel. I knew I had to do one more dive or I’d never want to dive again.
I forced down cookies and tea, the taste completely bland, sticking to the roof of my mouth, as I tried to compose myself. The other team of divers had been caught in a down current and one of the girls had lost the group, having to grip some coral until her hands had sores on them, in an effort to fight the current. They tried to laugh it off, but it did nothing to abate my anxiety.
I took a deep breath, slapped on my mask, and was ready to go one more time. Fighting all instincts, all of my thoughts to stay on the boat, to call it a day. I refused. We went down again, this time to a mangrove with less of a current. The current was supposedly more gentle than before, but I had my doubts.
As we got down to the bottom, I put a bit of air in my BCD in order to become neutrally buoyant. And I felt myself sailing toward the surface. I groaned. Not again. I frantically let out the air from my jacket. But, I could still feel my jacket filling with air. Confused, I kept the escape valve open, but was still rising. Too fast. Damnit.
My dive master raced over, realizing that my valve was stuck open. It was inflating all on its own. He fiddled with it, showed me it got stuck a lot, signaled to be wary of it, and we were on our way. I sighed. Today was not my day. I wondered if you could cry underwater. I fought the urge to cry and swam above the mangrove, trying to maintain buoyancy. The current surged forward, making us feel like we were flying.
We finally emerged from the dive, popping up from the surface and I collapsed on the boat, exhausted. We had two more dives tomorrow and they were the last thing I wanted to do.
But, after a lot of self reflection and a lot of effort to pump myself up, I forced myself back on the boat.
Thank god I did. The next morning, we dove with manta rays and baby sting rays. It was breathtaking, amazing, awe-inspiring. They are such regal creatures. I didn’t have any problems underwater, having gotten a new BCD, regulator, and after readjusting my mask. The current was a surge current this time, which was more fun than anything. It pushed you back and then forwards, as if we were inside a giant washing machine.
The last dive, we had more of a current, but I stuck as close to the coral reef as possible, in order to avoid being swept out into the big, old blue. It somewhat worked! We saw an octopus, a sea snake, some nudi bronchs, parrot fish, and clown fish. It was beautiful!
Lesson learned: Always, always get back on the horse. No matter what. What you are most fearful of is usually the thing you should be doing. Conquering fear meets confronting it head on and there’s no other way around that.