Water crept in through my nostrils. It trickled down my sinuses. I choked and spluttered. Panic flooded my mind, and I yanked my reg out and bolted for the surface.

As I was rising, my adrenaline-soaked mind seized onto a simple fact, a memory of colourful textbook illustrations of a balloon bursting. I realised I was doing the worst thing possible, but it was too late to stop it even if I wanted to. My body was in control, and it wanted to escape. My eyes were open and I could see nothing but blurry white bubbles. My mouth was agape – was I trying to breathe in? – and I felt what seemed like a burp as expanding air was dragged out of my chest.

I burst into the air coughing for breath, the water around me reeking of chlorine, my nose and eyes tingling. Okay. Still alive. My lungs hadn’t burst into a ragged, wet mess. Dave, our divemaster, broke the surface of the pool a few seconds later.

“That wasn’t good,” I gasped.

“No, it wasn’t,” he agreed.

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. But you can never, ever do that.”

* * *

Water weighs more than air. The deeper you go, the more pressure there is. If you take an upturned jar below the surface, after a few metres you’ll see the air slowly compress. A bottle full of air at the surface will be only half full of air ten metres down.

The same principle applies to your lungs. Skindiving is fine – you take a breath and descend, and the air compresses. When you swim back up, it expands to its original size. No problem. But if you’re scuba diving, and you take a full breath of air when you’re deep down in the water, and then try to ascend… I’m sure you can imagine what happens. Our dive textbook used a euphemistic diagram of a balloon expanding, and then bursting when it reached the surface.

You can overexpand your lungs in only a metre of water. We were three metres below, at the bottom of the training pool. If I hadn’t exhaled during my hysterical rush for the surface (and even now I’m not sure if I actually was, or if I just had my mouth open and the air forced its way out by itself) then I would have been badly injured. There are a myriad of dangers associated with diving, and lung overexpansion is one of the nastier ones.

The reason I’d bolted was that I fucked up one of the exercises we needed to master. While diving, there’s a slim chance that your mask can get knocked off (the book said this usually happened from swimming too close to your buddy’s fins, which was why I always kept a wary eye on Chris). So you need to be able to replace it, and clear it, by exhaling through your nostrils and purging the water out. We’d done it in the shallow end, where I had my first introduction to the delightful combination of blindness and suffocation. I had trouble not freaking out when water crept up my nostrils, and found it much easier to do if I kept one hand over them. Dave said this would probably be okay.

So we moved on to doing it in the deep end, three metres under. Chris and I were the only two students in the course – it drops in popularity during winter, can’t imagine why – and so it was just us, Dave, and a trainee instructor called Carla. We kneeled on the bottom and I watched as Dave made Chris take his mask off, led him around the pool, and then made him put it back on. He did fine, and Dave moved on to me.

Okay. I took my mask off, immediately clamped my fingers over my nose, and shut my eyes tightly as Dave held my arm and led me swimming around Chris and Carla. We returned to where we’d started, and he tapped me on the arm. Time to put the mask back on. It was still in my left hand, so I brought it up to my face and tried to make it fit. The snorkel was caught in the strap. I was holding it upside down. Doing it with one hand was hard, and I was starting to get increasingly uncomfortable with my face exposed.

Something went wrong. I don’t remember what. I think water came in through my nostrils during the split second when my hand was off them, as I put the mask back on. When I tried to snort it out, it trickled in through my reg as well. The low-key anxiety that had always been with me while breathing underwater burst from its cocoon and swelled into full-blown, out-of-control, girlish, shrieking terror. I made one of the worst mistakes of my life and rushed for the surface, where my old friend oxygen was waiting for me. It was also waiting in my reg, of course, but that’s adrenaline-marinated hysteria for you.

* * *

I’m not a physically fit person. I only weigh about sixty kilos and I don’t have a lot of stamina. Passing the course required a swim test, which involved two hundred metres of whatever stroke we chose (breast, of course), immediately followed by ten minutes of treading water, all of it in a very chilly pool. I barely made it, and stood in a hot shower for twenty minutes afterwards with white toes and a heavy urge to vomit from exhaustion.

But I passed. Above the water, I do okay.

Under the water is a different story. I don’t feel comfortable there, especially if my eyes and nose are exposed to it. Living in a coastal city with a Mediterranean climate, this has had a pretty big impact on my life. I made some good progress against it during my teenage years, and nowadays I love snorkelling, but the old fear is still lurking in the dark corners of my psyche. Later that night, while huddling by a heater set to high in spite of the state’s supposed gas crisis, I explained this to Chris.

“So why are you doing a diving course?” he asked.

“To face my fears,” I replied, as though it was obvious.

“Yeah. Diving’s not the place to start,” he pointed out.

* * *

Thursday was our day off. I spent Wednesday night standing over the laundry basin, dunking my face into it with a snorkel, trying to grow accustomed to breathing through my mouth and forgetting about my nose.

except without the mask

I gradually got a little better at it. Of course, it’s one thing to do it by putting my face into warm, calm water, with the rest of my body upright, still able to hear, and still able to jerk my face up the instant something goes wrong. It’s an entirely different thing to do it in freezing seawater, deaf, with regulator bubbles running up my face and the surface eighteen metres away.

I needed a swimming pool to practice in. That afternoon we drove to the Hills’ and borrowed a mask and snorkel set. Their pool was freezing, and Lindsay Hill is not a man who will idly stand by and watch somebody learn to do something on their own. He’s really more of a hands-on type person, and therefore he dug up a 70’s-era regulator set and an air compressor from the junk in his garage and started setting it up by the side of the pool.

Chris and I glanced at each other. I was already waist-deep, shivering my ass off in inexplicably Antarctic water and full of anxiety about sticking my face in. Spectator meddling was not what I needed. “Linds, you know, we were specifically told to never breath air from rickety equipment in somebody’s…”

“Naaah!” he said cheerfully over the jackhammer buzz of the compressor. “It’s fine!” He dragged the regulator set past a rosebush, which shrivelled and died (okay, not really). I took one breath and decided not to use it again. Chris tried it a little more, and later came down with a headache and nosebleed.

I spent some time there, flooding the mask, clearing the mask, trying not to breath in through my nose. Trying to ignore the cold, and Lindsay’s blathering examples about blowing up a balloon.

But I knew then that even if I did manage to master it, I wasn’t ready to dive. I wouldn’t be ready until I was completely comfortable in the water, and could guarantee that I wouldn’t panic and ascend when something went wrong. And that might be a very long time.

* * *

Dave was generous. Even though I couldn’t take off and replace my mask properly, and therefore couldn’t even get a scuba certification (let alone an open water certification), he still let me come on the first proper dive. We drove down to the Fremantle Diving Academy, where a sunken barge lies in about six or seven metres of water, only twice the depth of the training pool. It was the main centre for commercial dive training, so we found ourselves setting up our gear in the carpark under the gaze of about twenty men in blue jumpsuits eating their lunch, all of whom were either Filipino or Indonesian for some reason. “Why are they staring at us?” Chris muttered. “Would they just stop staring at us?”

We got all our crap on, strode out to the edge of the jetty, and jumped in. It was cold, but not as bad as the Hills’ pool, which had sufficiently prepared me for a lap of the Bering Strait. Dave told us to stay by the anchor line, made sure I was okay, and then we submerged.

Bad visibility, since we were at the mouth of the river. That was okay. In and out through the regulator. Deep breaths. Uncomfortable, anxious, and worried, but if I could just get through this I would have at least gone for a proper scuba dive.

The rusty, weed-covered wreck slowly emerged out of the murk as we descended. That was cool.

We swam around a bit. Dave gave me the “OK?” sign regularly. Dave ran Chris through some exercises, which I didn’t have to do, and then we went a little further and explored around the barge. I had trouble equalizing, since we’d only had to do it once in the pool, and my lung capacity is so miniscule that I’ve never had to do it while snorkelling, because by the time I get down two metres or so I have to go back up anyway. But I managed.

I found myself pretty exerted. It was a combination of the anxiety, the cold and the fact that I kick too hard. Either way, I was breathing heavily, and it wasn’t getting any easier. It had been less than fifteen minutes, maybe ten, and I was already down to 150 bar. Eventually I had to ascend, and Carla led me back to the docks while Dave stayed with Chris. I showered, rinsed my gear and waited for the others to finish, watching the commercial divers yell instructions to each other in Asian languages as they prepared for their next dive.

* * *

Dave is insistent that I return and practice breathing in the pool. I don’t think he realises just how deep this problem is. Even if I can breath fine with my nose and eyes exposed, I still don’t feel comfortable underwater, even with mask and reg firmly in place. I know that if something goes wrong, there is a chance that I will either head straight for the surface, or drown. As long as there is that chance, I shouldn’t be diving.

I certainly don’t want to suggest that this was the fault of our instructors. Dave and Carla were both great, and did everything they could to help me. It’s my own personal problem. I have a lifetime of bad conditioning, childhood phobias and irrational fear to overcome. I can certainly do it, but it won’t happen overnight, and as Chris said: diving isn’t the place to start.

I do feel kind of bummed that I spent $700 and got no certification, which is why I’m sitting here crying and eating a tub of icecream but there are certainly worse things to spend money on than a venture into an activity which most people never even try. Even if I never dive again (which is not the case), I’ve gone further than a lot of people, and feel privileged to have had the chance to do so.

I mean, OH GOD I’M A PATHETIC FAILURE

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