First Time SCUBA Diving? The Trick is to Keep Breathing

While enjoying my office’s lunchtime yoga practice, the instructor reminded the class that it is impossible for a body to maintain a stress response while breathing slowly. As anyone who practices yoga will know, breath is the foundation of the practice. It coaxes you through difficult movements while also allowing for greater relaxation. Breath is healing, uplifting and crucial to being Zen.

Breath is also one of the most important aspects of SCUBA diving as Philip and I learned in Zanzibar this year.

We looked into taking the course here in Calgary but decided against it since our test dive would be out at a cold pond with little to no visibility. If we were going to learn a new sport, why not do it where you may see tropical fish and even sea turtles?

We researched SCUBA Diving in Zanzibar and decided that we would head to Divine Diving and Yoga in Nungwi. They had fantastic reviews on Trip Advisor and we liked the idea that we may be able to do a yoga class there as well.

Who wouldn’t want to learn to SCUBA dive here?
Photo Credit: Divine Diving Facebook page

After a scenic drive from Stonetown with our affable cabbie Sidiki, who told us the “real prices” for certain goods and let us stop to take a picture of a chameleon on the road, we checked-in to the New Safina Bungalows excited to start our course the next day. We had arranged the course via email prior to leaving Canada  headed across the street to check in with Divine. Once there, we were instructed to watch some riveting videos and given homework to do as well.

This guy! (We couldn’t help ourselves. Don’t judge.)

The next morning an unfortunate breakfast delay meant that we weren’t able to get into the pool that day so we watched more riveting videos and practised getting the equipment on and off. I felt pretty good about things and was excited to try out what I was learning in the pool. The next day we finally got to try breathing underwater. It feels amazing but also pretty claustrophobic, and when it came to demonstrating the skills, I felt like I had only lucked into doing them right in front of the instructor the first time. In hindsight, I wish that I could have had more time to go over the skills in the pool.

With just the one pool session under our belt, the following day we got suited up and headed out on a boat for our very first ocean dive. The first dive was just a practice dive to feel comfortable and get used to being underwater. It took a bit of effort to find my buoyancy sweet spot, but otherwise the dive was divine.

Unfortunately for us, things became difficult during the second dive. In order to be certified for further diving, we had to prove that we could do the same skills that we did in the pool under the sea as well. Philip and I got through the test fine until it was time to fill your mask with sea water and then clear it. Philip couldn’t get it cleared so he shot up to the surface as quick as he could which is the exact opposite of what the books, videos and instructors tell you to do. I hadn’t cleared my mask all the way and water kept trickling up my nose which made me want to go up too. I signalled to the instructor that was left at the sea floor (the other had followed Philip to the top) that I wanted to go up as well. She shook her head “no” and made the sign for “down” but I didn’t listen and slowly went up anyway.

I was as unstoppable as a T-Rex with arm extenders.
Photo credit:

Philip had been suffering at the surface since he inhaled a bunch of water during his hasty ascent and was debating throwing in the towel for the day, even though it meant not getting certified. However, after a little time and a good sized belch, he felt better and decided to go back down. By that time I had cleared my mask fully and was ready again too.

We returned to the sea floor and watched as the others in the group demonstrated their superior mask clearing skills but when it came to my turn, I struggled first with getting the water in and then with getting it out. All of a sudden water was shooting up my nose and down my throat which made me cough and spit out my regulator causing me to breathe in even more water.

To say I panicked as a result of this is an understatement. I cannot remember a time when I have ever felt that terrified. I have experienced anxiety in the past but nothing like this pure, raw panic. I tried to make for the surface in haste but the instructor held me under because fast ascents are dangerous and I had to learn to solve my problems underwater if I wanted to keep diving. For what felt like an eternity, I thrashed about, caring more about getting the instructor to let go of me so I could go up to the surface than I did about breathing underwater. I kept spitting my regulator out and the instructor would have to put it back in my mouth and clear it for me because I couldn’t even remember to do that. After a while, my blurred vision cleared and it seemed like my mask was free of water. Next I became aware that the instructor was staring at me intensely and realizing that he was finally getting through to me, he made the hand signal for slow breathing. At last I was able to take stock of the situation: I was not in any kind of dire danger and I could breathe and see clearly since there was no more water in my mask. I focused on breathing slowly and deliberately until my heart rate came down and I felt comfortable to continue. In the end, it was my breath that brought me back from the brink…staring into the handsome instructor’s bright blue eyes helped too (sorry Phil).

Carrying on, the other more competent divers demonstrated their skills to the instructors while us troublemakers sat quietly in the sand and regained our composure. Once the testing was over, we went for another swim and tried to enjoy the dive despite our very best efforts to ruin the whole thing for ourselves. I was still rattled but enjoyed seeing all the fish and coral, as well as the feeling of weightlessness that comes with finding the perfect buoyancy underwater. When it was time to go up, I was both relieved to be back on Terra firma but disappointed that my diving experiences were coming to an end. I also felt really guilty that I had made the dive less enjoyable for the other people in the course. One of them, a beautiful freckled Brit named Annie, was kind enough to reassure me that nerves and SCUBA diving were not unique to me. She told me that she had actually run out of air on her first dive since she was breathing so quickly on account of being nervous. I told myself that if Annie could get over running out of air on her first dive, then surely there was hope for me.

Later on in the boat, the instructor informed us that our dive had been “challenging” and that he couldn’t give us our certification. We were disappointed but not surprised to hear it. Underwater panic attacks and rushing the surface are quite dangerous after all. After sitting quiet for some time, the instructor  came over again to say that we could try to arrange some time to practice in the pool and then demonstrate the skills just off the beach. He gave us the options of later that afternoon, or early the next morning. He also explained an easier way to both fill and clear the mask by pressing on the top, rather than trying to peel and lift the mask from the bottom which is what is shown in the videos.

At least we tried?

I felt like I needed to sleep the stress from earlier off, so I voted for the next morning but Phil wanted to get it over with and voted for the afternoon. I reluctantly agreed thinking that if the worst case scenario came true where we failed yet again, we could still have one more try the next morning. Unfortunately, in addition to everything else bad that had happened that day, Phil came down with a bad fever about an hour later and determined that he needed to sleep it off too. While he laid in bed for the rest of the day, I checked out the market near our hotel and found a place to watch one of Zanzibar’s superlative sunsets and reflect on our eventful day.

I don’t believe I could ever tire of these sunsets.

I woke the next morning feeling refreshed, excited and determined to finish the course yet still a little nervous. We headed back to Divine and waited for the instructors to come. Yet another miscommunication meant that they thought since Philip was sick we weren’t coming any more, so he didn’t show up early as planned. Once he arrived, the instructor informed us that in order to have enough time to try the skills, we would have to skip the pool session and head straight out to the ocean. So this would be our one off.

I took a deep breath and suited up. I continued to focus on my breathing as we walked out to the reef just off the shore of the beach front. When it was time to duck under, I felt calm enough. We first tested the skills in shallow water and it went remarkably well. We used the mask clearing method that the instructor had taught us which served us well through the test in deeper water. Once we demonstrated that we could do it twice, the instructor clapped his hands for us and I made the hand signal for “go swimming” feeling invigorated to do more. We puttered around a little bit but had to get back to the shore so the instructor could get ready for his day.

As we reluctantly headed back, I felt much better about the skills and even practised clearing my mask when I didn’t need to. We were both so relieved and ecstatic that we would get our certification after all and would be able to go on more dives in the future. It wasn’t exactly in the itinerary for the rest of our trip, but we resolved to try to get one more dive in if possible and would collect intel about potential dive spots from other travellers wherever we could.

We are so grateful that the instructors at Divine Diving and Yoga gave us an extra chance to try the skills we struggled with and never gave up on us. Although the experience didn’t go as smoothly as planned, we persevered and eventually learned to love the feeling of breathing under water. I can’t wait until we get to do it again. This experience clearly demonstrated that in times of stress, the trick is to keep breathing.

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