My first-time scuba diving, my stomach churned like a typhoon. I sat on the edge of the boat breathing in and out slowly, trying to hold back the tsunami of vomit that was building up in the bottom of my gut. Why the hell had I turned down that seasickness medication? Trying to be macho, I guess.
We were on a boat speeding off the coast of Vietnam toward the Cham Islands. I’d never been seasick before. The waves weren’t even especially choppy, but I still felt miserable.
How do they wear all that junk?
The heavy scuba equipment fastened to my body didn’t help. The weights strapped around my waist felt like they were trying to drag me into the boat’s propeller. I stumbled across the slippery deck on the rubber flippers that felt way too big. The air tank on my back squeezed my entire torso like the arms of a giant squid. The face mask fit weird and the air mouthpiece thingy (I think it was called a ‘regulator’) kept falling out of my mouth for some reason. The wetsuit constricted my entire body, and I’m pretty sure will prevent me from ever having children.
I really wanted to go home. Then the dive instructor said, “time to go in.”
I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t want the muscular, heavily tattooed dive instructors to think I was a wimp. I was already embarrassed by my pale, slightly flabby body, with only a few tattoos to distract from my lack of machismo.
So, I jumped into the water.
The ocean slapped me in the face. Salty water filled my mouth. I sputtered and spit, and swam over toward the dive instructor. The scuba equipment was far less heavy in the water. We did one last safety check. I was at least convinced this tanned, hip Spaniard wasn’t going to let me die my first-time scuba diving.
It was time to go under.
A flash of panic hit me. What if my tank stopped working and I drowned? What if a shark came and bit off my legs? What if the pressure squeezed my head so that my brains oozed out my nose and ears? What if I shit my pants and embarrassed myself in front of the dive instructor?
He brought us down to the sandy ocean bottom. The water turned murky as we dropped onto the seafloor. He wanted to have us practice recovering our regulators if they came out of our mouths. He demonstrated how to do it, but I was too afraid. This little piece of plastic was the one thing keeping me from a lung-full of saltwater. It was my first-time scuba diving, I was too afraid, I couldn’t do it.
The dive instructor shrugged and we moved on. I breathed in and out slowly. Inhaling and exhaling like some sort of underwater monk. The panic began to wash away with the current. I also couldn’t help notice how much better my stomach felt now that I was under the water and not being shoved around by the waves on the surface.
We swam forward. Inhaling and exhaling. Floating weightless I began to lose my sense of self. I became one with the South China Sea.
A school of dart-shaped silver fish danced above my left shoulder. A gigantic neon blue starfish crawled along the seafloor below me. Brightly colored fish nibbled the surface of giant coral brains. A piece of red coral shaped like a hand reached up and waved. A spiny lionfish darted behind it. You can still gasp during a spiritual moment of inner peace, right? I gasped at the lionfish.
This is where I thought I was going to drown
As I opened my mouth, the regulator flew away in a cloud of bubbles.
I held my breath. Panic tried to claw its way back to my mind. What if I really did drown my first-time scuba diving? The dive instructor was a few meters away, facing the other direction. My first instinct was to shout. Thankfully, my brain reminded me what a stupid idea that would be. Why hadn’t I practiced earlier?
Bubbles kept flying around me. I reached back in slow motion. My hand fluttered around in the water. My mouth tasted like salt. The air in my lungs was slowly vanishing. Finally, my hand closed around the most precious rubber tubing I’ve ever known.
I swung the regulator back into my mouth and hit the blue button to flush out the water. Sweet, sweet oxygen started filling my lungs again. The dive instructor turned around and gave me the “okay” hand signal. I gestured back. “Okay.”
Back on the boat
The dive ended and I got back on the boat. The seasickness returned with a vengeance. It was as if it was angry that I’d escaped it while in the water. The rest of the people on the boat laughed and dove off the top deck while I dry heaved over the rust-colored toilet in the bathroom.
I must have looked pretty bad, because they called a speedboat to take me to the beach. I stumbled ashore, wanting to kiss the golden sand like a castaway who’s just found land. I spent the rest of the afternoon in a hammock. So much for being macho.
Yet, despite the soul-shattering nausea and the near-drowning, I can’t help thinking about those brief minutes of bliss I found under the water. My first time scuba diving was great and I can’t wait to do it again.
Except next time, I’m taking the sea sickness pills.