On the morning of our first full day of diving on our 3-day, 11-dive scuba liveaboard trip to the Great Barrier Reef, Cole and I—bleary-eyed and groggy after a rocky and drug-induced sleep on the boat—made our way to the dive deck. It was 6:45 AM, and we yanked on our wetsuits as we waited for the debrief, a short meeting in which the ship’s director talks through the conditions of the dive site (current, site layout, the type of marine life we might see, dive time, visibility, safety stops, etc.). We had done two short “check-out” dives the previous afternoon, which I think are meant both for you to ease yourself back into the sport since your last dive and for the staff to evaluate each person’s skills and comfort level. Along with three others, Cole and I had been paired with Tamir, a friendly Israeli guy, for our check-out dives. I love diving with a guide. They point out cool marine life that we might otherwise miss (and sometimes write their names on a white board under water so that you know what they are), they monitor depth and safety stops so that you don’t have to, and, perhaps most importantly, they make sure that you won’t die. Because of these reasons (okay, really because of the last reason), I had never planned to dive without a guide. So, imagine my terror when, on the first full day of diving on our scuba liveaboard trip, I saw that Cole and I were paired together… alone.
I should mention that, as someone who has anxiety, I should avoid scuba diving for myriad reasons. (Mom and Dad: you might want to skip this part so you don’t run through this list in your heads every time I go diving). Spending time under the sea means relying solely on rented (in our case) equipment for breathing—breathing—while simultaneously embracing the fact that my literal survival is compromised if I freak out and decide to shoot straight to the surface (thanks, nitrogen bubbles). I could be eaten by a shark or accidentally brush against a poisonous fish, my dive computer could break and I could run out of air without realizing it, I could get stuck in a cave or on a piece of coral and never get out, I could run into the propeller of a boat, or I could get left behind by my dive boat and be abandoned in the middle of the ocean like those people in Open Water. The list goes on. Oh, and someone just told me about a woman who threw up while diving, choked on the throw up, and died. That’s actually one I had thought of myself, dismissed as my anxiety talking, and then heard in real life when someone told me that story.
I’d be lying if I said these thoughts don’t go through my head before each dive. Each time I pull on my wetsuit, I think of the thousands of things that could go wrong on the dive. But then, I get in the water and I descend under the surface. Below the waves, everything goes silent as ambient noise is reduced to the sound of my breathing and even anxious thoughts somehow float away. I take in my surroundings and orient myself to this new world, my new weightlessness. My fin-clad feet propel me in slow motion over the reef, and I become a small part of the seascape. Majestic, velvety giant clams over 100 years old and 4 feet long clamp reflexively as I wave water towards them; massive schools of unicorn fish eye me like accused Pinocchios; neon parrotfish with buckteeth seem to sing to themselves as they swim around busily getting ready for a party. Clownfish click, turtles fly; turning a corner I nearly swim into a sleeping leopard shark. Fortunately, under water, my gasp is silent.
In diving, I have found the only place where I am able to be entirely present. This colossal underwater world, with its hundreds of thousands of life forms, presents me with seemingly endless questions about the unknown. And yet, instead of my usual anxiety surrounding existential questions (and all the things I’ve convinced myself could go wrong on the dive), I am overcome by pure wonder and awe. I can’t emphasize enough how completely unprecedented this is for someone like me.
Anyway, enough of my meditative bullshit (but seriously, it’s not bullshit, it’s totally transformative). Cole and I got paired alone, and despite my anxiety, everything was fine. Having a guide is luxurious because you can relax a bit more, but being by ourselves (on this and all subsequent dives) enabled us to be truly independent divers. We could chart our course—thereby experiencing a dive that is unique to us—and develop our own complicated set of silent sign language to point out various marine life, communicate our path, and swim/dance to various songs from the Little Mermaid soundtrack (as one does when under the sea). This newfound language is ours, and, holding hands as we take in the sights, I’m reminded of how incredibly lucky I am that my dive partner is also my life partner.