After getting off to a rough start snorkeling, I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn to dive in Nusa Lembongan. I knew that getting my PADI would require me to go back to Manta Bay, the place that just a few days prior had sent my mind into an erratic state of panic. I’ve heard that if something scares you, the best thing you can do is jump back in and try again right away. Otherwise, it builds up in your mind and becomes a fear that you can’t defeat.
I decided I would talk to the people at Dive Concepts, and get a feel for what the course would be like. Little did they know, my entire decision rested on their every word. I was greeted by Jordan who answered all of my crazy questions with a calm collected voice. He looked appalled when I described my snorkeling mishap, which made me feel even more at ease.
If that didn’t sell me on it, he offered me a shot of Arak, the local liquor. “Ah, so you give people a shot and then have them fill out the waiver. Smart.” I joked. The vibe was laid back, but I was ecstatic to be signing a waiver. It was the only one I signed in seven months of being in Asia.
Day 1 – Pool Training
I arrived for my morning session, which would involve watching a two hour-long movie. The video actually flew by and wasn’t boring at all. I was supposed to have a diving buddy, but he appeared to be a no show. At first I was a little bummed that I wouldn’t have someone to talk to or share the experience with, but then I realized I got a private training session. Being one on one with an instructor definitely made me feel safer.
After the video, I ate lunch and read through the manual on my SSI phone app. I made it to section two when my instructor, Yoann, introduced himself. I was shown my gear and started to suit up. We hopped on a motorbike and went to a nearby pool. I was given instructions of each item, how they worked, and how to assemble them. We got in the water, put everything on, and then checked our gear along with our buddies. Then, it was time to get started.
Breathing felt almost too easy. It wasn’t labored like snorkeling. The equipment felt light in the water, and I felt comfortable a lot faster than I thought I would. We ran through the exercises. Some were easy while others made me nervous. Dropping my regulator (mouthpiece) and having to find it freaked me out initially, but it was easier than I thought. Clearing my mouthpiece was a breeze. Even taking the equipment on and off under water wasn’t too hard.
I did get a little hung up trying to put my weight belt back on. I couldn’t get my hands right and Yoann sat watching. I tried to look to him for help but he just waited patiently. At one point he put his hand on his head and shook it back and forth as if embarrassed by my stupidity. I finally gave the hand signal for “not okay” and he was in my face making sure I was all right in an instant. We worked through the belt together with him showing me the correct way to hold it.
The hardest part though was clearing my mask. Round one involved just getting a little water in and then clearing it by blowing through my nose. The second round meant filling the mask entirely and clearing it. Somehow I couldn’t tell the difference between my nose and my mouth. That sounds so ridiculous, but I’ve never been forced to breathe out of just one. I would take a deep breath in and when I would go to blow out of my nose, it would come out of my mouth too. Then, I would realize there was still water in my mask and panic. I’d breathe through my nose inhaling the water and start to choke. It was beyond frustrating.
Yoann had me do exercises without the mask, which helped tremendously. I tried again, and after taking some meditative breaths I got it right! I opened my eyes and there was no water in the mask. My instructor had a huge smile on his face and gave me two high fives and a hug under water. Then I had to do the same thing, but take the mask off my face entirely. It took another three or four tries, but I got it right. I swear I swallowed so much water that I was slowly draining the pool.
We worked on buoyancy a bit and out of nowhere Yoann’s hand came flying at my face and pulled down the mask. I stayed calm and kept breathing despite not being able to see. I adjusted the mask, tilted back my head and tried to clear it. It didn’t work 100% the first time, and I gagged a little, but I stayed under and cleared it on the second try.
Although that was the hardest part, the scariest part was when we practiced emergency procedures. He pretended to be out of oxygen. Then, I pretended to be out of oxygen. Then, he turned off my oxygen. I took the last few breaths to see how it would feel and immediately gave the slashing of the throat hand signal to show that I couldn’t breathe. He promptly opened the tank, and I was back to normal. Scuba diving, I realized, requires a lot of trust.
Yoann told me that sometimes the people who start out the worst in the pool end up being the best divers because they take the time to learn and understand what they did wrong. Then again, I’m pretty sure he was just trying to make me feel better.
Day 2 – Dive 1
I showed up to the dive center a little nervous and not really sure what was going on. A large group was heading out to a dive and the place felt hectic. I wasn’t sure where my bin was with my equipment. I didn’t see my instructor. I felt lost. Was I was supposed to be ready with the other group or were we going separately? It turned out that my boat would be leaving a half hour later with only my instructor, two advanced divers, and me.
We got our gear, suited up, and headed out to the bay. Waiting for us was the tiniest boat there. We headed out towards “Pontoon” which was literally a giant pontoon in the ocean. I’d hoped for a location that felt a little more enclosed. Although this was technically in the bay, it felt very much like we were far away from the land.
We got our equipment ready, and then it was time to get into the water. I’d always wanted to exit a boat the way scuba divers do, but suddenly it seemed scary. The waves made the boat uneven and my tank felt heavy on my back. I finally threw myself backwards, and it really wasn’t that bad. At first, I felt slightly disoriented but then found my way to the surface.
I tried to breathe calmly, but the waves in the ocean felt so drastically different than the calm pool. It was harder to breathe all of a sudden, and I needed a second to adjust to the change. I was nervous to descend even though we’d only be going 30 feet deep at most. It just felt so extreme compared to the tiny pool we’d practiced in. If something went wrong, it was a lot further to swim up. As soon as the thought got into my head, it wouldn’t leave.
I began my descent and had trouble popping my ears. Out of water it was so easy, but now it was hard to tell if they’d popped or not. I finally got the hang of it and did it every couple of feet. We took a moment at the bottom for me to adjust and then we began to swim. We went past a lion fish, but I was so nervous that I didn’t really care. I just wanted to do my skills and get them over with. A sandy spot came into view, and we kneeled down to practice.
I cleared my regulator two ways, dropped my regulator and found it, cleared my mask halfway, and practiced buoyancy. After a while, the water felt freezing, so we surfaced. I had trouble taking my equipment off in the water. When Yoann helped me, it came off fast and the tank hit him in the face. I felt terrible for not being more graceful. When we got out of the boat, I felt as though he was aggravated that I wasn’t good enough. The boat was quiet, and I felt like a failure. He explained that we wouldn’t move on to the next location because I wasn’t confident enough. We would do the second dive in the same spot.
I’ve always been the type of person who does better with positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. Hearing that I wasn’t confident enough to do what everyone else could only made me feel worse. My self-esteem was slowly sinking deeper than the ocean floor. Looking back, I really needed to hear what I did right, even if it was only one thing.
Day 2 – Dive 2
We entered the water again, this time with me knowing I wasn’t keeping up. I tried to remain calm and focused on my breathing. I got my buoyancy down and was really getting the hang of swimming evenly, however, it felt like my mask was loose. It didn’t feel suctioned tight to my face, and every time I breathed out, the bubbles moved it upward. I ended up holding it in place trying to keep it from shifting. I tried to tell Yoann that it didn’t feel right, but he seemed to be saying that it was okay and to let go of it. Every time it moved, I instinctively reached to hold it down.
We ran through a few more skills and then rose to 6 feet under, which seemed rather ironic given that it was time to clear my mask. I filled it with water, stayed somewhat calm, and cleared it. That still left the second skill, which involved taking the mask off my head completely and putting it back on. I took it off, and it immediately felt wrong. The waves pushed the water in ways it didn’t in the pool. My legs were moving, and I was bobbing up and down instead of being stationary. I felt so disoriented that as soon as the mask came off, I couldn’t breathe through just my mouth.
After replacing the mask with difficulty, I realized I was holding my breath. I tried to breathe in but it came with a nose full of water. Everything was a blur. All of this happened within seconds, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t breathe through my mouth. I slashed my hand across my neck and pointed my thumb up. My vest inflated and I reached toward the surface waiting to break through. I choked as soon as I got there, spitting out water and coughing violently. I wanted to cry.
We got onto the boat, and it was silent. One of the girls poured me a cup of tea, but I was too disappointed in myself to speak. Yuan told me that Day 3 would involve a fun dive, but no skills. I wasn’t ready to be an open water diver. I needed more confidence. If I still wanted to try after tomorrow, we could talk again. It took every bit of me not to cry as he told me I had failed my open water course. I nodded solemnly and looked out at the waves as we went back to shore.
Day 3 – Dive 3
I decided that Day 3 would be different. I kept telling myself, “Today will be a good day. You’ll love it.” I put my ear buds in and pumped up some jams while I walked to the dive center. As soon as I arrived, Jordan greeted me and said we’d be diving together. He was with two other newbies, and the girl had failed clearing her mask in the pool. We were both so relieved that we weren’t the only ones who couldn’t tell apart our mouth and nose. I immediately felt grateful for her presence. I wasn’t alone.
We joined a boatload of experienced divers and suited up. Everyone was chit chatting and excited to see manta rays. The vibes on the boat were good, and I had taken a pill for motion sickness before getting on board, which helped me relax. As we pushed over waves, I felt calm. At one point, the entire boat lifted off the water and crashed back down. Everyone experienced no gravity for a second and then burst out laughing.
We arrived at Crystal Bay, which I’d already seen snorkeling, but the scuba divers went to a different area. We hopped in and the waves didn’t bother me as much. One hit me in the face, and I coughed up a mouth full of water. Jordan checked to see if I was okay, but I just laughed. I’d swallowed enough water to fill a pool over the last few days. This was nothing new.
We began our descent and the girl in our group was as nervous as I was the day before. Jordan held onto her, and I was suddenly on my own. In this group, I was the experienced diver. Being on my own with no one to baby me, snapped me into focus. I needed to keep my breathing calm, or I would have a problem. I told myself, I could do it. Next thing I knew, I was at the bottom and my buoyancy was almost perfect. I checked my meter even though Jordan would check mine occasionally. I didn’t want to forget what Yoann taught me.
We swam around and got used to the pressure. The coral was beautiful and the fish swam so close to my face that I felt like I was one of them. Something tapped my shoulder, and I spun around to see Jordan pointing to the right. I looked and didn’t see anything special. Then, a sea turtle came into vision. It was eating the coral by jabbing its head into a gap. After a few minutes, it floated up and away to the surface.
At some point we began to swim over a much deeper looking canyon. My heart began to race. The idea of loosing my group and falling behind freaked me out. I began swimming fast so I was right next to the others. What I didn’t realize was that we were ascending. What felt like a really big distance was actually where we were swimming just moments ago. I was looking down 30 feet when my head hit the surface.
Day 3 – Dive 4
After a hot tea break, a pee break, and some cookies, we moved onto Manta Bay. The water was much calmer than the last time I visited, and I was feeling even more relaxed. After descending, I had a moment on the verge of panic. I breathed in and out and my breath was so shallow that I thought I ran out of air. It happened a few more times. At first it freaked me out, but then I realized that’s how I was supposed to be breathing. It didn’t feel labored. It was just natural like the tank wasn’t even there.
We worked our way over to the “feeding station” where manta rays go to have fish clean them. After floating back and forth in the surf, we saw one glide by. It was huge! Around 9 feet long! The longer we sat there bobbing up and down, the closer they got. At one point, one stopped right in front of me. I felt like it was assessing me the same way I watched it. I smiled, hoping it could sense it. It hovered a bit longer and in that second, I felt like we had a bond. An understanding shared between the two of us. It was such a beautiful moment. Just a few seconds held in suspension. Then the manta soared away.
We bobbed around a bit longer, but it grew cold. I showed Jordan the signal for freezing and we ascended as a group. As others arrived up top, we all talked about what we saw, making hand motions of how big the manta were. The whole group was spirited. The experienced divers began to tell tales of their best or funniest dives. I rode back to the dive shop on a mini high. I was extremely happy with the dive, but I was also relieved that it was my last one.
On the way back, I decided that I wouldn’t extend my course another day to see if I could pass. Originally, I set out to see the world under the surface and to learn to SCUBA. I accomplished both of those things. I knew if I did another dive, it would be because I felt obligated to and not because I wanted to. SCUBA for me was a bit like skydiving. You do it once, get the experience and the rush, but maybe you don’t need to do it every day.
This experience was beyond humbling for me. I went into SCUBA diving thinking it would be easy, but the ocean showed me my limits. Although my last two dives were amazing, I felt like I was satisfied with what I experienced and didn’t really need to repeat it. That being said, looking a manta ray in the face in an environment so foreign to my own is a memory I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life. It was absolutely incredible.
Have you ever tried SCUBA? Did you fall in love right away, or did you struggle like me? Spill in the comments…
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.