After deciding that fear is meant to be conquered, I signed up with Bali Scuba for my PADI Open Water Diver Course. Walking into the dive centre at 7.30 am on a Monday morning – a gesture I never observe when working in the office, let alone expected to do on a Monday morning in the Island of Gods – I felt slightly nervous. Joanne greeted me at the dive shop and gave me my PADI theory book. I had a look around the shop at some of the dive gear, and concluded that I would need to start saving for gears. Past the front shop, I could see the open area where the course would be held. The sight of a deep blue swimming pool combined with the ray of Bali sunlight immediately calmed the nervous soul of mine. I was about to start my open water diving course – and with that, face my fear.
The usually four-students-per-instructor-course only had two students on that day, Hayley, a girl from UK who was on her holiday in the island, and me. Our instructor, Mark – a blond-blue-eyed New Yorker who has lived on the island for the past five years – greeted us and got us to fill in some forms for administration purposes. Yes, including those “please don’t hold us responsible if you decide to be stupid and not follow our instructions”. Okay, it didn’t exactly say that, but you know what I mean. I basically signed and agreed for them to take care of me, at my own risk, for the next four days.
We started off that Monday morning with a DVD theory sessions plus some quizzes to test our knowledge. The pool sessions to apply the theories taught from the morning followed after lunch. This went on for the first two days. While the theory sessions were quite a breeze, I can’t say quite the same about the pool sessions – at least not on my personal account. Those pool sessions count for a whole lot of stories of excitement, frustration, perseverance and laughter. By laughter, I really mean my ability to laugh at my silly self. That, and maybe some (imaginary) laughter I thought I heard from the rest of the crowd at dive centre.
Before we did anything remotely close to scuba diving, we had to do some basic pre-requisite test of skills. These were 1) Swim 16 laps, with no time limit and 2) Stay afloat for 10 minutes. My fears were coming back to me.
Reminding myself that I was doing this conquer my fear, I swam away to start my 16 laps. By the 6th lap, I was getting out of breath – and it didn’t help that Hayley had completed her laps. The dive centre had other two interns helping Mark to look after us and one of them, Katherine, told me that I could do my swim with backstroke. So I did, only to be told, “that’s enough” on the 12th lap. I didn’t bother looking at the time, but my guess is, I wouldn’t qualify for the Olympics.
Next come the floating test. Float away for 10 minutes without touching the wall – in a 4-metre deep pool. FOUR metres! Those moments of drowning when I was 10 years old came flashing before my eyes but I persevered. Naturally though, I struggled to float and somewhat kept reaching for the wall. “No touching the wall, please,” said Mark every time I swayed to the side of the pool, a natural attempt to hold on to something. But floated I did – even if only for perhaps 6 or 8 out of the 10 minutes required. It sure felt like an eternity back then. Could I continue if I wanted to? I probably could, but it would be unfair to waste everyone’s time. Embarrased? Just a tad, but I shrugged it off.
After completing those tests – well, Hayley completed them at least - it was time for the actual fun. But not until we set up our gears, including the oxygen tanks and BCD. Here’s where it got interesting. You know how in a classroom, there is always that kid who struggled to keep up and kept getting unlucky with things, like fall before he started running, or tripped over things? I was probably that kid. Well, the dive skills’ tests were the struggling bit. The unlucky things? My encounter with the oxygen tanks. Call it a hunch or my paranoia, but I said to myself “wonder if this might burst on me.”
As I turned the knob to let some air out… you guessed it – it did burst. Complete with those hissing sound of a broken oxygen tank and me completely throwing it on the floor slightly frazzled, to say the least. Apparently it’s one of those things that happen once in a while and it’s not a big deal. Well, I tried to laugh it off and moved on with the lesson, while at the back of my mind thinking “seriously? This is just the start?”
A whole of exercises and demonstration of the skills we need was done in the pool and I am not kidding when I said I really was the kid who struggled to keep up with the class. I’ll never forget the countless attempts to clear the mask under the water (“It’s like blowing your nose” said Mark in what pretty sure was his confused state as to why I couldn’t blow my nose) ; the time where I took off my weight belt only to accidentally drop it to the bottom of the pool, which resulted me in surfacing in no time; the time when I couldn’t blow water out of my snorkels, and my most award-winning embarrassing moment: trying to take off my gear and putting it back on with such struggle while the rest of the diving instructors class students were outside taking a break. I was sticking out like a sore thumb when struggling to put on my BCD and tanks back on in the middle of that deep blue swimming pool – not to mention gasping for air.
But the whole time I was struggling, I kept saying to myself to hang in there and persevere. I have come this far to face my fear and was not going to let anything or anyone, let alone my own silly-self consciousness, to stop me from experiencing the underwater world. I remember everyone saying that the key to success in scuba diving was to keep calm. Keep calm and carry on, they say
When we finished our theory sessions, we finally hit the sea on the third day. The dives in Sanur required a boat trip to the middle of the sea – and there I was, faced again with the diving tank, a reminder of my first day with a bursting can of steel. And, what do you know? It happened once again as we did our equipment check and set up. Even Mark said he was thinking about it a few seconds before it happened.
Jinxed. Just my (un) lucky strike number two.
But it doesn’t matter, for I was ready to experience what was lying ahead of me. Descending to 8 meters depth, I was calmer than when I was in the pool. I guess I was prepared mentally. I recalled Mark was telling me during one of my struggles at the pool sessions, that our thoughts are important while scuba diving. Tell your mind what you want to do with your body and watch it go. I was over-thinking most of the time during the course until Mark told me so. In the sea, there was no need for one to over think other than to stay calm. So I tried, and calmed I was as I followed Mark’s instructions to do the various skill tests. By the way, if you didn’t make it the first time on the tests, you simply keep going until you make it – obviously within certain limits.
We did two dives in Sanur Channel at two different dive spots, each for about 45 minutes. Each dive went by so fast. Visibility was not the best at two meters, but we still see a few interesting things including the star fish, scorpion fish and Moorish Idols. Sanur dives were mostly to test all our skills learned during the past two days in the pool with the mission to take it to our last day at Tulamben, and make the day as the ultimate recreational dive. We finished about midday on the third day of the course – one that I welcomed given my usual day of 7.30 am to 6 pm for the previous two days.
The next morning, after a 3-hour drive from Sanur – which we all slept in – we finally got to Tulamben at about 11 in the morning, welcomed by a heavy rain. What a start to our most anticipated part of the course! Nevertheless, the dive was on. We got ourselves set up with our gears and then ordered our lunch for after when we finish the first dive. Tulamben is one of the few dive sites where you don’t need a boat for a drop off, so we went for a little walk along the pebbled beach before going into the sea.
Once I was in, descending to 18 meters at our first dive site, the USAT Liberty Ship Wreck, a WW II casualty, which is one of the most visited dive sites in Bali. I was speechless and in awe of what I saw. Among the many divers around us, I saw the ship wreck with all its living creatures making it their homes. Juvenile sweet lips, nudie branch, garden eels, and trigger fish are just some of them. My favourite scene was the sight of the schooling jack fish – an image I see a lot on diving websites. Finally, I got to see them with my own eyes. It was an amazing feeling looking up and seeing those fish swirling above me. We were down there for 49 minutes and I remember being so calm and at peace. I was mesmerized by what I saw. One of these days, I’d love to take photos like these.
Coral Garden was our last dive site to visit post lunch. The rain was still on. Not as packed as the ones in the wreck site, this one gave us some sightings of “Nemo” the Clown Fish, bumphead parafish, some ribbon eels and dotted butterfly fish. After what felt like a 10 minute dive, when in fact it was a 46 minute dive, we were done and again welcomed by the rain as we ascended to the surface, knowing that was the end of it. As I took off my mask and fins walking to the shore, I knew I wanted more. Despite the aches in my body, and the bruise I had on my knees from falling on the pebbled beach - I guess I made sure I lived up to my reputation as the struggling kid in the class – I wanted more. Plus, I was in good hands with these guys.
As I write this post, four months after the trip, my body longs for the next dive trip. I still recall the feeling I get as I went into the sea for the first time, the taste of sea-water swallowed as accidentally, or that pain on my knees as I hit the Tulamben beach pebbles. I remember the excitement and feeling of the rain hitting my face as I came up the surface, just like one experiences when running in the rain. I remember feeling relieved when I finally managed to take off and put my gear back on while in the sea – the hardest test – one that I struggled to do in the pool. I’ll never forget the elation after I managed to clear my own mask at 18 meter deep in the sea, not because it was a test, but because it was naturally something I needed to do.
Mostly, I remember hovering perfectly for at least one minute, staying in my own world, looking at the creatures around me calmly and said to myself:
“I did it. I finally did it”.