It was a basic requirement of diving and everyone before me had managed to do it so surely it would be easy? All I had to do was take off my mask off underwater then put it back on and clear it by exhaling powerfully through my nose. I could breathe through the breathing apparatus in my mouth, yet as I lifted my mask and felt the water shooting up my nose panic rose in me. I’m going to drown I thought, I couldn’t remember how to inhale through my mouth. Instinct kicked in. I needed to reach the surface. I started to kick but my instructor held me back. Pressure is different underwater and quick ascents can lead to fatal damage as your lungs inflate. I was going to drown, I was certain. It was 2007 and I was at university in La Réunion trying to obtain my CMAS, a French diving certification.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela
I had read that Mexico’s coasts were home to some of the best diving locations in the world so getting my Open Water PADI certificate was one of the things on my bucket list. That’s why the moment I returned from Bacalar I found myself at the Acuatic Dive Centre in Tulum. The dive centre was recommended to me by one of my Mexican friends and is owned by Alex, a diver who has featured in National geographical due to him discovering the world’s oldest human remains whilst exploring the unexplored rivers that run underneath Tulum. I think that’s the right information, maybe it was the second oldest, but either way he’s a bit of a local legend. The dive centre is located in a really tall building opposite the Red Cross on the road between the town and the beach road, and it also has a yoga studio above.
I paid just over 400 American dollars, which included my PADI theory book, the four dives I’d need to do, plus all the equipment hire. Next I was put with an instructor, a nice American guy called Leif who’d lived in Tulum for the last six years. After a morning of paperwork and theory with my diving buddy Laura, we set off to the Casa Cenote for our first dive. The cenote was a beautiful pool of dark green water and it was as we got in that my memory of having to remove my mask in La Réunion returned to me. We practiced basic things like descending under water, removing our mouth piece and putting it back in, and controlling our buoyancy so we would know how to manoeuvre to avoid any damage underwater. When it came to filling our mask, Leif only asked us to fill it slightly and then clear it, but we were told that we would be eventually required to take it off and swim for a minute before putting it back on. WHAT THE ACTUAL FU*K! I was trying to stay calm and remind myself that I had technically mastered it in La Réunion. It’s worth pointing out that I was technically CMAS certified but it had been ten years since I’d done any diving, and so that’s why I decided to do my PADI, plus the CMAS isn’t a valid certificate in many places. But no matter how much I tried to calm myself, I was terrified, and the more I thought about it the worse it got.
On the second day we went to a different cenote and I was told I’d have to remove my mask completely off my head before putting it back on. I had bought my own mask from the dive centre shop the night before and even though my instructor had treated it, they were getting really steamed up. On top of that, the visibility was bad and so I couldn’t see much in the murky grey water. We went down a few metres and I watched as Laura took her mask off and on with ease. Do not panic, you can do this, I thought. But as I went to remove my mask I felt the water rush up my nose once again and my survival instinct kicked in and I frantically made my way up to the surface. My instructor was understandably angry (in a nice way). Luckily we had only been a couple of metres below the surface, but if this had been a real-life situation I could have died or would have to go to a decompression chamber, an incredibly expensive mistake. He told me he would not be able to put his name on my certificate until he was confident I could handle myself without my mask, and explained that diving is learning to not be instinctive with your emotions and learning to deal with panic in a way that’s safe. I fought back tears, I was frustrated with myself and upset I had let my instincts takeover my rationale. I continued with the rest of the dive (with my mask on), completing the other tasks with ease, but I felt on edge after the mask incident and wondered if maybe diving just wasn’t for me. Don’t be defeatist, my inner voice told me, you’ve got this, even if we have to practice all night. And so that’s what I did.
I spent two hours that evening in my bathroom, first in the shower and then in the sink (I didn’t want to waste water). I would open my mask and let the water fill up, keeping it in for as long as possible whilst breathing through my mouth. I honestly think I must have a really small nostril pipe (sorry for the lack of technical words, I never paid attention in biology), because the moment I filled the mask past my nose the water would slowly trickle down the back of my throat and into my mouth. I am told this shouldn’t happen, but it was to me so I kept doing it, allowing my brain to get used to it. I found a routine that worked for me: breathe in through my mouth and slowly fill the mask, breathe out through my mouth, in through my mouth, then head up and exhale through my nose whilst pushing the top of my mask to allow the water to clear. Again and again and practiced the same routine, I was trying to create muscle memory. Through my determination I did see the funny side as Future’s Mask Off came on randomly on my playlist.
I woke up early due to my nerves the next morning, it was judgement day. You’ve got this Ashley! We had completed all the theory and the written exam and it was time to get back in the water. We were meant to go out to sea but found ourselves back at the beautiful Casa Cenote because of the wind. Leif explained the day to us, we would go down and I would practice the mask in shallow water several times, next we’d complete the final tasks before finally taking both our masks off and swimming for 15 metres before putting them back on. I felt sick with nerves as we made our descent underwater. Time seemed to slow down and all I could hear was my heartbeat and my own voice: remember the routine. I filled and emptied my mask several times, I was ecstatic, and Laura and Leif were too. We completed all of the tasks apart from the mask off swim before unexpectedly headed up to the surface.
“Look over there”, Leif said, “I wanted you to see above water as below water it would appear bigger”. Our eyes looked over to the mangroves and we saw a baby crocodile staring at us. WHAT THE FU*K! I thought, as I thought back to my crocodile fear in Bacalar. But it was harmless, and we watched him and chatted for a while before we headed back down into the crocodile infested waters to take our masks off one last time. Laura went first, and it seemed like she was swimming forever. I don’t think I can do this, I thought. Yes you can, another part of me said. It took several attempts to gain the courage to allow the water into my mask, but as soon as I did it I removed my mask and started to swim. I was doing it! And as I exhaled from my mouth the air formed a kind of air pocket under my nostrils, and I felt calm. I did it! I FU*KING DID IT!
I was elated and Leif and Laura shared my joy! In just four dives I had overcome panic and my fear of drowning to be a certified Open Water PADI diver. As we made our way back through the cenote I felt like I was floating through space and the sunlight was shining through the roots of the mangroves creating almost magical rays of light. 71% of Earth is made up of water and I could now explore it… at least down to 18 metres. As I was handed my temporary card, I was so grateful to Leif for his friendly yet rigorous training. I now felt confident that if ever my mask was accidentally knocked off underwater I could react in a way that wouldn’t risk my safety. And now my underwater adventures could begin, and I thought back to the Will Smith quote Leif told me on Day one:
“Bliss is on the other side of fear.” Will Smith