Getting dive certified is something Tim and I have talked about doing for the better part of at least 10 years now. We even ordered the books and had planned to do an Open Water Diver certification course in Malta when we first moved to Europe. But life got in the way and after realizing that the Mediterranean and Adriatic don’t have coral reefs and the reef fish we love to look at, we just didn’t pursue it.
And then an email arrived about six weeks ago. “I think we should check an item off your bucket list and you two should come get your dive certification in The Bahamas,” it read. I had to read it a couple times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Deep Water Cay, a private island and a world-class bone fishing lodge in The Bahamas, invited us to come try out their new NAUI Open Water Diver certification program. After a bit of research, I realized why the name sounded so familiar. My friend Kristin from Camels & Chocolate had been diving at Deep Water Cay before we all met up in Abaco for our friend Angie Away’s Bahamas wedding just a few months ago.
I was over-the-moon with excitement. Both Kristin and Angie had done their open water dive certifications in The Bahamas and had gushed about the experience. Now it was my turn and I was headed back to one of my new favorite places in the world with Tim in tow this time. Win!
Tim and I were literally off the boat and in to the classroom thanks to a delayed flight. If you’re getting dive certified at Deep Water Cay, they will send you the text book and DVDs via mail prior to your trip. Between a trip to Morocco, several trips to Rome during my French visa application process and just the short time-frame to fit this trip into our schedule before moving, we didn’t have time to get the materials via mail before hand. I’d highly recommend you do and study up. You can even register and take the exam on NAUI’s website.
After flying to The Bahamas from Italy and being jet-lagged, that afternoon was a mentally exhausting day. Even worse, the view from the classroom was of the infinity pool with the swirls of sand bars peeking out of an aquamarine sea. We just wanted to be out there enjoying the water, but the classroom work was a necessary evil in the journey to getting our dive certification. Seriously, get the materials before your dive certification trip.
After dinner, we made a pot of coffee and did homework. I felt like I was back in university. We were preparing to take our exam in the morning, which we needed to pass in order to progress on to the skills learning in the pool. Thank God for my eidetic memory.
Both with passing scores, it was time to learn about all the equipment like the buoyancy compensator (BC), regulator and tank. That was the easy part, though it’s essential to pay close attention to the details since one skill you demonstrate to receive your Open Water Diver certification is that you can hook up all your equipment properly. And seeing how all this stuff is what will keep you alive under the sea, you darn well want to be sure it’s done right.
With what felt like a million pounds on my back, we each took a giant stride into the pool and got used to swimming around on the surface with all that gear. It’s just about weightless in the water. No wonder divers hop in so quick!
We learned and practiced skill after skill that day in the pool. From just getting the hang of long, deep breaths through the regulator to taking off your entire gear setup underwater and putting it back on, we went through all the skills we would repeat on the four required dives to complete the open water certification. Including the mask retrieval, the skill where you take your mask off, put it back on and clear all the water from it under water. This was the one thing I worried I would completely freak out doing and that’s exactly what happened, though I did manage to eventually do it in the pool.
As we headed out on our first dive the next morning, I could feel my stomach knotting up with nerves. I was completely comfortable under water, except when it came the mask retrieval. I’d spent no less than a decade thinking about how this skill scared me beyond belief. But I was going to have to do it and demonstrate I was comfortable enough doing it to continue the dive if I wanted to go back home a certified diver.
The boat bobbed up and down in the choppy water as I stood at the back with all my gear on. Tim was already descending down the guide line. The fear hit me and I shook my head no as Phillip, our instructor, tried to coax me to take a giant stride. I had to sit and scoot my way down a few steps of the ladder and then just sort of flop in. Phillip told me we’d swim around and look at the fish until I was relaxed and then we’d start doing skills.
Okay, I could live with that plan.
Our first dive was at just 17 feet on a mostly sandy area where we could kneel on the bottom to do the skills like taking our regulators out of our mouths and putting them back in, regulator retrieval where you have to sweep your arm to find the regulator if it gets knocked out of your mouth and the evil mask retrieval. Oddly, I had absolutely no problem taking the regulator out of my mouth – you know, the very thing that keeps you alive under the water – and tossing it over my shoulder while I slowly exhaled a few bubbles and retrieved my “lost” regulator.
But my heart would clutch with fear at the very thought of having to take my mask off under water. I worried it would get snagged in my hair, which happens sometimes when I’m not under water doing it blindly. I worried I wouldn’t be able to tell when my mask was clear and my contacts would float out of my eyes. I worried water would go up my nose.
We practiced clearing the mask, where you blow a long breath out your nose to break the seal and let any water that might have gotten in the mask out. But we held off on the mask retrieval…for now. Phillip gave us the signal to end the dive and slowly ascend up the line.
Just as we were disconnecting our used tanks from our BCs, the sea sickness hit.
I was miserable as I hung over the side of the boat. It’s rare that I actually get sea sick. So rare that the last time I actually threw up on a boat was on a hot boat ride from St. Maarten to St. Barth’s in 2007. My cheeks flamed red in embarrassment as tears streamed down them.
The salty air helped once we were moving and en-route to our second dive site of the day. You need the four open water dives for the certification, so sitting even one out would have meant I wouldn’t be getting my certification. I was determined to make the second dive no matter how horrible I felt. Until the second wave of sea sickness hit.
I hung crying and heaving over the side of the boat at Tim and Phillip descended down the line.
Finally feeling better, I just dove in the sea to stay cool in the water and be off the damn boat. Just as I was wishing there was a way to radio down and say I was good to go, Phillip popped up and asked if I wanted to do the dive. I hopped in to my gear and was back in the water in seconds. It was so much better in the water; I didn’t feel sick at all.
The second dive was around a giant rock that descended down to a depth of 35 feet, twice what we had dived to on the first dive. Colorful fish swam in and out of the corals that had attached to the rock. I could have floated there blissfully watching the fish forever. I was relaxed and happy to be under the sea. Wanting to be down there so badly was motivating me to get through the mask retrieval skill.
We did more skills, this time practicing buddy breathing in the case you’re out of air and need to use your dive buddy’s octopus (secondary) regulator. We got the hang of controlling buoyancy and hovering at 15 feet for the 3-minute safety stop during ascent.
That night I still worried over completing my mask retrieval skill. And when a storm rolled in late that night, I almost hopped our dives would be cancelled the next day. I had some serious anxiety over this whole mask thing!
The water was actually calmer despite the stormy start to the day. The dive started out good and we did some skills immediately after descent. I even just grabbed my own regulator and put it back in my mouth when Tim’s octopus regulator was a little too large to comfortably fit in my mouth. Phillip gave me underwater high fives at staying calm.
I felt like I was ready to just get the mask retrieval skill over with after swimming around and looking at the reef for a bit. I motioned to Phillip that I was ready to do it. We both knelt on the bottom and after a few long, calming breaths I closed my eyes and took my mask off. I sat breathing in and out with the mask in my hand for a little bit and then started to put it back on.
Everything that I worried would go wrong seemed to happen all at once. The mask didn’t go back on right and I got the nose all folded up under the goggles. Phillip helped me get it adjusted and I started blowing out my nose to clear the water out. He tapped me when the mask was clear and I could open my eyes, but I was in a full blown anxiety attack already.
It felt like one of those scenes in movies when you see someone drowning. I could barely see Phillip kneeling in front of me. There had been a wall of coral just a few feet behind him and I couldn’t see it at all. Everything was just green with particles swirling around. I gave him the signal I wanted to go up.
If there was a way you could beg and plead with hand signals, I figured it out in this moment. Phillip conceded and held my hand to force me to slowly ascend. We even made the three minute safety stop at 15 feet. But I hadn’t calmed down. I could see just fine by this point but I just wanted to go back to the boat. Poor Tim didn’t even know what the hell happened. It wasn’t until Phillip descended again that Tim realized I’d had a panic attack and wasn’t coming back.
I just thought I was done at this point. I was embarrassed I’d panicked and was in tears well beyond when Tim and Phillip finished the dive.
“It’s going to break my heart to not certify you,” Phillip told me.
We went to a beach for lunch and I calmed down. Sitting on that beach, I decided I was going to kick this fear. I’d sit there under water without the mask on, so what was my problem with putting it back on? I honestly didn’t know. I truly could not explain it even talking through it with Phillip, who I’ve got to say has the patience of a saint.
I knew it was totally unconventional, but I asked Phillip to come hold my snorkel up while holding me under the water while I practiced taking my mask off and putting it back on. We sat in about three feet of water with the boat blocking us from a fast moving current while I worked through my fear. I’d even sit under the water without a mask just breathing through my snorkel as Phillip held the top of it out of the water without a care in the world.
I finally figured out doing this that it was the water dripping off my face and from the inside of my mask that was the trigger for me. I didn’t like the sensation and it took about 30 seconds for my eyes to clear the salty drips out to be able to see again. Once I knew what to expect, I repeated the mask retrieval five more times without a problem. Phillip even had me put my scuba gear on and do it several more times with the regulator instead of the snorkel.
Seriously, patience of a saint.
With a storm brewing, we quickly got to the second dive site. It was the best reef we’d dove yet. We swam around looking at reef fish, barracudas slowly swam around us and I even spotted a lionfish, which I was super excited about since I used to have one in our aquarium.
When Phillip gave me the signal it was time to do my mask retrieval, for the first time in this whole process my heart didn’t feel like it beating so hard it was about to jump out of my chest. I knew I had it and I calmly took it off, put it back on and cleared it. Unlike the first dive when I panicked myself into what Tim now calls my hysterical blindness, I blinked and waited for my eyes to clear. And then I went about the rest of the dive a-okay.
“I’m so proud of you!” Phillip told me.
Me too, Phillip, me too. I clearly had to work through my fear in a way I was calm and comfortable.
Both Tim and I got our NAUI Open Water Diver certification, though I’m not convinced I would have made it successfully through a group course where an instructor definitely could not have given me the attention that Phillip did. There couldn’t have been a better place than Deep Water Cay, a secret diving sanctuary as Kristin so appropriately called it, for someone like me with fears yet who so desperately wants to dive to do a dive certification.
Our trip and NAUI Open Water Diver certification program was provided by Deep Water Cay in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.