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How do you get in the ocean when you’re terrified of it?

I'll never forget my first memory of the ocean, it was around my 25th birthday and I had just moved to Virginia.

I was SO excited to get to see something I’d only ever heard about before. Immediately, I took off my shoes and ran along the beach barefoot (my jeans getting soaked in spite of my attempts to roll them up). I felt like a little kid again, carefree and excited about seeing something so much bigger than me- as a kid, I was fascinated by the drive-in movie screens, the factory buildings of detroit, and skyscrapers; as an adult, the ocean and space are the only things that compare anymore in my level of fancy (but since they don’t have space diving yet, we’re only discussing the ocean here… moving on). My feet got a little wet from the waves and at first I was exhilarated! But then, when they disappeared under the murky brown water common to Virginia Beach, panic struck! I couldn’t see anything- anything could be swimming near my feet! Immediately, I ran out and I was done with that little moment.


I had tried several times after that to suck it up and enjoy the beach with my family. Every trip I tried to become a little more brave, but each time, something terrified me and I would run out and be done for the weekend. When we went to Florida, I found that Okaloosa Island had beautiful beaches with soft cushy white sand and amazingly clear waters. Unfortunately, I was only there for about an hour before I had to head off to my next destination. A few years later, my husband received orders to move to Okinawa, Japan. I envisioned it being just like Florida with crystal clear beaches and thought this would be my chance to get to know this giant entity once and for all.

Our first summer, I was disappointed. We travelled to the beach, but I didn’t like getting in after the safety briefing of all the dangers that awaited me in the ocean. I had to fight not to pass my fears on to my two little boys, and so we would get to the beach and I would wade in ankle deep with shoes on and play with the boys near the shore. The only thing I really remember about that first summer was hating to clean up all the sandy mess after each trip. I really didn’t care much for the ocean at that point, I didn’t even want to try to get to know it. It looked beautiful from a distance and that was good enough for me. My curiosity of the deep blue waters was just that and would never be more as far as I was concerned.

I remember always having nightmares that we were in a house near the water or maybe a boat and I would try to warn everyone that a huge tidal wave was coming or a leak had sprung and that the ocean was coming in to get us. It was torture, especially during a camping trip along the beach where I couldn’t stop doubting the tide line we set up behind, wondering if we were going to have to evacuate in the middle of the night. Especially since every time I laid my head down to sleep it sounded like the water was right at our door. Even after calculating the tide table and determining when the tide would be halfway in, staying up to watch and see how much it had moved and how much distance we still had to go, I wasn’t satisfied. I would say it was the worst camping trip ever, but I think it did me some good seeing that, in spite of the harping sense of doom surrounding me, we all survived and everything was okay. (I still want to know what that something was that was “breathing” under our tent though! Or… maybe I don’t…)

The following summer, our friends decided to take a scuba class and we volunteered to watch their children while they got their certification. It sounded so interesting, but to me it was something I thought I’d never do. A few weeks later they took us to a gorgeous beach during low tide and told us of all the things that were there to see in the tide pools- sea cucumbers, sea urchins, starfish, blue damsels, clown fish, coral, etc. It was an amazing experience and sparked our interest in snorkeling. The next day, my husband and I bought everything we needed for us to snorkel. My ensemble included a full body skin, and boots and gloves in addition to the mask and fins- in my eyes, I was indestructible and would wear them even when I was just swimming with the kids- so much for getting a tan! The beach was now a little more fun, but the summer was almost over and I had begun working.

After a few snorkeling trips the following spring, we decided to go all in and get certified. I thought, “No big deal, I like snorkeling, I should LOVE diving!” Apparently, I hadn’t completely let go of my fears. We went to the local marina and I took my son out to snorkel outside of the net, little did I know there was a drop off and the vis was terrible- maybe 5 feet and that’s being generous! Panic struck again (“Hello, old friend…”) and I found myself groping to return to the inside of the net. To compound the problem, I was using my husband’s dry snorkel for the first time, which, if you’re positioned improperly like I was during my panic, it’s impossible to breathe from. Hyperventilating and not being able to breathe do not go well together!

What was I to do? I had already signed up for my open water certification, I didn’t want to back out but I didn’t want to have a panic attack as soon as I got to the ocean! With just my son being there had been scary enough! So, my friends and I practiced frequently at that same marina, I swam over the drop off and was rewarded by some pretty neat introductory snorkeling each time. A few moments of panic, but once you’re out there and you’re in front of friends, there’s not really much to do but push on (maybe a little bit faster though, just in case!), and so I did. After doing this for about two months, I was more comfortable snorkeling- I was ready!

I watched my video, I read my chapters, I studied my knowledge reviews- I needed all the information I could get! I learned that I had been putting my fins on in a manner that made it much more difficult- I was buckling and unbuckling them instead of loosening the straps, slipping them on and then tightening them. This made me laugh because, I would loosen them all the way, put them on, then buckle and tighten and it had never occurred to me that it would be easier leaving them buckled, especially when you’re in a hurry and the waves are pushing you around. I learned how to keep my mask from fogging up (spit or a little bit of dish soap- but be careful, the soap burns your eyes a bit!). I learned about the dangerous creatures of the ocean, but I also learned that the ocean is huge and you’re lucky to see life out there- it’s not all waiting for you to get into the water just to come up and attack you. I also learned the biggest lesson of all- that keeping a level head would get me through pretty much anything I was afraid of.

Suddenly, I was like that carefree kid again- not just in the ocean, but in my dry-land life too! I learned to not worry so much and to take things as they come. Keep breathing. Breathe calmly and steady your mind. What happens will happen (que sera sera…), you just have to deal with it when it does. Then, I opened my mind a bit and learned to enjoy the show and the experience. That first breath underwater (for me, it was in the pool)- it’s amazing! I doubt anyone ever forgets it! That first time in the ocean, you’re being welcomed to a world that not everyone has the ability (or, in some cases, the courage) to see. With more than 200,000 species of fish out there, the possibilities are endless, and that’s just fish! Every dive has potential, every day (or night) is an offer to see something new! I still get a little scared every now and again, but keeping my calm is what gets me through it. I can panic and lose my head and probably decide never to dive again, giving up this new love, this passion, this obsession even!; or, I can keep calm and resolve to get through it so I can dive again at the soonest possible chance- I think I’ll keep choosing to dive!

How about you? What’s holding you back?