Open Water Certification Dives – My Experience

First Open Water Diver

The following is a blog post by Traci Blaha

This was just a pool. If I was going to have a panic attack, if I was going to fail, it was better I do it now, here in a pool. Right? Why am I even doing this?

Sunday morning came fast. I am not sure why I had a hard time sleeping. This was just a pool and I have been swimming since I was a small child. Still, I was very anxious. Maybe this wasn’t one of my best ideas. I really didn’t want to have a panic attack in the water. This was just a pool. If I was going to have a panic attack, if I was going to fail, it was better I do it now, here in a pool. Right? Why am I even doing this?

I had to pull out my mental list of all of the reasons that I was here at this pool at this exact moment. Facing fears. Redirecting my focus from the really sad things that I had no control over to something I wanted to have some control over. I took a deep breath.

Let’s get this party started

I had dragged all of my equipment into the pool room and the first thing we had to do was swim laps. I had misunderstood Tom the week before when he told me that we were going to have to swim. I thought he had said ten laps, he only said eight lengths. I had been practicing at the community pool all week. Eight lengths was a piece of cake. I jumped in and started swimming.

I had all of my gear laid out on the edge of the pool, just like everyone else. We were all waiting on the next instruction. I was between Bradley, a 17-year-old guy, and Melissa, who was re-certifying. Altogether, there were seven students for Open Water Diver certification and all of us seemed nervous. This made me feel a little better. I didn’t want to be the only panicky diver on this morning.

Tom instructed us to get our equipment ready to get in the water. I stood my tank up and held up my BC, watching Bradley because he seemed to know what he was doing. I found out later that his dad was a Rescue Diver, so he had more than a little exposure to the equipment. I slid the strap from the BC over the tank and held the BC so it was level with the top of the tank and secured the strap.

I pulled the cap off of the tank and held up the regulator. I had no idea which way it should go. After turning it around a few times, I figured out the only way it made sense and slid it on the tank. I glanced at Bradley’s and it matched his set up, so I was pretty sure about it. I attached the hose to the BC inflator and secured everything how I remembered it from the online class. Now for the moment of truth: To turn on the air. I rolled the knob back all the way.

Success! There was no hissing. I checked the regulator and put some air in the BC. Everything worked. So far so good. I looked over the tangle of hoses and the tank with a catch in my chest. All of this was going to sustain my life under water.

We got our boots and fins on, secured our weights, dropped our scuba units into the water, grabbed our masks and snorkels, and got into the water. I could hear my pulse in my ears. “Just breathe.” It became my mantra.

I strapped on my scuba unit and put on my mask.

“Just breathe.” I put the regulator in my mouth. It was hard to breathe in. It was more like sucking the air in. I tried putting my face in the water. No can do! I picked my head right back out of the water and pulled the regulator out of my mouth and gasped for air.

“Are you okay?” Tom was right there.

“I want to be, but I am not.” I was really disappointed in myself. All of the equipment was heavy and awkward. I wasn’t able to relax and breathe with the regulator. “I really want to do this. I am not sure I can.”

“Sure, you can. I’m right here and we have all morning. Just relax, look at me and breathe. Nice and easy.” He stayed right in my face. “We are going to go down together. Put it back in your mouth and breathe, in and out. That’s it.”

I put the regulator in my mouth and tried it several times. Every time I lowered in up to my eyes, I started breathing in really hard, water would come in around my mask and I would have to come up. I was getting frustrated. “I really want to be successful at this!”

I pulled off my mask, pushed the hair out of the way, put it back on and tried it one more time, putting my face straight in the water instead of lowering it. And it worked! My mask didn’t fill up and I was able to suck in some breaths under water. Tom was under the water and he flashed the OK sign at me. I flashed it back at him. I really was okay.

I continued to breathe under the water.

Feeling pretty proud of myself. I tried to empty the air out of my BC so I could submerge, but I remained on top of the water. I lifted my head to tell Tom that I was having problems getting under water. “What am I doing wrong? I can’t get under the water?”

“Let’s empty your vest.” He pulled on the dump valve and the rest of the air came out of the vest. It was a little weird being weighted down, but I just kept breathing in and out. I was finally able to sit on the bottom of the pool. In 1 m/3 ft of water.

I know it sounds silly. It was silly to me. I could hold my breath and sit on the bottom of the pool. Breathing through the regulator, with my mouth, with the mask on my nose, had taken some getting used to. But I did it. And I sat there for a minute or two and relished it.

It quickly became time for all of the exercises that I had read about on line and shook my head at, knowing for absolute sure I would never be able to perform them under water. I had to fill my mask and clear it, no way. Lose my mask, replace it and clear it, not happening. Drop my regulator, retrieve it and purge it, all while breathing out and not freaking out.

I watched everyone else perform what looked like simple tasks when they did them. Tom was amazingly patient with me and coaxed me through every single skill. I was able to do a step in off the edge and remove my weights and replace them.

Everything I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to do, I did.

I was really rather pleased with myself and I couldn’t wait to tell my kids until I remembered that I would have to do all of this and more the following week in the cold, silty lake with an ill-fitting, bulky wetsuit on.

When I expressed my despair over the lake dives everyone reassured me that these would be the hardest dives I would ever have to do. Get through the next weekend and I was home free. I hung onto those words. Still, I wasn’t enjoying the prospect of getting in the lake with that bulky wetsuit on. So, when I went to exchange the used tank for two fresh ones I asked Julie about a different wetsuit.

“Is there a different wetsuit that is not as bulky and constricting? I’m a little nervous about getting in the lake with this one. I’m having a rough enough time maneuvering with the tank, hoses and BC.” I held up the wetsuit and grimaced.

“Sure! What size is this suit? Maybe I can find a one-piece suit that fits a little better on you.” Julie took the wetsuit and walked into the storage room. She brought out a one-piece wetsuit. “Try this one.” She motioned me to the changing room.

It fit! Still a little tight around the neck, but so much better. I felt more like a gecko than a penguin. I was pleased with myself for speaking up and I felt a little better about the lake. Just a little. I took the wetsuit and the two tanks and headed out the door.

The open water training was held in a sand quarry almost two hours from my home. I booked a nearby hotel for the night before and the night between the two mornings of diving. I wanted to get a good night sleep.

Saturday morning, I knew I should have taken advantage of the continental breakfast, but my stomach was in knots. At the lake, it was cloudy and cool. The rain from the night before had moved on. The lake was calm. I was not. I checked in at the dive shop at the lake and set all of my equipment on the tarp that was laid out over on the little beach. I walked over to get weights. He added some more weight to compensate for the wetsuit.

Bradley was the only other student there, so we were buddies. With about five divemasters. Bradley didn’t look nervous at all. We set up our gear and checked each other’s gear. All set.

“The lake is 21° C/70° F on the surface and 18° C/65° F at the thermocline. Suit up!” Tom said as he checked our gear.

“Do you think I need this hood and gloves?” I held them up. “I don’t know how well my mask will fit around this.”

“That’s a matter of preference. I get cold, so I wear a dry suit. I’ll be back.” Tom walked off to get suited up.

I rolled my suit on and zipped it up. Strapped on weights and walked the rest of my gear into the water. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be, especially with a 7 mm wetsuit, I was almost warm.

There were large, white buoys scattered around the surface of the lake. I would soon find out that they marked the locations of sunken boats, a school bus, submarine and an airplane. This lake was used for several levels of scuba training and leisure diving too.

“Everyone ready?” Tom waded over, suited up. Go time. He explained our first set of skills. We filled our vests and swam over to the buoy over the platform.

“I may have a little bit of a hard time getting under the water.” I explained to Bradley, my buddy, and Tom. In my head, it sounded like “Oh no! I think I am going to hyperventilate! I can’t do this! Am I nuts! What was I thinking!” Then the little calm voice came. “Just breathe.” So, I did.

It still took a few tries to get under the water. It wasn’t nearly as silty as I had imagined it was going to be and I could see everything I needed to see. Just so long as everyone stayed within about 4 m/12 ft. I grabbed the rope and hand over hand, with Bradley on the other side, down we went.

At about 3 m/10 ft down my ears started to ache. I signaled to Bradley and we stopped for a second. I swallowed and they cleared. We continued down to the platform. We neutralized our buoyancy and went through the skills.

There was only one time that I felt the urge to bolt to the surface. And, just like he said he would, Tom held me and helped me calm down. He had explained to me that a quick ascent would be hazardous and that he would hold me “for my own good.” I appreciated that.

There were only a few things that we did wrong in those three dives. Tom corrected us and had us re-do them. One was potentially serious. We did a gas-sharing ascent with our hands all wrong and came up way too fast. So fast, my ears hurt. Lesson learned!

Each time we went down it was easier.

By the end of the morning I was exhausted! While we were diving they had laid out a wonderful lunch. I was also starving! Everyone sat down to lunch and talked over the morning skill tests.

My friend had driven out to spend the night and dive at the lake the next day. I told him about all of the morning dives. “I knew you could do it!” he said. I reminded him that he wasn’t so sure a few short weeks ago.

That night we met up for dinner at a restaurant near the hotel. Everyone was swapping dive stories. Some were talking about swimming with sharks. Tom told us about when he started diving before certification was a thing. No gauges, no BCs and no compass. Just strap on a tank and go. I felt strangely reassured about diving after that. It’s like going from a twin-engine airplane to a jet. Or like going from a Model T to an Audi. There is so much safety equipment now!

After dinner, we went to the bar next door for karaoke and adult beverages. I really didn’t drink much. I still had one more day to get through. It was fun to be a part of this group as they were planning the next dive adventures.

Sunday morning, I woke up with a sore jaw and ear. I realized pretty quick that I was biting the regulator mouthpiece too hard. I swallowed some Ibuprophen, ate a little continental breakfast and we headed to the lake. I could see the end of this challenge.

For the final dive, Bradley and I had to make a dive plan and navigate from point to point. We were both pretty sure about navigation so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I couldn’t get under the water.

We had to swim out to a point and descend, without a rope. Everyone else was able to do it without difficulty.  I let all of the air out of my BC and I floated! I tried kicking my way down, no go! I stroked at the water with my hands, but I just couldn’t get under the water.

“Exhale and relax. Stop kicking. Keep your head down. All of this struggling is keeping you buoyant. Take my hand.” Tom reached out his hand. I nodded and grabbed it. I relaxed and exhaled. I slowly dropped below the surface. We met up with the rest of the group and finished the last series of skills.

Afterward, we did a victory lap around the sunken boats and the bus.

One of the divemasters that had to perform a skill test led us around. As we were swimming I realized that as soon as I hit warm water I would start to float up. If I just exhaled, relaxed and faced the bottom I would stay down. I was so happy that I had conquered my buoyancy challenges! I remembered to look around and enjoy the dive.

Tom signed off on our dive logs and congratulated Bradley and me on our certification. I was feeling so accomplished that I wanted to hug everyone.

I had learned so much in those three short weeks! I felt like I had accomplished a lot. I was very pleased with myself for overcoming this fear. I was thankful to Tom and everyone for their patience and persistence through all of my anxiety. I have met many new friends. There are all new adventures to plan. This was a great story to share with my clients!

Another client came in that week and told me that her husband was in hospice. I guess the distraction only lasts for a little while. I do feel like my energy has been recharged. I would rather have a life full of people and deal with grief than become a hermit.