Under the Sea: Learning to Dive in Koh Rong Saloem, Cambodia

For as long as I can remember, I have had a fear of being underwater. Which is strange considering I spent all of my early years by the ocean, and most of my summers at the beach. I was convinced I could swim by the time I entered college, since I could theoretically move myself in water from point A to point B. It wasn’t until college that I learned that swimming meant sticking your face, and part of your head, underwater, where it was impossible for humans to breathe. So how did I get from there to diving? And what lessons, if any, did I learn from the whole experience?

It was in college that I decided to take swim lessons. This was less a decision I came to of my own volition than something I was told to do for my own survival. A few weeks before my first lesson, I decided to swim across the Connecticut River. It wasn’t my idea — Emma and Rebecca were going, so I felt compelled to go, too, not wanting to miss out on the fun (years before FOMO was a thing, I’ll have you know). So I entered the water and began my usual semi-vertical arm swim with my head fully out of the water, which is fine in a pool, but in a river with a current, quickly put me in a difficult situation. I made it halfway across as Emma and Rebecca began to swim back from the other side, and they made it back to shore while I was huffing and puffing, trying not to drown. Once I got to a shallow spot, I walked the rest of the way. It was at that point that I decided to (read: Rebecca told me to) take swim lessons.

I loved swim lessons. Mostly, what I loved was how easy it turned out to be to move in the water when you are floating on top of it, not fighting it with your entire body like I had done up until that point. But exhaling under water and turning my head to breathe took some getting used to, since I still had the impulse to pull my head out and sputter every time I got winded. So I kept at it, practicing until I became a fairly competent and quick swimmer.

Fast forward to last week, when I was faced with the possibility of strapping 20 pounds to my back and putting a regulator in my mouth to breathe under water for 45 minutes. Rebecca had initially asked me about diving maybe a year ago, saying it was something she had always wanted to do. I probably responded in the same way that I would have responded if she had said she was jumping out of a plane with a plastic bag as her parachute: “That’s nice. You do that, and I will pick up your dead body afterwards.” I never intended to go underwater, trusting that some machine was going to allow me to breathe. Swimming was one thing; if I panicked, I could simply pull my head out and breathe normally. But diving, worrying about how long you need to get back to the surface, and worrying about your lungs exploding? Nope. Not doing it.

Then I met Erik, one of the divers with the Cambodian Diving Group, on Koh Rong Saloem in Cambodia. It turns out that when you are trapped on an island with no electricity, television, internet, or phone service, people are forced to speak with one another to occupy themselves. (Before the internet, people used to do this all the time, without Facebook or Twitter, often times at meals.) So we struck up a conversation about diving, and he explained how safe and simple it was and how diving allows you to see things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. I was convinced, if only to prove to myself that I could face my fears and do it.

The next day, we went through the academic portion of our PADI Open Water Diver training. I paid as much attention as possible, assuming this would be the most important textbook of my life and that I really needed to remember things to prevent injury or death. We learned lots of things, not least of which were the two big rules of diving: 1) keep breathing, and 2) always dive with a buddy. So we studied and quizzed, and at the end of the day, we were ready for our confined dives.

Our dive master was a Scottish woman named Ali. Ali had recently left her life in Scotland behind to try living in another cheaper country so that she and her dive master boyfriend Stephen could work less and live more. Plus, living on Koh Rong Saloem is basically like being stranded in paradise, particularly compared to rainy, dark Edinbrough. So we began our skills portion, learning what to do when our mask fills with water, how to find our regulator if it comes out of our mouth under water, how to breathe, how to grab your buddy’s alternate air source if you run out, how to control buoyancy, and other things. The confined water dives are typically done in swimming pools, but ours was done in the ocean, since a) there are no swimming pools on Koh Rong Saloem and b) Ali says it’s better to do this stuff in realistic conditions.

The skill sessions are really about behavior modification so that you know what to do in scary situations. I learned that the hard way. The first time I tried to clear my mask, I forgot to breathe, swallowed a bunch of salt water, and then pushed off the bottom up to the surface in a complete panic. In a real dive, that is a big no-no. I also momentarily forgot that the giant pacifier in my mouth was actually the location of my air, and that I needed to breathe through it and not my nose, which while diving is inconveniently placed inside a mask. That also sent me straight to the world above and resulted in a scolding from my instructor. (It is worth mentioning here that Rebecca did much better in the skills portion. She just chilled down there at about 2 meters while Ali and I had more than a few heart-to-hearts while floating just above the water. Being married to me is a constant exercise in patience.)

We did our skills and went out on Dive #1. Rebecca was my dive buddy (because you are always supposed to dive with a buddy) so we got to hold hands the whole time – aww. We saw lots of tropical fish and practiced breathing in a controlled and calm way. Unfortunately, we spent most of our time going up and down in the water, bouncing between 4 and 8 meters as we struggled to control our buoyancy. Buoyancy in diving is controlled by three things: 1) your weight, which in our case included about 10 pounds of added weight on a weight belt, 2) your BCD, or buoyancy control device, which is basically an inflatable vest that pulls air from your tank to inflate, and 3) your lungs, which act as giant internal floaties. We were so discombobulated that Eric, the dive master who convinced us to do it in the first place, had to spend the whole dive holding us down there. Dive #2 went much better (even after I fell out of the boat in a truly oafish manner), and we were able to spend our time looking at stuff and moving around gracefully.

Dive #3 was a complete disaster – again, for me, not for Rebecca. We were supposed to start with a skill in which you simulate running out of air and have to return to the surface from 9 meters or less. This is supposed to take about 30 seconds. The complicating factor is that you are supposed to be exhaling the whole time. I practiced this about 100 times the night before and could do it easily, but underwater was another story. My first attempt I went up way too fast, and the second attempt never happened because my blocked ears wouldn’t pop.

Being under water is mostly a battle against pressure. At the surface, you experience one atmosphere of pressure. With each additional 10 meters of depth, you encounter another atmosphere of pressure. So at 10m, it’s two atmospheres, 20m, three atmospheres, and so on. Just like when you climb in an airplane and have to pop your ears, you have to do that underwater, which is called “equalizing.” Sadly, on my second attempt, I couldn’t equalize. I abandoned the dive after 15 minutes of wiggling my jaw, swallowing and chewing on my regulator and cried with frustration. I rode back to the pier feeling defeated and disappointed, and sad that I had ruined the dive for Rebecca. Ali grabbed us when we got back and gave me a pep talk. She didn’t want to give up on me, and wanted me to try again the next day. Otherwise, if I was really done, I could just walk away with a SCUBA certification of 12m only. She gave me ear drops to try to clear the stuff in my ears and we went back to our bungalow.

After a nap and a little reflection, I decided to keep trying. I hate starting something and not finishing it. So we went back the next day, armed with cleaned ears and a steely resolve, and we did it. We had two great dives, finished the skills, and ended as Open Water Divers. We were supposed to leave that day, but it was the day before Tet, and we were worried about finding a place to stay on the mainland. So we decided to stay for another two days and keep diving.

The people at the dive group had worked in various parts of the world, including Indonesia and Malaysia, where we were eventually headed. They gave us tips of where to dive, and told us that one of the best spots in the world to dive was in Indonesia at 25 meters. We were certified for 18 meters. So we decided to tack on a deep dive so that we could go all the way down to 30 meters (that’s four atmospheres of pressure, for those of you keeping track at home.) So, the next day, we did two dives, one to 28 meters and one fun dive at about 8, since my ears were blocked once again.

The first deep dive was interesting. In deep water, the pressure is higher, there is far less light, you use more air and there is more nitrogen in your bloodstream. Ali had planned to demonstrate the differences with a few small activities. Unfortunately, we were battling a tremendous current, so staying down there was basically impossible without holding onto the boat anchor line. She tried to show us the effect of pressure under water by cracking an egg. The pressure keeps the yolk in tact, instead of it running all over the place. But because of the current, the yolk just took off into the water, so we couldn’t play tennis with it as planned. She also had us write our names backwards on a slate to see if the increased nitrogen in our bloodstream caused our brains to function a little slower than at the surface. (Rebecca’s name was a particular challenge, since it is about 27 characters- thanks, Mom & Dad!) Finally, she showed us a color palette to see what colors looked like down there. At the surface, it was a regular rainbow of ROYGBIV. But underwater, all we could see was yellow, blue and green. The entire red spectrum was wiped out by the effect of the water.

The strong current turned the second dive into a drift dive, meaning you just “go with the flow” and let the current take you. We tried to battle the current for 10 minutes but gave up, since it was like swimming on a treadmill. I couldn’t clear my ears again so we stayed shallow and just chilled, seeing what we could see in about 30 minutes. We filled out all of our paperwork, showered, and patted ourselves on the back, deciding that we would definitely be diving again later on in our trip.

So that’s how I learned how to dive. And what I learned is that it is worth it to push your limits. Whether it’s psychological or physical, true satisfaction comes from conquering obstacles. But what I also learned is that when you are trying to get over a wall, it really helps to have someone boosting you, pushing you and offering encouragement. Doing it by yourself might be satisfying, but sharing the victory with others makes the celebratory beer taste even sweeter. No one is entirely self-made; instead, behind every successful person is someone else yelling, pushing or helping. So go out and find those people who want you to succeed and won’t let you give up. And always remember two things: keep breathing, and always dive with a buddy.

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One thought on “Under the Sea: Learning to Dive in Koh Rong Saloem, Cambodia

  1. Yay new motto for life! This is very inspiring–Dorian and I are planning a trip to Bali this summer, I may just need to try it!

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