I was seven years old the first time I felt the grip of death on my foot. Resting on a boogie board splashing my feet up and down I never knew I could go so far. Just a couple of minutes was apparently enough to push my seven year old self into the open sea. When I looked back I could barely see the shore and a panicked sensation of cold froze my tiny body. Similar to Tom Hanks screaming for Wilson in the iconic movie Cast Away, I started screaming for my Dad.
Shouting was in vain, my wobbly voice was getting lost in the motion of the waves. Splashing my feet as hard and fast as I could wasn’t doing much either, it almost seemed like the ocean had a magnet on my board and I was stuck in the same place. Without moving forward or backwards just floating and resting in the aggressive swell, water started coming in through my mouth. Coughing, screaming, crying: this was it, I was ready to say goodbye to my brief and insignificant life.
With my head resting to one side quietly sobbing and shaking from cold, I held the boogie board with both hands waiting to die. Yeah, it sounds dramatic, but that’s what I felt. Finally, my Dad realized where I was and, like a Baywatch episode, I was rescued in a boat by the marine police. As a result of this event I developed a phobia of the sea, or to water in this instance. It took me at least five years before I could get into the water again. I never learned to swim.
Koh Phi Phi’s Therapy
After 21 years since the traumatic event, I was on a boat to face my biggest fear. Cruising around the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi with these three brave women I felt ready. If I was traveling with friends, family or a lover, I probably would have never done it. I think because I was Solo Traveling I had the courage. If I failed, no one would know. Not only was I about to swim in the open sea, I was on my way to get my Scuba diving open water certified license. A full day of theory, two open water lessons, and four introductory dives were the requirements to get it. I though I was not going to survive my first lesson.
Doing scuba diving had always been a dream of mine, but to get the license meant I had to face my biggest fear. Without the incredible team of Princes Divers in Koh Phi Phi I wouldn’t have done it. On my first lesson under water I almost got a panic attack. Breathing from a tank was more, or as scary, as being under water; it was all new sensations. Little did I know that this experience was going to be the perfect therapy for my ocean trauma, that it would change me forever.
We were next to the shore close to where most of the boats were resting. It almost felt like we were in a natural pool. It was time. In order to pass the day’s lesson I needed to complete a number of exercises under water, like taking my mask off and putting it back on, letting water into the mask and removing it, being able to float in a meditation Buddha position under water, and many others.
As long as I could breath the air from the tank, what could go wrong? I put the regulator on my mouth and released the air from my Buoyancy control device, which is the system that holds all your equipment and allows you to float. As soon as I started descending my heart rate started to increase. What was that weird sensation of clean oxygen coming though my mouth? It was so pure and clean that I felt as though I was suffocating on it. I opened my mouth too much, salt water hit my throat, and in a desperate move I inflated my jacket and went up to the surface.
This, my friends, is the number one reason for fatal accidents in the practice of scuba diving. Getting up to the surface in a panic without taking the right amount of time to clear the ears or equalize.
Trust in your breath
“What happened!?” she asked me with urgency.
“I can’t do it,” I replied, frustrated.
“Never, ever, ever do that again,” she emphasized.
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m scared.” I finally confessed.
“Look, earlier today you told me that this was your dream, you have made it all the way up to here. I’m not quitting on you and, most importantly, you are not quitting on yourself. Trust in your breath and don’t forget to enjoy. I have nowhere to go and nowhere to be. Neither do you. So at your own pace, whenever you’re ready.” She smiled.
What a beautiful creature she was. Her energy and kindness relaxed me and I was ready to go down. I can still hear her saying those words…trust in your breath, don’t forget to enjoy…I apply this advice on a daily basis now…sometimes, it just takes a little courage and a JUMP.
When you’re falling, dive
I was not ready for what was about to come. The new world that was going to open up and unfold before my eyes. Like opening a window inside your brain that has never been opened before. The simplicity of breathing, the relaxation of surrendering your entire self to the body of water that surrounds you, the silence, the impossibility of words.
Under water life made sense. No money, breath in, breath out, look around, be amazed, contemplate, fleeting life, no religions, no wars…just your body floating in the eternal flow of things. So much life. I felt in sync with the universe. Like the most profound meditation, like dreaming with the awareness of being awake, so many faces ran though my head. Some of them warmed my heart, some of them made me sad because they are no longer in my life, and with the sadness of the memories gravity was lost.
I’ve never been on the moon but maybe it feels the same as being under water, no gravity and a sensation of slowly floating through space. Sigur Rós started to play in the background of my head while thousands of fish surrounded me, swimming in perfect synchronization, making me feel like one of them. I was not resisting anything, the good thoughts, the sad ones, it all seemed to be part of that perfect symphony that had taken me underneath, floating on that body of water surrounded by those thousands of fish. I was where I needed to be.
And right there I understood…
That title of that book I had read years ago. When You’re Falling, Dive…do not resist the currents of life, sometimes falling is inevitable, and if we surrender to it instead of resisting it we can understand the lesson behind the fall. If I hadn’t committed all those mistakes, I would have never been floating on these waters. I would have never gotten here. We truly never know where life is going to take us.
Breathing in…breathing out…with sad tunes in the background I could listen with distinctive clarity to my heart. There’s an undertone of sadness always playing in the background of my mind, and for many years I’ve been resisting it, and right then I realized that those sad tunes are the ones that help me play all the others. The sad melodies that come from memories, scars, death, and loss are what made me who I am… the special, loving being I am.
Smiling through the tears, I was running out of air. My time under water was done. Taking my time to go up, the sunny sky was waiting for me. When I got into the boat and took all the equipment off, something had changed. I felt lighter. More than taking heavy equipment from by body, I had taken heavy burdens from my mind. When we got back to land my walk was different. I could sense the water all around me. I would always be able to access that sensation, I thought. Now, sometimes, instead of walking… I float.
Obtaining your scuba license in Thailand
A lot of people come to Thailand to get their license because it is one of the cheapest places on earth to get it, and the life and corals are rich. Koh Phi Phi is not the cheapest place in Thailand to get it, but the reason that I decided to do it there was because they have the best-conserved corals in Thailand and the Scuba diving schools have high ethical responsibility with regard to the environment.
Sadly, other places around Thailand only care about the money, which is why most of their Corals are dead; the same thing is happening in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In places like Koh Samui you can get it for $300 USD; I paid $375 USD. You will need to have four to five days to commit to the course in order to complete all the requirements for the Open Water License.
Coral Reefs are in danger all around the world. It is no secret that in the midst of climate change, coral reefs are suffering. However, a warming world is not the only factor putting these reefs in danger – over-fishing also plagues these colorful ecosystems. There are so many ways we can help relieve the impact on this precious and important ecosystem.
Here is a list of 10 things you can do for our coral reefs
- Conserve water: The less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater will pollute our oceans.
- Help reduce pollution: Walk, bike or ride the bus. Fossil fuel emissions from cars and industry lead to ocean warming, which causes mass-bleaching of corals and can lead to widespread destruction of reefs.
- Research what you put on your lawn: Although you may live thousands of miles from a coral reef ecosystem, these products flow into the water system, pollute the ocean, and can harm coral reefs and marine life.
- Dispose of your trash properly: Don’t leave unwanted fishing lines or nets in the water or on the beach. Any kind of litter pollutes the water and can harm the reef and the fish.
- Support reef-friendly businesses: Ask the fishing, boating, hotel, aquarium, dive, or snorkeling operators how they protect the reef. Be sure they care for the living reef ecosystem and ask if the organization responsible is part of a coral reef ecosystem management effort.
- Plant a tree: Trees reduce runoff into the oceans. You will also contribute to reversing the warming of our planet and the rising temperatures of our oceans. Help us Plant a Billion.
- Practice safe and responsible diving and snorkeling: Do not touch the reef or anchor your boat on the reef. Contact with the coral will damage the delicate coral animals, and anchoring on the reef can kill it, so look for sandy bottoms or use moorings if available.
- Volunteer for a coral reef cleanup: You don’t live near a coral reef? Then do what many people do with their vacation: visit a coral reef. Spend an afternoon enjoying the beauty of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the Earth.
- Contact your government representatives: Demand they take action to protect coral reefs, stop sewage pollution of our oceans, expand marine protected areas, and take steps to reverse Global Warming.
- Spread the word: Remember your own excitement at learning how important the planet’s coral reefs are to us and the intricate global ecosystem. Share this excitement and encourage others to get involved.
Here is a list of Organizations which currently undertake coral reef and atoll restoration projects using simple methods of plant propagation:
- Coral Cay
- Counterpart International
- National Coral Reef Institute (NCRI)
- US Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP)
- Reef Ball
- Foundation of the peoples of the South Pacific
Enjoy the video of my third and fourth dives, and remember that we can always do something!