Underwater lessons for dry land

Last weekend I went scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef for the first time. While I am an accredited diver, it had been a long time since I’d done any diving and I was really out of practice.

Upon booking my dive trip, the wonderful people at the Cairns Dive Centre offered me the option to get into the pool the day before I was scheduled to dive in the reef to simply refresh and practice.  I didn’t think there’d be much involved with the practice; I’d simply get in the pool for half an hour, practice using the dive gear, and get out – too easy.  I wasn’t even sure if it was necessary but was keen to ensure I made the most of my time at the Great Barrier Reef so I took the practice opportunity.

When I arrived at the pool the instructor was in the middle of training three people to be accredited divers.  I was offered the option of simply blending into the lessons as the means of getting the practice I was after.  My memories of all the ‘hoop jumping’ involved in getting my dive licence quickly came flooding back to me as well as the realisation that jumping a few hoops was exactly what I needed.

The reason I knew it was what I needed was because I REALLY did not want to do it.

The instructor was telling the four of us that the next exercise that we needed to do was to allow our masks to fill up with water, and then clear the water.  The following exercise was to completely take our masks off underwater and then just sit there at the bottom of the pool while breathing for 2 minutes, all the while with bubbles going past your face and not really being able to see anything because my eyes are not conditioned to be able to see anything expect blurry shapes underwater.  It was extremely uncomfortable for me.  With each instruction, I felt a sense of dread.

In that moment I had a choice.  I had my dive license already.  I could walk out of that pool right then, ditch all the hoop jumping, and still be able to dive in the Great Barrier Reef the next day.

Two things stopped me from walking out.  1. Having to live with myself.  While my walking out of the pool wouldn’t have made much difference to anyone else there, I would know that I was walking out purely because I was scared – and living with knowledge like that about myself is ultimately worse than sitting at the bottom of a pool with no mask for two minutes.  2. There was the simple reality that losing your mask is one of the possibilities of diving and, sure enough, if I walked out of the pool because I didn’t want to take my mask off under the water, the universe was going to send me an opportunity the next day to do the exercise anyway.

So I did it.

And sitting there at the bottom of the pool, after I managed to calm the rush of panic, and while staring into the blurry underwater world, I began writing this article in my head…

Life lessons from scuba diving

Lesson number one: The reality is rarely as bad as you think is going to be

Once I managed to be calm and just breath (one of the foremost rules of scuba diving), there was the realisation that everything is fine.  So it goes in life.  We worry about all the things that could go wrong – sometimes to the extent that you quit and walk out of the pool.  How often was all the worry really worth it?  How often does the fear make you walk out of the pool?

Lesson number two: Relax and breathe

If I really wanted someone to learn how to relax and breathe, I’d send them scuba diving.  On dry land we talk about the need to stop, relax and breathe incessantly.  Most of the time however, people go through life stressed and on heightened alert because there are no immediate repercussions for not doing so.  There is also some place in their brain in which they think the stress or panic is helping them.

In scuba diving, not paying attention to the ‘relax and breathe’ rule can kill you.  It’s a completely different state of mind in that no matter what is going on around you, the first thing you must do is check in with yourself and regulate your breathing.  At worst, if you don’t, you will cause yourself, and possibly other people too, serious injury.  At best you will go through your air supply much more rapidly.  No matter what is causing you stress, always first check in with yourself and breathe.  This is a great lesson to take back to dry land.

Lesson number three: Less is more

One of my favourite feelings while scuba diving is how neutral buoyancy makes it incredibly easy to ascend or descend in the water by simply regulating the amount of air in the lungs.  If I want to move up in the water, I breathe in a little extra, pause for a moment, and allow the extra air in my body to be all the leverage that this required to ascend.  Then simply continue breathing normally again (note: never hold your breath for longer than moments while diving).  If I want to descend, simply do the opposite.  That’s it.  Doing more (i.e. moving my arms and legs a lot) is mostly futile and exerts unnecessary energy and air.  In return for simply controlling my breathing and relaxing, I gain a much more enjoyable and interactive experience of the amazing world around me.  It’s much the same on dry land too.

My time experiencing the Great Barrier Reef was truly amazing.  A couple of times I thought I was going to cry but I didn’t want to risk putting any water in my mask!!!  The joy of playing with the turtles is something I’ll never forget.

Much love,


4 thoughts on “Underwater lessons for dry land

  1. I get what you are saying. I too faced my fears recentl y and used the ‘breathe’ strategy to help me through a fearful situation. I was doing the 2 day rider practical sessions to get my motorcycle learners permit. Needless to say I dropped the bike in the first exercise and it took considerable self talk to keep me going. Loved your story.

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