Nicola Neilson from Backpacking Kiwis on feeling the fear and doing it anyway, in Ko Tao, Thailand.
It is well known to those who know me that I have fears. I am scared of the dark, spiders, germs, boats, the sea, cliffs, elevators, bugs, strong winds, dogs, trucks, basically anything that can kill me, maim me, or give me a stiff fright. It then begs the question, why did I agree to do a diving course? I’m still not really sure I can answer that question. I think perhaps that present-Nicola has no problem making arrangements for future-Nicola. Future-Nicola has no fears. She is invincible. The problem only occurs when present-Nicola and future-Nicola end up meeting. They do not get along.
We arrived in Ko Tao, Thailand, a beautiful island way off the coast of the mainland, on a sunny afternoon. With calm waters and warm air, Ban’s Diving Resort felt like paradise. Our diving course started an hour after arriving, which involved a 4 hour theory session filling out paper work and watching a video. It was fairly straightforward and I thought perhaps that diving wasn’t as scary as I had originally thought. That night we stayed in a basic room, which is complimentary when you are signed up to a dive course. The room was horrible. It had two scraps of material that were supposed to pass as our sheets, dirty towels and a gross bathroom. The worst part was that we were next door to a bar that produced deep bass that vibrated through the bed until the wee hours of the morning.
Having not slept a wink all night, the next day I was a wreck. We started the day with more theory that I struggled to stay engaged with. During the lunch break, we upgraded to a Deluxe Hilltop Bungalow room that was as far away from the bar as you could get. The room had a stunning view over the bay and was by far the most luxurious of our accommodations to date. If I was going to face many fears at once, I needed to know that I had a sanctuary waiting for me afterwards.
That afternoon we began the practical exercises in the pool. We were shown how to attach all the bits and bobs that allowed us to breathe underwater. It wasn’t until we were all geared up and ready to jump into the pool that I realized what I was about to do. One by one, our group of five plus our instructor jumped into the pool fully geared. Wearing a weight belt plus 20 kg of gear, I could not comprehend how I wasn’t going to sink to the bottom of the pool and drown. My name was called to jump in and I froze. Nope. Nope. Nope. The instructor looked at me and told me to jump. I didn’t move. He started a countdown from three and I became more terrified as to what might happen once he finished the countdown and I hadn’t jumped, so despite my better judgement I took a big step and fell in the water convinced that I was going to drown, but at least I had a good innings. Much to my surprise I floated. The rest of the afternoon was filled with breathing underwater, learning how to find our regulators when they fell out and how to put a mask back on underwater. All this seemed easy and I left the pool with a big, cheesy grin wondering what I was worried about. That was, until the next day.
That night I still didn’t sleep. The room couldn’t have been quieter, it was the perfect temperature and the bed was blissfully comfortable. However, I lay awake thinking how terrified I was that tomorrow I would be in the deep, blue sea, along with the sharks, stingrays, and an array of fish that could bite my toes off for a snack. If the mosquitos are any judge, I’m very tasty. The next morning we set off early to do our first dive. When the boat came to a stop at our intended destination I started sobbing. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. My mind raced through all the possible complications and, to be honest, the training was so good that I knew what to do in most situations that would have scared me before. I knew I had nothing to be afraid of, yet the panic had taken hold.
Despite of my terror, I had a new mantra. I had to feel the fear, but do it anyway. I may be more of a scared-y cat than the average Josephine, but that’s just my ticket in life. What matters is what I do with it. So, with tears streaming down my face, I took a giant leap into the deep, dark, terrifying, blue sea and allowed myself to sink to the bottom. I’d love to be able to say that from the second I went under all my fears floated away, but that wasn’t true. The entire dive was a battle against my mind telling me to swim with all my might back to the surface. If there were fish down there, I don’t remember seeing them. I think there may have been some rocks.
We did a second dive that day, which thankfully I managed fairly well. For this one I do remember seeing a few fish. The 45 minutes flew by quickly, but each time we surfaced I prayed to Buddha, God, Allah, anyone who would listen that I was very thankfully to have made it back alive, with all my toes attached. I suspected I had passed the worst of my fears, and that tomorrow our next two dives would be a breeze. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
By now I was used to not sleeping. I listened to the lizards and geckos running through the trees, read my book, and waited for the sun to rise. I have never been more acutely aware of just how many hours there are in the night. By the next morning’s dive I was in full panic mode. Sitting on the deck of the boat, I couldn’t breathe and had tears streaming down my face. I don’t know how I managed to battle past these fears of my mine, but behind the tears was a face of pure determination. Again, through my teary mask I leaped off the boat. With each dive we had to complete a number of challenges as part of our training. On our third dive we had to do the full mask removal on the ocean floor. This was my least favourite challenge by far. I would much rather take out my regulator and find it again than take off my mask under 12 metres of water. Despite being able to breathe while the mask is taken off, the water forces itself up your nose and you feel like you’re drowning. I made a complete spectacle of myself during the mask removal, but I did manage to do it without drowning.
Our final dive was our “fun” dive. We had no new training to do and no tasks. It was the culmination of everything we had learnt. I had grown to enjoy the initial descent, as you watch the water rise on your mask and before you know it you’re looking up at the underside of the ocean surface. I was also now looking at fish and could somewhat enjoy what I was looking at.
I’m not a natural underwater, but the diving course has changed me. I now look out at the infinite sea and I wonder what’s below and I can see the coral and fish waiting for me on the bottom. I have also confirmed that absolutely anyone is capable of diving. I will probably cry next time I go diving, but I’m still going to do it.
Just imagine if you were scared of something so much it bought you to tears, would you still do it?
This post first appeared on Backpacking Kiwis and has been republished with permission. All images are authors own. (Pst, we particularly love Nicola's travel vids, if you're looking from adventure check them out)