Learning to Scuba Dive

A couple months ago, a friend and I were wading out in the Mediterranean Sea, looking to body surf some of the light waves that were crashing down on the beach. I’m a strong swimmer, I body surfed a bunch in New Jersey as a kid, and the water temperature in the Mediterranean was pleasant. No big deal. After 15 or so minutes of bobbing up and down in the water facing out toward the sea, fruitlessly trying to surf the waves that lost power just as they crested, my friend yelled over, “Hey, I think we’re a bit far out from the beach. We should probably swim back in.” I turned around and looked back at the beach. We were indeed way further out from the shore than I would have expected, given it had only been 15 minutes and we hadn’t swum out too far. I hollered back that I agreed, and we both turned toward the shore.

I swam hard back toward the shore for about 30 seconds. I was definitely moving through the water. I figured I’d be at the sandy beach in no time. When I pulled my head back up to stay directionally oriented, I glanced toward the shore, and I felt a jolt of panic: I was further from the shore than before. Despite swimming strongly towards it, I was now further from the shore than I was 30 seconds prior. My heart began beating quickly and my breaths became shorter. For a few moments, I contemplated whether I’d make it back to shore at all. I’d never had the experience of swimming as hard as I could in a certain direction but being pulled in the exact opposite direction at the same time. There was no one else swimming in the ocean who could lend a hand, and we were far enough from the beach that yells for help may not have been heard.

After a pause, my friend yelled out to me that we needed to swim parallel to the shore to escape the rip tide. Apparently there’s fairly common knowledge, but I had never heard of it. Thankfully, I was with someone who knew what to do when caught in a rip tide. I moved parallel, and indeed, within a couple minutes, we were back in easy water, and I swam easily toward the beach. I was happy to have made it back in one piece, but disappointed that my “panic mode” activated so quickly.


As it turns out, managing your panic impulse — not freaking out too much when something goes awry or when you feel claustrophobic — is key to becoming certified for open water scuba diving. (In the certification, they also train you to swim parallel to the shore in a rip tide!)

Prior to last weekend, I had never scuba dived, and snorkeled only a few times in Hawaii. But I had heard that the coral reefs are dying due to warming ocean temperatures. I figured I better go see the reefs while they’re still alive.

Scuba training is intense. Several hours of online training, Friday night orientation, all day Saturday and Sunday at the pool in the Bay Area, then another Saturday and Sunday at freezing cold water ocean in Monterey to attempt certification. Through it all, you’re being told to remember different safety acronyms that represent safety checklists, sign language (to communicate underwater), and a multitude of instructions for how to configure and operate the equipment. Along the way, you’re supposed to get comfortable breathing through your mouth underwater and figure out how to make sure your ears stay comfortable as you descend into water. Finally, you’re taught 10-15 specific skills that you have to successfully demonstrate in the pool and ocean: how to do an emergency ascent on breath alone, how to give your buddy oxygen, how to demonstrate neutral buoyancy in the water, how to clear your mask of water, and others.

Much of the skills training involves emergency situations that you will likely never encounter. The purpose of these skills is obvious at one level: on the off chance you do have an emergency underwater, you’ll know what to do. Otherwise you’ll die, as plenty of people do. The more interesting other purpose of these skills is to stress test you: to get you comfortable with things going wrong and to train you to just keep breathing in and out, and calmly figure out how to solve the problem.

One of the skills they train you to do in the pool is how to take off your BCD under water. The BCD is the life preserver backpack that has the oxygen tank, weights, and all your equipment attached to it. It’s hard to do, and not something you’d ever want to try in a real ocean dive. Almost all the students failed in their first and second attempts. When I took off the BCD at depth, I began flailing about in the water, trying to stay on the bottom of the pool even though the weight had been taken off my back. Meanwhile, I was trying to keep the oxygen line in my mouth the whole time. The purpose of the pool-only skill is to induce stress and build confidence. The students who dropped out of the class too frequently panicked and jumped to the surface. Removing and then putting back on your BCD under water was a big confidence booster…even though I’ll likely never have to use the skill in real life. It’s interesting to contemplate other stress tests we should be running in our personal and professional lives…

Some other quick observations on my experience:

  • I was one of the weaker students in the class. It was a good experience to struggle at something genuinely new and hard for me. In addition to all the scuba-specific training, I was also a newbie at putting on a thick wetsuit, using a compass under water, and other random tasks. And, in general, any activities that require fine physical motor skills — buckling and harnessing and clipping and tying knots — are not my strong suit, especially if I’m wearing wearing thick gloves and operating in cold water. For all these reasons, it was especially gratifying to learn the skills, complete the four open water dives, and become certified.
  • Diving opens up new travel options. I’m excited by the prospect of being able to add a day or two to a trip somewhere in the world, and go diving. A whole new world of travel opportunity might be opening up.
  • Diving is a dangerous sport. Our teacher recounted multiple stories of people who have died while diving. With danger comes adrenaline. I don’t do many physically dangerous things in my life.
  • Learn to scuba dive when you have a life partner or go-to friend. It’s a buddy sport — beginners never dive alone. Learning with your partner is a blast.
  • My ear equalization is still a little messed up. If anyone has tips on clever ways to equalize, let me know. For me to stick with diving, I’ll need to be able to equalize effectively and not have my ears clogged up for the week+ after diving.

Next up: The Great Barrier Reef in Australia. And New Year’s Eve in Sydney. My first time to Australia!

2 comments on “Learning to Scuba Dive
  • Sounds like a great experience. But I can echo the caution voiced by your instructors. One of the saddest experiences I’ve had in the startup world is when one of the entrepreneurs I was advising died in a scuba diving mishap. He was a very experienced diver, but got unlucky, just in his home waters of Monterey Bay. I heard the news from his son, who was absolutely stricken with grief. Be careful out there!

  • Ben – have goosebumps reading about your rip tide experience… Just faced a nasty current last week in the Aegean.

    Excited for the stress tests from my cert course next month! Thanks for planting the seed on this 🙂

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