A day ago, I was at
Splash Dive Center in Placencia, chatting with Patty Ramirez, a veteran dive instructor. Patty seemed sure that my fear could be transformed into passion, and, if I wanted, I could even go for my Open Water Certification.
I spent that night learning the golden rules of scuba, the first of which is “keep breathing.” Air expands under atmospheric pressure so divers who hold their breath are risking lung rupture. I added “Lung Rupture” to my list of things to fear in the sea, just after shark attack and drowning.
After a series of practical exercises in the pool, I was ready to jump into the salt water. We’d be going to Laughing Bird Caye, a small, protected spit of land about 20 miles off the coast. It would be a controlled descent alongside a 40-foot rope attached to the boat. The rope would give me something to focus on, and in a worst-case scenario I figured I could just climb it with my last breath.
Exhausted but exhilarated, I arrived home to find a group of friends had arrived unexpectedly from Punta Gorda. It was too late for them to train towards certification, so they opted to do a shorter, less intensive “Discovery Dive.” But that meant instead of heading down the rope, we’d begin on the shore and swim outward and downward fully geared. To make matters worse, the next day, Patty seemed confident enough in my training to divert her hand-holding to my friend Jackie, even more of a scuba virgin than myself.
And it’s here, dear reader, 20 feet beneath the waves, that the years of fear overwhelm a day of training.
Ditching my dive companions, I make for the surface, kicking my flippers and inflating my vest in a desperate attempt to reach a waterline that seems so very far above. Heart pounding, I break through, spit out my regulator and gasp for air. Laughing Bird Caye is barely a fifth of a mile away, and I feel stupid.
A moment later, Patty emerges from beneath the waves and asks me if I’m OK. “I got the fear,” I tell her. “Let me swim back to shore.”
After making sure I’m up to the swim, Patty goes back down to continue the Discovery Dive with the others. Feeling like a disgraced sumo wrestler in my fully inflated vest, I kick my way back to Laughing Bird Caye and collapse on the sand.
Thirty minutes later, Patty returns to the beach. “We’ll go down the rope this time,” she says.
As the boat carries us to the dive zone, I am in a state of catatonic hyperawareness, fully aware of my surroundings, but incapable of physical action other than following orders. I follow Patty into the water, and we bob like corks on the surface. Patty asks me if I am OK. I signal that I am indeed “OK.”
She gives the go-down signal; I deflate my vest and we sink together slowly beneath the choppy waves.
Hand in hand we descend alongside the thick white rope. When we stop to equalize, I close my eyes, cross my legs and sit in neutral buoyancy, observing my breath and absorbing the sensations in this strange and silent new world. I open my eyes to see Patty also sitting like a monk in underwater meditation. My instruments read 30 feet. It’s time to look around.
Sunlight shimmers on the waterline above, and below schools of fish the likes of which I’ve never seen before swim around the coral landscapes. We descend to the end of the rope, 40 feet, and swim together above the coral beds. After a while I feel brave enough to venture briefly on my own, floating towards a massive fish I recognize from a poster touting Belize’s marine life as a “Jewfish.” The behemoth watches me close in impassively before turning and swimming away at the last moment.
I hear a dull clicking sound, and it takes me a moment to register that it’s Patty calling me back to her side. It’s time to begin the process of surfacing, allowing time for stops at intervals to allow the nitrogen in our blood to diminish safely. Surfacing after nearly 40 minutes beneath the waves, I feel as though I’m being reborn. I am calm and at peace, and eager to change out air tanks and head back down.
We wind up doing a second dive that day, bringing me one step closer to completing the certification process. Not bad for a first day; not bad for a guy who’s been afraid of the sea as long as he can remember. As the boat heads back to Placencia later in the day, I find myself reflecting on this small, beautiful nation in which I so often find myself. From north to south I’ve explored Belize, finding beauty and adventure from the coastal shores of Corozal to the remote inland villages of Toledo, and in the many places in between. It occurs to me that until now, I’ve been skimming the surface and seen, at best, only half the beauty Belize has to offer. Having broken the surface and overcome my fear, I’m looking forward to exploring the other half for many years to come.