Why being both a little frightened and a lot humbled are really important

Chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter. Yak yak yak yak.

Honestly, shut UP already.

That’s what I was thinking to myself as I blathered at Rama, the handsome young African man who runs the dive equipment portion of this five-star PADI outfit here on Mafia Island, just off the coast of East Africa.

Honestly, I’m scared shitless.

Don’t need to be. It will be fine. However, when I yammer like a jackhammer, that’s Exhibit #1 that I’m nervous.

Tomorrow I’m heading out to sea for my first open water dive since my 60th birthday. The only thing I’ve done in the last seven years was a pool dive with a guy who promised to work with me on my skills and promptly ghosted me after we’d had what we both said was a rollicking fun time.

GAH. Asshole. Please stop asking me why I’m single if I’m “still so attractive.” Because for one, I cannot count on men, and for two, I would rather sit here all my myself in the open dining room on Mafia Island, flying foxes rummaging through the fruit on the trees, with the two rescued strays giving me goo-goo eyes.

I need loving goo-goo eyes to help me calm my jitters. It’s distracting.

Look. For you folks for whom scuba diving ain’t no big thang, and that would be plenty of you, you neither have my history, nor do you likely have my abject fear of drowning.

A special needs child nearly did me in while holding me underwater during swimming lessons when I was barely ten. That experience focused me far more on horses and away from the once-joyful leaps into Deer Lake, which bordered our farm to the east, in freshwater lake heaven Central Florida.

I learned how to dive anyway, to beat that fear, in 1983. I was headed to Australia. I thought, correctly, that I’d be a fool to be that close to the Great Barrier Reef (back when it still was) and not be able to dive.

The very worst part of the entire training was the first time I went under the surface, in full gear, shallow end of the pool, and felt the water close over my head. I nearly shat myself, putting me in good company with everyone else. Then my dive buddy had problems. I promptly forgot my fear, and went to help her out. Works like that. I’ve found that my military background has paid off in surprising ways.

You might be about to panic and then you see someone having a worse time that you. In a weird way that’s a gift. And so I learned to dive. My first open water was on the Barrier Reef. I learned the word SURGE faster than you can say Holy SHIT. Those of us who learned to remove our masks in the dank murk of Lake McConaughy, Nebraska were happy to make the trade. At least you could see, before the surge sent you tumbling. You learn.

That opened up the oceans to me. I dove forty times over the ensuing years, including in Fiji. Some pretty spectacular places. Still wasn’t my favorite sport, but I was competent. No expert. Just competent. Unlike in other sports I wasn’t terribly motivated to get additional ratings.

Then in 2000, I dove the Sardine Run. Let’s just say that I’d bought some new gear while in South Africa. It was unfamiliar, I had lots of folks check it. Still. My gear. My job to know it. The dive is in high seas, icy cold water, very challenging conditions, and a great many sharks in the water. Hammerheads, bulls, you get the picture. In our case, we also had a “pod”, if you will, of twenty-five thousand dolphin, all of whom dine on sardines. It’s chaotic out there in sardine season, which is the whole point.

The second dive of the day, I had a serious gear failure, and it nearly cost me my life. I blew out a right eardrum, got scoped out by a bull shark (not a good thing) and was unable, for good reason, to get air into my buoyancy compensator. It was a perfect storm of events, but I was able to calmly signal for help, got lifted to the surface with great care and perfect safety by two divemasters, and all was well. That is till I had an adrenaline hangover the next day disguised as the worse migraine I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve had lots of them.

I was fine, but it scared the living shit out of me. Again, for good reason. After that I didn’t dive again for thirteen years. I did a few pool familiarization dives. Then when I was in Costa Rica for my 60th birthday, I did a few more.

The water was murky, the guides were rude. At least I didn’t do anything stupid. At some level, that day was more to see if I still had any affinity for fins. I did. But still. I wasn’t charmed enough to make a commitment, even though land-locked Denver has long been famous for having more dive shops per capita than any other city. Denver. Go figure.

My once-budding love affair with scuba hasn’t reignited. This week I mean to answer the question once and for all: keep the gear? The wetsuits? Start planning dives where I hike, ride and cycle?

Or sell the whole lot and do more of what I love most, which is ride horses?

I still have the gear that I used on the Sardine Run. It’s brand-new, used in two dives. It’s also outdated (I bought it twenty years ago, ya think?) but it works perfectly. Very expensive, high-quality, well-made by Poseidon. I had everything repaired, the problems corrected. My local dive shop put it into primo shape.

Tomorrow, on this sweet small breeze of an island off the coast of Tanzania, I’m going to give it another shot. I have four days, up to two dives a day, assuming this goes well. Mafia is slowly gaining a reputation among discerning divers for some of the best reefs in the world, which for some reason have been able to survive the temperature changes others haven’t. Whale sharks abound here. Those are part of why I came.

The other is that I don’t like to have fear of anything keep me from something I genuinely enjoy. I love the ocean, and what’s underneath it fascinates me. So to allow a single bad accident to permanently keep me from the beauty of the world’s reefs, to me, is criminal.

I have no idea how the day will go. What I do know is that first, I really, really respect the ocean. In much the same way I don’t kid around in the sky, I respect the unforgiving element of deep water. I am still shit-scared of drowning.

And that’s precisely why tomorrow at 8 am, Rama and I are going to go over every single thing, step by step, as though I were starting all over. Because that’s what being humble looks like. He’ll have my rapt attention, because stupid moves underwater can lead to stupid injuries. I really want to play in the ocean again, if for no other reason than my extraordinary Medium peep Margaret Kruger inspired me last year.

Maggie pulled a three-hundred-pound struggling man (it was his job to struggle) out of the Gulf of Mexico to earn her Rescue Diver certificate. She’s 67. She loves the sport more than I do, but if she can hang in the water at that level, I think I can beat my fear well enough to gaze back at a moray eel. or watch a graceful shark slide by hunting for breakfast.

That’s because Maggie and I share a love of the air, a love of horses and a love of adventure travel. One of our jobs, like the struggling “victim” who pushed Maggie hard to earn her rating, is to push friends past our fears. That’s just one reason why I choose fearless friends, or even better, friends who’ve met their fears head on and learned to negotiate terms.

Scuba is no walk in the park, and you really do need a base level of fitness to do it. However it’s a lot less exhausting than, say, hiking up Mt. McKinley. I have a buddy who is 84, and a few years back he completed his 1000th dive. It is a bit kinder than many sports, and many of us can return to it later in life.

Which is what I hope to do.

I just have to get my head under the surface first.

Photo by Jason Dean Chamberlain on Unsplash