Dive Master Training.

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The road to my Dive Master training has not been a smooth one. I don’t remember learning to swim. I grew up next to the beach, I’ve always loved being in the water and for my first couple of decades – I never once felt uncomfortable in it. Age 9, in La Jolla, California – I remember my brother and I being thrown from the surf onto the beach – literally spat out of the waves, coming up laughing, covered in sand burns, and running back into the surf for more. My poor Mum. The first time I tried breathing underwater (with a reg) I was about 12, in a swimming pool, and thought it was the coolest thing ever. I remember the air seeming so clean and fresh. The first time I went diving, in Cartagena, Colombia, we were giving almost no briefing, most of it in Spanish (I was no way near fluent) and I ended up being left at the bottom on the sand by myself, as my friend shot to the surface and the Instructor told me to just wait, so I did – alone – watching the garden eels, thinking how cool this all was. (Note – this was NOT safe, acceptable practice!) 

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Over the next five years I did my Open Water and Advanced Open Water – and though I didn’t dive that much yet, due to money constrictions & no friends that dived, I had no doubt in my mind I would end up with a Dive Master qualification.

In my mid-20s I ended up helping save someone I loved from drowning. At the time, and after, I didn’t feel panic, though I did at one point, whilst being pushed underwater, truly believe these might be my final breaths. I felt strangely peaceful about it at the time. It was not too long after this, being at the end of a group in a strong current, with little snorkel fins (I didn’t even realize they weren’t dive fins) I felt panicked, and though knowing rationally I had air and all was okay, I couldn’t kick the panicky feeling and told my buddy I needed to go up. The rest of the group at this point couldn’t be seen, and so we did the safety stop, surfaced.. and I screamed. I must have looked crazy, and I remember having some sort of out of body experience looking down at myself laughing. A small boat came and picked me and my buddy up, and they dropped us off on the correct boat. I’d never experienced strong currents before, never felt uncomfortable like that underwater before – I had no idea what to do – though thankfully all my safety training kicked in, and I had ascended slowly and safely.

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I dived twice more that day – but then didn’t for five years (honestly it felt a lot longer.) But oh I tried. I booked a days diving in Portugal with a friend. When I was gearing up I started to feel anxious, but decided I could just suck it up and get through it. It was cold.. we had a 5mm with a hood. I’d never worn a hood before.. as we got into the water I started to feel panicky and said I couldn’t do it – told the group to just go and enjoy the dive. I was so angry and upset at myself. I loved diving, I could dive, I knew how to dive, but my mind wouldn’t let me. The Dive Master told me that had she known, she would have advised me not to attempt diving that day – but go somewhere warmer, with better vis, and more things to see!

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Over the next few years I snorkelled as much as I could – some of it was incredible; in Belize with manatees and dolphins, seeing black tip reef shark night snorkelling! I tried to console myself how lucky I was with the diving I’d already done – I’d seen so much, dived the Thistlegorm wreck.. but honestly, at points, I couldn’t even talk about scuba diving, because it upset me so much. It was the first thing I’d ever just done that just felt so natural, and the underwater world was such a magical place, and I wanted to explore it more and more.

But things in my head seemed to get worse, and I started getting cripplingly anxious, and even started to suffer from claustrophobia. (You can read more about that here.) Diving seemed even more impossible… but I couldn’t ever accept that it was over. 

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In 2014, in Mexico, after a wonderful, but mentally challenging four month solo trip (after breaking up with my fiancé) I felt this is it, I can do this. Warm, calm waters – max depth 15m… I am ready. I didn’t tell anyone. I went to bed early, no beers the night before (I was still drinking then) and woke up nervous, but anxious. I remember the boat ride out – chatting to the group, two couples, early 20s – travelling together and newish divers.. but strangely, I don’t remember the actual dives at all past feeling totally fine.. and eventually ecstatic when I got back to the hostel. I’d done it. It had taken so many tears, and many many years, but I did it – I didn’t give up.

From then I did a few day dives when on holidays with non divers, but decided what I really needed was an actual scuba holiday. I went to Zanzibar, and ultimately, it went fantastically well. You can read more about that here.

Still, that wasn’t the end of it – I had an eye condition diagnosed after over a decade of actually having it (which is actually a muscular thing, my eyesight itself is fine) and at its worse (when I actually realized that this was ‘not normal’) I wondered if my diving days were over. But, it hadn’t stopped me doing anything for the decade before, and now knowing more about it – I knew the triggers, and actually being in dive environments (not spending hours on computers in dark rooms with artificial lights) and getting lots of sleep, it’s generally non-existent. (I need to stress here, that this condition does not actually effect my diving, does not put myself or anyone else in danger. I would never dive if I thought this was the case, or worried about it being so.)

After moving back to Hong Kong I started diving there (yup – read here, it’s way better than you think) did a few overseas dive trips to the Philippines – Moalboal & Malapascua – and then got my Rescue Diver qualification, in Hong Kong. This was a huge milestone for me – so worthwhile, and a lot of fun. 

Surprising myself even further I went to Komodo despite being pretty damn anxious about the currents, and I went during full moon – when the currents are at their strongest.. (Komodo blog posts here) and.. in Komodo, what I was most scared of – happened.  With the super strong full moon current at the Cauldron (and specifically just after the Shotgun), my mouthpiece and reg ripped apart.. but in that split second I had no idea what had happened, all I knew was that I had no air – I stayed calm, swam to my DM and grabbed his Octo from behind – with both of us flying though the water wondering what the fuck happened! We worked out that I DID still have air.. but my regulator no longer had a mouthpiece… so I went on my Octo, and finished the dive… (my call/choice.) I am not quite sure how I didn’t breathe in water, but wondered perhaps whether from swimming at such a young age, I learnt a natural reflex somehow of not breathing in water/breathing out as soon as I felt it – I don’t know if that’s possible, but somehow, I didn’t swallow water, or cough, yet I knew I was out of air.. but I had no regulator attached to me!! (and the regulator, still attached to my tank, had no mouthpiece.. !)

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But, I did all the right things, and continued the dive, seeing sharks and mantas.  Still, us humans are complex emotional creatures (even the ones that pretend not to be… ) and a few months later my anxiety creeped back up, to a level that meant I had anxiety (not panic) attacks at least once a day. It was really, really hard and horrible – often crippling – but I tried to lead as normal a life as possible.  After everything, I thought this part of me, of my life was done. I opened up to my family and a few very close friends… and they helped me through. I’d learned what to do, how to ride them out and eventually they lessened, and after a while (a few months) they stopped entirely.

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Before the anxiety attacks happened, I’d booked a dive trip to Palau…  I was SO excited.. despite all the travel and diving I’d done – this trip, to me, was a trip of a lifetime. For me and my wages, it was expensive (but actually great value) – (Insider Divers Trip Report here) but I even thought about not going. I no longer felt anxious, but what if it came back? I decided (thanks to support from friends as well) if I was too nervous, I just wouldn’t dive. I didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s dives, and that the worst that could happen was I did no diving, perhaps a bit of snorkelling, but spent 8 days in a beautiful place, hanging out on boats, by the pool.

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15 minutes into the first dive I felt a little moment of panic, and signalled to my incredible dive buddy Kate (who I’d opened up to) that I felt a little ‘ARRRGH’ and she just smiled, looked me in the eye and told me to breathe in and out slowly.. and that was it – I knew she had my back, and I was okay. I spent the next six days smiling. Non stop. I wrote two trip reports, both starting with ‘every dive was my favourite dive’ and it was after this trip I knew the Dive Master qualification was back on. I felt even more confident, and more in love with diving than before.

And that’s how I ended up here – currently with a few hours off, in Labuan Bajo – by a poolside, tapping away, four weeks into a six week Dive Master Training…

So, how has it been? Honestly – I wasn’t sure I’d make it. I had been so unbelievable excited about doing my Dive Master, I had chosen the perfect organization, in a location with incredible diving, and everything seemed so right. But after months of protesting in Hong Kong, of losing sleep every night, crying, reading twitter and watching videos of Police brutality, whilst also packing up my flat and leaving my job, ready for a move back to London, I was emotionally (and therefore physically) exhausted. I had NO idea how I would be able to learn, focus, keep myself together. It’s one thing diving for yourself, often as a peaceful escape, but doing your Dive Master – diving with others safety, education and experience as the focus, was something else.

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I’d just had an incredible week in Jordan on a Girls That Scuba trip  and felt so, so blessed on how it went – the people I was with, the utterly awe inspiring landscapes that surrounded me, but felt perhaps that was it – all my energy was gone – I needed to now sleep for weeks. 

But, I told myself, I had to go. This was non-negotiable. All I’d done to get myself to this position, all that other people had done to help – I had to go. I didn’t have to do anything whilst I was there – I wouldn’t put myself or anyone else at risk, and I didn’t want to struggle through the course. But I said, two weeks, I had to stay two weeks – enough time I thought to give it a chance, to give myself time to switch off a little from everything else.

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As luck would have it, we went on a liveaboard the first day of the course, usually we wouldn’t go until a week in. I bought a sim card, but decided not to use it – meaning the first few days I was cut off from the news, and being cut off from friends and family meant all I had to focus on was the diving, and chatting with the people on the boat. And it did wonders. My fellow DMTs were (and are!) wonderful, supportive and fun people. The rest of the group on the boat were amazing, and I was very grateful that a few of them knew of, and were interested in what was going on in Hong Kong.

I felt comfortable under the water, and mentioned to my Instructor what had happened previously at The Cauldron, before diving it – saying, though I felt okay, I was fearful of perhaps panicking under the water – in case there was a trigger – our memories and minds work in wonderful, surprising ways. But, I was okay. I didn’t particularly enjoy the dive, but I wasn’t uncomfortable either – I got through fine, and that’s what I was after. The second time I did that dive, the first 30 minutes were magnificent, perhaps one of my favourite dive experiences in Komodo – sharks, Mantas, amazing visibility, and such peace. But before we got to the Shotgun I could feel my pulse increasing. I didn’t feel panicky, and turns out there was almost no current – but after checking my gauge just a few minutes later I saw I sucked up about 30 bar of air due to the nerves! But for me, this is so much what the course is about. Learning more about my diving, about diving in general – what to do, recognize stresses and problems – ultimately learning how to help myself, how to help others.

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There are different types of Dive Master Courses  – and in all honesty, I didn’t look too much into exactly what this one would involve. I chose this course on three things, the organization/centre, the instructor, and the location. I initially went diving with Wicked because of its ethics. It’s part of ‘Wicked Good’ which is a community based NGO. They train up locals to become Dive Masters, and hugely important to me, they’ve trained female Dive Masters – two were on my boat last year. Mersi, still works for Wicked Diving and I interviewed her for Girls That Scuba. They partner with Sea Shepherd, Shark Guardian, and do not serve any seafood on their liveaboards. (Because, why do divers eat the fish we try to proect?) I felt 100% comfortable with their operation, equipment and dive guides.

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I by chance met the instructor Clement on my dry day last year, and loved his passion for diving and teaching, coupled with an obvious wealth of knowledge and experience. My one hesitation was ‘should I go somewhere new? Somewhere more sharky?’ and came to the conclusion – no.. The diving in Komodo is phenomenal, the conditions sometimes challenging, making in my eyes, for a better learning environment, and where else would I find such great diving and such a wonderful organization? Initially, the dates of the course I could do was full, but with a huge amount of luck, I then got accepted, paid my fees, and that was that and here I am. 

More about the actual course to follow.. 

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