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SS Antilla dive, Aruba

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

Heart racing, I dropped to my knees in the pool and started hyperventilating. I'd done this twice before, once in St. Croix and once in Florida, and now here I was again, this time in Aruba, the regulator tight in my mouth as every vein of common sense in my body tried to stop me from what I was trying to do: breathe underwater. The dive instructor Cici wanted to count to five, but I came up after three breaths and wiped the water from my eyes.


“Now put on your goggles, and you’ll feel a world of difference," he said, seemingly apathetic to my struggle. I felt like I was learning to swim again at whatever age I was, older than I should have been, when the swim teacher dunked me underwater as I cried and choked on water, again and again, until my body had grown accustom to holding the proper amount of breath at the proper time. The difference today was that Cici wasn't pushing me down. It wasn't much of a comfort, knowing that I was in total control and had to trust myself, not just in the pool but the actual dive.


I went down again, this time with my goggles, and found it easier to breathe--all five breaths. That was only the first "skill", and then there were a few more, including the one where you purposefully get water in your goggles and then have to blow the water out while underwater, a horrendous proposition that I failed the first few times, of course by closing my eyes and breathing in through my nose, rather than out.


"You just need to relax," Cici told me, after I accidentally managed to "pass" the test. Relaxing is what I looked forward to the most, the "after" of the dive rather than the dive itself. After less than 20 minutes in the pool and a series of haphazard passes, we boarded a private captain's boat and sped across the salty waves to a site with a few other boats. My body was buzzing, my stomach twisting, my head full of doubt and fear and frustration. Forty feet beneath the surface, the SS Antilla lay in pieces, encrusted with barnacles and coral. The SS Antilla was a ship built for trade between Germany and the Caribbean and sunk by the Dutch during tensions between Holland and Germany in 1940. It was cool, but why was I the only person on the boat who felt that 20 minutes in a 5-foot pool hadn't adequately prepared me for 40 minutes, 40 feet under?!


My first challenge was hopping into the ocean, the thing I’d been dreading. "You'll float right up," the boat captain tried to soothe me, but neither he nor Cici had checked whether my vest was adequately inflated, or had even reminded me to do it. It was true, I had a habit of relying on others rather than myself to keep me safe, which made me a bad candidate for what I was about to do. I swallowed hard, my head pounding as I looked around and envied the snorkelers across the way, their tankless bodies, their mouths just inches from abundant oxygen.


It was Go Time, so I took two laughably huge steps in my long flippers, then put the regulator in my mouth and, just as we barely practiced, pushed on it with some of my fingers, and my mask with the other fingers. I jumped in, all the while breathing through my regulator, and to my delight bobbed up and down on the waves like flotsam.


Cici led me to the guide rope and suddenly started deflating me. I wasn't ready, but wasn't sure I ever would be, and down we went. I kept signaling to Cici that my ears were being weird, because I couldn’t tell if I was successfully equalizing them, and NOT equalizing your ears can be very dangerous. Whenever I signaled him, Cici would rise up with me a few feet, then sink with me lower again; we did this over and over until suddenly we were deep in the ocean and at the site of the wreck, and nothing was wrong with my ears.


I couldn't believe it: here I was. We circled the wreck, which reminded of an abandoned building, made all the more haunting by imminent death. There were a few brief moments I relaxed, but all I could think the rest of my time was my breath, my ears, and my lungs. As Logan swam in long strides beside and ahead of me, I started to feel a strange sensation/pain in the lower left side of my body, and I considered signaling to Cici that something was wrong. I learned later that body fat is a natural pressure absorber. Within a few minutes, the pain seemed to dissipate, and I was left again to focus on my breath. Logan was diving as close to the shipwreck as he could, moving freely and motioning to things, while I was happy to stay the upper course, head down, knowing the minutes were passing, realizing--however slowly--that I was actually mostly okay.


At one point, Cici pulled a massive sea urchin from the ocean floor and placed it in my hand; I felt it suck itself to my skin, where it stayed, even when I turned my hand upside down. That’s the craziest thing about the ocean--everything down here is alive. On land, most things that breathe look like they should.


Five, ten minutes passed, then another fifteen. At 35 minutes in, I noticed, to my horror, that breathing had suddenly become more difficult. I had been breathing the same way the whole time, with full, long breaths, but now I felt like I wasn’t getting as much oxygen. My first instinct, which I followed, of course, was to panic.


I swam over to Cici and Logan and grabbed Cici by the arm and motioned that I wanted to go up now. He looked at me discernibly (and maybe a bit disappointedly) like, “why?” I pointed to my oxygen pressure gauge and locked Cici in a death grip as I started to hyperventilate--I was certain I was going to start inhaling water any second, and that I'd choke on it a bit and maybe drown a little, and Logan and Cici would have to revive me. I could taste the salty water on my tongue, leaking in, as we bolted up and broke the surface of the water way faster than I anticipated. As it turns out, we were only 15 feet below the surface, and maybe had been for a while, or the whole time. I wasn't paying attention to the details of the wreck or the surroundings, just my body, which I was certain was not the way diving was supposed to go.

Cici told me to keep my regulator in my mouth, but I was too relieved to breathe real air and instinctively pulled it out. Of course, that's when I choked--I swallowed so much water and gagged as the waves lapped my face and into my mouth, and I held on to the rope line the whole way back to the boat, where the boat captain helped me up. I walked to the back of the boat, feeling nauseous but warm with adrenaline, relieved but holding back tears, convinced I'd cut the dive short for all of us.


When Logan popped up shortly after, smiling big, I realized that maybe everything was okay. He hugged me and recapped the situation from his angle, assuring me that when I'd darted over in a panic, he'd grabbed my pressure gauge to show Cici that my PSI was 400, rather than the recommended 500, and that it was time for me to ascend whether or not I'd even wanted to. In other words, I hadn't ruined anything for anyone. That made me feel a little better, as did Cici and Logan telling me You did great! (as it turns out, I'm a words of affirmation person). I started to feel better as I bit into the sweet flesh of fresh-cut pineapple the boat captain offered us, and even better when we arrived back on land, where there were hot showers and cooked food and people to eavesdrop on.


As Logan signed up for the dive master certification course the next day, I waited on a bench. Ahead of me, there was a guy (nicknamed Maui) with a stalky build, curly hair, and tattoos; "I was screwed as soon as Moana came out," he reflected. I learned he was from South America and had lived in Aruba for ten years. In the distance, three women working at the dive shop suddenly laughed and shouted at each other and grabbed their binoculars to spy on an attractive man. "See, girls do it too!" Maui exclaimed, almost aggressively.


I laughed to myself and realized I was feeling more present then, actively focused outside myself, than I had been most of the dive. I had to remember that part of adventuring was learning to slow down in the space you occupied, observe and listen and connect, in whatever way possible, to that reality, the moments you shared with the rest of the world, even if they weren't the ones you intended, or didn't last as long as you hoped. I thought back to the sea urchin, how its little spiny body had plunged onto my hand, and then listened to Maui again, smiling as I typed notes on my phone. "This is why I love working at the beach," he beamed.

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