Yes, dolphins. Like a lot of people, I was always fascinated by them (from Flipper to Dan Marino to Discovery channel videos), and I knew that one day I would have to swim with them. I got my chance in 1998, when I lived for eight days on a boat in the Bahamas and learned first to snorkel (it wasn’t pretty, but I mastered it) and eventually to interact with these extraordinary creatures on their own wildly playful terms.
In the course of that week, I went from being petrified of jumping into the deep end of the ocean to being the one they had to drag out of the water kicking and screaming. It was my first time in the sea, really, and something just clicked. Being held and lullabyed by its gentle rocking was a sensation I’d never felt before or even knew existed.
Then there were the dolphins and the fish and those amazing corals! Under the water is stillness of a magnitude you can’t imagine. Time stops. The world of noise and stress and distraction falls away. And such ineffable beauty: shimmering blues and yellows that don’t exist on land. Even though most of our time was spent on the water’s surface, my new friends taught me to hold my breath and plunge down 5, 10, 20 or more feet, and to relax enough to spend up to half a minute floating in embryotic bliss.
“If only there were a way to stay down here!” I thought. Then I remembered a little “secret” 3 million Americans were already in on. By the end of the trip I knew that when I got back to New York, my first call would be to a scuba certifying agency.
Taking the First Plunge
Ten months later, my coursework complete, I found myself on a dive boat in the Caribbean, with a group of adults and a surprising number of young people. As I set up my tank and gear and prepared to make my first ocean dive, a terror shot through me. I was struck by the conviction that I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I seriously considered backing out of the whole thing and cutting my losses right then and there.
Then I recalled the dream I was having as I woke up two hours before. A voice was telling me, “If you get scared, just sing ‘Joy to the World.’” I hadn’t thought about that Three Dog Night song in forever, but the lyrics were imprinted in my memory, so I silently recited them until I got to: “Joy to the world/All the boys and girls now/Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea/Joy to you and me.”
I didn’t let myself cry, but I wanted to. It didn’t matter where this advice had come from. It was the perfect reminder of why I was on this boat, why I had worked so hard to memorize the partial pressures of gases and Navy dive tables — and what motivated me to endure treading water for 10 minutes and swimming 50 feet underwater on a single breath (that was the hurdle I almost didn’t clear).
I was on this dive boat for one reason: to follow my bliss. My week snorkeling and free-diving with the dolphins and reef fish was among the most joyous of my life. I found something that didn’t exist for me anywhere else. This wasn’t a wild hare; this was a request from my soul for connection that couldn’t be ignored.
Yeah, I was scared. Descending 30 feet beneath a readily available air supply — and staying there — took a lot of determination. New divers have a hard time controlling their buoyancy (maintaining an “even keel” in the water). I was particularly bad. I bobbed up and down and couldn’t take my hand off the regulator that was hooked to the tank of compressed air on my back. My mask fogged up. I got lost navigating. I think I swallowed a quart of saltwater. But I made my five required dives and got my certification, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life.
(MORE: Pursuing Passions in New Places)
A Newly Minted Scuba Diver
I’d like to say it was all smooth sailing from there, but it wasn’t. I scheduled my first dive by myself for the Fourth of July that year — I’m a sucker for symbolism — with a bunch of strangers near my parents’ home in Florida. I got about six feet down, but when I couldn’t see my own bright green fin (murky conditions had created poor visibility), I popped back up and sat that dance out.
When my assigned dive buddy returned to the boat 45 minutes later, he said: “No problem, kid. You get one pass. We’ll make the next one together.” And this experienced diver took the time to help me descend and stuck by my side like Velcro until my heart rate got back down into the normal range, my breathing stabilized, and I was able to actually have fun.
Slowly, and surely, I became a good, confident diver. I took advanced classes and even made some rescues. But every time I’d start to descend, I’d hear this small voice in the back of my skull, trying to scare me: What if your equipment malfunctions? What if you run out of air? What if you get lost?
One day, making a deep dive on my favorite little island of Saba, I heard that voice so loud and clear I couldn’t ignore it. But rather than react to it, I decided to really listen to it. And it was the craziest thing: It wasn’t my voice at all. It was my parents' (kind of in unison), and it was their fears I was hearing, as plainly as if they were down there with me. Mentally I thanked them for their concern and reminded them of how much training and experience I’d had — and, more to the point, how much I loved what I was doing.
Then the voices stopped.
Today, 650 dives later, I’m usually the first one suited up and in the water, and as often as not, the last one up the ladder. Diving for me is so much more than a pleasant recreational activity, though fish and cetaceans and turtles and sharks and mantas and cephalopods and corals still blow my mind. Becoming a scuba diver taught me how strong I was, and how I could overcome fear, and become masterful, and feel total oneness when I’m suspended in deep, warm water. It’s only a bonus that I’ve made lifelong friends all over the world and have seen the most beautiful islands and unspoiled reefs.
But I’m still not going to jump out of a plane.
Check out some of the incredible creatures we divers encounter in this slideshow of sea life by my friend, the world-renowned underwater photographer and cinematogapher Jonathan Bird.
Suzanne Gerber is the editor of Living & Learning for Next Avenue.