Getting Scuba Certified in Jamaica
For the longest time, it'd been a bucket list dream of ours to try scuba diving. We'd done surfing in California and snorkeling in the Dominican Republic, experiences we both hold dear to our hearts, but somehow we'd never conquered the world beneath the ocean.
At least, not until our trip to Jamaica in December 2016.
Our Christmas trip abroad led us to Sandals Carlyle, an all-inclusive resort with a "stay at one, play at three" motto. The Sandals hotel we booked didn't have a private beach, so every morning, we'd head on a shuttle to Sandals Royal Caribbean or Sandals Montego Bay. They both offered beach activities—including scuba certifications!
Originally, Mr. Nerd and I didn't plan to get scuba certified at the Sandals resorts. They require a lot of paperwork, including (I thought) a note signed by a physician. We hadn't been able to get to a doctor before our trip, so forlornly, we watched beach goers in scuba gear pile onto a small boat at 9 a.m. sharp as we set down our towels and got comfortable in the shade with a Pina Colada or Bloody Mary.
Lather, rinse, repeat, with a few puppy-eyed looks thrown in for good measure.
Halfway into our nine day trip, Mr. Nerd came down with pneumonia and was warned by the resort doctor to stay out of the sun and away from alcohol ... a huge bummer when we're in the Caribbean on our first sunny vacation since our honeymoon.
As he lay in the shade, coughing and drinking water, I popped over to the water activities desk and inquired about their daily snorkeling excursions.
"The boat goes out in the mornin' and at two," the man behind the counter said with a permanent (but friendly) smirk. He wore a long-sleeved scuba shirt and looked way more comfortable in the heat than I felt in my bikini. "But really, wouldn't you rather go divin'?"
"I'd love to," I told him earnestly, "but I wasn't able to get anything signed by a doctor."
He gave me a strange look and proceeded to inform me that I didn't need a doctor's signature to go scuba diving. When I found out that I only needed permission if I had some pre-existing condition that might make scuba diving dangerous, like high blood pressure or extreme claustrophobia, I zipped over to Ben and begged him on my hands and knees to please, please, pretty please with cherries on top let me try scuba diving without him.
Poor guy. It'd been a dream for us to do it together, but he was sick and an opportunity had presented itself. I couldn't pass it up.
Once he gave me his blessing, I flew back to the counter and signed all the necessary paperwork to take their Discover Scuba Diving course the next morning. This would require me to complete a fitness test, attend a two-hour pool lesson, and then do an ocean dive, but once I passed those, I'd be able to dive once a day until the end of our trip.
Note: Discover Scuba Diving is not a scuba certification course. By the terms I agreed to when I signed the paperwork, it only allowed me to dive at participating Sandals resort, with an instructor present, for one year.
I barely slept in our hotel room that night, too busy tossing, turning, and reading about all the things that can go wrong scuba diving (because I'm an idiot, heh) to get any rest. At 6:30 a.m., I flew out of bed and drank some bottled water on our porch, content to watch early bird locals float in the waves of the public beach across from our resort. I felt connected to them, to their carefree energy, and waited another 20 minutes before heading down to the pool for some coffee and a pre-dive dip.
After Ben woke up, we caught a taxi to Sandals Montego Bay, where I booked it to the beach (sans breakfast) for my 8 a.m. scuba diving lesson. It was there I met my scuba partners: two men in their fifties and a woman in her late thirties. Both men had learned to dive years ago, they said, but wanted to take a refresher course. The woman had never dived.
Our instructor arrived to break up our nervous chatting—surprise, surprise, it was the guy who'd talked me into signing up for Discover Scuba Diving the day before! He looked pleased to see me, as if he thought the pasty Scandinavian girl might flake out and pull a no-show.
Ha. Not me! I was in it for the long haul.
Before too long, the four of us marched down the long stretch of beach to the end, where we were told to swim 200 yards without stopping. Don't get the illusion that this was an easy task; we were doing breast strokes against the current! I managed to finish first (perhaps because I was the youngest), but I deeply regretted not eating anything for breakfast.
"Excellent!" the instructor said as we surfaced from the waves like gangling sea creatures. "You're now officially divers-in-training. Follow me."
We went to the water activities desk and were fitted for the scuba gear we'd wear during the rest of our time at Sandals. I was given a buoyancy control device (BCD) or inflatable vest, a regulator that looked like an octopus with all its crazy arms, a snorkel, scuba mask, fins that were a tad too small (it sucks to be a person in between shoe sizes), a weight belt, and a tank filled with compressed air.
Then, we lugged our gear to a pool that was designated for scuba lessons and suited up.
If I'm honest, I didn't understand my scuba gear at first. I felt like a doll, stuffed into my vest with a snorkel and fins on, and the weight belt fell off several times before the instructor showed me how to latch it. Eep! By the end of our ten minute outfit change, I sat with my feet dangling in freezing pool water, scuba mask on and giggling nervously through my mouth.
Did I say giggling nervously? That's a lie; I was terrified.
"Put the regulator in your mouth," the instructor said, suddenly appearing behind me. He turned the knob on my tank, and I heard the hiss of air pouring into the regulator. I did as told and bit down on plastic. "Good. Now, take a breath."
I inhaled ... and took my first lungful of cold, compressed air. The regulator wheezed as I sucked it in, a noise that would haunt me for the next two days. But it was the strange feeling in my chest, a sort of tightness, that really stuck with me. A mixture of exhilaration and pure terror.
I was breathing air from a metal tank. And I wasn't dying.
Before I could really get used to the feeling, my instructor mimed for me to put my hands on one side of the pool and turn, and plop! Into the frigid water I went.
At first, everything seemed okay. We learned how to fill our BCDs with air and focused on swimming laps around the pool with fins on (not necessarily an easy task). Then, we dipped our faces in the water and practiced moving while breathing with our regulators. Still all good, though I wasn't quite used to the wheeze, wheeeeeze of the regulator or the dryness of air slipping down my throat.
It was only when the instructor, after a half hour of splashing around and stepping on each others fins, motioned for us to deflate our BCDs and sink to the bottom of the pool that something flipped in my mind. I sat on the concrete with water all around me and realized I was in the middle of a full blown panic attack.
While wearing weights.
Fully submerged in a pool.
Where I could drown.
Despite this, my brain told me to remain the picture of a cool cucumber. Hadn't I begged to do this? Hadn't I wanted to check this off my bucket list? Well, here I was, breathing underwater, experiencing an experience! So against my better judgement, I remained seated, gasping in air through my talkative regulator as if I'd just run a marathon and shivering like I had a fever.
As we floated in chlorine, we learned how to clear our regulators by pressing a button. That was fine. We learned how to equalize our masks by blowing through our noses and popping our ears. That was fine too. It was even pretty okay, despite my uncontrollable trembling, when the instructor had us "lose" our regulators and blow bubbles until we recovered them (a very handy skill to learn, by the way. Practice this, practice this, practice this).
Then he motioned for us to take off our masks and breathe with just the regulator, in the dark cold of the water, for a full minute, and I almost lost it. I almost burst to the surface and called it off. But when the time finally ticked out and I put the mask back on, I realized ... I did it. I controlled my fear and didn't quit, and that made me strangely invincible.
The "lose your mask and put it back on" lesson marked the end of our time in the pool, so we (quite gratefully, I think) heaved our waterlogged bodies onto dry land. Everything smelled of chemicals as I sat down and pulled the mask from my face.
"We meet at the boat at 11," the instructor told us, giving us a mere hour to solidify our nerves before putting the gear on again. I grabbed a towel and bum-rushed the nearest restaurant, where I tried not to stuff my face with spiced potatoes and scrambled eggs.
When the time to leave approached, I collected my gear and carried it with Ben's help over to the boat. Two of my classmates were already there, but not the woman; I later heard she'd also had a panic attack in the pool and decided to postpone her dive indefinitely.
I thought about how close I'd been to making the same decision and squared my shoulders, determined to make my first scuba dive in the ocean unforgettable.
When the boat was ready, we set off for a reef located just two miles from shore. There were 15 other scuba divers with us, all from various walks of life and with various scuba certifications. Some were getting their Advanced Open Water certifications; another was getting his Master Scuba Diver certification and had even brought high-tech gear with him.
The three of us were the only ones green around the gills, but I think everyone else got a good-natured kick out of it. Especially the resort staff, who sat around laughing and spraying us with hose water.
We reached the dive spot and were ushered into the water in quick succession. I rinsed my scuba mask in a bucket (we'd smeared dish soap on the inside to keep it from fogging up), but the moment I hit the water, it started to cloud over.
Being my stupid, nervous self, I didn't say anything. However, if you're interested in scuba diving, I implore you: speak up about these things. Being comfortable on your first dive is so important. I was just too focused on being that cool cucumber to rectify the situation.
Down, down, down we went, following a line that took us thirty feet to the ocean floor. The mantra in my head quickly became "breathe, equalize, deflate my BCD, breathe, equalize, deflate my BCD..." It was slow going, but unlike in the pool, the lazy pace gave us a chance to adapt to being under the ocean. So I didn't mind much.
When we reached the end of the line, I hesitantly let go and floated into the middle of an entirely new world. Through my cloudy mask, I saw sand tumble along the seabed and fish swirl around rocks covered in colorful green and yellow coral. In the distance, a manta ray stirred from his hiding spot and glided out of sight.
Boy, oh boy. I was conflicted.
On the one hand, I was pretty much a mermaid, living out a childhood fantasy I'd had since I first watched The Little Mermaid. I was also in the middle of ticking off an incredible bucket list item—something I didn't get to do often. A beautiful silence surrounded me, the ocean rocked me like a babe in a cradle... This, I thought, could be addicting to a wanderlust druggie like me.
On the other hand, my scuba mask deeply limited my sight, my regulator still squeaked like it might fall apart any moment, and I couldn't stop obsessing over the notion that if my gear broke, I'd probably suck in lungfuls of water in a panic and become tasty, tasty fish food.
Oh my god, what had I gotten myself into?
Somewhere between going "Oh wow!" and "Oh my god!", our instructor motioned for us to follow him, and off we went. He took us around the reef, pointing out schools of fish and eels hiding in dark holes (none of us wanted to get too close, to his amusement). We swam over walls of coral and through small tunnels that connected different networks of underwater life, and it was all fabulously fun.
As a bonus, I'm happy to report that my classmates only kicked the regulator out of my mouth once (I was at the back of the parade). Somehow, I managed to recover it without hyperventilating and lived to tell the tale.
I was also followed by a resort photographer, who pulled me aside about ten minutes into the dive to stuff a Santa hat on my head and a Jamaican flag in my hands. I probably looked as confused as I felt, swimming in what I hoped was a straight line as he took photos of me. I never did get to see those photos.
Probably an OK thing, if I'm honest.
Forty minutes later, we came back to the boat and started our ascent. When my head broke the surface, I dropped the regulator from my mouth and beamed at my instructor.
"That was fun," I told him. "Really, really amazing." Because it truly had been.
He gave me a high five for that and proceeded to talk me into signing up for the full Scuba Diver certification course. What can I say? He's a smooth talker, that man, and despite being high on adrenaline, I already wanted more.
Two days later, I'd survived three pool sessions, three open water dives, a video session, 150 pages of "light reading," and two written tests, all done while Mr. Nerd napped, bathed in the shade, and sipped on fizzy water (poor guy. We'll have to give Jamaica a redo sometime soon). And then I was handed my PADI certification card, complete with a sunburned photo of the pale Scandinavian girl!
How did I fare with the rest of the certification? After the first day of panic, I thankfully didn't feel overwhelmed or nervous again. The next two pool sessions were a breeze, I felt comfortable with the gear once they showed me how to set it up, and the ocean dives? Well, let's just say my instructor didn't let me out of the water the second time until I learned how to defog my scuba mask. It quickly became a non-issue.
If you're considering getting scuba certified, I encourage you to go for it, even if my own experience was a mixture of panic and excitement, with some "oh god, what am I doing??" thrown in for good measure. Being underwater for the first time was a true bucket list experience, and after I got comfortable in my own skin, I fell head-over-heels for salty ocean waves and colorful fish. And I guarantee: if you get past the trepidation in your own head, you will too.
Note: While my PADI certification is legitimate, I am considered a step between the Discover Scuba Diving course (which does not certify you) and the Open Water Diver certification. According to the PADI website, "PADI Scuba Divers are qualified to: Dive under the direct supervision of a PADI Professional to a maximum depth of 12 metres/40 feet." I can always continue my certification journey by completing the Open Water Diver course.