A new diver and a close call
I didn’t know what to expect during the week-long trip of scuba diving with a dedicated group of underwater photographers. As the newbie diver in the bunch, I had only been diving about 30 times. I worked hard to keep up as the group swam hard and dove deep to find Hammerhead sharks, twist through wrecks and even investigate harbor muck one night. Each evening after a rest and dinner there’d be long discussions about software, light, and saturation. I learned a lot.
One afternoon at the Los Islotes pinnacles we played with baby sea lions. The rock promontory was a long ride out from our base north of La Paz, so we were anxious to get in the water. Several boats of snorkelers were already bobbing just offshore when we pulled in to tie up on the anchor line and drop into the water.
The second dive was in a shallow area in the channel between islands. I was already tired when we backed flipped off the boat and into the water. We explored shallow reefs, pinnacles and crevices. My dive buddy, Dave, had hundreds of dives to every one of mine (he had been a sea urchin diver for decades.) It was beautiful but became a struggle to keep up.
What I was too much a novice to realize was that the afternoon current was kicking in. Current can be a diver’s friend. Floating along at a slow pace without flipping a fin can be a blast but this was another matter. I started over-breathing with the effort which led to mild panic as I knew my air would run out before Dave’s did.
A litany of self-judgement flooded my mind: I would never be a good diver; I was too weak, too foolish to manage the technical skills; my boyfriend would never take me on another dive trip. Self-pity is so boring in retrospect but at that moment it was crippling my ability to manage.
There was nothing to be done but signal that I needed to surface. We’d stayed shallow so there was no need for a safety stop (equalizing pressure from nitrogen build up in your blood.)
It wasn’t until we bobbed to the surface that we discovered the current had shoved us far from our boat. It was taking us further out into the channel. Our boat didn’t see us waving in the choppy water and foolishly, neither of us had an inflatable, safety noodle. We were being swept away.
We were drifting towards deeper water between deserted islands. There were sharks in those waters, though I couldn’t see them. You can imagine the fear. I could tell Dave was worried. We held close but kept drifting further away from our boat.
Finally another captain saw our flailing arms and moved in to pick us up. His boat was full of Mexican divers and no one spoke English, but they knew we needed to return to our group. I closed into a ball in a corner until I could calm down. Whether I was overcome with relief or despair didn’t matter. My close call wasn’t my best moment.
As we approached our boat I noticed that some of the other divers were having trouble getting to the tow line. The current was torturing them too and it was a long while until all of us were back on board.
That night the talk wasn’t about f-stops and apertures but horror stories. Like kids at a campfire, one tale after another spooled out about close calls. Mine was pretty minor in comparison.
Since that day I’ve been lucky to do over 200 dives at some astoundingly beautiful reefs, explored wrecks, underwater tunnels and rivers. It takes time to become one with the gear for any new sport and diving is unforgiving if you don’t pay attention. I wouldn’t trade my close call or all the mistakes, dropped equipment, leaky masks, plugged ears and short tanks for anything. It’s a privilege to explore the underwater world and for a few brief minutes commune with its alien and endearingly beautiful creatures.
Tips for new divers
- Be honest about your limitations. If you got your dive license 2 years ago and haven’t used it since, admit that to the dive master. Take a refresher course and boost your confidence. Always do a test dive at a new location to make sure your equipment is working well.
- Let the dive master know if you have issues. If you have a back problem, get help with the heavy gear. Don’t hurt yourself further by being macho. If you have ear pressure issues let the dive master know and take your time going down the anchor line or get in first to acclimate. I’ve found there’s less of a problem as I’ve gotten more experience.
- Don’t beat yourself up when you’re working to master the sport. It can take 20 dives to get fluid with managing buoyancy.
- Managing your breath and thus the length of dives is a constant challenge unless you dive often. Keep that in mind and you’ll have less trouble keeping up with your buddy.
- Stay close to the dive master if you’re new or at a different dive skill level than your dive buddies. It’s important always to stay close to your partner or with the group. It could save your life but most of the time will just help you relax knowing you’re close to help.
- Check your gear carefully for each dive and always carry an emergency noodle! If we’d had one we could’ve inflated it easily and been spotted much more quickly.
- Respect the reef. It’s excruciating to see a diver thoughtlessly break coral with his fin or see the wide rig of an underwater camera shove up against delicate flora.
- Don’t chase fish. Let them come to you.
- Keep plastic waste out of the water. Collect it when you can and dispose of it properly. Show your hosts how conscious you are about garbage and it might make a difference. The economics of maintaining a healthy ocean matter more than ever for developing sites and their communities.
- Support local economies. If you have guest dive masters, tip them well. If you have a choice between diving with a local resort or at an internationally owned property, weigh the benefits and choose carefully to better support local economies.
Special thanks to award-winning photographer, Dave Rudie, for sharing his photographs and making it possible for me to explore the underwater world
Hats off to Dave for snapping photos of underwater species. BTW, Elaine I should really appreciate in making a list of rule that every new divers should follow. I strongly recommend to everyone who is new to scuba dive. Great work!
Thanks so much, Samuel. I appreciate hearing from other divers. Always love sharing too. Happy diving!
What beautiful photos! I have always loved the sea and water, but for some reason whenever I swim or snorkel, I feel terribly claustrophobic in the water. I know that sounds strange, but it has kept me from experiencing the waters of Thailand and Hawaii on more than one occasion. It’s terrible because there is clearly so much to see under there!
Jacqueline, you’re not alone in feeling claustrophobic in the water. If you can take it slow and get used to the feeling of breathing through the mask, it’ll be wonderful. There’s a breathing rhythm that I pay attention to and it helps me stay calm, stop sucking up so much air and just be present. I use Yoga techniques!
Wow! How scary and please make sure Dave knows how nice these photos are. What great shots.
Thanks, Romeo. I thank Dave all the time for his great eye and photos. It’s his passion and he’s so tickled that these shots, taken a few years ago, are seeing the light of day, uhh, monitor.
Your story and photos are very inspirational. Time to just do it and go diving. I’ve snorkeled and love it.
If you love snorkeling, you’ll be crazy about diving. There’s nothing so exquisite as sitting on the ocean floor and looking at the new world around you. May your waters be warm and clear!
Wow, I can imagine how scary it must have been especially when you start to panic. I’m planning to get scuba certified soon, I’ve been looking around on where to get one. I think it’s important that not only do I find a good school but for them to be patient and willing to work with me since I am deaf. Anyway thank you for giving tips! I will definitely be following your tips when I start to dive 🙂
So glad the story didn’t scare you off. I think diving is a perfect sport if you’re deaf. The bubbles won’t distract you! Most dive masters I’ve met, those certified through PADI, are very gentle especially if you ask for help or information. Enjoy. Enjoy!
I’ve never been diving and don’t plan to even though I know I’m missing out on a lot of beauty. I’m glad, though, that after your panic, you learned from it and continued diving. Beautiful photos!
Thanks, Connie. You can still enjoy the underwater world inside great Aquariums. My favorites are big enough for divers to get in, feed fish and wave to the crowd. Glad you liked the pictures too.
Your post had me hooked from the opening. Such a gripping, suspensful experience. Well done for having the presense of mind and courage to surface and discover your surroundings. To me, that was intelligent and brave for overcoming your self doubt. You should be commended.
The photos are stunning, though my favourite is the very first one. It really gives a great perspective of the potential beauty and peril in what lies beneath.
Thanks so much, Vanessa. I so appreciate that you enjoyed the words and the pictures. Commended? Not really. I over-reacted but hind-sight is always easier and I work to keep my emotions in check still. On the other side, I do get excited when I’m close to cool underwater critters but in a good way. I love that first picture too. It’s a tricky shot that Dave managed to get after many, many attempts.
That sounds like quite an anxious moment, being swept away by the current. You were brave to overcome it and continue. I love snorkeling but can’t dive because I find it hard to equalize. I had surgery on my ears in the past and sometimes have a rough time flying too. Saying that, your photos make me wish I could. It looks incredible. A whole other world down there. Great post, thanks for sharing
Sorry you can’t dive, Kate. You’ve got a lot of company there. It’s taken me a long time to get my ears to cooperate and still I’m often the last person down the anchor line because one ear or the other isn’t clearing. I have found though that it’s gotten easier over the years. Snorkel away!
Thanks for these fantastic tips – I havent managed to get my diving cert done but it’s on my list for later in the year. I can’t wait to start exploring the underwater world in each new country we visit! Which camera did you use for your photography? Your underwater shots are amazing!!
Dave Rudie, my dive buddy, took the pictures and he uses a range of things from his cell phone, Go Pro and a series of Olympus and Sony cameras. His camera case is easily the heaviest thing when we travel. He’s so happy that people have enjoyed his pictures.
I’m so glad you made it safely to the boat! I was the movie Open Water and the idea of feeling stuck in the ocean like that freaks me out. Kudos to you for not letting your mishap (or the other scary stories) deter you from further pursuing diving!
Very cool, Francesca, that you were in the movie. I couldn’t watch it! Sadly there have been mishaps but I haven’t run into many that can’t be avoided. Diving with certified masters is important, isn’t it?
What a scary story! I’m glad that other shared their tales with you, I’m sure everyone has had moments like those. I would really like to try scuba sometime. Those shots are beautiful! I also love the tips you included to respect the ocean 🙂
Thanks, Lauren. It was just one of those life lessons that looks a lot less scary in retrospect. I hope you get a chance to scuba one day.
I’m so glad that everything turned out ok! I’ve only been snorkeling, but even that had me a little panicked when I couldn’t get a good rhythm with my breathing. I’m also glad that the experience didn’t stop you from getting back out in the water.
I love being in the water too much to let it scare me off. I hope you keep snorkeling and try Snooba or some form of diving. Being on the bottom with sea creatures is incredible.
I find you get better service with local companies than the international properties.
I have over 100 dives and I still haven’t mastered the don’t chase the fish part. There is something fun about stalking the barracuda that it trying to stalk you.
Oh Jennifer, I know how tempting it is! I’ve snuck up on a few fish and critters too. Once I tracked a huge octopus as he kept changing color and texture to throw me off. Just incredible and I kept my distance.
Wow! I’ve always wanted to learn to dive but stuff like this freaks me out! But the gift to see everything under water is so alluring! Amazing photos by your partner!
Karilyn, I hope the story didn’t scare you off learning to dive. The certification process helps cover everything you need to stay safe and comfortable. I was with my dive buddy and told him when I was in trouble. Even if we’d been ‘swept away’ our boat would’ve been looking for us. Everything under the water is definitely so alluring and I live in gratitude to get to explore it. I hope you take the plunge!
OMG how amazing is first photo, cant stop looking at that photo
Thanks! I think it’s pretty special too. That’s taken with a Go Pro and Dave took nearly 30 shots before he came up with what he wanted. Glad you like it!
You are very brave, and the fact that you panicked just a little did not stop you getting backing into it. At the end of the day you have great story to share with others who may think that it only happens to them. I for one think you are very brave.
Thank you Paula. I wasn’t very brave but learned about myself and about diving that day. You’re right too about how these scrapes and close calls can make good stories. I’ll keep diving as long as I’m able. The underwater world is too fascinating and beautiful not to.
Hi Elaine, good to read your interesting posts again. Reading this one I stopped breathing for a couple of seconds expecting something bad to happen, but thanks God it didn’t. I’m so terrified with water, although I am a pretty good swimmer, but I have panic attacks. That’s the reason why I never learned to scuba dive. I’m happy to snorkel (but close to the shore only!). Your story confirmed that my fear is justified. If you have a panic attack and come up too quickly you can get decompression sickness, so I’m not ready for this kind of adventure.
Dear Anda, glad to hear that you like to snorkel. Diving isn’t for everyone but as I said in the post if you follow the basic rules it shouldn’t be a problem. The best part is to stay with your dive buddy or dive master and things eventually work out. You are so right too about coming up too quickly but the dive training teaches how to avoid that. We were in shallow water, less than 30 feet, for the dive so that wasn’t a problem.
wow! What a scary experience! I can’t imagine the fear of being swept away further and further from the boats. I’d be in great fear, knowing that there are hammer sharks around and other endless creatures. Honestly, I have a really great fear of ocean. I recently did snorkeling for the first time in cancun and kinda panicked. I’m not ready for anything further than that yet, but hopefully I’ll be brave like you to explore the beauty of the world below the surface.
Yes, Stacey, be brave and know it’s actually very easy once you get the rhythm of snorkeling down and if possible try a resort dive sometime. I just love diving too much to give up!
WOW the first photo is freaky!
It is! Taken with a Go Pro, it’s an under/over shot. Not easy to get but my travel buddy is perfecting the technique. Glad you like it!
What a ton of amazing pictures! This is quite an adventure. I always read excellent things about La Paz. Can’t wait to visit.
I hope you get the chance. It’s a rich and extraordinary place. I’ve been several times and am only scratching the surface.
What an interesting story! I love your photos and they give such insight into the underwater world! People like me, who are not swimmers and know they will never be able to see that in person, appreciate your photos all the more!
Natalie, The Educational Tourist
Thank you, Natalie. I’m so lucky to have a dive buddy who’s an amazing photographer to learn from too. It’s interesting, I have a healthy respect for diving but would never bungee jump or sky dive. We’re each wired differently and viva la difference!
Beautiful pictures! Living in south Florida I have always wondered about getting a diver’s license, however, I have some fears of diving! You have really good tips though!
Beautiful pictures! Living in south Florida I have always wondered about giving a diving license, however, I have some fears of diving! You have some really good tips though!
Carmen, thanks for the comment. Learning to dive is a step-by-step process, as I’ve told other commenters, is designed to make you safe and comfortable in the water.
Great article, Elaine! I am not a diver and wonder if I’ll ever be able to overcome the fear (I’m at least comfortable snorkeling now!), so I especially appreciated your emotional journey here.
Thanks, Shelly. It was an adventure! I was afraid to start diving too but the PADI training, wherever in the world you take it, is carefully laid out to make you safe and comfortable. It’s worth the effort if you ever get the chance.
As a fellow diver who just marked 175 dives on my latest trip to Grenada’s Sandals LaSource, I read your article with great interest. I am in agreement with everything you mention in the tips. My husband, a much newer diver, still has room to improve his air consumption, but doesn’t get to dive often, which makes it harder. I haven’t had a “swept away” experience like yours, but can only imagine the stress it would cause! Happy diving!
So glad to hear you’re a diver too, Debbra. It takes patience and care when we dive with loved ones who don’t have our skill set. I over-reacted but that and my lack of experience, are precisely why it could’ve been a disaster. Still in retrospect there’s so much more that could’ve gone wrong. I hope to live a long while and do many other dives.
Yikes. I’m impressed that you dove again after that experience. I didn’t go see that movie where 2 people accidentally get left behind out at sea by their dive boat. I’m still trying to get my nerve back to try snorkeling again.
That movie set scuba diving back years. It’s a very safe sport if you go with certified dive masters and don’t get macho about your skill level. I don’t imagine ever giving up diving unless I have to. It’s an incredible experience to be in the underwater world.
Goodness, that does sound scary. So glad everyone was OK. Think I’ll stick to snorkelling!
Kathryn, I’m sorry to frighten you but it was an incredible learning experience. Snorkeling is wonderful too.
That was really scary! Good thing your dive buddy was with you. I’m a newbie diver too — I’ve actually been certified for years but had only dived around 10 times. I have a lot of dives to do before I can do what you did.
One thing you learn when getting certified is to never dive alone. I’ll stick with that forever. Hopefully you’ll keep going with diving. It’s a great experience, isn’t it?
These are some great diving photos! And you are right, we all have dive stories to tell! I have one too! But the cool thing, is we all get right back into that water!
I’ll keep diving as long as physically possible. It’s one of my favorite experiences. Glad to know we’re both bubble blowers.
So scary! That’s always one of my biggest fears when I’m diving. I’m freakishly focused on staying right near the dive master for that reason. I can’t think of a worse feeling than being separated from the group and swept out to sea.
The last time I went diving, my husband got sick underwater and had to surface but he’s really bad at his buoyancy and he couldn’t get deep enough to tap me to let me know so he just went up. I was freaking out literally having a panic attack underwater because I thought that happened to him! I was soooo relieved when I eventually found him at the surface.
Being aware of currents should be the dive masters job and that was lacking on my trip. I was with a group of very experienced divers so it shouldn’t have been an issue, but hindsight is always clearest. That sounds so frightening about not knowing where your husband was but he did the right thing, as you did in surfacing to find out where he was. More than once I’ve had to do that to find my dive buddy’s bubbles!
Gorgeous pictures but you have a way of painting a beautiful picture with your words too. Nice job, Elaine. You are truly one of the Masters.
Dear Dan, Can’t thank you enough for the lovely words. I’m honored you think so. I try to take care with my stories and have been saving this one for too long. YES about the pictures. Dave is very modest and not interested in commercially pursuing publication. He was very generous and actually thrilled that his shots saw the light of day. More to come, I think.