At 4am the morning light was already illuminating the rainforest base. My breath came in short bursts as we headed up the impossibly steep hill; the hill that had been my driveway for three short months. It was late November, and while my friends back home were posting pictures of frosty mornings and pumpkin spice lattes, somehow I had managed to escape from behind my Costa Rican desk, and was about to board an oversized white van that would deliver us to the border. I had taken on the roll of marketing manager for Outward Bound Costa Rica and this was my chance to experience first hand the courses I would be helping fill for the next year.
The opportunity came at the right time – I was days away from having to cross the border – any border – in order to maintain my status as a volunteer and keep my visa up to date. It was the first border run of many.
Our group was small, and I was the newcomer in a pack of students who by this point had bonded together over sleepless nights in tarp shelters, rescue training in the countries biggest whitewater, and travel through a foreign country. Suddenly, I was nervous at the prospect of getting out of my comfort zone in front of a group who had made it their lifestyle. As we settled in, still half asleep despite the steep trek up, I tried to predict the feeling of being submerged, of ignoring instincts.
We drove to the Panamanian border, where we crossed the wooden bridge that brought us into oppressive humidity and through customs. A couple of boats and plenty of gear lifting later, we set up camp and pitched the tents and mosquito nets that would be our shelter for the next week. By the next morning we were headed out to do our first open water drive. I could barely remember the last 24 hours due to exhaustion, and was trying to listen to our instructor – who also happened to be the Executive Director and my boss back at the base. I remembered the impromptu water session the night before where I had groggily put together my gear, inflated my vest and heaved the metal tank into shallow water off of our dock. Perhaps I had paid too much attention to the tiny fish that darted around our feet, or had concentrated too much on adjusting my goggles when I should have been learning to purge, or adjust my weight belt for the correct buoyancy. Whatever I had been doing, the choppy waves seemed to grow with my anxiety, and only intensified as I looked at the cool calm that was settling over the rest of the group.
Sitting on the edge of the boat, the tanks weighed on our backs as we rocked back and forth. We covered our oxygen masks and pressed our goggles to our face in the same motion, counted to three, and rolled backwards into the water below. Those first few seconds felt like the last ones of my life, but when I took a gasp, stared up into the sun-filtered water, and realized that the hundreds of bubbles exploding around me were actually my breath – that I was breathing underwater – my anxiety disappeared as fast as it had come.
The next days were full of militaristic training – and as our confidence grew, so did the length and depth of our dives. Early mornings were spent making breakfast on camp stoves, re-applying the damp clothes we had swam in the day before, and lining our gear bags and freshly-filled tanks along the dock, ready to be put in the boat that would bring us to a new patch of coral reef. By the time many Panamanians were sitting down to their own breakfast of rice and beans, we were already descending to fifty feet, working on slowing our breath, and saving as much of the precious oxygen as possible while we dispersed among the reef.
By nightfall, we would all take turns using the sawed-off milk jug to take “showers” using rainwater before settling into a circle, illuminated by headlamps. There we watched the training videos and memorized page after page of the technical information that we would be drilled on before our next exploratory dive. Sleep came easy and the movement of the dock beneath our pads gave the illusion that even above water, we were swimming.
By the final practical exam, I felt confident breathing off my partners oxygen, retrieving my own when it was knocked from my mouth, and was able to re-apply my weight belt at the same time as my flipper had been pulled off of me and my goggles flooded with water. I had learned to control my breathing, to prioritize instead of panic, and that my boss was actually less intimidating when he was trying to prove my diving skills than when he was on land.
When I officially passed, the first thing my partner and I did was descend, smiling and giving each other the enthusiastic “OK” signs that we had used to communicate, and tapped our wrists to show each other how much oxygen we had left in our tanks. We breathed easier now, and took in the life around us. Fish the size of footballs frowned next to bright purple coral, and the next generation of tiny transparent fish floated in the safety of trumpet-shaped formations. Looking across the turquoise landscape, the coral took on more familiar forms: hills, valleys, cliffs and mountains. We kicked gently, avoiding lifting too much debris from the ground. There, floating among living rocks, separated from open air by a surreal barrier of upside-down crashing waves, with only the sound of my breath and the water around me, I realized it’s not about comfort; it’s about feeling like you’re in your element even when you’re out of it.
Interested in getting NAUI Scuba Certified, sleep on a remote dock in Panama, and meet the locals?
Outward Bound Costa Rica is the place to do it. (No, it’s not a sponsored post, in case you were wondering 😉 )