Janet and Steve Brien diving off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico
There was a time when I was learning to dive off the coast of California, near Monterey. My husband was an instructor and he taught me to dive. I was still pretty nervous as a new diver, especially of blue water. Do you know what that term means? To describe blue water, this is when you're in the ocean and you look up and all you can see is blue water. You look out in any direction and all you can see is vast blue water. You look down, and the blue fades to black, which is the only way you can tell which way is up, along with the bubbles coming from your regulator. The feeling of being both completely alone, and feeling suffocated can be very strong, and it does take getting used to before you are ok with it.
This day we were finishing a boat dive (instead of from the shore) and Steve had me work my way up the thick chain anchor line, which was anchored at 60-80 feet and waved slowly up and down from the motion of the boat far above. At about 30 feet, we did our safety stop, which is when you wait for about 10-15 minutes while the oxygen in your blood adjusts to the atmosphere. (This time can be much longer depending on how deep and how long you were down. If you ascend too fast from deep water, you can get an embolism and die—it is a real danger, and people die from this every year).
In this water, the visibility was very poor, about 25 feet. So, when we stopped at 30 feet, I held on and tried to relax. It was hard because the current was very strong and I had to hold on very tightly while my body flapped slowly back and forth behind me like a flag in the water. I felt nervous because this was maybe my second ocean dive and it's scary to realize how truly insignificant you are, how powerful the ocean is, and how potentially deadly diving can be. I kept visualizing myself being swept away like a leaf in a windstorm if I were to lose my grip on the anchor line. I looked down the anchor line and saw it descend into the blackness below. Then I casually looked up and the links of rust-encrusted chain went up, up, up…and disappeared into the light blue water. Then I looked out into the water…and…it was so blue…so blue…and then I saw something…what was that thing drifting this way? Looming into view I saw the largest jellyfish I'd ever seen in my life! A huge creamy yellow-brown bell with tentacles drifting down, down, down, into the blackness. "Wowwwwww…," I thought to myself, it was SO COOL! As it drifted closer, I could see it pulsating rhythmically, letting the current do the job of propulsion. It only pulsed to remain upright in the current. Then, I saw another jellyfish…and another…and…I couldn't believe my eyes, there were so many of them! They were not directly in our path, so although I did get one sting on a cheek, we were not hurt by this passing swarm of jellyfish.
Something about this incredible experience—maybe its strangeness—affected me strongly. Suddenly, and without warning, I felt like I was having a heart attack and was overcome by anxiety and fear. I looked around in fright, my eyes bulging in my mask, but there was nothing to see but the blue water. The sound of my breathing through the regulator was so loud—it was deafening—yet I felt completely alone in a kind of silence that terrified me. Steve was always right there on the opposite side of the anchor line, but I didn't want him to know that I was having a panic attack, so I refused to turn around to see him. I began to breathe too fast and tried to slow it down. I spoke to myself in my head, saying what Steve would tell me. "Janet, you can breathe, right?" I checked and agreed as I breathed in and out, watching the bubbles rise past my face. "You are not hurt and you are not in danger, right?" I agreed. And then I felt Steve's arm on me as he came around to look though his mask into my eyes. He could see that I was afraid and made a questioning sign to me, pointing to me and then making an "O" out of his thumb and forefinger to ask, "Are you OK?" I didn't want him to know I was afraid so I looked away as I nodded. So he touched my chin with a finger and used another signal with two fingers back and forth between our eyes, which means, "LOOK AT ME." He put a hand on my shoulder and rubbed it gently, stroking my cheek with a finger from his other hand. All the while he stared into my eyes with love, showing me that everything was ok. He was there and he would protect me and everything was just fine. Although I had started feeling better after my internal check about breathing, Steve's contact and reassurance made me relax and then, just as quickly as the panic attack had come, it drifted away as if it had never been there. We held hands and looked out into the vast ocean wilderness together, comfortable and relaxed. After a few more minutes, our dive computers beeped to let us know we'd stayed down the proper amount of time for our safety stop and Steve signaled that we could ascend the anchor chain to the surface. I was so happy that I wasn't afraid anymore, and I got to see a real swarm of jellyfish in the ocean! How cool is that?! :D
It is no wonder that some of my best and most meaningful memories have been from my scuba diving adventures. Many of those memories have involved facing and overcoming deep fears, emerging on the other side as a stronger and more confident person. Since that day, I have had many encounters with blue water diving, and I have never had another problem with it! :)