Risk, Part II: Deep Sea Diving


In December, I told my husband that I needed more adventure in my life.

“Fine,” he said. “You’re going to get your deep sea diving certification.”

“Oh,” I said. “I was thinking of something a little different? Like high-risk reading?”

For the next few weeks, my husband worked on persuading me to learn to dive. Our nightly conversations went like this:

“I’m afraid of deep water,” I told him. “I picture sea creatures nabbing my toes.”

“Do your mantra,” he said. “Like you do for your karate tournament.”

“What if the equipment malfunctions?”

“That’s why you do the course. To anticipate problems,” he said.

Each day, when I sat down at the computer, I struggled not to google “diving accidents.” Each evening, my husband tried to convince me that diving was a fantastic idea. “It’ll be great,” he said. “You’ll overcome a fear. Isn’t that what you want?”


I started preparing for a diving trip. If you’ve taken a deep sea diving course, you’ll know that it has two components: a written examination and a practicum. To save precious vacation time, I took the course online, at home. The course would take me approximately thirty hours to complete, including reading, studying, and writing the exam.

The questions covered various aspects of diving: equipment, underwater environment, and safe diving practices.  Studying for the exam, I faced two obstacles. One, I hadn’t taken an exam since my doctoral comprehensive exams ten years before (which I passed, but only after experiencing a near panic attack the night before). Two, I don’t have an aptitude for math, and the exam included mathematical calculations.

Here is one example of a question, designed to prevent a diver from being afflicted by decompression sickness, more commonly known as “the Bends”:

Imagine you are an Advanced Open Water Diver. You plan to do three dives. The first dive is a 25 metre/80 foot dive for 20 minutes followed by a [Metric: 45] [Imperial: 42] minute surface interval. The second dive is to 16 metres/50 feet for 37 minutes followed by a surface interval of [Metric: 62 minutes] [Imperial: 1 hour]. Your third dive is to 16 metres/50 feet. What would be your maximum allowable bottom time for this third dive?

Did I mention that my math skills are not optimal? Looking at questions like these, I thought: even if I pass the test, how will I know if, under pressure during an actual situation, I’m performing the calculations accurately? One mistake could cost me my life.

I said to my husband: “I’m going to die underwater.”

He said, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

I went through the material diligently, sometimes going over practice tests several times before going on to the real thing. I passed the exam.

A few days later, my husband and I were on a rattling, twelve-seater plane en route from Belize City to San Pedro, a quiet, white-beached island from which you can access the Belize barrier reef.  My awesome in-laws, bless them, had offered to take the kids for 5 nights while we were in Belize. It was our first couple’s adventure since having kids, seven years before.

The practical aspect of the diving certification requires a diver to execute several dives, each one deeper than the one before it. While underwater, a diver is asked to perform more than a dozen exercises that simulate diving problems and how to solve them. Only once you’ve performed all the exercises correctly do you pass the exam.

Underwater maneuvers include removing your mask, letting it fill with water, clearing it, and putting it back on. All this with your eyes closed and without thinking of the fact that you are  exposed to a gigantic mass of ocean water, with unknown sea animals lurking about (It’s possible that I’m being a wee dramatic about all this).

My instructor, a chubby Belizean guy with a buzz cut named Ian, would demonstrate each exercise. Because I have long hair, some of what I did was particular to me. In order to put my mask back on properly so that the suction worked, I had to clear my hair out of the way. It made me laugh to see Ian remove his mask, close his eyes, and pointedly smooth his non-existent locks out of the way, before replacing his headgear.

Doing this practice, I was terrified. I couldn’t remember being this frightened in my life. Even the slopes of Kilimanjaro seemed tame compared to this.

In between dives, I asked my husband, “Do you think you lose courage as you age?”

He raised his eyebrows at me. “On to the next exercise,” he said.

I discovered that I’m slightly claustrophobic. Having a mask blocking my nose made me feel panicky and quickened my breathing.

“Think of it as a Zen practice,” my husband advised me. “Breathe slowly.”

“I don’t think Buddhist monks deep sea dive,” I said.

One exercise in particular terrified me. In order to simulate dropping my regulator (the piece of equipment that provides breathable air to the diver), I had to remove it, replace it, and clear it of water, all underwater. You can clear a regulator in two ways, either by blowing forcefully outward, or by pushing a purge button at the front of the regulator.

Ian and I knelt at the bottom of the ocean, in a sandy patch. My knee stung: I must have cut myself on coral on an earlier dive. Ian demonstrated the exercise: remove, replace, clear. I tried to replicate his actions. I took the regulator’s mouthpiece out of my mouth. I held my breath so I wouldn’t swallow water. I replaced my regulator and pressed the purge button. I breathed in….and choked on ocean water.

Okay, I thought, you’re a karate-ka: try again. I tried again. I tried three times, each time breathing in increasing amounts of salty liquid. Ian looked at my face and grabbed my shoulder. It’s amazing how fast you can shoot up to the surface if you need to (fortunately, this particular dive wasn’t deep, allowing us to ascend rapidly without danger). We burst out of the water.

“The regulator wasn’t working!” I sputtered.

Ian took the mouthpiece in his mouth to test it. “It works fine,” he said. “The mouthpiece wasn’t in your mouth properly. Let’s try a smaller mouthpiece next time.”

“Next time?” I asked. “What next time?”

I did take another go, later that afternoon. But only because the diving shop manager told me that they ran a tight schedule: if I didn’t dive again that day, I would not have another chance.

On my second try, armed with a smaller mouthpiece, I cleared my regulator. I went on to perform the other exercises and eventually passed my exam.

I have to admit, by the time I did my last dive, I still didn’t get what the fuss was about. Despite being in one of the most vibrant underwater locales in the world, I wasn’t experiencing the wonder friends with diving experience had told me to expect. I was a better diver, but I was still very nervous.

On our last dive we dived to a depth of sixty feet. The water felt cold. Coral swayed in the current. Groups of blue and yellow Angelfish passed us. Suddenly, a giant green turtle burst out of some rocks, its spotted, glass green flippers flapping in the current. Ah, I thought, watching the turtle navigate the water, as majestic as a bird of prey: now I get it.

On Risk

I am not two people, I am one.

Photographer Annie Leibovits, on the confluence of her art and life.


I’ve been thinking about risk.

A decade ago my husband and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He loves mountain-climbing. He loves the journey itself, the actual climb. I like getting to the top. (Our differences became evident on the slopes of an Ecuadorian volcano, where we had our first, near-break up fight. There is a photo taken of me on the slopes of Mount Tungurahua: my hair is flattened by a downpour, and I’m smiling through gritted teeth at my not-yet-husband. Incidentally, the volcano erupted half a year later).

As to Mt. Kilimanjaro, I wanted to see its ice cap before it melted. On the way up, we suffered from unpleasant mishaps. A torrential downpour destroyed our camera. We experienced extreme nausea caused by altitude sickness (so much so that, on our third day, despite a six-hour climb to the summit, I couldn’t force down a single bite of breakfast). Our guide turned out to be an disagreeable man who, when he deigned to speak to us, did so with a crankiness bordering on dislike. In the end, though, we made it. After three days on the mountain, we summitted and watched a sunrise at an altitude of 19,341 feet.

Over a decade ago, when I started a PhD in Comparative Literature, I decided to learn a language from scratch, while completing my degree. This didn’t work out. I had underestimated both the amount of work required by the degree, and its rigour. Although I learned a new language, I didn’t complete the degree. There were, of course, other factors at work that made it difficult for me to finish the project. But my struggle also had to do with the difference between calculated and reckless risks, and the fact that, in taking on too much work, I’d tackled a reckless risk.

For a while, I risked little. Then, last summer, a karate instructor told me that my side kicks were too careful. “Let your side kicks fly,” he said. “Forget technique.”  On my next side kick, something shifted. My hip spun out, my body followed. My mind emptied, and I lost my sense of self. I embodied one of karate’s principles, “Mu-no-kukoro”, “mind without conscious thought.”

I promised myself to reacquaint myself with risk. A few weeks ago, I decided to start performing kata again. Although I’d been teaching for almost a year, I had not been demonstrating my kata. This was unfair to my students: I wanted to demand as much of myself as I did of them.

But when I went up to the front of the class to demonstrate Kanku Dai, I faltered. I felt like I did twenty years ago, as a white belt learning Tai-Kyo-Ku Shodan, when I forgot which way to turn. I was an octopus trying to dance. (I often tell my kids that Mama cannot meet everyone’s needs all at once and that she is not an octopus, but perhaps, on this front, I’m wrong).

Afterward, the instructor gave me some corrections. I had to implement them while the class looked on. I was mortified. My kids and I had recently watched The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, I thought, someone will throw a bucket of water over me, and I’ll melt away.

Implicit in risk is failure. If I don’t want to fail, I shouldn’t risk. But this flattens life. And of course success is born of risk, too.  As is learning.

Last week I understood that training is not enough. I must also practice demonstrating kata. I’ve always struggled with performance, in its various permutations. The only instance I didn’t mind performing was during high school theatrical shows. But in that case I was on stage in the guise of someone else. Karate is another matter: when you demonstrate kata, you showcase yourself.

I’m going to keep taking risks, in karate and elsewhere. I could use some practice in failure. Worst case scenario, I’ll learn something.