On our first two visits to Maui, Cody and I never got around to visiting the Molokini Crater. Crazy, right? Well the third time was the charm, and since I was certified this time around, I was able to schedule a scuba dive down into the crater. After browsing a few websites and looking through Maui Revealed, I found that the Pride of Maui offers scuba diving alongside snorkeling, and because Cody isn’t open water certified yet (only two more weeks to go until his certification!) I figured this operation would best suit both of our needs.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning when we pulled into the Ma’alaea Harbor and as I looked out over the ocean I was surprised to see no waves. On our hour-long sail south towards Molokini Crater, the smooth glass-like surface made for killer views of the gigantic humpback whales that could be seen from every angle of the boat. Before I knew it, it was time to plan our dive and gear up.
Almost as soon as the boat was anchored at the extinct volcanic crater just off of Maui’s south shores, we plunged into the crystal-clear water below.
A transformation occurs during your first few minutes of diving; up at the surface you can hear the commotion of the other guests, you can hear the waves slapping up against the boat, and you can taste the salt water as it splashes across your face. The surface can be somewhat chaotic, however, the moment that you begin your descent you transcend into peace–it is quiet except for your thoughts, and the sound of your regulator as you breathe. All of the commotion at the surface is replaced with schools of fish and beautiful coral formations.
I began my descent and looked around to investigate my new underwater world–when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it happened…
It became hard to breathe.
I could feel my heart begin to race under my wetsuit.
My breathing became shallow and rapid.
The more I tried to pull for a breath, the faster my heart tried to beat, and as the panic washed over, I looked around and felt as if the entire ocean was closing in on me.
(Okay, TIME OUT…! I should probably mention at this point that I am incredibly claustrophobic. I know, I know, I’m a diver; and diving and claustrophobia typically don’t go together. My diving friends have asked me how I feel underwater and I’ve always explained that I don’t feel confined, I feel free. I could never do a cave dive, or explore tight spaces underwater–my heart is racing and my palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it–but give me the wide open ocean and I feel fine scuba diving).
So, now that I’ve shared one of my biggest fears, let’s get back to the story…
You can imagine my complete fear when the claustrophobia panic began to seep into my brain at 60 feet underwater… It was a vicious cycle: a challenge to breathe, which made me feel confined, which increased my heart rate, which made it harder to breathe. I knew that I had to calm my racing thoughts and steady my breathing, however, my initial thought was that my dream of becoming the Little
scuba diving Mermaid was over almost as quickly as it had started.
I tried to block out the panic the best I could by focusing on the marine life around me… I studied the coral formations, my eyes followed the schools of fish as they danced through their underwater home, and in this process I somehow managed to slow my breathing and push the panic to the back of my mind.
The moment that I finally slowed my heart rate, my dive master signaled that he saw a shark; and while I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins again, this time it was not due to panic, it was due to excitement. I dropped down to 100 feet (the deepest I’ve gone so far), and the black tip reef shark was just out of reach as he slept on the crater floor 20-30 feet below.
We continued our exploration of the reef, and throughout the thirty minute dive the challenge to breathe continued as I tried to mentally adjust to the tight regulator (the regulator is your breathing apparatus–aka, your air source). Having a tight regulator basically means that it is harder to take a breath than compared to regulators that I have used in the past. Breathing should be easy underwater and the settings on this regulator made it much more difficult than it should have been–there wasn’t anything wrong with this device, I just wasn’t used to it.
Back at the surface, I mentioned the struggle to breathe to my dive master and he switched out my regulator for our second dive. I was slightly hesitant to dive again after my underwater panic attack, however, part of me wanted to confirm that it was just the tight regulator and not in fact my claustrophobia.
So, after our hour-long surface interval, I pushed through the hesitation and began my descent on that second dive; and within seconds I realized the new regulator worked just fine. I was almost overjoyed to the point of tears… my dream of becoming a Little Mermaid wasn’t ruined after all…
PS. I want to apologize about the low-quality photos. I shot this dive with my Go-Pro and without an additional light at 80 feet below the surface the colors and the quality suffer. I decided to add these photos to the post even though the quality is sub-par because a good friend of mine once said, “The only bad photo is a photo you don’t take.” 🙂
Have you had to face or overcome your biggest fears? How did you handle it?