Certified Open Water Diver

After 2 days, five dives, and a slight freak-out, I am now a certified open water diver.

This past weekend, my husband and I completed our Scuba Schools International (SSI) open water diver course. We spent both Saturday and Sunday at Lake Pleasant Spillway with El Mar Diving Center instructors wrapping up the course. Originally we had planned to complete the certification weekend in April, however life got in the way and we pushed it back to May. Thankfully we did because the water temperature was perfect (around 70°F) and we only needed to wear 5-millimeter wetsuits to stay warm.

Day One

Scuba tank at Lake Pleasant, AZ.The weekend was organized to run through all of the skills we had learned in the pool, but down at the bottom of the lake. On day one, we arrived at 7:30am at Lake Pleasant, went to the dive location, unloaded all of our gear, and made out introductions. We started the course by going through gear assembly and planning our first open water dive. During the first dive the plan was to complete open water familiarization, regulator loss and retrieval, and mask clearing techniques. The dive did not go as planned.

Water and Lungs Don’t Mix

On my first mask removal and clearing skill review, I accidentally inhaled water through my nose and launched into a panic. In that moment, I began to hyperventilate and felt as though I couldn’t catch my breath. My instructor was right in front of me when this occurred, she swam up to me, looked me in the eyes, grabbed me, calmed me down, and helped me get back up to the surface. When we reached the surface I gasped for air, coughed, and started to calm myself down.

When we exited the lake, I spent some time talking to the instructor about what happened and what I needed to do to work through the fear of that happening again. She talked about how most of scuba is mental and even she, a pro diver, has moments of panic under water. The key is to calm your mind, go back to the basics, and regroup. I was extremely thankful for her patience and encouragement throughout this first-hand learning experience.

Lesson Learned

I spent some time reflecting on what happened and I came to a few conclusions. The first is to stay calm. Scuba is a dangerous and risky sport and staying calm is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your dive buddy. The second is to make conscious and deliberate choices for every movement and decision. In the moment when my mask clearing resulted in inhaling water, I was rushing through the skill. This could have been avoided and I now understand why. Lastly, is to trust your dive buddy and the people around you. Divers are very aware of the risk associated with the sport and your dive buddy is your first line of defense if you can’t get yourself together. The point is to never need that kind of support from your dive buddy, but if you do, know they are there to help you.

One thing I have learned over the years is that when you have a scare or panic attack, try to get back doing what set it off soon after. That way you face it, learn from it, and learn to get over the fear. The second dive was just that for me. We continued to work on regulator loss and retrieval and mask clearing techniques. Our instructor helped me to stay calm by encouraging me to relax my breath. This helped to ease me back in to clearing my mask and not being fearful of inhaling water. We practiced it several times and each time got easier. When we wrapped up the dive, our support divers and instructor expressed very encouraging words about how I was doing. Their ability to remain supportive is extremely commendable and just adds to the many reasons why I love El Mar Diving Center staff.

Day 2

On the second day everything just felt a little bit easier. The nerves of a new environment were diminishing and setting up the gear was making more sense. We even ran into a scenario where one of the O-rings on my tank needed replacing and I helped get a new one installed. It was pretty cool to unexpectedly learn about O-ring failures and how to fix it in the future.

Throughout the morning we completed three dives. On the first dive we practiced navigation, donning and doffing the buoyancy control devices (BCDs), weight belt removal and replacement, and other basic skills review. I decided to spend some time practicing clearing my mask to help kill any remaining nerves. My confidence was coming back and I started to really enjoy the dives.

On the second dive we went down, practiced some more navigation and then we all came together as a group at the bottom. Our instructor had us all gather around her and then she started rustling around with her glove and her wetsuit sleeve. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing at first, and then I noticed something sticking out of her sleeve. One by one, she handed out our open water diver certification cards, shook our hands, and congratulated us. I don’t know if that is standard practice in the diving world, but I thought it was a pretty awesome moment.

The third dive was a fun one. There were no skills to practice and we were just going down to have fun, explore, and enjoy our first dive as certified divers. Throughout our course there were several support divers training to become master divers. My husband and I were partnered up with one of the divers and followed along as she navigated the dive. We had fun exploring, saw some fish, and tried to find some crawdads. When we got back to the rope and were about to start our ascent our instructor surprised our support diver with a skills test. On the spot she had to send up an emergency safety tube attached to a spool. It was kind of cool to stop, stand back, and watch another more advanced skill being performed. When she completed the skill we ascended and wrapped up the dive.

We were all in a great mood after that dive. With the amount of dives we did on Sunday, our ears were feeling a bit blocked, but otherwise we were ready to celebrate. We took our time getting the gear packed up and then we all went to a local burger joint to have a celebratory beverage and burger. At lunch we spent some time going through our log books, having our instructor sign off on our dives, and spending some time reviewing how to calculate our surface air consumption (SAC) rate. We all felt a bit light headed from our earlier dives so doing math equations proved a bit more challenging than normal. We inhaled our burgers, clinked our glasses, and talked about our upcoming trips. I think in that moment it started to sink in that we had completed the certification.

Importance of Diving in Spaceflight Training

After going through the open water diver course I have a better understanding of the importance of this skill as part of spaceflight training. It demonstrates how a person handles stressful scenarios in an unforgiving environment, full reliance on external life support systems, and simulated microgravity environments. My moment of panic under water would have been even more dangerous if it had happened in space. This illustrated that identifying and addressing these reactions in people early, astronauts will be more prepared for an emergency in space.

What’s Next?

SSI has varying levels of diver certification along with specialty courses you can take to improve skills development and maybe someday become an instructor, master diver, or pro diver. Since we completed level one and the computer diving specialty during our course, we only need one more specialty and five more dives to get a level two certification. It is nice to have things to work toward that all ultimately improve diving skills. I think the next course I want to take is the perfect buoyancy specialty to really hone in on my breath and buoyancy control. I felt myself starting to grasp it this weekend, but I want to spend more time practicing. I am still a newbie and have many new things to learn things to look forward to. I know getting this certification opened up so many new opportunities and I can’t wait to see where this all heads.

About the author

Erin Bonilla

Erin Bonilla is pursuing a master's degree in Adventure Education with a concentration in the psychosocial components of human spaceflight selection and training. She believes that through the development of a baseline approach to behavioral health within the astronaut selection process we can minimize long term psychosocial challenges and increase participant enjoyment.

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