The author scuba diving in Curacao Turtle + Ray Productions I exhaled into my breathing tube and descended into the cobalt waters off the coast of Curaçao. I was 30 feet beneath the surface, and the silence was all-encompassing, save for the alien sounds of my breath. My ominous respiratory patterns into my mouthpiece sounded
I exhaled into my breathing tube and descended into the cobalt waters off the coast of Curaçao. I was 30 feet beneath the surface, and the silence was all-encompassing, save for the alien sounds of my breath. My ominous respiratory patterns into my mouthpiece sounded like Darth Vader. The cacophony of my humble efforts at staying alive felt like they could be coming from anywhere in that endless expanse of blue. I was scaring myself. Diving into the darkness, my bubbling grew louder and louder, the distorted sounds of an unseen villain in a horror movie—or the desperate gasps of their dying victim.
Which was not the most comforting of sounds to hear on my very first descent—in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, scuba diving is just “another great activity where your main goal is not to die.” So I doubled down on the business of staying alive. “Just keep living,” I repeated like a mantra in my head, adopting the wisdom of another great American prophet (Matthew McConaughey, of course.) Just keep breathing, I reminded myself. Remember to breathe. Just Relax. But my Zen was to be short-lived.
When I spotted a fluorescent lilac fish emerge from beneath an Elkhorn Coral, I dove down deeper to follow its trail. Catching sight of my instructor, Ivo, in my peripheral vision, I instinctively opened my mouth to ask for the species’ name, and—in so doing—dropped my mouthguard in the water, my regulator floating away in the murky depths alongside me. (Vision, and sound, is distorted when pretending to be a marine mammal, alas.) Grasping for my regulator, I tried to inhale for more oxygen, swallowing another mouthful of the Caribbean Sea. My lungs filled with salt water. I couldn’t breathe.
Panicked, I inflated my device, flailing my arms, and kicking my legs as I rushed up for air. The surface was so far away, and my flippers felt like boulders of stone. I felt my life flash before my eyes—I wish I could say my final thoughts were profound, but instead, they were frighteningly self-centered (not to mention egotistical.) You’re going to die on a practice dive. And you’ll have perished from this earth without even getting your certificate yet. (The ostensible mission of my trip.)
There’s no honor in trying (and fatally failing) to follow simple instructions: Remember to breathe, and, whatever happens, don’t panic. But there’s no glory in trying to be a hero, either. I was reminded of both by my Dutch instructor once I was safely floating upon the surface. Stay calm, motion for help, and—crucially—try to relax. Why couldn’t I master these simple rules? Though I felt entirely isolated underneath the water—unable to communicate (I’d yet to master the art of scuba sign language) and responsible for my immediate well-being (read: intake of oxygen)—I was also part of a team effort with my fellow divers. They were to be my life-lines in the face of mortal panic.
Though I didn’t know it yet that Monday morning in early March, my days spent in silence and self-reliance beneath the Caribbean Sea would prepare me well for my months of isolation upon returning home. (Ten weeks and counting. Though, who’s counting these days when each morning feels exactly like the last?) The first case of Covid-19 was reported on Curaçao the day before I was to fly home to JFK. It’s therefore fitting that my final adventure as a travel writer in 2020 would be mastering the art of staying calm and surviving and a darkened echo chamber of my own intrusive thoughts and belabored breaths. Trust me, breathing underwater is at least as unnatural as participating in a government-enforced mandatory lockdown.
And to thrive in either scenario with nothing to distract you from the paranoia of your fatalistic thoughts requires a supernatural level of Zen. To excel at either activity also requires superhuman confidence and innate trust in your fellow divers/isolators to do the right thing in times of emergency. Though, of course, the top rule of scuba diving when you see a fellow diver panicking is not to needlessly endanger yourself first. In the immortal words of Lady Gaga, I was far from the shallow now.
The most important rule when assisting a panicked diver? Never needlessly endanger yourself.
The Life Aquatic
But, let’s start our story at the very beginning—on solid ground—shall we? I’d arrived in Curaçao only the day before, checking into the Lions Dive Beach Resort, and signing up for Dive SSI training with Ocean Encounters Curaçao. My lessons were held every morning at the resort’s private beach; a supremely convenient arrangement made all the more so by its proximity to Hemingway’s Beach Bar, where I’d toast my accomplishments every afternoon. The outdoor patio was tantalizingly close to the water’s edge, tempting me with its promise of endless Pina Coladas (not to mention sufficient oxygen) during my practice dives.
And, just as Barbados is a surfer’s paradise, boasting the best waves in the Caribbean, Curacao is the best place in the tropics to learn how to dive. Though learning to scuba dive had been a goal of mine for years, I’d always been slightly intimidated by the entire procedure—not to mention somewhat lackadaisical in my pursuit of lessons and certification. (As I’m sure many travelers/ would-be oceanic adventurers can relate.) Aside from demonstrating adept underwater techniques, students are required to pass a written examination as well before earning an open-water license—and the idea of a vacation promises the exact opposite of studying and homework for a reason.
But, at Ocean Encounters, guests can prepare for the written exam in advance and sign up for a four-day open-ocean course to begin the day they arrive—which is precisely what I did during my stay. Beginning your lessons on a Wednesday and receiving your license and certification by the weekend? In what other aspects of life is there such immediate satisfaction and wish-fulfillment?
Furthermore, Curacao is world-renowned for its gorgeous, crystal-clear waters and legendary dive sites—not to mention its unique cultural heritage, spectacular Baroque architecture, delicious cuisine, and infectious hospitality. In short, if you’re going to learn to scuba dive anywhere in the world, you’d better make sure it happens in the tropics, and you should plan for it to coincide with an island vacation where “everything is dushi.” (A Papiamento phrase, the island’s native language, that means ‘everything is sweet, beautiful, wonderful—all the above.)
I’d arrived in Curacao with a mission in mind: To earn my open-water certification. I was determined to make 2020 the year I finally learned to dive. A life-changing snorkeling excursion with sea lions in the Galapagos months before had piqued my interest in what lies beneath the ocean’s surface (another activity to add to your post-pandemic bucket list—after diving in Curacao, of course). Plus, learning to surf in Barbados this past winter (a skill I’d never thought I’d master given my lack of coordination) gave me the self-confidence to believe I could conquer any and all aquatic activities in the Caribbean Sea.
In hindsight, my self-confidence was slightly delusional (per the aforementioned ill-advised ascent) and the coordination entirely unnecessary. Scuba diving is, blessedly, the laziest sport in existence. The excursion may be mentally and emotionally taxing (Do I have enough oxygen? Where on earth did my instructor disappear to just now? Am I all alone down here? etc.), but the physical element is practically non-existent. Any extraneous movement of the body aside from the occasional kicking your flippers (rhythmically so as not to disturb the coral reef) is both fundamentally unnecessary, and—most importantly—embarrassing.
There’s no quicker way to identify yourself as a beginner to your fellow seahorses and sharks and scuba-enthusiasts than by attempting to propel yourself forward via some make-shift interpretation of your high school breaststroke/ doggy paddle. (I would know.) You needn’t be an expert swimmer to be an adept diver. All you really need—aside from the SSI-certified equipment, your open-water license, a reliable scuba buddy, and (if possible) an infinitely-patient Dutch instructor named Ivo—is the ability to breathe. In and out, in and out, at a steady pace.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, maybe for practitioners of transcendental meditation, but this vaguely neurotic (and somewhat chaotic) New Yorker—the tics come with the zip code—slowing down was the hardest part. Surrounded by a veritable wonderland of tropical wildlife—is truly is exploring an entirely new world—I found it challenging to remain focused on the cadence of my inhales and exhales.
And it’s painfully apparent to everyone involved if you’re not able to regulate your breathing, as you float up with every inhale, and descend with every exhale. Held your breath in awe as a squid slithered along the sand? Up to the surface, you go. Of course, that’s why your diving equipment includes a set of minimal weights—especially helpful for the easily distracted novice. Expert divers barely need any weights at all. Another embarrassing revelation? Fat floats. While this may not be news to you, dear reader, it was to me when I was saddled with an extra five pounds of weight on my last day—the cumulative result of a week’s worth of Pina Coladas at Hemingway’s. (Worth it, in case you were wondering.)
Scuba Diving: Another great activity where your main goal is to not die.
The Last Quiet Place
Eventually, I mastered the art of calmness, despite every instinct in my body frantically insisting otherwise—at least initially. I controlled the regularity of my breath to such an extent that I could hover motionless above the ocean floor, suspended and still in the saltwater like a genie. I learned to remove my mask and regulator underwater and not panic when I couldn’t see or breathe, trusting my fellow divers would save me if I needed saving—and confident I wouldn’t need saving if I stayed calm. (Perhaps this was what yoga teachers meant when they insisted I find my center? A much more difficult proposition when you’re in a boutique fitness studio in midtown Manhattan—centering yourself is much easier when your life, quite literally, depends on it.)
The experience of diving is entirely solitary and singular, yet inextricably intimate—needlessly endangering oneself is the equivalent of needlessly endangering your friend. And, just like 2020, the underwater world feels foreign and strange—and we may be navigating it alone, but we’re reliant on one another. The suddenly severe focus on your breath (Blair Witch sound effects notwithstanding) has a meditative effect. Suddenly, you are thoroughly, consummately, living in the present.
Engulfed in the aquatic sounds of silence, unable to communicate aside from signaling the levels of my oxygen tank, I discovered an entirely separate world swimming and lurking beneath the water. And I wasn’t able to comment on what I was seeing; unable to hyper-narrate my every thought (either in writing or in conversation)—a rarity for me. It was an upside-down world—indeed, the underwater mountains resemble cliffs into the abyss. In this alternate universe, Amphibian namesakes of above-ground creatures populated my underseas safari: Lionfish (a top predator like its African namesake—spiky, invasive, poisonous), Frogfish (an unattractive blob likely to be passed over for a Disney Prince), Cowfish (leopard-print, very stylish), Goatfish (cliquey in small schools), Parrotfish (as beautiful and colorful as their feathered counterpart), and more.
And, while you can head to the Bahamian island of Bimini for hammerhead sharks or the hours off the coast of Ecuador for sea lions, scuba diving in Curacao, I discovered, is all about the little things. The coral reef looks alive when you spot it up close—the giant coral is an animal after all (make sure to wear mineral-based sunblock in order not to damage the reef while diving.) The Common Seahorse bobs beside the Banded Shrimp while the Spotted Moray Eel snakes its way above the Fire Coral.
I had my first real glimpse into earth’s last true wilderness, its final frontier. Water takes up 72% of the earth’s surface, and this underwater tableau seemed only to hint at the depths of its mysteries. There was so much of the planet left to explore. I felt invigorated by this vast aquatic universe in which I was an utter stranger, awe-inspired by the wonders I’ve yet to behold.
The most jarring creature spotted underwater? I swam towards what appeared to be a gray shark moving slowly through the violet water (not only is sound impacted by the water’s depths but vision as well, as absorption renders your surroundings in shades of blue and purple.) I was terrified but fascinated. Drawing closer to the gray figure, I witnessed my reflection staring back at me, and then saw hands waving from within. It was a submarine. Tourists were on a sightseeing voyage within. It was the most surreal presence underneath the water, threatening and intimidating. And now I was the one being watched.
If your time to you is worth saving, then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.
This hyper-immersion into my immediate environment (not to mention my behavior moonlighting as a fish) reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s famous speech, “This is Water.” He discusses the near-impossibility of maintaining this level of consciousness in daily life: “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.”
When I boarded my flight home, I already missed the parrotfish, the silence, the rhythm of my breaths beneath the sea. Though I wasn’t sure then when I’d be able to return, Curaçao gave me a gift I’ll keep with me: An appreciation for the vast unknowns of this planet and the realization that “Just keep breathing” is as sound a motto as any for how to live. (Particularly in these panicked times.) Diving in Curacao taught me to be present, to be aware of my fragility, and to be in awe of the world around me. We may be in isolation, but we remain connected to a world far greater and wilder than we could ever imagine. Maybe everything is dushi, after all.
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