A Good Day at Work

People choose to try SCUBA diving for many reasons. Sometimes, it’s been a dream since childhood, sometimes it’s just something fun to try on vacation instead of snorkeling. But every once in a while as an instructor, you meet someone who wants to dive in order to confront their fears.

That makes for both the most difficult and most rewarding days on the job.

Cheri was afraid of the water, and wasn’t shy about telling us. I knew she had a lot of trouble feeling comfortable near the water, never mind under it, but I also knew she had already done one underwater session with another instructor (my co-worker, Charlie) and that meant she wanted to dive. So on a nice, calm day and in a one-on-one situation, down to Ulua beach we went.

As I was assembling the gear, I spoke with Cheri about her first experience. My first question to a repeat diver tends to be “What sort of exciting and cool things did you see?” As it turns out, it took Cheri so long to feel comfortable on that first dive, she didn’t get to see much…a goat fish was about it. I immediately told her we were going to do better today—I wanted to show her the reef, so she’d know what she was working towards.

After we’d assembled the gear and gotten down to the waters edge, we did our pre-dive safety check and headed on in. Out to about 6 feet of water, set the flag, and we were ready for our descent. Or, rather I was ready—Cheri was nervous. Of course, everyone is nervous the first few times…as instructors we all remember what that’s like. I could see that Cheri’s breathing was a bit fast and a bit shallow, and that her shoulders were tense. A little bit of time just floating, and a few long, slow breaths to calm everything down, and we were ready.

Regulators in…
Hoses up…
Ready to equalize on the way down…
Descent…and down to sandy bottom we go.

We got down there, and I signaled to Cheri to relax and breathe…which she did, for almost 10 seconds before signaling “up. up. up. “ Okay, up to the surface we go—that’s the advantage of being in just a few feet of water to start things off. When we got to the surface, Cheri said:

“I’ll be fine down there—it’s just that initial feeling I have trouble with!”

(Ah, yes—I sometimes feel like that should be an official part of the training course, with capitol letters and everything: That Initial Feeling. It’s almost like it’s unnatural to breathe underwater….)

I’d seen this before.

“Cheri,” I said “It’ll be hard to get by that Initial Feeling if we keep coming to the surface…then you just have to deal with the Initial Feeling all over again. (laughter) This time, when we go down, when you get that Feeling, instead of heading to the surface, what I want you to do is just concentrate on breathing long and slow in, then long and slow out. Keep doing that, and keep looking at me, until that Feeling goes away, ok?”


Take two, and down we go! This time, success with step 1—we stayed down. So far so good. Now, the usual next step on an intro dive is to do a few simple skills—clearing the regulator of water, recovering the reg when it comes out of your mouth, and clearing your mask of a small amount of water. We talked about it quickly under water:

(Hand signal) “OK?”
(Hand signal back) “OK”
(Demonstrate first skill—remove reg, replace, clear, hand signal) “Ok, your turn”
(Hand signal) “up. up.”

Whoops! Not quite ready for skills yet! But there is a plan “B”—I pulled out my slate and wrote:

“Let’s not go up just yet—want to swim for just a tiny bit?”

(Hand signal) “Ok”

See, I knew Cheri wanted to dive, and I knew she’d get comfortable….sometimes all it takes is a little time to adapt, and something to distract your attention from how odd it all feels at first. So I took my frightened but determined student by the hand…and I must admit I played a trick on her. We did swim for a little bit. And a little bit further. And then made it over to the reef. After the first few butterfly fish, the tight, tight grip on my hand relaxed just a little bit. By the time we got to 15 feet deep and were surrounded by Hawaiian sergeants, coronet fish, and Moorish idols, I’m pretty sure Cheri had forgotten we were only swimming for “a little bit”. And at 20’ (our maximum allowed depth for the dive, since we hadn’t done skills) when a nice big Green sea turtle paid us a visit, I saw Cheri’s eyes light up behind her mask and a hint of a smile appear around her reg.

(Almost there….)

So back around the reef we went, got back to about 10 feet of water, and Cheri seemed MUCH more comfortable. I signaled to go up to the surface so we could talk, and a soon as we got there…

“Oh my god that was so much fun I’ve never seen a turtle swimming like that that was great how cool…”

(Okay that’s better, and she wants to dive so…)

“Want to go down and try some skills now, maybe dive a bit more, we’ve got some air left….?”


Down we go…no problems on descent….reg out, and clear, good! Toss reg away and recover…good! Clear mask….1st try, good! We headed off to the reef again…but this time she wasn’t holding my hand.

Mission accomplished.

I spoke with Cheri a few days ago, and now she’s planning on becoming a certified diver.

That, my friends, is a good day at work.

Jim Petruzzi