Miracle of the Year: Getting Scuba Certified in Hawaii

Big Island, Hawaii

Not a long time ago, if you threw me into a pool of water, I’d have sunk like a rock. On the other hand, put a piano in front of me and I can play a nice one-handed rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. See, my parents, being a stereotypical Asian parents, believed that playing a musical instrument is one of the most important skills to have in life. Swimming? The ability to survive in what covers 2/3 of this planet? Not so much.

So Jack was surprised when I told him that 2013 is the year we were getting scuba certified.

“But hun, you can’t swim!”

Phooey. What is diving but controlled sinking, anyway?

Photo credit: NAKANA
Photo credit: NAKANA

I’d wanted to learn to scuba for as long as I remember, but the fear of water had always held me back. Then somehow, every place we traveled to last year (2012) was filled with water-related activities: we swam in Yucatan’s cenotes and we even went swimming with whale sharks. In December, I went island hopping around a remote island in Indonesia. By the end of 2012, I was more comfortable being in water than I’d ever been.

It didn’t mean I could swim. It just meant I didn’t freak out being in water. Major milestone, I’m telling you.

We were already going to the Big Island for a wedding so I took this as the universe’s nod of approval that not only were we getting certified, we were going to get scuba certified in Hawaii. I signed both of us up with a diving operator on the Big Island and paid the 50% deposit before I could talk myself out of it.

I begged for advices on our Facebook page. There were many good advices given, but one of them stood out (thank you, Didi):

“Whenever I’m on a new dive after a while I try to breathe in for 5 secs and out for 5.”

I later learned that taking deep, deliberate breaths is one way to control rising panic during times when… say, you’re 30 feet underwater, your ears are in pain, your mask is flooded with water and snot, and you’re fighting a massive urge to swim up, forget the whole stupid diving thing, and do normal Hawaiian things like lounging on a beach with a colorful drink.

You know… throwing a random scenario out there. Didn’t happen of course.

Our dive boat

The skills we had to master included clearing our mask underwater, taking off our regulator and clearing it, and finding our regulator in case it gets accidentally knocked off our mouth. The latter 2 I was doing ok with, but I was having major issues at clearing my mask underwater. Many times I ended up with not only more water in my mask than I started with (it defies physics!), but blood and snots as well.

I was grossed out and frustrated.

(Jack, on the other hand, has always been a really good swimmer.. Soon enough he was swimming circles around me, clearing his mask every time I glanced his way. Such a show off.)

Our awesome instructor promised that the first day is supposed to be the hardest. “Tomorrow – when we go diving off the boat, you’re going to love it!”

In a way, he was absolutely right.

When I wasn’t obessing about my mask or fighting a panic attack (see below), I understood. I understood why people get hooked on diving.

When I wasn’t yo-yoing up and down from trying to control my buoyancy, I felt like I could be in space – gliding weightlessly through colorful corals and big schools of fish. We saw eels and turtles. We heard whales singing. Jack even swore he saw a shark.

by kanuck
Photo credit by kanuck

I loved the times when the underwater beauty around me made me forget my fear.

I started to see things I never noticed before: the subtle hues of colors on a fish, the way they swim, and the shape of their mouths and fins. I started to notice how rich and saturated the colors were. I loved the way the light makes things sparkle and shimmer underwater.

I still had moments of panic. Everytime I looked up and see the sun waaaay up there, I felt claustrophobic. Everytime I looked up I was reminded that we have evolved out of fins.

So I handled it in the way I handle my fear of height when climbing: avoidance and denial. I never looked up. I looked at Jack. I looked at my instructor. I tighten the seal around my mask and take deep breaths.

Breathe in, breathe out. 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out.

My instructor and Jack were looking at me, making sure I was ok. I gave them the “a ok” sign. I took more deep breaths, and everything was ok again.

It was nothing short of a miracle.

At the end of the 3 day course and a total of 5 dives, we were officially scuba certified! Our instructor decided that he could trust us to go diving on our own without killing ourselves and signed off our certification. I couldn’t believe it.

Our SSI scuba cards
Our SSI scuba cards

My brain decided to chime in, “You did it! Now let’s not EVER do this again.”

And I was agreeing with it. I thought diving wasn’t for me.

But now enough time has passed and the terrors of the experience have receded to the back of my mind, I’ve found myself saying, “Well, that ain’t so bad. It was actually kind of fun.”

My brain plays cruel tricks like that. Now I actually start to miss the feeling of being underwater.

And I start to wonder… where should I go to diving (aka: have my panic attack) next?

Behind the Scenes


I found Hawaii was one of the more expensive places to get certified. We have no regrets though. I believed that the warm water, great visibility, and plenty of life to see made things a lot easier for new divers.

If you’re nervous about getting certified, I highly recommend getting a private or semi-private instructor. Knowing that I had my instructor’s undivided attention made me feel a lot more relaxed underwater.

Choosing an instructor is more important than the dive shop. We really liked our instructor, Jason, who was at the time working for Kona Honu Divers.

We chose SSI over PADI because SSI doesn’t charge for their online course –> $125 cheaper.

Just to be clear, we didn’t take any of the underwater pics. I was too busy having panic attacks.

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33 Replies to “Miracle of the Year: Getting Scuba Certified in Hawaii”

  1. Congrats! Welcome to the club! Scuba diving is one of my great pleasures and I have been lucky enough to have done some incredible dives around the world… And I STILL hate filling my face and clearing it!

  2. A big congrats getting certified. I got certified in a warm pool at university – very cheap – but our open water dive was in Lake Ontario – the day after the ice went out and not so much fun. It's been so long since I've been that I'd have to re-certify and not sure I'd be up for it though it does open up quite the world. What you saw under water sure beat my 3 foot visibility.

    1. Congrats on getting certified! I was also certified in Hawaii where I lived for fifteen years and you could not of picked a better place. Especally for the visability. I now live in Sacramento. I just returned with our dive group yesterday diving the Cenotes, local reefs and we did the whale shark snorkle. We loved it! Consider Aruba, Bonaire and Cozomel for your next diving adventure! One of my favorite dives was the night Mana dive off the Kona coast. It was AWESOME!! Good luck and happy diving!

  3. Rock on! Way to conquer your fears. On my first open water dive, I stressed about clearing my mask too, cause water kept creeping in. Had my freakout moment where I had to go up ; afterall, the last thing you want is your mask to flood when you're at the bottom and in the middle of an expedition. Somehow, I just stuck out the rest and was glad I did.

    I had a different reaction to looking up though. I felt like it was like dying and going to heaven, while the ocean made me a little claustrophobic at times… I felt like I was in a ginormous aquarium and my only way out was up. ha ha..

    1. I can totally see that (on looking up and getting the 'heaven' feeling). And it's funny that you mentioned being claustrophobic because that's exactly how I feel when looking up!

  4. This looks amazing! Scuba certification is one of my dreams as I had a bad experience in Australia trying to scuba dive without being certified. Scared the hell out of me but would really like to try again!

  5. So glad you had the courage to get your certification!! Isn't diving an incredible experience? Dan and I both have our advanced open water, and we're hoping to one day work our way up to dive master. Now that you're certified, I highly recommend Apo Island in the Philippines-ahhhmazing. We haven't dove in Hawaii yet, but it sounds great!

  6. Wow, so proud of you! I would have been having a panic attack, too, but I applaud you for conquering the water fear! And I'm sure it must have been a magical experience…(anxiety aside!;-)

  7. Congrats, Jill – this a HUGE accomplishment! Major props to you for pushing past the panic/fear. 🙂 My fiance is an avid diver/underwater photographer and has been diving all over the world – Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii, etc. I've done my pool certification, but have yet to conquer the ocean dives. Totally agree with you about the mask removal – that is the worst/hardest part. I feel like if I could get past that, I could do it! 🙂

    1. Clearing the mask IS the big thing. I know we're not the only ones who get freaked out about this. It's sooo against intuition to have water engulfing your whole face.

  8. First off- congrats on the scuba certification!!! What a great accomplishment!

    I did an intro scuba course in greece with one dive and had to hold on to the instructor the entire time. Your words make me think to give scuba another try. Thanks!! 🙂 l

  9. Congratulations Jill! What a great accomplishment! I had those same Asian parents who thought swimming wasn't as important despite growing up in the islands 🙂 You gave me hope for being able to move past panic attacks and seeing the beautiful underwater world someday. Beautiful shots!

  10. Jill, congrats on overcoming your fears. You should feel really proud!!

    I sympathize with your underwater freak outs. I spent just over 3 months training to be a dive master and initially suffered from panic attacks when descending. It was actually taking my mask on and off that sent me reeling.

    The best advice I can give you is to focus on being relaxed. Concentrating on your breathing really helps. I find that looking for a particular marine animal shifts my focus back to enjoying the dive. Know that you're never to far from the surface to safely ascend should you need to. Stay close to your buddy and ensure you're comfortable and relaxed at the surface before you descend.

    I'm sure you'll be back in the water soon!

  11. Hi Jill, congratulations! With courage nothing is a miracle after all. I had a diving bug right after I got my certification. But I was having ear problem (having a hard time equalizing) that I haven't done it in a while. Looking forward to diving again soon. Happy diving to you and Jack!

  12. Congrats on overcoming your fear! I'm not sure if I want to get scuba certified. Although I'm not the strongest swimmer, I could definitely survive for about 15 minutes or so. I honestly just want to become a better floater as crazy as that may sound. I just want to get to a point in the water where I don't freak out when I realize there's nothing to hold onto!

  13. Thanks! If I had any preview of what I was about to go through, I'd have chickened out myself. Part of what kept me going was the darn nonrefundable deposit 🙂 But I'm glad I made it through.

  14. I'm still waiting for the "bug" to bite… I think once I've mastered taking my mask on and off underwater I'd feel 10x more comfortable with diving.

  15. Wow — you really are brave to attempt conquering your fears like that. Congratulations on your success! You've given me some food for thought about conquering some of my own. Diving is something I just haven't imagined that I could get the courage to do. But who knows….

  16. Congratulations!! I'm not sure if I'm ever going to dive. Maybe in a few year when I get over my fear of the ocean! I'm super proud you did it!

  17. Wow, we just last week decided to get certified before we go to Hawaii in the fall! I never thought I'd have the nerve to do it, but my husband has wanted to for years. He was disappointed we didn't get to go diving when we were in the Galapagos last year. I'm still scared, but I know I'll love what I get to see.

    Any reason you decided not to take the class at home, so you can just go out on the excursions when you are traveling? That's what we're thinking of doing. I was just yesterday researching local companies. They all do the dive lessons in Monterey.

    1. We did look into taking the class here in California (cheaper), but I thought I'd have enough problem already without having to deal with the cold and (relatively) poor visibility of Monterey water. The timing worked out too with us already going to Hawaii.

      Good luck with the certification and don't forget to breathe! 🙂

  18. Congratulations, girlfriend! I too am not all that keen on deep water (let's just say I seriously respect an ocean of something that's not meant to be processed through my homo sapien lungs). But I forced myself to get certified amid the warm, crystal clear Caribbean waters of Belize back in the 90's (we're talkin' 100 foot visibility, folks). Indeed, for my final open water dive, I dove the legendary "Blue Hole" – drifted down to *170* feet amid the awe before I realized I was sinking in the vertigo!

    That said, I must say… like you perhaps, I never could get into serious diving – I mean, all the colors and pretty things are at 15 ft. so why drop a c-note and wrestle w/ all the equipment when you can just don a snorkel and mask and see plenty of wondrous things (recently I snorkeled with turtles in Oz)?

  19. Congrats!!!! Adam did a discover dive in Belize & Indonesia last year, and loved it! He plans on getting certified this July in Utila. I am like you Jill…..I can swim but I tried the discovery dive in Belize and I panic. I feel like I am not getting enough air, and then my ears won't pop….I'm a hot mess! Maybe someday I will join the club and be certified! Congrats again!

  20. Yay, glad you took the plunge! Like you, my extreme fear of water kept me from diving until 2007 when I found myself in the Maldives and couldn't *not* dive. I got the bug, got my SSI open water and then went on to get my PADI advanced. Now I'm pretty obsessed and fully believe the ocean is much scarier from above the surface than below!

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