10 Life Lessons That Scuba Diving Taught Me
Almost eleven months ago, I moved to a little Caribbean island to pursue my path as a scuba instructor. I’ve learned many things along the way, in diving and in life, and I’ve compiled a few of the more important lessons into a lengthy list that I hope other divers, travelers, and people can look to and either nod in agreement or go out and see for themselves.
1. Breathe Continuously + Never Hold Your Breath
The most important rule in scuba diving. While underwater, it is essential to maintain a constant breathing rate, inhaling and exhaling, that raspy, rhythmic sound filling your ears.
The reason for this is that when we are diving we are breathing compressed air under pressure. If that pressure changes, so does the volume of air. As we descend underwater, the pressure increases, compressing the air, swelling its density, causing us to inhale a higher volume of air than we would take in with a breath at the surface.
This is fine if we are getting deeper or staying at the same depth, the volume of air is either getting smaller or remaining constant. But, when we ascend, the pressure decreases, and that compressed air, in response to the drop in pressure, starts to expand.
When we breathe normally, the expanding air is vented out naturally when we exhale.
If we hold our breath, our lungs do not inflate and deflate like they are designed to. If we hold our breath while we ascend, that expanding air, that air getting bigger and bigger due to the decreasing pressure, cannot escape in the absence of an exhale.
Our lungs are a fixed airspace, a flexible organ that can only hold a finite amount of air.
That held-breath of air grows upon ascent, enlarging inside the lungs, unable to find a way out, filling them up until they can swell no further and, like a balloon that cannot hold another breath, they can rupture, causing a lung over-expansion injury that can turn fatal.
This is Scuba Diving 101, something that every diver should know and understand and respect without trial.
I held my breath in life. I, drifting along with the mainstream current, maintained my rigidity, not allowing myself to inhale new air and exhale the old. I was steadfast in my habits, claiming that my lifestyle was simply a product of my particularity; I knew I liked things a certain way and I didn’t want change.
But that is a ridiculous way to live. We are not meant to be uncompromising, inflexible, and unchanging, like the lungs stretching and straining under the confines of a held breath.
It is not our purpose to hold onto things, keeping stale air inside our bodies, air that just wants to escape.
It is with great humility that we should accept the new in all its forms, inhaling fresh air, exhaling old, accepting novel ideas and cultures and ways of thinking about things, eliminating old habits and prejudices and things we thought we knew.
When we move through life, the pressures either increasing or decreasing, stresses heightening or diminishing, we need to remember to breath; to take in all the new and good and unfamiliar regardless of what our depth is, and to release all the old and bad and comfortable, making room for the new because, if we hold onto the old for too long, it continues to fill us up, expanding and growing and getting bigger until we, unaware of its cultivation, burst at the seams.
We should strive to immerse ourselves in new environments, surround ourselves with new pressures, growing and changing and adapting, and all the while remembering to breathe.
So there it is, rule number one: breathe continuously and never hold your breath. Inhale the new and exhale the old, leaving room for growth and expansion, especially when there’s a change in pressure.
2. Equalize Your Airspaces
The descent is one of my favorite parts of a dive. The moments leading up to it, excitement elevating, the anticipation of what the dive will bring building up to a breaking point, finally releasing, filtering out in a rush of escaping air, allowing you sink. This is where the transition between worlds happens; leaving the life-supplying surface, entering into a new realm where one navigates the fourth dimension.
The pressure changes, increasing with the weight of the water, pushing on places in our body that are unaccustomed to it. The first things to complain are the ears, sometimes aching, protesting against the pressure. You can fix this discomfort, equalizing the pressure to match the change around you. You need only to pinch your nose and lightly blow, adding air into the cavities and canals running through your head. The discomfort dissipates.
You equalize early and often on every dive, and every dive is different. Sometimes the ears complain and sometimes the buildup is in the head: behind the eyes, stemming from the nose, centered in the forehead, wherever your congestion may be.
Everyone descends at a different rate depending on what their body is telling them. Sometimes you feel stuck above everyone else, watching them continue to their depths, while you’re left behind, your body the only thing standing in the way of you and the dive. Other times you watch others from below, kicking up slightly, wiggling their jaws, trying any and everything to get their sinuses to cooperate.
Equalization correlates to life; everyone is moving at different rates, following different dive plans, allowing themselves to become accustomed to their surroundings at different times.
It’s taught me to be patient with myself and to not worry about the other people around me. Sometimes your ears cooperate and sometimes you’re left floating at the surface.
But that’s absolutely okay. The adjustment period is the most important part; diving with pressure-induced pain is not fun, just as forcing yourself into certain situations can be uncomfortable.
If we give ourselves time to adjust, time to equalize and overcome the surrounding pressure, we’ll get to the destination all the same. It doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly we descend along our paths, as long as we keep trying, keep listening to our bodies, and keep practicing different techniques until we find the one that works for us individually: pinching the nose, wiggling the jaw, making sounds with the back of our throats.
Trying to muscle through the pressure and stresses of our lives can end up hurting us. If we surrender to the pressure, allow ourselves to sink slowly, acclimating and adapting to the challenges we face, persevering in the face of problems, we never really fail at all.
And with that comes the simple notion of listening to your body, listening to your heart and mind and what that little voice is saying to you. Sometimes it’s okay to take a step back, kick yourself up a bit where the pressure’s not so strong, and give yourself some extra time before diving in again. Sometimes it’s okay to say, “it’s not happening today, I’m going to sit this one out and try again tomorrow”. There’s no shame in that.
I’ve learned to give myself time, to, above all, be patient with myself and listen to what my body is trying to tell me. I’ve learned that every day is different, just as it is with every dive, and I’m not always going to be the first one to bottom. And, above all, that is absolutely okay.
3. Adjust Your Buoyancy in Small, Frequent Amounts
Any diver will tell you that good buoyancy is one of the most important skills to have. Balanced buoyancy, horizontal trim, that perfect composure of rising slightly on the inhale and faintly falling on the exhale, is what separates the good divers from the bad.
Any diver will tell you that, in order to find that perfect positioning, you have to adjust your buoyancy in small, frequent amounts. A quick press of the inflator button, a short burst of air to compensate for sinking a bit too quickly, is enough to do the trick. You don’t want to press the inflator button for too long, filling your BCD with air that wants to bring you back to the surface. Little bursts will do, and the same goes for releasing air as your tank empties and you become more buoyant throughout the dive.
Moving your weights around little by little, trying new positions on each dive, finding that ideal spot on your body to bring yourself into a sleek, straight line is something that divers do the more and more they submerge themselves.
You learn to minimize your movements, quick flicks of the fin to change direction, mostly floating and flowing along with the current, frog kicking to propel yourself along a constant plane running parallel to the ocean’s bottom.
Being able to control your body, maintaining jurisdiction over its movements and maneuvers in that weightless, watery world, is key to becoming a good diver, a diver who can spot microorganisms by getting close to coral without touching it.
In the diving community, we all know that big adjustments, adjustments made too quickly or drastically, can have chaotic results. Power inflating your BCD, causing yourself to balloon to the surface, can result in bubbles forming in your blood. Using big, clumsy kicks as you swim along can either damage coral or disturb the visibility.
You can tell the difference between a beginner and pro just by looking at their buoyancy.
Having good buoyancy carries over into our lives. You can tell the beginners from the pros just by looking at how they move through life.
Making small, intentional movements brings about a sort of self-awareness that you can’t achieve with those big, drastic changes.
Think of it as biting off more than you can chew. If you make too many big changes all at once, how will you ever figure out which variables yield your desired results? In this giant experiment we call life, how can we determine what changes are the good ones and which ones are the bad if we’re combining them all together?
I won’t pretend to have never made this mistake before. Sometimes there are days where the world feels like it’s crashing down around me, and the only thing I can do to counteract its destruction is to lay in bed and watch it crumble.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; I, overwhelmed, tried to make too many changes happen all at once.
But then I remember the thing about making small adjustments: try this today, try something else tomorrow, find what works to bring myself out of that crashing, crumbling place.
Minimizing your movements, ceasing those attempted overcompensations, brings about self-awareness: I did this and it made me feel this way, I did that and this is what happened because of it. I flicked my left fin, inhaled, and avoided an approaching sponge coral. I wrote my thoughts down and found the motivation to keep putting my fingers to the keyboard.
This is a secret to moving through life: small adjustments, acting with intention, understanding what actions and thoughts make you feel certain ways. It’s all a process of trial and error, moving your weights, diving and practicing as much as you can, getting better with each new discovery.
4. Communicate with Proper Hand Signals
The inability to talk underwater is one of my favorite things about diving. I’ve coined it a shared solitude, swimming there in that subsurface world, completely alone with your thoughts but aided by the comfort of dive buddies only a few feet away.
We all learn the universal hand signals: thumbs up means “I want to go up”, thumbs down means “lets dive deeper”, two fingers to the other hand’s palm is asking “how much air do you have”, and the thumb and pointer making an O with the other three fingers released is a question and an answer: “Are you okay?” and “yes, I’m okay”. Wobbling a flat hand from side to side means “I’ve got a problem”, and a shaking shaka is that trademark sign for something cool.
The main thing here is that communication is key. In an underwater world where your tongue is tied, you have to be able to say what you want with the tools you have. And, even further, as an instructor I’ve had to learn how to read and understand people, not with words, but by how their eyes look behind their masks, sometimes wide and fearful, other times crinkled with a smiling excitement.
I’ve met divers from all around the world. Not everyone speaks the same language and not everyone communicates the same way, but, as soon as we descend, letting that water wash over our heads, our language becomes universal, and being able to understand one another can make or break the dive.
The same is true in our normal lives. Communication is key. I would go as far as to say that almost every major problem, whether that be on an individual, communal, or global scale, is rooted in a conflict of communication.
Sometimes we don’t understand what the other person means. Sometimes we can’t comprehend why someone would say something a certain way. Different words and phrases have different meanings around the globe. Fingertips brought to a point with a rocking palm is one person’s “slow down and give me a minute” while it’s another person’s comically frustrated “what in the world are you doing?”.
Listening to each other, establishing a norm, understanding the root of what someone is saying and the reason why they would be saying it that way is something that has challenged me in my relationships with countless global nomads. We’re all brought up differently, raised to believe different things, but at the end of the day we’re all trying to communicate the same thing: this is me and I just want to be accepted.
Being empathetic and understanding other aspects of communication are vital to finding and providing that acceptance: reading the look in someone’s eyes, interpreting body language, deciphering why someone may be acting a certain way.
We’re all floating along in a sort of shared solitude, alone with our thoughts and interacting with others when we get the chance. But understanding each other, using those agreed upon hand signals and being aware of other cues, makes or breaks our time with each other. In a world where there are many languages and ways of interacting, it’s good to spread that universal connection, a connection growing from compassion, empathy, and kindness.
5. Always Dive with a Buddy
Diving with a buddy is just one of those scuba-rules, an inherent habit that comes with the underwater world. Your buddy is there to help you should you need them: you run out of air, your equipment malfunctions, you see something incredible that no one else will believe unless you have a witness.
Your buddy is there to hold you accountable, to encourage you, to calm you down should panic arise. A good buddy thinks not only of themselves, but of their counterpart as well. Your dive buddy could be a stranger you’ve just met on the boat or a lifelong friend with whom you share a passion.
You and your buddy enter the ocean on each other’s terms, agreeing on a dive plan, understanding that while each person is responsible for himself, they are also there to lend a helping hand. You share the dive together, exit the water together, drifting along in a sort of dependent independency.
Going through life without a buddy, without someone with whom you can communicate, without someone to be there should you need them, is not an ideal way of life.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with being alone. I think being alone is important in order to figure out who you are. We need to be able to be alone with ourselves, to love ourselves independent of others, in order to make ourselves happy.
But there’s something to be said for having a shoulder to lean on, an ear that listens to you, a heart that beats more soundly knowing that your heart is beating too. We can’t isolate ourselves too much, closing ourselves off from the rest of the world. We thrive on connection, on acceptance, on belonging to something bigger than ourselves.
In this big old adventure we call life, swimming alone can get, well, lonely. There is too much that can be shared, too many things to experience, too much that is beautiful to only see with one set of eyes.
You and your buddy, whether they’re a partner, parent, or best friend, can allow each other to appreciate the solitude found in our world while remaining there for each other should you need one another. The world has a way of throwing curveballs at us, and its comforting to know that your buddy will be there, or will need you too, when one of those curveballs hits just a little too close.
6. Slow Down
Recreational scuba diving is a sport that makes the hearts belonging to those lazy, relaxed souls skip a beat. The primary purpose of moving on a dive is to do so slowly and purposefully, carefully creeping along a coral reef, checking cracks and crevices for hiding creatures, peering under outcroppings, peeking into promising holes.
The more slowly you move, the more you are likely to see. The diver who surfaces after their planned bottom time has lapsed, complaining of not seeing anything, is likely the diver who moved too quickly.
There is no telling what kinds of alien-like life forms are lurking in the lush shelters of vibrant reefs. Many are minuscule or camouflaged, only visible to the trained eye of a curious scuba diver.
Frogfish, indistinguishable from their surrounding sponge coral, perch in place, their moving eyes the only indication of their presence.
Sea goddesses, impossibly ornamented sorts of nudibranchs, edges ruffled, slowly slink along, hidden gems that appear for a moment before their paths take them out of sight.
Gaudy crown crabs and squatting anemone shrimp reveal themselves, brightly colored patterns of bulbous, yellow circles highlighted with rings of electric blue, on display for the watchful eye, before they retreat into their shelters.
The marine world is an interesting, astounding, captivating place where no two dives are the same, and no two dives will yield the same sights. The experienced diver knows that careful observation is the secret to uncovering the treasures, both big and small, that the ocean has to offer.
I grew up in the States, where everything is immediate and fast paced and needs to happen as soon as possible. I grew up in a world where no one taught me to slow down, they only told me to pick up the pace because I needed to keep up with everyone else, and I didn’t want to get left in the dust, did I?
Now I live on an island, and I go scuba diving most days, where, if I want to have an enjoyable time underwater, I have to move slowly, forcing myself to relax and absorb what’s around me. I have to take the time to pay attention to details, looking where there appears to be nothing, because there’s probably something incredible hiding just out of reach of a regular passing glance.
Diving has taught me, for the love of all things beautiful, to slow down and appreciate the environment I’m in. It’s taught me that while everyone else may be rocketing past me, there’s a sacred sort of stunning splendor hiding in a way that most people miss. It’s shown me that stress and pressure should not be my motivating factors, rather the reasons behind my actions should lie in what interests me. The forces driving me forward are curiosity and inquisition, my motivation propelled not by what lies ahead, but what lies right here, right now, right in front of my eyes if I’ll only take the time to look.
7. The More You Dive, the Less Weight You’ll Need
Your first breaths underwater will most likely be taken with a weight that’s heavier than the weight you need. When we submerge ourselves for the first time, entering that new realm, we’re excited. There’s so much to see, so many new stimuli to respond to, and we tend to breathe in, inhaling with enthusiasm, unable to contain ourselves.
There’s so much to take in that we often forget to exhale, filling our lungs, bringing stubborn buoyancy to our bodies that can only begin to be counteracted by adding a few extra pounds to your weight belt.
But then we adjust, we learn; the novelty wears off and we start to put techniques into practice, controlling our breathing, remembering to exhale when we feel ourselves floating up.
The longer I’ve been diving the more weight around my weight belt I’ve shed. Maybe it’s my body becoming accustomed to being underwater, or perhaps it’s me having learned to control my breathing, making my exhales longer that my inhales.
I’ve made it a goal, like many divers have, to continue dropping my weights – diving with your ideal weight, with no more weight than you need, conserves energy, making your air consumption lighter, your tank last longer.
The more I’ve moved through life, the more I’ve lived, the more weight I’ve begun to shed. Not the weight we put on with food and lack of exercise, but the weight we always seem to carry with us; the heaviness that falls on our chest and shoulders, trying to drag us down when we’re clearly meant to fly.
I think it starts in adolescence and those early teen years when we’re first exposed to all of these new stimuli, new expectations that society has for us to look or act or be a certain way. We take everything in, worried about all the opinions of others, excited and impatient and trying tirelessly to fit into the boxes we think are designed for us.
I’ve seen it in my generation, growing up in this whirlwind of pictures and likes and trying to make yourself appear a certain way. I’ve seen my peers with our heads and bodies full of air, buoyant, trapped at the surface, unable to comfortably descend and uncover where the true beauty lies.
Weight after heavy weight gets added, causing us to sink too fast, draining ourselves faster than we should, leading us to rely on crutches to achieve our neutral buoyancy, our peace of mind: adding more air than should be needed to our BCD, needing those anonymous affirmations from fingers behind a screen.
And then I learned to exhale. I learned to let it go.
I probably still dive and go through life with a bit too much weight, but I’ve gotten better in the process. I’ve learned to rely on myself and my mind, to not worry so, so much about what other people may be thinking, to just do what makes me happy in that moment for as long as I can until it doesn’t make me happy anymore. Take a pound off here, exhale it out, let it drop and become swallowed up by the depths of that big, blue abyss, lost in a current where no one cares.
It takes practice, dedicated and constant and consistent, but the closer I’ve gotten to going through life with my ideal weight, the more peace of mind I’ve achieved. The more we go through life, letting go of the unnecessary, the more comfortable we get in our own skin, and the more we are able to conserve our positivity.
8. Not Every Dive Will Be Breathtaking
My dive computer reads that I’ve spent a collective 251 hours underwater in the last eleven months. That’s nearly ten and a half straight days spent breathing air from a regulator, watching bubbles wobble their way to the surface, and that doesn’t include all of the diving I’ve done before I got this particular computer last December.
During that time, I’ve seen some of the most breathtaking things imaginable.
I’ve seen octopuses, their silky skin oscillating between different colors and textures, changing from a glowing, smooth bluish-white to rough, ragged reddish-brown.
I’ve seen free-swimming moray eels, their slender bodies snaking between breaks in the coral, opening and closing their menacing jaws, their green skin slick and slimy.
I’ve come face to face with spotted eagle rays flying right toward me only to turn at the last second, their white-spotted wings suspended in a lazy glide, their beaked faces displaying what looks like a slothful smile.
The stunning underwater encounters I’ve had are numerous and continue to grow, but for every magnificent moment, there have been even more hours spent in which I’ve seen a lot of the same. That doesn’t mean those dives weren’t beautiful in themselves, rather they just weren’t as noteworthy as others.
It’s true in our lives as well. We become accustomed, getting caught in a routine, following the same dive plans, seeing a lot of the same each and every day.
Not all of the time, but a lot of the time, I think our expectations get the better of us. We wake up wanting our days to look a certain way, thinking that if we do something different it’s going to be the answer that unlocks all of our problems, thinking that every day should be significant.
I live on a little Caribbean island, a perfect, picturesque place that makes it look like I’m living the ultimate lifestyle. And I won’t lie, there are many, many days where Utila takes my breath away. But, amidst the beauty, there are still many, many days where my life feels completely normal.
I still get bored. My job doesn’t make me happy or fulfilled 100% of the time. There are demanding customers, difficult students, and challenging, mundane situations arise every day.
In the same way every dive isn’t incredible, not every day in our lives are going to be incredible. We have to have the ordinary to balance the outstanding. We need monotony in order to appreciate the magnificent.
I’ve learned to let go of my expectations, to let every feeling wash over me, and to not get discouraged by a little boredom or normalcy. It’s okay that not every moment is worth mentioning.
I’ve learned to create a life for myself in which the good outweighs the bad, and, in between the repetitiveness and regularity, I’ve put myself in a place that I can appreciate.
9. You Are an Awkward Creature in an Unfamiliar World
Sea turtles have always seemed slow to me, casual and unencumbered by their surroundings, flapping their flippers, their heavy shells seemingly weighing them down. I’ve swam next to them many times before, drifting along in a languid, leisurely manner, confident that my frog kicks could keep me next to those serene creatures.
Until something startles them and the sea turtle, with an effortless wave, shoots off into the blue, reminding me just how slow and awkward I am in this different world.
The speed with which sea creatures move through the water is astounding. In an instant they can propel themselves against a current, darting across a reef, gone in the blink of an eye, no matter how big and bulky they may seem.
Diving in the ocean allows you to get incredibly close to nature. I haven’t been anywhere else in the world that allows me to get mere inches away from multiple wild animals.
And then, seeing these creatures move in a lightning fast haste, changing direction and whizzing through the water like its less than air, is incredibly humbling; a reminder of just how vulnerable I am in this unearthly environment.
That’s why, as divers, we are taught to treat the marine world with such respect; we are outsiders in an arena that doesn’t belong to us, out of our element, slower than any underwater being no matter how quickly we kick our fins.
It’s the same with traveling, with seeing more and more of the earth, encountering new cultures and leaving tracks in our wake.
Scuba diving has taught me that we’re all just awkward creatures in an unfamiliar place; that you can think you’re comfortable, keeping up with everything, and then, in a snap, something can change. We all have experiences that humble us, that remind us just how vulnerable we are in comparison to the other forces in this world.
We think we have it all together, we think we’re in control, and then the change happens, a movement so fast that it occurs in the blink of an eye: a destructive hurricane hits, an earthquake splits the ground at its seams, fires rip through forests and suburbs, burning and breaking and turning buildings to ash.
Which is why I’ve learned that we need to treat our world with respect, acting in our lives with the knowledge that anything can change in an instant. I’ve become more conscious of my habits, trying to limit the waste I produce, trying to step more lightly through life, leaving less of a footprint behind.
It’s a work in progress and some habits are harder to break than others, but I always try to act with respect, whether it be towards new places or new people or new possibilities I encounter along the way. I always try to act with the knowledge that I am incredibly small and slow in the grand scheme of things, and that the world, bigger and mightier than all of the human forces, has its ways of restoring balance and righting wrongs.
10. Always Do a Safety Stop, Even if it’s Not Required
We do a safety stop at the end of every dive, spending 3 minutes at 5 meters or 15 feet, allowing excess nitrogen to begin dissolving from our tissues. Research and the Recreational Dive Planner (RDP) exhibit that a safety stop is not always necessary or required, but we always do one because it’s a good diving habit to be in.
Depending on where you’re diving, your safety stop may be a continuation of the dive, swimming around the shallows for those last few minutes before ascending to the surface. Or, you may spend your safety stop hovering in the blue, practicing fin kicks or blowing bubble rings, finding entertainment in those last breaths beneath the waves.
In life, I look at our safety stops as moments to ourselves. A few minutes each day where we can allow ourselves to decompress, off-gassing the stresses and pressures that have built up throughout the day.
I take my safety stops as a morning run, sitting down for afternoon tea (mate), or reading a book before I go to sleep. I take my safety stops as yoga classes, writing my thoughts out on a page, or going for a sunset swim. I take my safety stops as precious moments to myself, a chance to reflect and relax before ascending to what’s required of me the following day.
Taking those moments each day, those 3 minutes or however long you feel you need, is an opportunity to get into a good habit, a habit that is only beneficial to your wellbeing.
It may not always be required, but getting into the practice of doing something for yourself, creating a habit that allows you to have that time to unwind, to relax and reflect and release all that you’ve been holding onto, is valuable in our immense vulnerability to the harsh ways of the world.
It may not always be required, but those three minutes are what I would most highly recommend.
All in all, I could make this list stretch on endlessly, flowing as steadily and surely as the vast ocean. I’ve learned so much from scuba diving, from becoming an instructor, introducing people to a new world, and from experiencing that world more and more myself. Each day I try to better myself, reminding myself of the greater goals that I want to achieve. I remind myself that if there’s ever a day where I’m feeling overwhelmed, I need only to return to the ocean that’s taught me so much and be on the lookout for another lesson she’s trying to impart on me.
Photo by Shantal Amszynowski. Follow her at shantal_underwater_photo