The shark looked 20 feet long. Or maybe that was the length of my excitement.
I had last scuba-dived 20 years before, when I took a resort course in the Florida Keys. Not because I had needed instruction: I’ve been a certified diver since age 28. Rather, because I was a mom trying to keep my 13-year-old son safe while he also took the course.
Fast-forward 20 years. This time I was in the Bahamas taking a resort diving course at Club Med Columbus Isle on San Salvador island, because I needed a refresher and was looking forward to diving all on my own—sans overachieving husband or fledgling son. I had dived the intoxicatingly gin-clear waters of the Bahamas a few times before and knew them to be among the finest bottom-time experiences in the hemisphere.
It takes no prior certification to do a resort PADI Discover course, but because I was already certified, suddenly our instructor, David, appointed me as role model for the three nervous female and one male newbies in my group. Oh great, I’m thinking. Again, I’m the mom.
One of the reasons I had declined opportunities to dive during those intervening years was the anxiety that would start weeks before the dive. I used to call it “butterflies,” but who was I kidding? It didn’t help that my husband was all bravado and “let’s dive deeper” when he accompanied me. And with the passing of years, well butterflies in my stomach had migrated to nightmares in my head.
This time, however, I was determined to yoga-breathe, take my own pace, and not lose sleep. I could not overcome age, but I promised myself I could beat the anxiety of breathing through a tube and trying not to hit bottom or pop back to the top. (Buoyancy had always been a challenge for me.)
I’m not sure if I was soothed or freaked by the fact that the three women who joined my resort course were beyond nervous as we took to the pool following a short classroom session generously mined with the word “relax.”
One woman dropped out after the pool session. I couldn’t blame her. Had I not worn this role-model albatross around my neck, I may have done the same. Again with the neutral buoyancy issues. David added more weights to my already awkward get-up and told me I needed to quickly empty my lungs with each breath. So the yoga-breathing was not exactly working for me.
Because it took the newbies longer than normal to master the five basic skills needed to hit the open water, we postponed our morning 12-foot dive to an afternoon dive with other experienced divers that would take us 45 feet.
That sound you hear is my jack-hammer heart.
On Board: That Sinking Feeling
Down to three women and one guy, we boarded the well-organized scuba catamaran headed to the Telephone Pole dive site in Fernandez Bay. The other two women stressed a bit as David showed us underwater signs for shark, moray eel, and barracuda. That was not my particular panic attack. I loved seeing all of those creatures. I kept telling them (and myself) that this was the payoff for the pool torture: Descending to a silent world of bubbles and becoming one with marine life. Nudging oneself out of one’s comfort zone to experience unknown adventure.
Of course, as role model, I had to be the first of our group to jump in and, because of a brisk current, to drop down 15 feet to a bar that hung from the side of the boat—by myself, as David assisted the others in their plunge and descent.
Eric, our male groupie, came next and settled in next to me with a high five. Then in jumped a 30-something woman who had shown all the signs that she was going to bail. She did. I think I overcame that age thing at the very moment she frantically swam back to the boat.
The final entry, Mo, was another bail candidate in my mind, but we were all so proud of her for working through her panic at the surface and finally joining us at the bar, where my mouth was so dry I was wishing it was that other kind of bar.
Finally we descended to the reef. I pumped fists when I spotted the first reef shark. Colorful wrasses, a plump grouper, schools of triggerfish, a bigger reef shark, and a dainty juvenile spotted drum fish David held in his hand made my anxiety dissolve into the saltwater, assuaged in the sea’s womb that, in the end, felt like a comfort zone all its own.
IF YOU GO:
Where To Stay: Club Med Columbus Isle, 242-331-2000, www.clubmed.us. The main reason visitors go to San Salvador, aka Columbus Isle, is because Columbus purportedly made first landfall here. Club Med is an all-inclusive beach resort with a focus on water sports. Guests typically opt for 7-day packages that include airfare from Miami and start at $1,399 per adult. Note that scuba diving and spa services are not included in that price, but dive packages are available. The Discover Scuba Course costs $135 extra and includes use of all equipment.
Riding Rock Resort & Marina, 242-331-2631 or 800-272-1492, www.ridingrock.com. A more affordable option for diving-obsessed visitors, it too has scuba packages, but also offers a la carte rates starting at $160 a night. Meal plans are also available—a good idea because the island doesn’t have a lot of restaurants, and this one serves good local food.
What to Do: San Salvador boasts gorgeous off-the-radar beaches. Its biggest attraction is Landmark Park, a beach that features a cross in honor of Christopher Columbus along with other monuments. An island tour is a worthwhile half-day activity. Go through Club Med or hire Fernander Tours (242-331-2676) directly. At Club Med, included activities range from a twice-daily snorkel boat excursion and water-skiing to use of kayaks, paddleboards, and sailboats. Add-on activities include bike rentals, jet skiing, and deep-sea fishing.
DISCLOSURE: My trip, stay, and dive adventure were comped by Club Med.