Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to dive.
Until one night when her buddy left her. Alone. In the dark.
And despite the fact that she made it to the surface safely, shaken but unhurt, the girl never dived again.
Fear is a funny old thing. Because even though I can vividly remember that night seven years ago in Thailand - the panic I felt as I flashed my torch on and off to signal there was a problem; the cramp which began in my foot and made me want to race to the surface, regardless of the necessary safety stops; and finally reaching the top, coughing and spluttering, half crying with fear and relief - it never occurred to me that I would be afraid to dive again. Over the years I've always maintained that I love diving. I never even acknowledged the times I made excuses not to do it - last year in Colombia for example, I told myself the visibility wasn't good enough. Even here in the Poor Knight's Islands, which is supposed to be the best dive site in New Zealand, I nearly talked myself out of it, reasoning that I'd be going to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia later on my trip. But after hearing stories from other divers I decided I had to do it.
It was only as I was in the dive shop, picking up my equipment that I first thought "I don't want to do this". I was actually kind of surprised by the thought and I quickly tried to put it out of my head. But as we boarded the boat and started to check our kit I could feel my panic growing. I'd signed up for a refresher course and as we were travelling to our first dive site our instructor Kate went over the basics with us. Even though it all came back to me easily, I just couldn't let go of the fear. I kept imagining what it would be like to be under the water again and to be honest I wasn't sure whether I could do it.
I thought I'd better explain the situation to Kate before we got into the sea, just in case I did panic. But as I calmly tried to explain what had happened to her I actually burst into tears, which was very embarrassing for everyone concerned (as many of you who have witnessed one of my weepy moments will know). Luckily Kate was lovely and very reassuring and, as she was going to be my buddy, she promised she wouldn't leave me.
The first thing we had to do when we arrived at the site was to put all of our equipment on. Diving in cold water is so different to the warm temperatures I've always dived in before and our buoyancy would be totally different, which meant I had to wear 9kgs of weights on my weight belt just to make sure I could actually descend and, once again, struggle into an extremely thick/unflattering wetsuit (I feel like this is becoming a bit of a theme on my trip.)
Before I stepped off the edge of the boat I kept repeating the mantra my mum has always said to my sister and I when we're worried or nervous about something: "You can do it. You can do it." And as I landed in the water and we started going over the skills - what to do if your mask fills with water and how to share your oxygen with your buddy in an emergency - I realised that yes, I could do it.
Obviously I wasn't perfect and I discovered that I panic much more quickly now if there's even a hint of a problem. So there was a lot of reminding myself to stay calm and remembering to keep breathing (one of the most important rules of diving is never to hold your breath).
But by taking the plunge and facing my fear I was rewarded with the most amazing dive. To put into words what it is like down there is impossible, but when it's described as one of the best dive sites in the world, it's no exaggeration. The seabed was an underwater forest of kelp, which was constantly moving back and forth with the currents, which made you feel as though you were in a totally different world. Huge fish swam by, completely uninterested in our attempts to be graceful under water, and schools of tiny fish darted past us as they tried not to become lunch for the bigger ones which followed.
The dive flew by and I couldn't believe it when it was time to ascend. Then it was just a matter of trying to hold down my lunch while we sailed to the second dive point. Luckily, for once, I didn't feel too ill. But one couple did not have the most romantic start to their honeymoon as they spent the whole time throwing up.
Before we began our next dive Kate told us it would include going into a cave. The thought of being in the dark wasn't too appealing but there wasn't too much time to worry about it. The second dive site was completely different to the first, with a sandy seabed and a rocky wall inhabited by sea creatures. We saw tiny eggs, camouflaged fish and eels. In the cave (which was a lot less scary than it had sounded) fish looked at us in surprise as we entered their dark hiding place. It really was amazing.
I know I would have had to get back in the water at some point - the Great Barrier Reef is on my 30b430 list after all - but it feels nice to have done it early on in my trip and I'm hoping the more diving I do it, the more my confidence will grow.
And so, after facing her fear (with the help of a few words of wisdom from her mum), the girl learnt how to love how to dive again.