Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Here's a look into my journey to becoming a PADI Divemaster and the emotional hype at the finish line.
I don't think my family ever anticipated me, their girl, born and raised in flatland Illinois, as ever growing up and wanting to be a scuba diver.
But I did...
Growing up I had a fair bit of family that lived in Florida and every time we would visit, I swear it was magic. Going to the beach was such a special feeling for me, and I can remember the excitement I would feel just from seeing palm trees---because that meant we were really in in the tropics!
As I got older, our trips to Florida became scarce. Money wasn't in our favor after a recession had put my dad out of work. Plus with my brother and I playing sports, we had little time to really get away anyhow.
I remember exiting the volleyball gymnasium with my best friend at the time and walking up that slight hill to the parking lot where all the parents waited for their daughters. The sky was a subtle gloomy gray and the sun was just starting to set. It was my mom's turn to pick us up from volleyball. We got in the car and suddenly our high school drama was silenced by mom's choked up voice. My mom proceeded to tell us about the phone call she had just received.
Aunt Lynette, my mom's big sister-- her only sibling was dead.
We never found out the exact cause of death. All we knew was she was scuba diving in the Bahamas with her boyfriend at the time, and according to him she was dead before making it to the surface again.
I never got to have a super close relationship with my Aunt Lynette, being her living in Florida and me in Illinois, but I loved her. And I loved the stories of her my mom would tell me and I loved looking at pictures of her adventures.
When she died, I'm not sure how, but I felt a closeness to her that I couldn't quite explain. Her legacy, and dying doing something she loved-- it was admirable to say the least.
So, I made a vow to myself that I would take on a similar path in life to hers and not let the fear of "what if" stop me from exploring new depths, heights and whatever else in between.
I became an Open Water certified diver almost immediately after my transition from Illinois to Florida. I met a really good friend in that course and we still keep in touch. My first ever open water dive was at 60 feet, the visibility was crap but I remember watching this school of yellow-tail snapper and then suddenly being a part of the school. I was literally swimming with this school of yellow-tail and not just viewing them from a far anymore. I wasn't viewing them in a glass case. I was in the ocean with them, swimming with them, breathing underwater with them---I was one of them in that moment. It was one of the coolest things I'd ever experienced.
After that I was hooked. I needed to dive more!
Unfortunately, college classes, work and a college budget made diving a rarity for me to partake in... I did a lot of free diving and snorkeling with my boyfriend at the time. We'd get out in the water every chance we got.
I didn't want scuba diving to fade out of my life. I remembered the appreciation I had for it and how much it meant to me-- and to Aunt Lynette.
I wanted to continue to further my diving education and skills, so I had my heart set on moving up the latter rungs in the diving community.
The first step was obtaining my Advanced Open Water certification.
Now, I'm sure you're wondering what my family, let alone my mother thought of all this diving. They hated it as you can imagine. But out of everyone vocalizing how scared it made them, my mom, the one who's only sibling died scuba diving, was the quietest. She always prayed for me and my safety, but she knew where my heart was---she gave birth to a fish out of water. Whether she liked it or not, she knew there was no standing in my way. I love her for that.
My boyfriend at the time had also shared this goal of moving forward with diving, so we went at it together. Unfortunately, our work schedules weren't matching up with days we could afford to go diving. So, I took the leap of faith alone. I was nervous, I had never dove without a buddy I trusted, especially my ex, who held my hand underwater and always made me feel safe.
My Advanced course consisted of a deep dive, a wreck dive, reef/fish identification dive and a navigation dive.
I'll never forget the deep dive, my first dive getting back into scuba diving. My instructor and I got to the bottom and I suddenly started to breathe in water through my regulator. I panicked, signalling to him that I had no air. All I could think about was Aunt Lynette in that moment. He gave me his alternate air and tested mine...it was working fine. We determined later that the mouthpiece may not have been secured in my mouth properly and was letting water in.
The rest of the dive I was a little on edge, but that didn't distract me from being in the moment face-to-face with a barracuda, nor did it stop me from swimming through dark tunnels in an impressive shipwreck. All my fears of "what-ifs" aside, I loved being down there and it was as simple as that.
I completed my Advanced certification in the Florida Keys. I did it. Me. Just me.
My journey in diving wasn't about to stop there. As I was working on yachts at the time, I took note that there was a lot of job opportunity for better pay and travel in the industry with a dive master certification under your belt as well. I wanted it.
A friend of mine had told me about Roatan, a barrier island off of Honduras, with some of the world's best scuba diving. Roatan contains the world's second largest barrier reef and even better, you don't need to go offshore to get there. It looked like the perfect place to further my diving career.
When my friend had mentioned Roatan to me, I was just coming down from a long-term relationship, and I was working at sea while trying to get myself back on track. And then it dawned on me, "What the hell else am I doing where I can't go to a beautiful place and be on my own and accomplish something I've always wanted to?" So, I booked my flight, my apartment for a month and purchased new dive gear from the dive shop (Gaspar's Dive Shop) that started it all for me. I was ready to go!
Sun Divers was passed along to me through a friend. They were located just a 3 minute walk from where I was staying and right in West End on the water. It couldn't have been better for what I needed.
My instructors were the sweetest pair, Ana was from Colombia and Nick was from Scotland, they met each other along the way on their own diving journeys. And lucky for me, they were my diving mentors, and more than that, they were my family.
I worked mostly with Nick. Ana had come down with Dengue Fever pretty bad in my early weeks there and was absent from the diving scene for a while.
Nick really became almost like this concerned protective big brother to me. Granted making sure I was diving safe was in his job description, our level of connectivity with each other outside of the text book knowledge was at a deeper level. He was a big bro to me-- the cool, protective, inspirational, role model big bro I never had growing up.
The Rescue Diver course was first before I could start my Dive Master. I completed it in about a week.
"Where's Olmin? He was just there in the water." Olmin was one of Sun Diver's local boat captains and apparently that day he decided to (was told to) go missing in Half Moon Bay. So, I played through the scenario (confused as heck as to why Olmin would go scuba diving alone in the bay) and I suited up in my gear with Nick as we conducted a search and rescue.
Olmin was found (alive) on the sandy bottom at the end of the dock and needless to say, I "saved" his life.
Search patterns, rescue breaths in the water, dragging unconscious divers to shore, safe ascent rates, protocol for missing divers-- these were just SOME of the skill-sets the rescue course entailed. It was a true test in seeing how mentally and physically prepared you could be in a stressful diving situation.
Nick never "took it easy" on me either and I appreciated that so much. After the week of completing my Rescue course, I felt a little nostalgic. I thought of my Aunt Lynette's death and I thought about all the skills I had just learned, and if I had been there with my Aunt that day and knew what I know now-- maybe she'd still be here.
I never told Nick or Ana or the dive shop about my Aunt's unfortunate death. I didn't want to have anyone feeling like they needed to hold my hand through this journey. Although I would have loved to swim freely through the sea while holding hands with Ana on one side and Nick on the other, that's not what I was in Roatan to do. I was there to become a better, self-sufficient and knowledgeable diver. I was working on myself.
I was diving every single day, three to four dives a day and sometimes a fifth if there was a night dive. The visibility was spoiling me. Roatan diving in general was spoiling me. I'd never experienced such vibrancy and liveliness on a coral reef before. Most of the coral reefs I'd dove in the Florida Keys were bleached and crumbled into a mass graveyard of corals. Not Roatan, it was something special.
My DMT (Dive Master Training) was a lot of repetition of skills, assisting Nick in instructing Open Water and refresher courses, leading a couple dives and navigating on my own. It was also A LOT OF LIFTING tanks, a lot is more of an understatement...my arms were jacked from all the tank lifting and carrying I was doing.
I'll never forget my last epic day of training. The "Stress Test." Nick had explained to me what was going to happen underwater: we were going to share one regulator to breathe from and we were going to swap BCD's so that he'd be wearing mine and I in his. There's no real reason for this in a real life scenario, but it definitely added the stress and I think it's more of way to see how you handle stress underwater.
So, we got in the water and it was murky as all hell, Nick pulled my mask off to make it even more stressful, I cleared it and readjusted it over my face. I could feel myself almost suffocating without the reg and signaled to share air... I swear I had just gotten the reg from him when he signaled that he needed air. Such an air hog...It was a challenge, but we did it and it kind of made me feel like a bad-ass afterwards.
Not even 60 seconds had passed when we surfaced from my "Stress Test" and one of our dive boats was returning-- suddenly the dive boat passengers were shouting to me that Ana, me and Nick's Ana, had gone overboard. I looked at Nick. "Really?"
Back at it I went. Nick and I started our search and rescue pattern.
We found Ana together and I brought her to the surface where I began to "perform" in-water safety breaths and quickly towed her to shore while removing gear from her and myself. Once, I got her to shore I gave her two final breaths and dragged her up to flatter ground...I may have slipped and dropped her in the sand when I pulled her up, but we both survived and that's what counts.
The final test was the following evening, the "Snorkel Test." This test is widely recognized in the dive community. It's the finale of the DMT course where the DMT is initiated to DM by chugging alcohol through a snorkel.
I was terrified and so excited for this test. Nick and Ana had hosted my test at their place and I have never felt more love among a group of friends than I did that night. But... maybe it wasn't love? Now that I think of it, maybe they just wanted to see me die from alcohol poisoning? No, that can't be it because I lived.
There was so much delicious food and a whole lot of beverages. I was actually nervous I may have eaten too much. What a show to watch me potentially puke in front of everyone, my stomach's concoction was not going to be a pretty sight.
Thankfully, the Man upstairs heard my prayer and somehow I managed to chug and chug the most unpleasant combination of my friend's wine and beer, and still hold it down. Don't ask me what my secret is, because I honestly don't know.
It was a night to remember, well not all of us remember, but you get the point. More than that though, it was a trip and an adventure that I will always cherish.
I finally had told Nick and Ana about my Aunt. I think they thought I was brave for making it this far, or at least, I thought I was brave. Ana was like a mother hen, she kept me comforted and stayed positive. She really held me in her arms when I told her this truth. But the best part of telling them this history, was that I had already come so far, and I wouldn't have if I didn't have an inspirational person like my Aunt to look up to.
I want people to know that I didn't just make myself this way-- people in my life that have inspired me all along the way have shaped me to achieve dreams and goals I could never even fathom accomplishing alone.
It was an emotional ride getting my Dive Master, but I wouldn't have changed a single thing. I think Aunt Lynette would be proud of me. I feel closer to her every time I get in the water. She's with me, in some way beneath the waves, watching over me and sharing with me the undersea world she fell in love with.