For as long as I can remember, I've had an irrational fear of the ocean, especially deep water. I'm not quite sure why – I can't relate it to any particular experience but I think it's probably just a fear of the unknown.
Or, maybe I've watched Adrift a few too many times.
It's never been a huge obstacle for me – I could still take a trip on a ferry and go swimming on a beach, but the fact that the fear was there has bothered me for some time.
I made an attempt to get over it two years ago when I was in Corfu. A friend at home had challenged me to an ice bucket challenge, so I thought it would be funny to rent a speedboat, sail out into the ocean and have my friend who was with me, push me off the side into the ocean.
However, once we got out, I looked over the side and totally freaked out about what could be lurking beneath, and that was that.
When I was in Thailand over the summer, I decided to take a more structured approach and get to the bottom of my fear for once and all.
On Koh Samui, the crystal blue waters surrounding the island seemed like the least frightening place to do this, so I booked a scuba diving expedition to Koh Tao (a nearby island with corals).
I took an initial one hour training session in a swimming pool to learn how to use the equipment, which put my mind at ease until I was sent home with a leaflet to read, which said things like:
"If you hold your breath, your lungs may rupture"
"If you rise to the surface too quickly, you may get decompression sickness"
"If you don't equalise, you may cause trauma to your inner ears"
Then I had to sign a disclaimer waiving all liability if I died.
Was I worried?
Kinda, but I've learnt over the last few years how to channel my nerves into excitement. I tried not to think about it too much in the days leading up to the dive.
On a blisteringly hot Tuesday morning, I boarded a speedboat with a few fellow divers (who were more experienced than me) and we made the highly nauseating, speedboat trip over to Koh Tao.
I asked my instructor what the chances of bumping into a shark on Koh Tao were, he replied with:
"If we're lucky, we may see one or two"
When we docked the boat just off the coast, the first thing to strike me was how beautifully clear the water was. I could see straight to the bottom.
I geared up with a rashie, a pair of flippers and an oxygen tank and my moment of truth was in front of me.
I stood on the edge of the boat, held my regulator in, pushed my mask against my face and took a big step out and plunged into the ocean before bopping back up to the top.
Jumping off the boat was a little strange, but it was no-where near as bad as I had imagined.
My instructor took me through a recap of the exercises I had learnt in the pool – how to throw away my regulator (oxygen supply) underwater and retrieve it, how to clear my mask and how to equalise my sinuses, then it was time to go down.
The initial descent was quite painless but I was struck by a strange feeling of discomfort. The combination of being able to breath underwater, coupled with the thought of anything going wrong and you're completely screwed is a very strange feeling.
You really have to be able to keep your cool underwater and avoid freaking out or panicking.
And keep my cool, I did not.
My mask was filling up with water, so I tipped it forward, flooded it and tried to breath out through my nose to clear it. However, trying to breath out through your nose while sequentially breathing in through your mouth is actually quite difficult, so I accidentally breathed out through my mouth and in through my nose.
My mask flooded with water and shot up my nose. I started choking and swallowing salt water then completely freaked out because I couldn't breathe, see properly, or get the water out of my mouth.
My instructor tried to calm me down but all I wanted to do was rise back to the surface.
It was a little embarrassing and it didn't really instil me with confidence for the rest of the dive.
Still, I tried not to dwell on it and went straight back down.
The rest of the dive and the second dive went pretty smoothly (although I was afraid to mess with my mask too much).
Being submerged in the ocean wasn't actually as scary as I thought, in fact it was a beautiful experience.
I swam amidst the most incredible schools of tropical fish along the coral reef and seen pieces of ship wrecks on the ocean floor. I didn't see any sharks, but I kind of wish I had now.
The Coral of the Story
Getting over your fears can be tough, but the only way to do it is to face them head on and dive in at the deep end. Put yourself in a position where you're forced to face your fear and you can't back out.
It may be uncomfortable as hell, but you'll either learn that what you're afraid of is not actually that bad, or that it is – but you're no longer afraid of it.
Am I completely cured of my fear? Not at all. I still have reservations about jumping off a boat in the middle of the ocean, or jumping into the manky waters in the UK, but over time if I continue to dive, then it will become less frightening each time.
If you haven't been scuba diving, add it to your bucket list! :-)