Go on a night dive with Manta Rays in Hawaii? Check.

My mantra about coexisting peacefully with sea creatures goes like this: “I do not look like food to anything underwater. I do not look like food to anything underwater.” Comforting because it’s true. Except that the day before this dive I was bitten by a Humuhumunukunuku’puaa, which is Hawaii’s national fish. It super-bit me and made me bleed, presumably because I was hanging out over its turf. Sorry Humuhumunukunuku’puaa, my bad. And thank you for the reminder that sometimes animals bite you precisely because they don’t recognize you. Thank you for that reminder mere hours before I got in the water with fish the size of houses:

The dive did not go as expected.

I got open-water certified about eight months ago for my birthday, but I haven’t been diving since, so I was eager to get back in the water. A while ago, Liz Stanley posted about her night dive with Manta Rays in Hawaii, and I added it to my Life List without knowing much about it. I booked the dive, and then watched the creepy Skeletor video.

So I was a little hesitant, but by the time I got on the boat I was downright uneasy. Eight months between dives is a long time for a newbie. I didn’t remember much about my equipment, and I was going by myself, so I wouldn’t know my dive buddy. Plus, I’d never been on a night dive, but I’d heard there’s darkness involved. The only thing more vast than the sea is darkness. Everyone knows monsters like to hang out in the dark and in the sea. That’s Monsters 101.

The boat ride was gorgeous and we waited aboard for sunset. We were given dive lights, and told that we would sit on the bottom shining our lights upward, while snorkelers floated above shining their lights down. The mantas swim in large looping arcs in the space between, doing backflips to scoop up the plankton that’s attracted to all that light.

I was introduced to my dive partner, Chris, a few minutes before we jumped in the water. She was an affable Australian, and because I find Australians and their mortality-awareness comforting, I took this as an auspicious sign.

Then the wind picked up.

The water was bashing against the shore and shooting spray into the air when the dive master lined us up. We jumped in to the choppy water, and suffice it to say I was not chill. I was unsure of myself already, and the rough water only made me more anxious. There was a slight drag on my air line, which made my panicky breaths more arduous, and surprise! It was dark.

There was a strong current underwater that I’d never experienced before, sort of like swimming upstream in a river. When we got down to the bottom, we were supposed to settle into a seated position to shine our lights upward, but the current made it tough to stay in one place. The dive master showed us how to hug a rock underwater, but several of us weren’t strong enough to hold on.

I was freaked out, getting knocked around by the current, battling to find a means of staying put without cutting my hands on the rock or bashing my tank into the reef. At one point the dive master approached me a wrote on his slate, “Lay down better.” Pro tip, dive master. I refrained from flashing him the most unequivocal of hand signals. Mostly because I was using my hands to hold on to a rock under which something bitey was surely sequestered.

In the midst of all the struggling, I managed to look up a few times to see the rays swooping through beams of light and the bubbles floating up from our respirators. Those few moments were breathtaking — so alien and peaceful. But after a few minutes the dive master signaled that we should surface because the situation underwater was too rough. He apologized for not being better able to control the sea, then offered us a chance to snorkel, because at this point the surface had calmed.

We climbed back in, and that was when everything went magic. The water was glowing from all the light, and the Mantas were huge swooping shadows cutting through the beams. One of the rays started backflipping, circling closer to me each time he looped upward. I was sure he would touch me, I could feel the water washing against me from his wings and I couldn’t stop laughing.

I laughed every time he approached, and my mask would fill with water. I’d clear the mask just as he was looping up again, and then I’d laugh and my mask would fill.

Gorgeous. Do this, my friends. It will make you happy.

Lifelist: Go Scuba diving? Check.

Oh, I’m sorry. Is this air tank turning you on? As an open water–certified, international woman of mystery I find people have trouble controlling themselves when my fins are in play.

And if the mere sight of me in Heidi braids gets you hot and bothered, meet Lesta, the world’s dreamiest Dive Master:

I know, right? Lesta, the Internet is ogling you. Do something Dive Master-y.

Yeah. That’s working for us.

As I’ve mentioned, deciding to get certified was spur of the moment. Over the years, I’ve found there’s never enough time to do the things on your Life List if you don’t just shoe horn them in. So when an opportunity arises to check something off, I try to say yes, even if it seems inconvenient at first. (Like, say, you need to arrange child care for a week, buy an international plane ticket, and take several hours of classes in the next eight days, but you’re also hosting a conference two weeks after your return. For example.)

The week before my flight, I studied for my written test.

Then I did a little time in the pool at Bamboo Reef in San Francisco.

When I arrived on the island, I had a universal referral form that let me complete my open water certification there, so Lesta took me and Geri-Ayn out diving where I ran some skill drills.

I practiced putting my equipment together.

I learned how to take my fins off in the water without knocking my teeth against the boat ladder.

And I filled my scuba mask with water over, and over, and over again until the inside of my nose was aflame, and my eyes stung with brine, and I could taste tin in my mouth from the panic. Then instead of lunging for the surface and screaming that Lesta was trying to drown me, I blew the water out of my mask, breathed deeply, and refrained from attacking him while adrenaline coursed through my veins.

Aside from mask clears, scuba diving is one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever done. People at the resort kept asking me what I saw on my dives, and the question still confuses me. I saw the ocean! From underneath! And I was breathing!

The thought of it still makes me feel little.

If you’re ever diving in St. Lucia, I can’t recommend Lesta’s services more highly. He works at Ti Kaye resort and you don’t have to stay there to dive with them, so just give a call and they’ll help you.

More of my posts on Scuba diving:

More photos of my trip
Lifelist: Learning to Scuba Dive
On Fear and Scuba Diving

On Fear and Scuba Diving

I’m not sure how I got here.

As a kid, I refused any activity that could hurt me. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was nine. I refused to leave the steps of our backyard pool until my big sister essentially insisted that I learn to swim before she’d let me out of the water. At the time I was convinced that she didn’t grasp the concept of drowning. Why couldn’t I just go read on the patio? No one ever died of reading. This might also be true of kickball, but even as an adult I remain dubious.

The first time I tried snorkeling, I hated it. Nothing like inhaling salt water unexpectedly while 300 fish crowd around your face mask and your legs are shredded by coral! Hey sharks, I hear you can smell a drop of blood in the water from a zillion miles away! Come and get it while I’m blinded by these tropical fish!

The second time I snorkeled, I was on the Great Barrier Reef, where I hated snorkeling for eight hours straight. When I turned thirty, I went to Belize and thought I’d finally gotten the hang of it. It was amazing, until our guide unexpectedly chummed the water for sharks. That was one of the first times I decided my overactive risk-o-meter wasn’t useful anymore. As I watched everyone leave the boat for a front-row view of the feeding frenzy, I realized it was time to jump.

Since then, I’ve learned to roll in a kayak, jumped off the top of a redwood tree, and went on a surprisingly adrenal dog sledding adventure. And last week, I got my open water scuba certification.

The more I do these things, the more I realize I just have to shut my eyes and jump. We’re afraid of the unknown, and once it becomes rote it isn’t scary anymore. The process of turning fear into comfort is all about familiarity. This is true of adventures, of travel, and of each other.

Tomorrow, let’s talk about scuba diving. I think you should try it.

Lifelist: Learning to Scuba Dive

Things of which I have been afraid in the last few days:

  • Water filling my snorkel mask, and I drown.
  • Water somehow getting into my air tank, and then I drown.
  • Old-timey sailor sea-zombies pulling me to a watery grave.
  • I resurface too quickly and my lungs explode like a pair of mating puffer fish on a line.
  • Sharks.

Awestruck moments in the last few days:

  • I can breathe underwater.
  • Everything is so blue.
  • CHOOO-KAAAHH… CHOOO-KAAHH… This is what Darth Vader sounds like when he breathes under the motherf***ing water.
  • This is just like a flying dream.
  • I am a bionic turbo-mutant (half woman! half machine!) who defies the laws of physics with my awesome breathing powers!!
  • No one can reach me by phone.

So far, I’ve only practiced in the pool, but right now I’m on a flight to St. Lucia where I’m getting my Open Water Dive Certification for my birthday. I decided to get certified and take the trip about seven days ago, when a girlfriend said, “Do you want to go diving with me in St. Lucia?” And then I said, “Yes.”

For the record, I am also afraid of zombie sharks.