Finding Peace Underwater, featuring Emma Walker
Text: Janina Ryymin
Image: Islay Kilgannon
To breathe underwater is one of the most fascinating and peculiar sensations imaginable. Breathing becomes a rhythmic melody of inhalations and exhalations. The cracks and pops of fish and crustaceans harmonise with the rhythmic chiming of the bubbles as you exhale. Soon, lungs act as bellows, controlling your buoyancy as you achieve weightlessness. As in your dreams, you are flying. Combine these otherworldly stimuli and you surrender completely to the sanctuary of the underwater world. - Ted Clark
Scuba, short for ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’, was developed in the 1950’s, enabling exploration to new depths of the ocean without being inside a vehicle. By carrying compressed air with them on tanks, recreational scuba divers dive between depths of thirty metres to forty. The deepest dive has been at 318 metres, by Nuno Gomes. Divers like Jacques-Yves Cousteau have pushed forward human’s knowledge of the underwater world and its creatures. Often described as meditative, scuba diving is a way of becoming more aware of one’s surroundings and oneself. Diving is a way to experience weightlessness without going to space. However, even with all its positive sides, scuba diving can potentially be dangerous. For example, there is a risk of nitrogen narcosis: the breathing in of an excessive amount of nitrogen. In nitrogen narcosis, the diver becomes intoxicated. Firstly, feeling euphoric, then experiencing impaired judgement and decision making, thus making the state dangerous underwater. Therefore, to dive, one should get certified as an open water diver.
Diving for the first time
In my own experience, scuba diving taught me how to let go of fears and remain still in challenging situations and keep my head cool. The first time I dove, I remember feeling a slight anxiety at the odd sensation of breathing underwater. It felt unnatural. I focused on my breathing and was able to find a centre. The challenge started when we were practising taking off the diving mask and putting it back on underwater. You need to empty out the mask because it will be filled with water from putting the mask back on. Upon doing this, my mask was not fully empty so I inhaled a significant amount of salty seawater through my nose into my lungs. I panicked. As my friend and scuba instructor Emma had told me: even if you become sick, you must cough into the regulator because it will clear out whatever you cough. She grabbed me and gestured that it is okay to cough into the regulator, and that I should remain calm. So, I started coughing water out of my lungs into the regulator, using the breathing apparatus in my mouth. Tears were coming out of my eyes as I coughed the water out. Focusing on my breath wasn’t so easy anymore. Needless to say, the experience was unpleasant. Unluckily, during the same dive - the first time we went deeper - I got cramps in my abdomen. The sensation was abnormal from other stomach aches I had ever had, and I didn't know if this was normal. Again, I tried focusing on my breath to calm down. Why do people do this to themselves? I thought. After consulting Emma I learned that my cramps were period cramps and that I could avoid getting water inside the mask by tying my hair in French braids. Apparently, the strands of hair left a bit of space for water to enter my mask, making me breathe in water. I knew that soon I would have to do the test of taking the mask off and on again. The next day, my final dive to get an Open Water Diver certificate, began. I was afraid of going to the water again but I decided to push forward, let go of my fear by focusing on my breath and simply try to meditate underwater. I tried imagining myself as a manta ray gliding through the water peacefully. My experience was drastically changed and I experienced weightlessness and the almost mysterious soundscape of the ocean.
Going to the depths of diving
The impact these four dives had on my relationship to the ocean and the amount of times I keep going back to those memories, is notable. I wonder to myself, if the impression of such a small amount of dives was worth mentioning, what is it like to dive for a living? I interviewed Emma Waller, my scuba diving instructor friend to find out. Emma became a PADI certified scuba diving guide, enabling her to take divers on trips. She lived in Thailand for some time and worked as a guide. Emma’s love for the ocean was present already when she was younger. As a child, she already had a deep connection with underwater creatures: she even dreamed of having a hammer shark as a pet. Emma’s relationship with the sea grew as her grandparents taught her the ropes of sailing and she developed a great respect for the ocean. When Emma was studying, she decided to do an internship at a diving company in Thailand. This sparked her love for scuba diving. During this time, she also got certified to take others out on diving trips and her relationship with the ocean deepened. Being underwater was always a place of peace for her. Scuba diving requires one to slow down breathing. The best scuba diver is the laziest one, as my own scuba diving instructor used to say. Slowing down the breath is a skill Emma still uses today in order to keep calm and present with her feelings, also on land. The quietness that is present within the stillness of the ocean is another anchor for Emma to keep tranquil while underwater. Despite being in difficult situations, like when diving in a shipwreck with dust covering her vision, Emma has been able to keep balanced by following her senses. These difficult situations were analysed by Hardie-Bick and Penny Bonner as ‘edgework’. They write that ‘edgework is the ability to maintain control over a situation that verges on complete chaos, a situation that most people would regard as completely uncontrollable.’ By controlling oneself in these types of situations, one can have a heightened sense of awareness and a feeling of achievement or self-actualization. Diving heightens the senses because it requires one to be aware of their breath, their surroundings, and their body. Panicking will make you breathe faster, so you must also be aware to avoid erratic thoughts. All these factors contribute to making diving such a unique experience. The silence and the sound of rhythmic breathing with bubbles popping create a soundscape that invites one to focus on their surroundings. For Emma, diving simultaneously evokes love and respect toward the ocean. Yet, she finds the alienness of the ocean sometimes frightening. The ocean is the unknown, as we have only explored and charted 5% of its depths. But more deeply than fear, Emma feels a deep connection for marine animals.
The multi-sensory nature, meaning the wide variety in which scuba diving affects one’s senses, makes diving a unique experience because it makes one more aware of what is happening around them. The alien creatures floating in weightlessness, the slow rhythm of hearing yourself breathe with bubbles popping peacefully and the lack of spoken language: a barrier created by the element of water. Scuba diving is also a form of self-developing, allowing Emma to dive deeper and deeper, challenging herself in further ways. Ultimately, Emma’s journey to the depths has also expanded her understanding of the ocean and its creatures, allowing her to connect with the element of water subjectively and intimately. For me, scuba diving has not only given me a deeper appreciation for the ocean that I can share with others, but it has also taught me to find my centre in the wildest of turmoils above water.