I have a confession to make. I hate open water. Ironic, I know, considering I grew up on an island, and yet it’s true.

Before visiting Thailand in 2011, I would never have described it as a fear, rather a strong dislike. That was before I went snorkelling for the first time, off Koh Phang Nang.

I can remember sitting on the side of the boat, watching everyone else put on the snorkels and masks, and wondering how on Earth they could all be so excited. Why weren’t they nervous? Why was I the only one feeling this way?

My body was rooted to the spot. I wanted to move, but something held me back. My skin felt balmy and cold, despite the sun’s heat. This wasn’t just first-time nerves; I was well and truly petrified.

It’s hard to describe what exactly I was afraid of. The weather was great and I’m a strong swimmer, so I knew I’d be able to handle the current. I knew that the boat wasn’t going anywhere, so it’s not like I’d get lost and stranded in the middle of the ocean (thank you very much, Open Water). And besides, it’s not like we were scuba diving down to the depths of the ocean…

I think what worried me the most was the fear of the unknown. It was the fact that once I jumped into that water, I had no idea what was below me. There could be a whole world of dangerous, mysterious beasties waiting to single me out. Rays. Jellyfish. The dreaded S word.

I knew it was irrational, and that the chances of being stung/bit/thrashed around were minimal, and yet I couldn’t help feeling that once I hit the water, I would just be far, far too exposed for my liking.

That day in Thailand, I forced myself to get off the boat. Not because I was particularly looking forward to the experience, but because I felt pressured.   I didn’t want to be the only one in the group to ‘chicken out’. My strategy was to pretend I was ok, to not let anyone know I was afraid, to just get on with it. On the outside, I appeared calm; inside, I felt like a wailing banshee.

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In a sense, the strategy worked.   I got in the water. I bobbed about for a bit. I even managed to open eyes.   But did I enjoy the experience? Did I heck.

I spent so much time dealing with my anxiety that I barely even noticed the fish swimming around me. As soon I calmed down long enough to master the breathing, a wave would catch me off guard, and I would go back into panic mode, spluttering as I lost the mouthpiece, ripping my mask off without thinking and inhaling vast quantities of sea water up my nose.

Within minutes, I’d had enough, and I swam back to the boat, hiding out of sight until my friends had returned and then feigning excitement as we shared our experiences with each other. Inside, I was torn between feelings of relief and cowardice. I vowed to myself that this would be the first and last time I would ever go snorkelling. It was an ordeal, but I had done it. It could be ticked off the bucket list. I didn’t need to worry about doing it again.

And then we decided to go to Australia.

As anyone who has travelled the East coast of Australia will tell you, it’s impossible to visit without being tempted to see the Great Barrier Reef. It is one of the natural wonders of the world, after all.

As soon as we arrived into Cairns, at the North East tip of the country, it became evident that snorkelling the reef was an opportunity we simply couldn’t turn down – literally, every second shop in town was dedicated to getting tourists out to see the corally wonderland, and the enthusiasm shared by fellow travellers was becoming increasingly hard to ignore. As we flicked through brochure after brochure, the pressure began to mount.

Still uncertain about getting in the water, I began to ask around the reps, hoping to find some alternative trip aimed at wimps such as myself.

“Well sure, you can pay a fortune to go out on a glass bottomed boat.” They would say. “But there’s only one way to really see the reef, and that involves getting your hair wet.”

I did my very best to avoid booking a trip. Poor Stuart must have listened to every excuse in the book:

“This one costs too much.”

“This company has crap reviews.”

“This one goes too far out – I don’t want to spend the day getting sea sick.”

In the end, we settled on a compromise. We would go out to see the reef, but we would go with the cheapest possible company so that if I chickened out last minute, we wouldn’t have wasted a fortune. Rumour had it that the further South you went, the cheaper the excursions became, and so we decided to wait until we got to Mission Beach before booking. This gave me a few extra days to summon the willpower – or so we thought.

Fast forward five days, and there I sat beneath a palm tree on the beautiful Bedarra Island, refusing to move.

In my defence, I had gone out that day fully intending to snorkel. I had strapped on a mask and armed myself with a snorkel. I had wriggled into a stinger suit and waddled about in my flippers. I had even made it in to the sea. And then, just as I was about to lower my head into the water, our guide decided to crack a joke;

“Watch out for those tiger sharks – real bitey this season!”

Joking or not, the damage was done. I tried my best to enjoy the experience, but my willingness to venture more than a few metres from the shore was gone.   The nerves got the better of me.   I headed back to dry land, the sense of failure burning greater than sunburn.

Over the next few days, we kept our adventures to dry land – except, of course, when it came to the pool outside our hostel. Stuart took great care not to mention the reef, and yet still I was riddled with guilt. Every time we sat on the beach, staring out to sea, I became increasingly aware that I, and I alone, was holding us back from what could potentially be one of the best experiences of our lives. Many people would give their front teeth to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and here I was with the opportunity quite literally on my doorstep, not doing anything about it.

By the time we reached Airlie Beach, I knew that this would be my last chance to put my fear to rest. Any further South and we would have reached the end of the Great Barrier Reef. I wasn’t prepared to let anxiety get the better of me just yet, and so I found myself on a boat heading towards the Whitsunday Islands, a fake smile once again plastered upon my face.

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side. So bad was the risk of a cyclone that our trip had nearly been cancelled altogether. It was only at the final moment that we received a call at our hostel to confirm that it was safe to head out. According to the receptionist, he had never seen a person so green.

“Don’t worry love,” he said, sensing my unease. “Those boats will go out in any weather.”

I don’t know whether this made me feel better or worse.

As our boat clambered over the waves, with rain firing from all angles, I looked back towards the town of Airlie and began to wonder if we had made a big mistake. My body was now consumed with the feeling of seasickness, and I began to scan the water, desperately searching for something to focus on.

As if on cue, something large and green emerged from the water, like a great green sea monster rearing its head. Almost as soon as it had appeared, it was gone. Then came another, and another. By now, the whole group was transfixed; we looked up at our guide, desperate to know what these mysterious, mist-strewn shapes could be.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he cried, over the howling gale. “Welcome to the Wetsundays.”

After an hour of circumnavigating the islands, we came to an abrupt halt, and the boat rocked violently to the side as an anchor was thrown over the side. I had been so distracted by my queasiness and by the journey that I had almost forgotten what we had come here to do. As the boxes of snorkelling gear began to emerge on deck, so too did the same, creeping anxiety I had so hoped to suppress.

“It’ll be fine,” Stuart promised, passing me a mask.

I wanted to believe him, and yet as the smell of salty water drifted into my consciousness, I longed to be anywhere but here.

Everything about the moment felt wrong. The weather. The murky conditions. The waves. The fact that we had to listen to a safety briefing about sharks. The fact that this was, as our guide was all-too-happy to point out, a well-known breeding ground for tiger sharks.

I began to stare wildly at a small cut I had on my finger, convinced that somehow this would make me easy fodder. What if the sharks can smell my cut? What if I’m responsible for everybody here getting mauled? I turned to Stuart and suggested that perhaps I was too much of a liability to the group, but he was having none of it.

“You’ll regret it if you don’t come in,” he said, without blinking.

I knew he was right. I also knew that the only alternative to getting in the water now would mean spending an hour on board a very rocky boat with an equally vomitty Chinese lady. It made the decision somewhat easier, I have to say.

As soon as I hit the water, I was consumed by every feeling I had hoped to suppress. My immediate reaction was to panic, and I launched myself towards the ladder of the boat. Unfortunately, my escape route was blocked by a rather sizeable German backside. I was stuck.

“Just get your breathing together and put your face in the water!” Cried Stuart. “It’ll be worth it!”

I could only hope that he was right.

He was.

As soon as I summoned up the courage to open my eyes, I was blown away. In complete contrast to how I was feeling, the scene below was one of complete tranquillity. Fish, of every imaginable shape and colour, occupied the water around us. Some swam in schools, swirling through the waves and creating glistening shapes with their bodies. Others swam by themselves, pirouetting before our faces and zipping past at lightning speed.

We had previously joked about playing game of “Spot the Cast of Finding Nemo Bingo”; now, it seemed that would be a very real possibility. Angel fish, star fish, clown fish, all were present. Coral, as far as the eye could see, lined the sea bed, opening and closing with the gentle rhythms of the current.

I was amazed by how close the fish would come – though, of course, we learned that this was not always a good thing, as a giant jellyfish blobbed itself in front of Stuart’s mask. Despite my previous panic, I found myself to be the one in control as he flapped his arms hopelessly and screamed inaudible expletives through his snorkel.

I even managed to muster a chuckle at his expense – though my merriment was short-lived, after an unfortunate encounter with a rapidly ascending swimmer. FYI, if you will shoot up at me from below, dressed head to toe in grey, you will receive a flipper to the face, and a few choice words too…

Despite the occasional moment of anxiety – which were, of course, completely justifiable – I was amazed by how calm I became in the water. I was so fixated on the beauty of our surroundings that the adrenaline which had once pumped through my veins seemed to make way for a much more pleasing sensation – a sort of meeting point between excited and content.

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Without even realising it, an hour came and went. As we returned to the boat, I found myself grinning from ear to ear, despite the freezing conditions. The happiness I felt in that moment is hard to describe, because it was multi-faceted.

I was happy because of what we had just seen, because we had just experienced a part of the world so beautiful and so rare, and which we as humans could easily spend a lifetime being oblivious to.

I was happy because I had the courage to do something so far out of my comfort zone, because I had pushed myself to overcome a fear and because I had not let anxiety get the better of me.

I was happy because I challenged my own perception of the thing that scared me. Before, I had found open water terrifying because it was something I had never experienced. While I could hardly call myself a marine biologist, I had given myself the chance to see a little part of the underwater world, to gain a little insight into what goes on below the surface. And you know what? It’s pretty awesome.

Mostly though, I was just happy to be back on that bloody boat with four limbs, ten fingers and ten toes.

Did I enjoy the experience? Yes.

Would I do it again…? Watch this space.

sno

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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