Bucket lists can include anything from going to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa before it leans too far and falls, to finally taking the plunge and go bungee jumping, to completely quitting your day job and opening up a bakery of your own. Chances are, they require a certain amount of inner strength and resolve – and a healthy dose of fear – to begin and complete them.
I asked one of my best friends recently what’s on her bucket list. She replied that she didn’t have one. But after thinking more about it, she realized she did have at least one big thing she wanted to tackle that seemed daunting yet exhilarating at the same time. She wants to go on a solo international trip one day. I get it. I’ve done a solo trip to San Francisco before. Our other best friend did a solo trip to Ireland. We learned so much about ourselves on those trips. And we came out of them realizing that we were so much braver and tougher than we’d known. Basically, like us, she wants to see what she’s made of by pushing herself out of her comfort zone.
I think it’s important to have a bucket list. It keeps us dreaming, keeps us striving and keeps us human. Otherwise, we’re just empty shells, mindlessly going through the motions. But what good is a bucket list if you don’t work on checking off those items? You’d always be wondering, “What if?”
My list never stops growing. When I finally “kick the bucket,” I want to be sure I have very few regrets. When my friends and family bite their nails as they hear I’m diving out of a perfectly good airplane or staying in a remote beach village in Southeast Asia, I tell them, “I’d rather die while on some wild adventure than while staying in my safe bubble and just dreaming about it.”
One of my really big bucket list items – that I thought I may never accomplish but I actually did last year (!!!) – was getting my scuba diving certification. I’d always had this image of myself as a fearless woman backpacking around the world, flying my own plane and diving with tropical fish and turtles. Well, accomplishing two out of three of those ain’t bad!
My good friend and travel buddy, Janet, captured the moment in that photo at the beginning of this post. She caught me during one of the several times I was checking how much air I had left in my tank. I never knew how heavy a breather I was until I noticed I was always running the lowest on air among our diving group! So I was constantly checking it to make sure we had enough time to get to the surface before I ran out completely.
Almost immediately after we came back from our backpacking trip to France and Italy, Janet and I agreed that we’d go get our Open Water diving certification together down in the Florida Keys before the end of the year. Our grand plan was to get our certifications in time for our big Summer 2017 trip to Indonesia, where they say the diving is really amazing. The thing about being a traveler is – as I’m sure you know – that once you taste it, like really tasted the adrenaline of true traveling, you’re addicted. You’re still riding that high of your previous trip and immediately want to turn around and start planning your next chance to experience that high.
November 2016 is when we would do it, we said.
After doing some research and reading other divers’ reviews, we booked our certification training sessions with the Islamorada Dive Center. They are a full-service PADI scuba diving resort, where they provide the oxygen tanks, BCDs (buoyancy control devices), masks with snorkels, fins, wetsuits and dive masters as guides/instructors. Their dive masters are experienced, safe, fun and detail-oriented instructors.
We chose the option within the PADI Open Water Diver course where you study and complete the written portion of the requirements online (the Knowledge Development eLearning option, which cost $174 to purchase and download at that time), and you must pass the online assessment before you can do the in-person, physical portion. With this option, you can do the eLearning at your own pace from the comfort of your own home and easily complete the in-person portion over a 3-day weekend. Others choose to do all of it in-person, where they do the Knowledge Development piece in a classroom setting on-site and then go straight to the physical assessment portion of it.
Living in Atlanta and not wanting to take too much time off work, the course with the eLearning option and 3-day weekend down in the Keys was perfect for me. We found cheap plane tickets to fly into Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and then rented a car to drive to Islamorada. Split between me, Janet and our friend Richard – who also had always wanted to get his scuba certification – the entire trip was a bit pricey, but so worth it. You can’t put a price tag on getting a certification of that caliber. To me, the lifetime value of being able to dive all around the world and the amazing, untold future experiences I’d get out of it far outweighed this one-time cost.
We stayed at Amara Cay Resort, which was really close to the dive center, and we paid about $263 each for a total of three nights. The Hertz car we rented, plus gas, came out to $75 each for the whole weekend. I flew Southwest, which was only $195 round trip. The 2-day certification course was $350 total, and that included everything (the cost of the instruction, equipment rental and the trips out in the open water). All in all, that whole endeavor cost me about $1,057, which includes the $174 eLearning download. We planned it far enough in advance and did enough research on expected costs, that I was able to save up for it.
The 2-day course was actually 1 ½-day and looked something like this:
- 8:00 a.m. Check-in
- Go to pool and practice all the skills we learned online (Confined Water Dive)
- Done at pool @ 11:00 or 11:30 a.m.
- Break for lunch
- 12:15 p.m. Check-in again & prep for open water dive/skills test
- Get on boat, go to open water dive sites & begin skills test (total of 2 dives)
- Return by 4:00 p.m.
- 8:00 a.m. Check-in
- Get on boat and finish skills test (2 dives – one to finish skills test, one for recreation)
- Done by 11:30 a.m.
- Get back to land & scuba instructor signs off on official certification!!!
Day 3 was not really included in the package, but it is meant more for relaxing and decompressing – in the most literal sense of the word – since you’re supposed to wait at least 18 hours before you fly on a plane if you just did multiple dives (12 hours if you did just a single dive). Your body needs to adjust to altitude and pressure differences between being underwater and then back on land before you rattle it with yet another altitude and pressure change of being in the air.
Not gonna lie – that course was hard. Then again, nothing worth doing is ever easy. Which is probably why so many people don’t ever execute on their bucket list. During the course, there’s a Confined Water Dive section, where you spend a few hours in a pool, learning the basic diving skills. This is when you start getting used to assisted floating in the water. It threw me for the first ½-hour. Having to breathe through the regulator using only my mouth and not breathing bubbles out my nose was the complete opposite of how I’d always swum. Not only that, we wore wetsuits, which give you some extra buoyancy, and were wearing our BCDs on top of that, which keep you super buoyant. My brain and body were screaming, “No, no, no! This is all wrong!”
And I started freaking out.
I was psyching myself out and wasn’t able to keep my head underwater while breathing through the regulator nor keep my body horizontal. After three or four instances of me surfacing my head, yanking my regulator out of my mouth, pulling my mask off my face and gasping for air, my instructor, Sean, had a “come to Jesus” talk with me.
He said, basically, “Look, you need to get it together. I won’t let anything happen to you. But if you continue to freak out and not keep a level head, you could seriously injure yourself.”
I definitely didn’t want to injure myself. I immediately saw the headline flash before my eyes: “Young woman hyperventilates in 3 feet of water, dies.”
“F- that! That’s not how I’m going down!” I thought to myself.
I pulled myself together, gave myself an inner-monologue-type pep talk and put on my big-girl panties. I also needed to trust that Sean knew what he was doing, and I was in good hands. The internal monologue went something like this:
“I can do this! This is something I’ve wanted to conquer my whole life! I can’t quit now, after just the first skills test! If other people can do this, so can I! Rosie the Riveter says, ‘You can do it!’ I’m no pansy! I’m tough! Show ’em what you’re made of! Heck, show yourself what you’re made of! Alright. LET’S. DO. THIS.”
And yes, all of those exclamation points were necessary because I was talking to myself like I was my own drill sergeant. Sometimes, I am the best drill sergeant for myself. I think my need to prove that I can be just as good as others – my slight competitiveness – is core to my being able to push myself in so many situations and face so many challenges head-on.
Finally, after some rough bouts with a few of the underwater skills tests – removing my mask and putting it back on with my eyes closed, preventing my mask from filling with water and “clearing” it completely from said water – I did it. I passed all the tests without hurting myself or others around me. When we got back to land and back into the dive center, Sean signed my certificate in a moment that felt so surreal. I’m sure it’s a bit like what triathletes feel after they finish their grueling race … on a smaller scale, of course. Haha.
I bought my very first dive log book from the Islamorada Dive Center (and I persuaded Janet and Richard that they should get one, too, to commemorate the occasion). Sean filled out all the details for us to document our very first few dives. I know it’s strange to say, but that moment he finished filling out our first dive logs and signed them for us felt more significant than him issuing us the certificate. Perhaps it’s because seeing those dive logs are almost like battle scars we could show off to the world, to ourselves. Perhaps they’re more concrete proof that we put our certificates to work in real life, instead of just bragging that we got our certificates. Kinda like having a bucket list you tell people about, but it doesn’t mean anything until you’ve started checking those items – one-by-one – off your list.
With my recent Open Water Dive Certification and newfound love for backpacking, I’ve begun conquering the land and sea. Now, it’s just a matter of time until I conquer the air. The pilot’s license is another one of the beasts on my bucket list that I’m unsure if I’ll ever tackle. But then again, that’s how I once felt about my dream of becoming a scuba diver.
Janet, Richard and I also tried out Rainbow Reef Dive Center on Key Largo on our second dive trip in March 2017. PADI recommends taking a refresher course right before your next dive if you haven’t gone diving in more than six months. Janet and I planned the second trip, essentially, as a sort of “refresher” for ourselves, since we knew we would go diving in Indonesia that summer. So, we wanted to feel prepared and not rusty while diving in a foreign country at entirely new dive sites (new to us, at least). The group at Rainbow Reef was also amazing. We found them through other divers’ great reviews. The dive masters who guided us on these dives were super knowledgeable, careful and fun. They made us, especially me (who always seemed to have mask problems), feel very well taken care of and very safe at all times. Everything felt very organized and like a well-oiled machine. Not only that, but their prices seemed a bit less than Islamorada Dive Center, and they offer discounted packages to rent all the equipment at one flat price if you plan to dive multiple days. Additionally, they partner with nearby resorts to offer discounts if you plan to dive with them.