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“I’d vowed never to go in the ocean – until I faced my aquaphobia head on”

Over 14% of adults in the UK suffer from a fear of water. Here, writer Abigail Beall explains how she overcame a lifelong fear of the sea to become a qualified scuba diver with nearly 100 dives under her belt.

It’s 2003. I’m 11 years old, in Greece with my family, and I’m standing on a beautiful boat in the middle of a glorious ocean on a sunny day. It’s perfect, and I’m crying.

On a day trip off the coast of Alonissos, I had plucked up the courage to walk to the end of the diving board. All my family had jumped into the sea without hesitation – but as I stood there, I knew I couldn’t do it. The idea of being in the water left me so frightened that I couldn’t move, and I started to cry.

With wobbly legs, I made the walk of shame back off the board and onto the boat, passing the queue of kids who had been taunting me to jump. They were laughing. I vowed never to go in the ocean after that.

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I can’t put my finger on exactly when my fear of the sea started. I was a scared child, frightened of a lot of things, but the sea was a big one. For as long as I can remember, being in the ocean without being able to put my feet on the floor made me panic. I hated not knowing what was beneath me, and being unable to see all around me.

I’m not the only one. Here in the UK, 14% of adults suffer from a condition called aquaphobia, which is a fear of water. Research from the Royal Lifesaving Society UK reveals that a third (33%) of us know someone with a fear of water, with one in four adults being scared to try any type of swimming.

Years after the incident in Greece, I decided that it was time to give the sea another chance. I managed to swim for only a few moments before a jellyfish stung me. Through the pain, I was secretly happy. I did not belong in the sea, and the red mark on my wrist was proof.

the-sea
Aquaphobia: Abigail spent most of her life avoiding the sea

For almost 10 more years I was content to stay on land. Then last year, my boyfriend Joel and I decided to take a year out from our jobs to explore the world. As we planned our trip around Asia, Joel kept casually mentioning the idea of scuba diving, in passing. 

“I think I’d like to try it” he would say. “I’m not really a sea person,” I’d reply, “but I might give it a go.” In the back of my head a voice was saying, you know that will not be happening.

In February, our travels took us to Sri Lanka. I agreed to a taster diving session, just to be able to say I’d shown willing and given it a go. After a quick introduction to all the equipment, we were taken into the sea to complete a couple of tasks. While diving, water can leak into your mask, so it’s important to learn how to get rid of it. To do this, you take a breath in with your mouth, then look up and breathe out through your nose, forcing the air out.

When I had finally submerged my head low enough into the sea for the water to touch my nose, wearing the regulator that scuba divers use to breathe underwater, I found I had lost the ability to breathe. I could not compute the idea that my mouth could still take air in while wearing the equipment on my face. All my usual fears of the sea came rushing back to me and I panicked. This is a really common experience. For a lot of people, it just takes a little practice to get over. But the man in charge of our taster experience was not in the mood to let me practice. Ignoring my fear, he took us diving anyway. 

We started descending into the murky depths of the sea while holding onto a line in the water and I panicked. What would happen if I was 12 metres deep and water came into my mask? I made the divemaster take us back up and take Joel on the dive without me. My relationship with diving was over.

I stayed at our guest house and worked while Joel completed his first two diving courses (open water and advanced) within a week, falling quickly in love with the ocean.

We moved on from Sri Lanka, and we visited places where diving is not so popular or cheap; Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and New Zealand. Joel had a break from diving for a few months, but he never stopped talking about how great it was. I knew diving was going to be a big part of where we spent the next few months, and I wanted to share the experience with my boyfriend. After meeting a couple who enthusiastically recommended a diving school in The Philippines, I decided to give it another go when we arrived in July.

This time, with an incredible and patient teacher called Walter, I managed to clear my mask. It took around five or six attempts, sure, but I did it. Then, I learned how to remove the mask completely and put it back on. These skills, combined with practise dives, were enough for me to train to become a qualified diver and complete my first course. 

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Scuba diving: Abigail glides past fish in Koh Tao, Thailand

It didn’t stop there. On my first dive after qualifying, I swam with thresher sharks, 30 metres deep. One of the amazing creatures swam directly towards me and I was not scared. Actually, I enjoyed the experience.

Joel and I went on to complete a course in rescue diving, and after living in Indonesia for two months we both became PADI Divemasters.

I didn’t realise how far I had come until I was on a sunrise dive off the coast of Bali. We were exploring a shipwreck, the USAT Liberty. As we descended, I had problems with one of my ears – it was difficult to equalise the pressure and it felt quite painful. Throughout the dive, my mask leaked water and I had to keep clearing it. These two problems that would have completely scared me at the start of the year did not phase me at all.

Then, at the end of the dive we heard a deafeningly loud, low-pitched noise. For about a minute, on and off, I could feel the vibrations going through my body. I was confused. We ended the dive, and it was confirmed to us when we were safely back on shore that we had experienced an underwater earthquake. 

Weirdly, knowing I had been in an underwater earthquake felt great because I had no fear at all. We were not really in danger; the only danger was the shipwreck we were in potentially moving around us, but it was so large this didn’t happen. I knew I had completely got over my fear once and for all – if I could survive an earthquake under water then I could do anything.

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Scuba diving: Abigail and a group dive in the clear waters of Malapascua in the Philippines

Now, I have been on almost 100 dives. I have been diving with manta rays, four different species of sharks, hundreds of mantis shrimps, a blue-ring octopus and even a mola mola (one of the heaviest known bony fishes in the world).

I have seen incredible things under the sea but also the damage that we are causing to the creatures that live there. I’ve witnessed a fish trying to eat a plastic bag, and another one swimming with a spear stuck inside it. Seeing these things has changed the way I think about what I eat, the clothes I buy and the way I live. It’s no exaggeration to say that diving has changed my life.

Before last year, I had no idea that I could overcome a fear that was so deeply embedded in me. My transition from complete fear of the sea to feeling totally comfortable in it was gradual. It crept up on me. Now, I can’t look back. Bring on that 100th dive.

Images: Unsplash, courtesy of author

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