Studying abroad. If you’ve done it, you know how amazing and life-changing it can be. If you haven’t done it, you should. During winter session, I participated in a month-long marine science study abroad program in the Cayman Islands. We stayed at a research institute on the beach on Little Cayman Island. When I say, “on the beach,” I mean, I took five steps off the back-porch steps and I was in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. Little Cayman is tiny. It is only ten miles east to west and one mile north to south. There are more iguanas (2,000) than humans (200) on this island. Unlike some of my peers, I was actually excited about this aspect of the trip. I am a big nature buff so I was looking forward to the relatively untouched wild. I took two classes over the course of the month: field studies of coral reef environments and scientific diving. The trip was absolutely amazing, but I didn’t think it was going to be.
When I first applied for the program, I was so excited. I heard about the trip while I was still in high school because my friend went on it a few years ago. As soon as she told me about her experiences, I knew I just had to go. Now all I had to do was get into the University of Delaware, apply and get accepted to the program, and get SCUBA certified. Easy, right? Wrong. The first two steps were fairly simple and straightforward. But the SCUBA certification presented some unforeseen challenges.
I took the SCUBA class offered at UD. Everything was fine during class. I thoroughly enjoyed diving in the Little Bob’s 13-foot diving well. And I thought I was going to enjoy my certification dives. It was my first chance to finally get into some open water and do this thing for real. Fast forward to the 40-degree, rainy, windy, sunless weekend in May at a quarry with incredibly low visibility and 50-degree water. Then there’s me wearing heavy gear on my back and so many layers of neoprene that I can barely walk as I trek up and down a steep hill to get to and from the frigid, murky water. I’m already nervous about having my lungs explode because I forget to keep breathing on the ascent. There’s also the possibility of getting paralyzing decompression sickness because I went too deep and came up too fast (aka “The Bends” or “getting bent”). And now there are all of these terrible conditions on top of that, not to mention that I was underweighted and having a hard time sinking. Surprisingly, this is quite an annoying problem to have while diving. But alas, I push through it. After two days, four dives, losing one contact lens, and having to do my last dive half blind in five-foot visibility, I was certified and all ready for my trip to the islands.
I thought the fear was over. I was wrong. For a while after being accepted to the program, it was all excitement, bragging, and dreaming of the warm days and cool critters. Then, I started thinking about all of the things I had to do to actually get there. There was the packing puzzle, gathering an absurd number of documents, and calling the bank about my credit cards, just to name a few. I had never been out of the country like this before. I went to Costa Rica for nine days when I was in high school, but we flew as a group, everything was planned out for us minute-by-minute, and we were never without a teacher. This was different. I was flying out of the country by myself and I was going to be away from my family for a whole month. Considering I went to college 15 minutes away from my house, this is something I had never done before. Plus, all of my SCUBA fears were resurfacing (pardon the pun). I was definitely going to get bent and die or run out of air 100 feet down and die or get eaten by a shark and die – I was OK with the last one because that would be a cool way to go. Let’s just say the certification dives did not placate my misgivings about SCUBA diving, but rather exacerbated my fears and even created some new ones. Yay. So now it’s two months, one month, three weeks, two days before I leave and I am absolutely freaking out. I scream at my family that I am no longer going on the trip, as I frantically run around with tears streaming down my face, trying to pack everything I need into two bags with a combined weight of 55 pounds (yeah, that was interesting). I was simply not going. It was too much stress and effort to be worth it. They all just rolled their eyes, knowing I was being melodramatic.
But once again, I was wrong. It was worth it. It truly was the experience of a lifetime. Now, I am not saying that it was all bliss and island relaxation as soon as I got there. “I’ll get there, see the water, sit on the beach, and be fine,” I said to everyone after telling them I was extremely nervous. (I did this mostly to convince myself more than anything.) Again, wrong. It was rough for the first week and a half. I was homesick, getting used to the food, cold showers, and bathrooms (which were composting, i.e. no indoor plumbing, i.e. holes that led to the dark abyss of nothingness and were thoroughly terrifying at night as the wind howled through them, making a noise similar to what I can only imagine was the last noise the victims of the harpies heard before they were whisked away to their doom). And then there was the diving. Yes, I was still panicking about diving. The first dive we did was a check-out dive. The SCUBA instructor from the research institute needed to dive with us and have us perform certain skills to ensure we were ready for our scientific diving training. One of these lovely skills was the dreaded mask removal. Yes, we had to fully remove our masks underwater and then put them back on underwater. Forty feet below. And this wasn’t the first time either. This was the skill that caused me to lose one contact lens on my certification dives in that awful quarry. And here’s the thing, I didn’t really have a choice. It was either take my mask off, or not dive at all for the entire month, which I was OK with at this point, if it wasn’t for the large sum of money I had spent on this trip and the fact that I would fail the class, tanking my GPA. After warning the dive instructor about my storied past with this particular skill, I hopped in the water, descended, and did it. I just did it. It actually wasn’t that bad and on that same dive I saw a ginormous spotted eagle ray. Definitely worth it. It took me a few more dives to become completely comfortable, but I soon went from last off the back of the boat to first in the water every time. I couldn’t wait to get down there.
As soon as I became comfortable with diving, I had a blast. We dove almost every day, sometimes twice a day. We did deep dives where we went to 100 feet. We did night dives where we saw sleeping sea turtles, basket stars, octopuses, squid, and bioluminescent plankton. I got to swim with some of the most amazing creatures on Earth: spotted eagle rays, southern stingrays, parrotfish, nurse sharks, Nassau groupers, barracudas, sea turtles, moray eels, and so much more. Every day was an adventure and I learned so much. Besides learning how to catch and clean conches, we learned how to identify different coral species, how corals live and grow, and how islands form. We ran transect lines and collected data on reef composition, built quadrats to which we mounted GoPros in order to take pictures of the reef, analyzed our pictures using computer programs, and then compiled our data to take a broader look at the reefs we explored all month. I also got to meet some amazing people from around the world and made a great group of new friends from UD.
My message for you from all of this is that you need to go outside of your comfort zone. As you can see, I forced myself way out of my comfort zone and ended up having a fantastic experience that I will never forget. I was so close to calling it off because it stressed me out and I didn’t think my temporary discomfort was worth anything. But like I’ve said many times throughout this post, I was wrong. I almost missed the opportunity of a lifetime because I was scared and stressed. If you know deep down (and you always will, go with your gut) that something is going to be good for you, just do it! I learned invaluable lessons from the experiences I had. I made new friends. I saw cool things. I gained a lot of knowledge. I mean, I went from never wanting to SCUBA dive again to wanting to go back a few days after I got back to the U.S. You never know what awaits you outside of your bubble.