The crystal blue waters in Zanzibar. Photo by Cece Wildeman
The crystal blue waters in Zanzibar. Photo by Alex Romanyshyn
The Indian Ocean off of the east coast of Zanzibar. Photo by Alex Romanyshyn

‘Please check any of the following that apply to you.’

There it was: Asthma. I checked it. Then I read on.

‘If you suffer from any of these diseases you will need a doctor’s note to participate.’

My heart sunk.

There it was, this disease that I had suffered from my whole life. But, not really. Yes, I do have asthma, but I haven’t had an asthma attack since I was a child. Now, as an adult, was I supposed to back out on my first scuba dive because of a problem I hadn’t felt in 10 years?

What was I supposed to do now? The box was already checked. But, I really wanted to go!

The truth is, if I’d known I would be scuba diving I could have gotten a doctor’s note before we left the United States. But, as with so many travel decisions, it was a spontaneous one.

My fiancé, Alex, was going to scuba dive and I went with him to buy his package on Zanzibar. Scuba diving is something I’ve never had a major interest in; it seemed a little too dark and foreboding down there for me.

But as he filled out his paperwork I looked through the pictures of what he might see. Maybe it was all that equatorial sun or maybe it was the spontaneous mindset I’d developed from two months of travel, but suddenly I felt like I wanted to give this a try.

After talking with the scuba instructor we decided that a PADI Discover Scuba Diving package would work best for me. This includes pool instruction and at least one open water dive, which counts toward your full certification if you do it within one year. The instructor gave me the short paperwork to take back to the hotel and fill out for our dive the next day.

Along the beach in Zanzibar. Photo by Cece Wildeman
The Indian Ocean at low tide on the east coast of Zanzibar. Photo by Alex Romanyshyn

After I checked the box back at our beach hut, Alex and I talked it through. I weighed the risks and rewards? What were the chances that I would actually have an asthma attack down there? Very, very slim; I couldn’t even remember the last time I had suffered one.

Was this experience worth risking my life over? Was it really a risk to my life? I didn’t think so, but I had my doubts. When would I get another opportunity to scuba dive in the Indian Ocean? Answer unknown.

I ripped up the form, put it in the trash, and quickly made up a story to tell the instructor about how my form blew away in the ocean breeze when we were walking back along the beach. This way, I could get a new form before the dive and skip right past that pesky disease section.

The next morning, my stomach was knotted with nerves as we walked down the beach to the scuba diving office. I considered backing out of the whole thing as I spewed my concerns to Alex.

“What if I really do have an asthma attack down there? What if there’s some other risk of diving with asthma that I haven’t thought of? What if my lungs explode? I feel bad about lying.”

With the tune of my worries ringing in our ears, we entered the scuba diving office, and I told the instructor my very convincing story of the paperwork blowing away. I started filling out the form for the second time.

‘Please check any of the following that apply to you.’

I asked myself, ‘What is travel-and what is youth, for that matter- if not taking risks?’

Deep breath. Skip to the bottom. Sign and date, and we were on our way.

We headed down the beach to a seemingly deserted hotel, where we would have the pool to ourselves as I practiced the basics of scuba diving: how to clear my goggles, how to recover my regulator if I lost it, and how to use my oxygen tank.

Even at just 2 meters, learning these skills had me kicking to the surface, gasping for air, and blowing water out my nose. I couldn’t get the hang of pacing my exhale if I lost my air source. I seriously considered paying the instructor for the pool time and skipping out on the open water dive altogether.

The author learning the basics of scuba diving in a pool on Zanzibar. Photo by Alex Romanyshyn
The author learning the basics of scuba diving in a hotel pool in Zanzibar. Photo by Alex Romanyshyn

My instructor assured me that we would descend slowly so I could get comfortable, and before too long we were boarding a small boat on choppy, bright turquoise waters.

We cruised out and stopped, surprisingly, where we could still see the beach; I thought we’d be much further from land, way, way out there in the big blue sea. There were two other divers on the boat; everyone aboard was much more experienced than I was. Needless to say, I was the only one who hesitated when I was told to sit on the edge of the boat and fall backwards into the water.

“Don’t be nervous” the other instructor ensured me. “Your instructor is waiting there for you.”

I nodded, and he pushed me gently off the edge, just the bit of encouragement I needed to get in the water. The ocean was rolling and I felt like a bobbing buoy next to the boat.

Within a minute, we began our slow descent to 12 meters. As soon as we dropped below the surface, the ocean was still and quiet. Visibility was not at its highest because of the seasonal rain that stirs up the water. There was a thin, underwater fog of sediment and debris, but I still soaked in my surroundings enough to be satisfied with my first dive.

There were bright purple coral reefs, clown fish of various striped and colored varieties, large, drab fish, sea snakes, small, gray fish with neon stripes, lion fish, a flounder, and many more. We circled around tall rocks and reefs, peering into their many caverns. We got close to the sandy bottom to watch the small, striped snakes.

I thought about the strange, otherworldly feel of this sport: being engulfed by a constantly-moving environment and getting up close to so many quiet creatures. My curiosity trumped my nervousness underwater, and the 40-minute dive passed so quickly that I was surprised when our instructor signaled for us to surface.

Back on the boat, I spontaneously decided to take a second dive. With no traces of hesitation left in me, I was comfortable and content to be among the bright, ocean life that is just off the coast of Zanzibar.

If You Go:

Consider taking a scuba diving course before your vacation. If you have any health issues, ask your doctor about diving. Print off your doctor’s note and bring it with you.

Janna Graber
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