In my recent one-month trip to Mexico, I spent 3 days scuba diving in the Playa Del Carmen & Tulum area. I ended up writing a pretty long post about scuba diving and the many things on the periphery of scuba diving and what it means to me. I write about how I came to be certified as a young high schooler to making the decision to get back into it now that I can afford to spend money on my own hobbies and interests.
The rest of the post then goes into more detail about what I re-learned about scuba diving recently, my experience scuba diving, the awe-inspiring experience of the cenote dive, and a tangent about my relationship to my Gopro after this trip. This blog also contains fun graphics I made (and spent a lot of time on…..) summarizing my experiences as well as some of important dive lessons I wanted to document.
I got PADI certified…12 years ago
I first learned to scuba dive back in 2009. I believe it was the summer before high school started and a few of my friends were planning to get certified so they could go on a scuba diving trip to Green Island (an island off the coast of Taiwan…which is also an island). I didn’t have much planned that summer, and was invited to the trip. I really really wanted to join in on the PADI certification and go on the trip.
Summers in Taiwan during my middle school/high school years involved a lot of staying at home without air conditioning, listening to music, and being angsty daydreaming lying on various parts of the living room all day. It was also the time of my life when I had *maximum* conflict with my mother. She had stresses of her own, lots of concerns of raising our family that I was too self-centered to give much thought. My priority that summer was to get out of the house and do something, anything.
The problem, though? Doing things cost money. And a lot of the conflicts between my mom and I at the time was around money. Yes, school is expensive, but what really adds up are all the things outside of school to aid your kids social lives and keeping up with the peers at a fancy schmancy school. Paying for the school was a no brainer because Education is #1! as my dad likes to say.
“Money does not fall from the sky”my mother, on behalf of all mothers
After plenty of arguing, tears shed on my part, and guilt from deep within my mother (and possibly persuasion from my dad), she agreed to let me enroll in the PADI Open Water Junior certification and also agreed to let me go on the trip.
I won’t go into detail about the certification and trip, since I don’t remember much anyway. The only more prominent memories are…
- Our scuba diving teacher was my middle school’s music teacher’s husband. I thought it was really cool that one gets to do music full-time, the other scuba diving, and they had two beautiful golden retrievers.
- Getting to do a certification and trip like this with friends (who had well-traveled and adventurous parents) was a lot of fun. My own parents did not venture out to do trips like this, so it was nice to see what was possible beyond the confines of my own home and family.
- The experience of breathing underwater itself was very cool. I just remember feeling nervous, anxious, and mostly joy. It fulfilled my childhood role plays as being a mermaid and getting to explore the world below water. It also fulfills my young dreams to become a marine biologist and swim with whales, haha.
The only other more prominent memory was that I was probably the most seasick I had ever been in my life on one of the boat rides that summer.
Getting back into scuba diving in 2021
My friends and I planned a month long trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The purpose of the month long trip was to give ourselves the break we deserved. It has been 4 years since graduating from college and we’ve been spending the last years hard at work in our day jobs and also living through a global pandemic. It’s been a year of self-discovery, not just because of the pandemic, but we are also in our mid-twenties and have finally shed the busy-ness of young adulthood, school, and adjusting to entry level work. We’re stable in our jobs now, relatively stable finances, and we’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on who we are and how is it that we want to live our lives?
Since we were going into this trip not exactly with the mindset of “how can I travel and see as much as I can” but rather with the mentality of “what can I do for myself this trip? what is it it that I really want to do?”.
I have always felt a strong draw to the ocean. And to be honest, the memories of scuba diving and certification from 2009 was long forgotten. But it was maybe some time in February or March 2021 while reflecting what it was that I wanted to do, like what is it that I really wanted to do for myself, that I remembered I was at some point scuba diving certified. I fretted the idea of getting re-certified because I had thought it was very expensive based on my mother’s reaction back in the day. I quickly learned after research that getting certified as an adult is not too expensive and it wouldn’t be too difficult to re-learn. However, even better news was learning that junior certification is automatically updated to an adult PADI Open Water license.
I managed to find my PADI certification on the PADI website by typing in some personal details and was surprised to see a profile picture of my 14 year old self (aw, a baby). It was quite easy to key in updated information, a new photo, and paid a fee to order my new PADI license. I remember feeling SO excited, like “wow, I’m an adult now and I can go scuba diving as much as I want because I get to choose what to do with my money!” A sense of self-driven adventure came back, and it’s a feeling I like to keep coming back to.
This was a huge moment for me because it was the first time I think in my adult life (since college graduation) where I actively chose to do something for fun, for myself. And also the first time I’ve been able to afford the luxury of doing so. In college, though I traveled, it was always on a strict budget and perhaps the most adventurous thing I did was trek in the Himalayas and backpack around India. After college, I spent most of my energy focused on paying off student loans then on saving. When I got the time off to travel, it was usually to see my family in Taiwan or my partner in Europe. I didn’t get time off I could use for myself.
So besides the fact that I got to go on my first trip to a place that was new, signing up for this scuba trip was like a milestone for the first time I splurged a decent amount of money on myself doing something purely as a hobby. I think in some ways it felt like a coming of age moment, like wow, hopefully going forward I can keep choosing what I spend my time and money on, and invest in my own hobbies for no other reason than the fact that I just want to. It’s an empowering feeling to do something like this, like “yes, my life is in my control”. On the surface, it’s really not a big deal, but my decision to this was quite meaningful to me.
Re-learning how to scuba dive
After planning out our itinerary in Mexico, I managed to incorporate scuba diving into the last week for when we were staying in Playa Del Carmen. I did some research about dive shops and decided on Blue Life in the end. I emailed them, inquired about my lack of scuba experience, what would be some good choices in April for a trip in early June. I got to talk to one of the co-owners of the shop who was very friendly. He assured me he would send me resources for me to self-study up on scuba diving and safety principles. I settled on their 3 day/6 dive package which included ocean, reef, and cenote dives, and also signed up for a refresher course which would only take a few hours in the morning.
I was honestly nervous about re-learning scuba diving because I recall it was a lot of work to learn the first time round. The resources I received included a two-pager PDF and a comprehensive Youtube playlist published by a Hong Kong dive shop. The videos added up to 5 hours and had the aesthetics of early 2000s American tutorial videos. It reminded me of the videos I watched in health class in middle school. These videos were made up of tanned, thin-bodied, always smiling and bubbly, not-very-good-at-acting people going on diving trips and acting out various scenarios. I actually really enjoyed these videos. Albeit tacky, they were very detailed and informative, and definitely fostered that “let’s go on an adventure” mood.
In the end, I managed to watch all the Youtube videos literally right before the scuba diving trip, which meant cramming it in after a full day out on excursions. It was tiring, but exhilarating too. I felt like I was on a mission to learn it all like I was about to set out on an adventurous expedition by myself.
My experience scuba diving again
Refresher course: important learnings & struggles
The refresher course was only 1-2 hours long. My instructor was a French woman who had been living in the Quintana Roo for many years so she was fluent in Spanish too (tbh, I did struggle with understanding her English due to the french accent). She had gone on the following two dives with me too and was very helpful. The first half of the refresher course was spent re-learning all the equipment. The second half we spent in maybe the only PADI pool in all of Playa Del Carmen. It was crowded. The pool also is not very big in width and length, but was very deep. On the surface, you cannot even tell there are people in the pool unless you look closely. Then you’ll see bubbles at the surface and that’s how you know there are people at the bottom. It looked like every single dive shop in the area had brought their students over to practice for their certification.
note to self about what I learned:
above water – What makes a good fitting mask, how to wear it, the important parts of the BCD, how to connect the regulator or octopus to the tank, the right positioning of the BCD on the tank, how to check your BCD and regulators are properly connected (inflate/deflate, check pressure gauge, breathe from the regulator, making sure the tank is open), how to dress up in gear, putting on weights
under water – equalizing, how to fill mask with water while underwater and empty it (tilt head back, look up, blow out nose), communication/hand signals, finding neutral buoyancy, how to find your regulator if it falls off your mouth, how to ascend at a steady rate
After the refresher course, we left to do two dives on the coast of Playa Del Carmen. We walked to the beach from the dive shop and got on a dive boat (trekked through lots of stinky sargassum seaweed). The water was very bumpy that day and boy, did I regret not taking dramamine. It was just me and the instructor and a group from another shop. Two German girls and a German-speaking instructor who couldn’t speak Spanish (so my instructor translated for him too).
Those first two dives was actually quite stressful, but had its moments of peace and beauty. I struggled a lot finding neutral buoyancy during the first dive, so I spent most of it just being all over the place. The coolest thing I saw during this dive was a huge sea turtle under a rock scratching it’s back. It was so adorable! It reminded me of a dog scratching itself up against a couch. It looked so content as it managed to scratch its itch and shook its body around. My instructor captured it on my Gopro but sadly the footage was lost due to SD card issues.
The rest of the two dives involved seeing lots of small fish, and being consumed with my own buoyancy as to not crash into the corals. Oh, and trying not to vomit on the boat while preparing for the second dive. My seasickness was getting so bad my instructor had me put on all my gear and jump into the water ASAP.
The second day of diving was in a cenote, which I’ll write more about a little later. The third day was spent diving on the reefs of Cozumel, which is a small island off the coast of Playa Del Carmen. We departed from the same beach as the first day, but was on the boat for much longer (~40 minutes) to reach the Cozumel reef. Our first dive was over the reef and our second dive was at a wreck site. I learned this trip that ships are sometimes intentionally sunk to become dive sites (called a wreck dive) and artificial reefs. I had thought “wreck” sites were all ship that were sunk on accident.
Since this was the third day, I had improved a lot more in my diving. I could put my BCD on the tank properly, do the safety checks, and wear all my gear without much help. I had also made sure to take a dramamine before going out on the boat. I felt MUCH better on that boat, though it also helped the waves were more peaceful.
The main difference about the ocean dives on this day was that there were strong currents at both sites. At the reef dive, the currents carried us across so we didn’t have to swim much. The currents did make it more challenging to stick to the instructor, especially when she stopped to show us marine life. Another challenging aspect was that when swimming over the reef, you had to be especially mindful of buoyancy to not accidentally crash into or kick any of it. I ended up drifting a bit too high to be careful, but that also meant not seeing the fish as up close.
The current at the wreck dive was much stronger. We had to grab a line from the surface to descend to the wreck, but even reaching the top of the line was a challenge because it meant swimming against the current. We managed to coordinate our jumps into the water well enough that grabbing the line was not hard, but it took effort to pull ourselves forward and down. Seeing the wreck was just what I expected, since it matches the wrecks I’ve seen in movies and documentaries. It was a very cool experience to swim around it, through it, check out the different decks and the various fish and reefs that now call this shipwreck their home.
Cenote diving & the WOW factor
I went on the cenote dive on the second day of the 3-day dive package. I had upgraded my cenote dive to Dos Ojos and it honestly exceeded my expectations. I had already spent the week before this dive exploring various cenotes in the area, as it is one of the primary things travelers do in the area. For those who do not know, cenotes are essentially natural sinkholes that are common in the Yucatan Peninsula. These sinkholes are formed due to the collapse of the limestone which was developed over many years. Cenotes are famously known, culturally, as sacred sites for the Mayans back in the day. (I have more content on cenotes and what they are coming soon that I’ll link when ready). From the surface, cenotes look like clear blue natural pools, but they are often part of a complex underground system that varies a lot cenote to cenote.
From the surface, Dos Ojos does not look particularly impressive nor outstanding, especially when compared to other cenotes in the area. The entrance looks like an outdoor cave with a pool to swim in. Since both snorkelers and scuba divers come, snorkelers will only see the surface.
Besides some photos on social media, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I knew that cenotes have intricate undergrounds and a lot of complexities to it that is beyond the human eye. Our instructor explained this cenote is called “Dos Ojos” (two eyes) because if visualized from a birds eye perspective, the cenotes would look like two eyes. There were scuba routes planned out and our instructor walked us through the routes we were going to take.
Just to be clear, this is not considered cave diving, but rather cavern diving. Cavern diving is when you are underwater and have overhead environments around you. Unlike in the ocean where you have nothing above you, in cavern diving there are structures. Cavern diving is different from cave diving in that you’ll always have access to natural light from somewhere. While cave diving would typically mean diving in complete darkness since you’d be inside a cave with no access to natural light (tbh, the thought of that scares me a lot).
Our instructor let us know that there would be a line we would be following the whole time, and we would never really be more than 6 or 7 meters deep. The image below shows the map that is on site. We departed from the East Eye and did two different routes. Our instructor warned that straying from the line is dangerous, because there are parts to this cenote that leads straight into caves with no natural light and yeah…that is very dangerous…especially when you’re underwater breathing from just your oxygen tank. Speaking of, my instructor had to carry two oxygen tanks since that is the norm for cave (and cavern?) divers, as good safety practice.
We had to prepare our gear and get dressed at the parking lot, then walk the stairs down to the cenote entrance. It was heavy work, but wow so rewarding. As soon as I got into the water and took a look under water, the seemingly small pool from the surface looked expansive and…just amazing! The water was so clear and blue, very cold, and there were small fish swimming everywhere. The temperature was perfect for me in my thick wet suit, and I could have just hung out down there all day.
There were a lot of other divers going in and out. I was worried it would be too crowded but since we were following the line and going in a line, it was actually fine. There were two of us with my instructor and as the less experienced diver, I swam in the middle following my instructor. We were each given a flash light, while my instructor had the strongest flash light. We turned it on, descended, and were on our way.
Online I had read that people thought of the experience of scuba diving as akin to flying. I didn’t really understand that statement until I did the cenote dive. I felt like I was soaring through clear blue waters and passing by strange and mysterious structures. The view was never the same, since the structures were ever changing and pocket holes of natural light were sporadic. There were times we swam below snorkelers in life jackets and I thought it so bizarre to look up at humans treading water. I wondered if these snorkelers knew there were people below them.
At times we had to swim through areas where there were structures above us. I remember at one point I went a bit too up and hit against the structure above me. It was a bit shocking because I thought someone had hit my tank. Other times, the overhead structures were much higher up.
On the second dive, we popped up into an open area to come up to a bat cave. It was a dome almost completely covered with tiny bats hanging upside down all over. It smelled terrible though, as is expected of bat poop. The cave was also filled with many stalactites (see definition here – stalagmites and stalactites), and was a brief glimpse into the richness of this cenote.
Practicing breathing as a technique for controlling buoyancy
My instructor from my first day had reminded me to control buoyancy with my lungs, as it is a big sack inside our bodies in which you can control the amount of air going in and out. “Lungs”, “focus on controlling your breathing” was the biggest takeaway from the first day.
Since cenote water is fresh and still water, it was a lot easier to find my buoyancy and stay consistent. There was not that much going up and down, and the goal was to float above the line (not right on it because once you kick up the sediment from the ground, it can really take a while before it settles down and affect visibility). I learned to take deep breaths when I wanted to go a little higher, and small in and out breaths to stay at a consistent height. Since there was no other variable in the water around to affect my diving, I was able to really focus on my buoyancy and experience first-hand how breathing affects it. When I had to descend or ascend just a little, I’d breathe a big breath out to try to empty my lungs to go down a bit and when I was too close to the ground, I would take a deep breath in and found myself rising. It was so cool to see it work! I didn’t have to touch the air in my BCD and was able to move up and down. It’s really all about the breath!
Seeing how much control my instructors have over their buoyancy and how they could float barely above the reef, it is really impressive to see how they are doing it all by breathing. It’s an important lesson I want to carry forward into my future scuba diving adventures and as I continue honing the skill.
The one word I’d use to describe the cenote dive would be that it was…freeing. It was freeing to dive through waters that were so clear and also felt so good to be in. And it was awe-inspiring to witness the underwater world of Dos Ojos. It really put exploring more cenotes by diving at the top of my list and something I’d love to return to someday.
Scuba Diving & travel culture
One thing that stood out to me about my trip unrelated to the act of scuba diving, was witnessing the scuba diving culture, and more largely travel culture. I have been on trips before, such as when backpacking through India and Nepal, where I had met people prioritizing travel in their life and doing all kind of things as long term travelers. Though I didn’t meet that many people on the 3 day scuba trip, I did meet a few folks that brought back to me the same feelings I once had when in traveler spaces.
The instructors were not local in the sense of “born and raised” but came to the area for the diving, became instructors, and stayed as PADI instructors for years. The instructors I met were born and raised in Europe and North America, some had done other jobs that involved traveling, and eventually found their way to diving and discovered their passion for diving, then then they found their way to Quintana Roo and have been around as a diving instructor for a long time. The instructors I had could all speak fluent Spanish, so that’s great. Meeting them and hearing snippets of their lives, it bursts my current bubble a bit (I work for a Bay Area tech company) and am reminded that people choose to do their lives doing all kind of cool and adventurous things. And certainly, quite the opposite of a desk job.
As for the few travelers I met, it ranged from remote worker traveling while working, to a really busy woman on a short trip from the U.S. who wanted to squeeze some scuba diving in in a few days but was not really “off” from work, to a couple who were on a vacation because they won a free resort stay but it had got postponed because of COVID. I also heard of a couple getting certified together so they could travel with the goal of scuba diving in the future. It was a whole range of experience! And it reminded me of what traveling and being in travel spaces meeting new felt like.
I was also impressed by how one common activity (scuba diving in this case) can bring people from different backgrounds and even motivations together. I wondered to myself if I’d ever be interested in traveling for the sole focus on scuba diving, and how much of it do I want to incorporate into my life given that it is a time and resource heavy hobby. I also thought about whether I’d want to get more advanced certifications and how I would be interested to be a volunteer scuba diver for research trips or environmental and conservation reasons. Hmm, lots of good food for thought for the future.
My…really sad Gopro experiences & lessons learned
The final thing I wanted to write about was just about my Gopro and my very frustrating experiences with it from the dives. Basically, I had learned to scuba dive and use my Gopro opro since the second dive on the first day. I learned how to grab it and how to film while diving. I caught some really cool footage, like that of the turtle scratching it’s back against the rock! As well as a ray passing by.
But… post-dive and my Gopro tells me the SD card errored out and I will have to reformat it, which also meant deleting all existing media. This error had popped up once or twice before, and I did all my media the first time, but it was fine for the most part for 2 weeks. Either restarting the Gopro would get rid of the error or I had kept the storage level low because I was good about backing up my data on a hard drive. It was really frustrating to have lost my underwater footage because I was most excited about saving the footage from being underwater! I even invested a waterproof case that would allow the Gopro to go deep enough for the dives (it can go up to 196ft (60m) deep).
I lost all my media from the first dive but was forced to eventually accept it. I was frustrated I couldn’t show my instructor the footage I captured, and had no tangible result of my experience. I was so bothered I spent the rest of the night looking up on Reddit all the ways people try to retrieve photos from corrupt SD cards. I even downloaded a program that included using command line (which I know nothing about) and followed complicated instructions to try to retrieve something from my SD card. Sadly, it started to retrieve images from the trip, but it was only retrieving photos I already had, and also in really low quality. It would have taken around 8 hours to retrieve all my images, and by the looks of it, it would have only retrieved images I had from the SD card when it was not in error state.
Eventually, I gave up trying to retrieve the photos and admitted to myself that yes, having photos would have been cool, a great memorabilia, and I could have shared it with friends, but at the end of the day the most important fact is that I was able to experience it. And instead, tried to let it go.
Well, the GoPro faced the same issues the next two days… I was most broken discovering all my photos and videos from the cenote dive were not saved. Though, I don’t know how great those videos were given how dark it was and we only had our flashlights to illuminate the area. After the dives, I saw that my Gopro saved 2 videos out of like 10-15 I took. I suspected the SD card had issues and could not store too much data. The same thing happened the third day, except by then I had learned how to use the Gopro app and backed up the few photos that managed to stay saved in my SD card. On the third day, my waterproof case had also suddenly cracked open to the point it cut my instructor when she tried to help me open it. I believe it must have hit something either when I was getting out of the water or when the boat captain was wiping down the Gopro and the case hit something. That was sad too, but by then I had accepted that I just was not meant to have many photos from the dives.
On the good side though? My instructor filmed and took videos on the last day and shared it with us so at least I do have something to commemorate my dives. Other good things are the learnings!
- After in-depth research, I learned that the GoPro is only compatible with Sandisk “Extreme” SD cards, and what I had was a Sandisk “Ultra” micro SD card. The “Ultra” micro SD card had popped up as recommended by Amazon so I took their word for it, and well, it didn’t work out. I did not know anything about SD cards before, and now I still mostly don’t, but at least now I know to check for compatibility.
- Learned to let go of my grasp of wanting to have a photo, a keepsake of what I was emphasizing as a special trip or special moment. I am reminded that it’s okay to have experienced it, and no trace of it. Most of life works that way. We’re not there to take photos and document every precious moment, and certainly not in our most candid times. But since I don’t have the best memory, I had held onto this “need” even more.
- The biggest learning from this scuba trip but also the greater Mexico trip was…how to use my Gopro! As well as the other gear I had (camera, drone). I am not a pro at using it, certainly not, but the more I practiced, played around, messed up, clicked wrong buttons, filmed bad shots, got foggy lens and so on…the quicker I learned and figured out what I needed to do. I now feel a lot more comfortable with the Gopro than I could have expected. Now, on to working on framing and cinematography, hah!
And… that concludes my really long post about scuba diving and everything peripheral to scuba diving in my head! I know the post kind of jumped all over the place, but that’s exactly why this was a topic I had to write about. Choosing to scuba dive again after 12 years was an empowering experience because I got to choose myself and did something purely for myself, and with my own dime. That’s just a good feeling by itself. Then in terms of everything else, the dives I did brought up a lot of feelings and writing it here was a good way to process and document my experience as well as all my learnings.
If you made it to the end of this rambly blog post that also took me a lot of time to write and create, I thank and appreciate you so much! I’ll be back with more scuba diving stories in the future, knowing now I’ve made the decision to prioritize it as something to keep trying and building my skill in. And also, this blog is not going anywhere either 😉