How Diving With Sharks Made Me Hate Myself

How Diving With Sharks Made Me Hate Myself

I’m finally scuba diving near the bottom of a tank at the Aquarium on the Bay in San Francisco. There’s a small shark swimming near me. This should be an awe-inspiring moment. The whole experience is being captured on video. But I’m not filled with wonder, or terror, or exhilaration. I’m filled with shame. I hate myself and my physical incompetence.

I pride myself on knowing and accepting my limits. I can’t drive. I’m cripplingly shy. I don’t like any of the Star Wars movies.

That doesn’t stop me trying new things. It’s too easy to talk yourself out of fresh experiences if you focus solely on your limitations. So when I got invited to San Francisco by GoPro for its Hero3 launch, I accepted, knowing that a whole day of extreme sports-style activities was part of the agenda.

There are land and air streams, but I’ve ended up in the sea group, and basic scuba diving with (non-aggressive) sharks and various other marine animals at the Aquarium while wearing a head-mounted camera is the first item on the day’s agenda. It sounds like it should be fun, and it’s a pretty unique experience: not just any tourist can rock up to the Aquarium and ask to swim in its tanks. I’m excited.

Reality Bites

I never presumed I’d be particularly good at scuba diving — any skill requiring co-ordination takes time for me, and always has. Learning to dive properly takes repeated practice and has a complicated certification process. That’s the reality for everyone. But you have to start somewhere, and I didn’t think I’d be hopeless out of the box. I didn’t think my legs would betray me.

There are small stupid moments beforehand in getting set up, which is part and parcel of trying any activity for the first time. I manage to put the wetsuit on backwards, and it takes an age to find a suitable mask because of my beard. But I absorb all the pre-dive training carefully and hit the water, ready to try a smaller, less deep tank before moving on to the main attraction.

As soon as I’m in the water, I realise the flippers have essentially rendered me immobile. I can’t cope with them at all.

With flippers on, I somehow have no control of my legs whatsoever. And my legs are the strongest part of my body. My arms are scrawny, my pectorals are non-existent. When I swim, my lack of form is evident, but my legs can always get me through the water.

Not in a beflippered state, though. It takes every ounce of willpower I possess to stop my legs floating hopelessly to the surface, and more often than not I fail at even that. They twitch hopelessly out of control, cramping, floundering. Even loaded with extra weights and with my BCD deflated, I can’t make any headway down towards the bottom of the tank, where the good stuff is. And if I can’t master this shallow tank, there seems little point in moving to the larger one, where the sharks are.

Maybe it’s my breathing, my instructor suggests. I’m not exhaling enough, perhaps. It could be different flippers will work better. Maybe I need still more weights. We try all these things, but nothing makes any real difference. My body won’t obey me and head below the surface.

Other journalists aren’t having this issue, even those who (like me) have never dived before. I see them swimming past several metres below me, excitedly spotting marine life and quickly graduating to the main tank. I am only just submerged, and that’s only because my instructor is holding me underwater. Eventually, and repeatedly, I lose control of my limbs and give the signal to ascend. As we’re barely a foot under water most of the time, this doesn’t take long.

My instructor Terry is determined to crack the problem. He’d probably find it easier to deal with if I was filled with blind panic, which apparently isn’t uncommon. I’m not worried by the water or the breathing. I just can’t control where my body moves. A dugong would have more elegance.

Eventually, and after consulting with several colleagues, Terry decides to take me into the tank regardless. We’ll add more weights, use a weighted rope for assistance, and he’ll guide me down. All the instructions I absorbed this morning on monitoring air tanks and clearing the regulator and managing buoyancy are no longer my problem. He’ll do all the work. All I have to do is point my legs downwards.

This is massively harder than it sounds, and it requires all my concentration. Terry has to signal to me repeatedly to remind me to look at the sea life going past. On my fourth attempt, I do make it to the bottom, but I’m effectively lying down and my camera is capturing nothing of any use.

This isn’t the fault of the technology. I’ll be writing a fuller review of my experience with the Hero3 next week, and it does have issues (most notably in terms of battery life), but the ability to capture video underwater isn’t something I can fault it for. The fact I have no worthwhile footage to show for the experience is because I’ve had to concentrate so hard on not floating that looking at my surrounds was all but impossible. It’s a blur of bubbles and sand which is often upside down.

I haven’t learned how not to hate myself when this kind of thing happens. I feel like the experience has been wasted; someone else would enjoy it properly and have a decent video to show for it. All I’ve got is sore legs and the knowledge that another potential skill has been crossed off my list.

Yes, it’s beyond a first world problem, and yes, I should calm down and enjoy the rest of my time in San Francisco. But getting there might take a while.

Lifehacker’s weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained. Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to San Francisco as a guest of GoPro.


  • Interesting read, I’d never really put much thought into it, but I can certainly see how some people would find it impossible to use flippers, since you kick a different way.

    I’d always used them since I was young, so going to the reef for example and diving down with snorkeling gear seemed fine, but now that I recall it I do remember people having the same issues as you.

    No need to hate yourself, things take time to learn

  • Dude. Everyone can’t be great at everything first time. Or even thirty-second time. Ease up on yourself and take a list at the things you do well…like enjoyably conveying humanity (and cool stuff about gizmos over the years) to the masses. I’m too chicken to even go diving!

  • Clearly the real rules of scuba diving were not explained to you. Any competent diving instructor will tell you that it is a one beer penalty each time you call fins ‘flippers’ and your mask ‘goggles’. By my count you owe the instructor three beers.
    By the way, you can do this at the Manly Aquarium, but you don’t swim, you wear a double weight belt and just walk around the bottom. Saves you any problems with fins and buoyancy.

  • I haven’t been diving recently but I have done about 60 dives and had my rescue diver PADI qualification so I consider myself reasonably qualified to comment (but by no means am I an expert).

    To me it sounds like your instructor was mostly to blame here.

    Any diver that is loaded with tons of weight and has a BCD with no air will just sink like a stone. It doesn’t matter if you are flapping about like a maniac – physics will eventually take over and you will lose buoyancy.

    He either wasn’t emptying your BCD of enough air or wasn’t giving you enough weights.
    Sometimes BCDs need to be poked, prodded and squeezed to get all the air out.

    Additionally, he should have given you ankle weights because it sounds like your legs were floating due to the buoyancy of your wetsuit (wetsuits float because of the air bubbles in the neoprene).

    At the marine park here where I swam with the sharks – they gave us a fully loaded weight belt to make sure we sank – and we were told NOT to wear our fins (or flippers as the new divers call them).

    Everything is relative, you did better than my wife. She couldn’t even cope with sitting on the floor of the 1.5m deep pool breathing with a regulator.

    In summary, don’t feel bad – your instructor sucked and you did better than two other people I know who’ve tried it.

    Try it again with a better instructor. It is awesome fun.

  • I was too scared to go scuba diving whilst on holidays with a group of friends. But I did go snorkelling off the beach, amongst heaps of people. I still nearly drowned because I wore myself out and I cut my foot open, how’s that for shameful?

  • It’s a good read.thanks for sharing.i suddenly remembered my first time trying scuba wasn’t easy, being panicky and hugely afraid of water for i didnt know how to swim (and im still not a good swimmer until now). Sharing your experience is a brave move. We all get into embarassing situations every once in a while but we should not belittle ourselves nor feel ashamed. Im sure there’s alot more stuff u r good at. Come on, take it easy on urself, there’s always a lesson or two in every thing we do. cheers!

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