Getting Scuba Certified in Costa Rica | The Most Terrifying, Humbling + Rewarding Experience of My Life
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As I watch the mountains go by outside my window on a train ride through the Smoky Mountains, my mind keeps being drawn back to the ocean. This is a big deal because I’ve always considered myself purely a mountain girl. I enjoy the beach when I’m there. I feel a sense of peace being near the water like I do with any form of the Earth, but it was never what I sought out the most. I think if anything can be a testament to how much getting my certification with Rich Coast Diving has changed my life – that would be it.
The mountains will always be home but now the ocean will be too.
I really wanted to sit down and start writing my experience before I even got home because I wanted it to be fresh on my mind. Problem is – I keep getting distracted by looking up new places to visit to go diving, or asking questions in scuba groups, and just looking at amazing photos on Instagram of people scuba diving. Sounds like I’m hooked, right? Yes, but it didn’t start out that way. After starting my eLearning portion of my open water certification, I was overwhelmed with information. How could I possibly learn all that I needed to in order to feel comfortable underwater? So, I went into my diving certification with plenty of anxiety.
Psst: Looking for more scuba diving? Check out a few of my other posts!
In some ways, this moment was five years in the making. You see – this blog started from in an innate desire to get out and experience the world. I could no longer be held down behind a desk, restricted to being a weekend warrior, counting down the
minutes seconds until I could feel like I wasn’t suffocating any longer. Then a plan was born – a plan to pay off debt, save money, quit my job and travel the world. Or, at least, experience Southeast Asia first. On that list was to get my scuba certification in Thailand at the beginning of the trip so I could explore the unlimited experiences to those of us adventurous enough.
Life is funny though. It rarely goes just to plan. You reach your goals and find yourself watching them slip further and further out of your reach as you stray to a different path. Sometimes, you never get back to your original path. But, sometimes – just sometimes, you come full circle. It may have taken me five years, but I finally got that certification. It didn’t happen as planned, but it happened.
Arriving at Rich Coast Diving
I arrived in Costa Rica, for the first time, a ball of stress. My mom had just unexpectedly been told she was having surgery while I was gone, I had quit one of my jobs right beforehand so thoughts of doubt where clouding me, it was the longest I’d left my dog, Maximus, with my boyfriend (I’ll admit it, guys – I’m a heli- dog mom, okay?), and then the elephant in the corner of my brain – what the hell did I sign up for? Scuba diving, really? What was I thinking?
I’ve always been an adventure lover – I love hiking and camping, I’ve been skydiving with little anxiety, rollercoasters are my safe space – so I had envisioned me being some natural diver. Turns out, that is not the case.
I arrived in San Jose, grabbed an Uber to my hostel, walked to a vegan spot to get my first actual meal since leaving home, and called it an early night. The next morning, I walked the five minutes to the bus station arriving over an hour early to ensure a seat on the bus. Guess what? No more seats. Instead of my direct bus to Playas del Coco, I was now going to be transferring in Liberia. Cue more anxiety.
Finally arriving in Playas del Coco about four hours later than planned and a little more stressed and tired, I was trying to figure out where to get off the bus when I saw the dive shop outside the bus window. I grabbed my bag, rushed off the bus before it took off again, and strolled into the shop ready to be the next big thing in diving. They were to close soon so I quickly introduced myself as the newbie that was starting her course the next day and was shown to the hostel I would be staying at.
Rich Coast Diving
When I decided I was going to get my scuba diving certification in Costa Rica, I asked the folks over at PADI if they had any recommendations for dive shops in Costa Rica and their response: Rich Coast Diving.
This was perfect as I was headed to Guanacaste to stay at an eco-lodge anyway. Rich Coast Diving is located in Playas del Coco, Guanacaste and is the only CDC facility in Costa Rica. CDC stands for career development center and means they dedicate time to the professional development of PADI instructors.
In addition, Rich Coast Diving offers what most PADI dive shops in Costa Rica offer – PADI courses, local diving, snorkeling, equipment rental, and more. They also do island trips. Depending on the season, they go to the Catalina Islands in Costa Rica to see manta rays and the Bats Islands in Costa Rica to see bull sharks.
Rich Coast Diving is owned and operated by Brenda and Martin from the Netherlands who took over the shop in 2005 and have been living that Pura Vida life ever since. Along with their other accolades, Rich Coast Diving has a Green Star award and are doing their part to take care of the oceans including donating a portion of every certification to Project Aware.
Day 1 – Complete and Utter Meltdown
Some people would possibly be more scared of the 7AM start time than the actual diving. As a newfound early riser these past few years, I was up well before that though seemingly going over all the scenarios in which things could go horribly wrong. I skipped my morning coffee in hopes that it would not add to my jitters which was a great call.
Day one started okay but I was still unaware of the trauma I was about to mentally unpack. I walked the couple minutes to the Rich Coast Diving shop where I was met with all of the staff and interns who – I can not stress this enough – were all above and beyond extremely kind individuals. I truly don’t know if it’s just a diving thing but not a single soul made me feel uncomfortable. Coming from an introvert with anxiety, that’s not common for me. I often feel out of place especially in situations where I have no idea what’s going to happen or how to do something.
The day started by trying on and finding the gear that would fit me the best. I want to express something very clearly. Getting into a wet suit is no easy feat. You will suddenly be hyper-aware of every inch of extra fat you have and just how out of shape you may be. You know how it is when you try to put on pantyhose? Okay, imagine that…but way harder.
After finding the right size gear – wetsuit, mask, BCD, and fins – we headed upstairs to go over the debriefing. Since I had completed the PADI eLearning ahead of time (and by ahead of time – I mean on the plane ride there), I just had to do a quick written test to let my instructor know what page I was on. My instructor, Tom, explained what we would be doing the first day in the pool. Afterwards, we piled in the truck with all of our gear and drove five minutes down the road to the pool.
We sat in the shallow end and I listened while he explained all the techniques and lessons we had to accomplish that day. Still feeling okay at this point but I’m also not trying to mimic a fish yet either so that makes sense.
Within the first few seconds of going underwater, it was clear that this was going to be a far bigger challenge than I ever anticipated. While I logically knew that I could breathe fine underwater, it didn’t feel natural at all. It didn’t feel like I should be under the water. Even in five feet of pool water, I felt claustrophobic at the mere thought of being underwater. I would shoot back to the surface every thirty seconds. The idea was to communicate with my instructor underwater, to get used to being there. I simply couldn’t though.
During the time I could manage to stay underwater, we started working on the required skills for the first section and the ever-dreaded mask clearing was my undoing. I’m aware now that this is where many people have trouble. There are many times during your certification that you will have to clear your mask. You will purposefully half-fill, fully fill, or remove your mask and then you have to be able to clear the water while you’re still underwater. It sounds simple and perhaps after your very own 20-minute meltdown, it will be simple for you too.
I tried and I freaked out.
Full on. Lost my mind. Complete panic attack. Twenty minutes of crying – which I do not do often and definitely not in front of strangers. I told my mom later that day, when I was done, that I cried and she knew how big of a deal that was. There was hand-holding. There was hugging. There were lots of consoling words. There was a runny nose, crocodile tears, and a defiantly made up mind that I was done. My body was there but in my brain, I was already planning what I was going to do for the next three days since I wouldn’t be finishing my certification now.
For twenty minutes or so, I was checked-out. It was a back and forth battle between my instructor and I. He would say, “If we don’t keep going now, then we’re done. The longer you stay at the surface, the less chance you’ll continue.” To which I replied, “Okay, I think I’m done then.” Rinse and repeat.
I’m not even entirely sure what made me continue. Perhaps it was the divemaster in training, Mylene, that was with us during my four days of training who shared her story of how she had the same experience during her open water certification. Perhaps it was my instructor’s gentle but persistent pushing. Perhaps it was that the only thing that can give my anxiety a run for its money is my stubbornness.
While section one took me about three hours to complete after I got over my crisis, I was able to move through section two in roughly an hour and we called it a day.
Day 2 – Making a Comeback
Even after I finally finished day one, I was still contemplating not continuing. Yes, I was proud that I had gotten past those fears but I wasn’t over them. My stomach was in knots, my thoughts were rapidly firing but all over the place and the ever-looming presence of all this happening in the ocean was getting closer and closer.
I spent the rest of the afternoon of day one re-reading theory to better understand the mechanics of everything, reading articles on dealing with anxiety while scuba diving, doing guided meditations for breathing, and talking with my friends who are experienced divers. I woke up on day two and forced myself out the door again.
One of the main things I did to get myself back there on day two was to make a list of all the difficult things I had ever done in my life – tore my ACL and lived through a four-year extremely toxic and abusive relationship, for example. I decided that if I could live through these things that I could do this. Sounds crazy because this is just a little simple diving compared to those things right? Anxiety and PTSD work in mysterious ways though, my friends.
All of these things combined somehow helped me though and quite dramatically I’d say. I could feel myself becoming more comfortable being underwater for longer lengths of time and was clearing my mask like a pro now. If day one was scored as a zero in my book, then day two was a six or seven. I was happy with that vast improvement.
Day 3 – Time for the Ocean
Day two gave me back a tiny shred of self-esteem and dignity. I was able to complete without tears. The things that had given me so much grief the day before still made me anxious but I wasn’t hyperventilating either.
After making sure we had our gear and debriefed the plan for the day, we made the walk towards the beach to catch the boat. I spent the walk to the beach working on deep mouth breathing. You don’t realize how much you don’t breathe out of your mouth until you’re trying to breathe out of your mouth on purpose. Turns out – these mouth breathing exercises made a huge difference for me.
On the boat was myself, a guy on the last day of his open water training, a few other divers, and the dive crew. I was feeling okay and excited to see some animals. I assumed actually seeing things might take my mind off some of my fears and worries.
I got on all of my gear with help from the crew, I waddled over to the edge of the boat in my fins, tried to convince my brain that, yes, we’re doing this, and took one giant leap into the ocean. I took the regulator out of my mouth and swapped it for my snorkel and decided to take a peek into the water. Instant terrible idea. I remember thinking “Uh, no. That’s big. Really big.” And, of course, I knew the ocean was huge but it feels big enough looking at it from the beach or a boat. Try being in it, putting your face under the water and realizing you’re about to descend 60 feet into that. Regardless, I was determined to see animals. I had come this far already.
We went to descend and the second I was fully submerged, I freaked out and popped back up. I started hyperventilating and felt another major panic attack coming on. Luckily, I was able to regain composure within a few minutes and my instructor told me I was making it worse by staying on the surface imagining all the things that could go wrong. So, I reluctantly agreed to try again. I was still feeling on the verge of a panic attack for the first several feet and then everything shifted. Instead of feeling claustrophobic, I felt euphoric. I was surrounded by so many different brightly colored fish.
Fish are pretty cool don’t get me wrong. But, my only experience with fish was seeing them at aquariums or pet stores. This was different. I had set aside my own fear and anxiety to come and meet them on their own terms and that will forever be life-changing.
“In a world of seven billion people, where every inch of land has been mapped, much of it developed, and too much of it destroyed, the sea remains the final unseen, untouched, and undiscovered wilderness, the planet’s last great frontier. There are no mobile phones down there, no e-mails, no tweeting, no twerking, no car keys to lose, no terrorist threats, no birthdays to forget, no penalties for late credit card payments, and no dog shit to step in before a job interview. All the stress, noise, and distractions of life are left at the surface. The ocean is the last truly quiet place on Earth.” – James Nestor, Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
I came home and instantly wanted to start ingesting more knowledge about the ocean. I’ve rented several books about the ocean and have just finished this one by James Nestor and I found this quote really sums it up. Water makes up 71% of the planet and, yet, it is the most undiscovered. At only 60 feet down, I felt like I had entered another universe and the deepest known point of the ocean is over 30,000 feet deep.
Back to day three though. Day three consists of two open water (or ocean) dives with approximately an hour break in between where you can spend chatting with the other divers, snacking on fresh fruit, taking photos, or simply just relaxing. I had to complete several skills in each of these dives as well in between just taking it all in.
On my first day, I spotted several eagle rays including a fever of five stingrays, two white-tip reef sharks, a plethora of pufferfish, and more fish than I can possibly name.
Day 4 – Successfully a New Diver
By this point, I knew I could finish. I felt much better. I was actually looking forward to diving now. That’s not at all to say my nerves weren’t still insane and my anxiety was still making me second guess myself every two seconds.
The first dive of day four still includes several skills needing to be performed but the last dive is simply just diving and enjoying the experience. I was able to spot several southern stingrays, more eagle rays, rounded stingrays, eels, pufferfish, these adorable little sea slugs called nudibranch, and more.
At the end of my last dive, I was a different person than I was four days before. Did it cure my anxiety? Of course not.
Did it make me remember how strong and capable I am? Yes.
Did it invoke a newfound thirst for knowledge and a new level of exploration? Absolutely.
Ever since that last day, I haven’t spent one day not thinking about getting back in the ocean. I’ve already started planning other trips and finding a local dive shop in Nashville.
After completing everything I needed to at the shop, I headed back to take a shower and grab my bags. I was on to the next adventure, but I made sure to stop back in and let everyone know how much the past four days had meant to me. How I couldn’t have found a more perfect dive shop, a more perfect instructor, and a more perfect experience. I sound like a broken record at this point but I don’t know that they’ll ever understand what they truly did for me.
Overview of My Experience Getting Certified with Rich Coast Diving
As if it would come as any surprise but would I urge anyone contemplating their certification to do it? Yes! Know that you’re not alone in your fears and anxiety and I’m just an inbox away.
I would urge anyone contemplating scuba diving in Guanacaste Costa Rica to utilize Rich Coast Diving’s services. I think you’ll be blown away by their warmth and hospitality.
A huge thank you to Brenda and Martin for allowing me to experience Rich Coast Diving, to Tom, my instructor, for pushing me through to the end, to Mylene for literally holding my hand through the experience, and to everyone else I met at Rich Coast Diving for being so welcoming and reassuring.
Psst: Looking for more Costa Rica posts? Check out a few of our other posts!
- Vegan Guide for Playas del Coco
- Vegan Guide for Tamarindo
What to Pack for Diving
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**My experience with Rich Coast Diving was a hosted experience including my open water certification and this is an honest review. I, in no way, felt inclined to give a positive review of the service. The content and opinions expressed here are my own. I only promote products and services via Wild Hearted that I have tested and loved.**