Snorkeling in the Togean Islands

Looking Into the Abyss: Getting Over a Fear of Water

A contrarian’s guide to snorkeling and diving when you are scared of the deep

Just over a year ago, I refused to jump into the deep end of my local swimming pool despite the presence of three lifeguards. Just six months ago, I was deeply apprehensive about swimming over a coral drop off despite wearing a life vest. So, how did I fall in love with the ocean and end up scuba diving in the notorious currents of Komodo?

I am here to tell you that if I can learn to swim, snorkel and dive, then anyone can. Like many things in life, motivation and persistence are required. Oh, and it helps to be on a tropical beach with crystal-clear water and a fabulous coral reef.

Read on to find out how I went from being scared of deep water to plunging into the depths, and why you can and should too.

Why didn’t I learn to swim?

I have plenty of reasons (read: excuses) why I steadfastly avoided learning to swim. My school didn’t have a swimming pool or dedicated swimming program. When my dad took my brother and sister swimming on Saturdays, I played soccer. At college, swimming and booze didn’t seem a good mix. So, I practiced boozing and avoided the pool.

I recall sitting on the beach in Southsea fully clothed as my college buddies swam in the sea or skinny dipped. When I moved to London in my twenties, swimming just didn’t come to mind. Unsurprisingly, people who worked in the music business didn’t devote much time to the pool on their rare days off.

And so it went on.

You would have thought that any of the following might encourage me to learn to swim.

Looking on helplessly as your best mate nearly drowned in the waters just off Sri Lanka.

Being escorted through rivers a forbidding ten feet wide and two feet deep by two guides holding my hands in Northern Colombia. More humiliating is being shunted across a lake in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil by my fellow trekkers while sitting in a bathtub… with a dog.

Visiting famous dive and snorkel spots such as Roatan, Caye Caulker and the Red Sea and sitting on the beach while everyone else was having a whale of a time in the ocean.

In a fifteen-month trip to Asia in my early thirties I visited many many beaches. Did I jump in the enticing waters of the Andaman Sea to cool off on a sweltering afternoon? You guessed it. Nope!

I never thought I had any reason to go in the water. In addition, I never had any reason to fear the water either. It was just something I didn’t do.

What is going to make a boy wise up? Will anything motivate him to take the plunge?

Laura’s orders: learn to swim!

Swimming the dropoff. Togean Islands
Laura never guessed that I would graduate to this.

Laura swims. In Alaska, you don’t graduate high school unless you swim. Laura’s dad swims. And officiates swim meets. Laura’s sister, Kelsey, is a PADI divemaster. Laura’s record high school relay times sat proudly over her local pool for seventeen years. I was probably the first non-swimmer that her friends and family at home had ever met! Suddenly, swimming was on my radar for the first time since high school.

Laura didn’t push for the first few years of our relationship, but as soon as we had decided we would embark on a long backpacking trip overseas, she was fairly insistent I learned to swim.

Laura knows best, so who am I to argue?

I took my first swimming lessons three years ago. At first, personal safety was my motivation. Plenty of boats go down in Indonesia and my ass needed to be prepared to float. Also, I figured as I get older, swimming would be a more gentle and effective fitness regimen than running. But, you know what? Once I got in the water, these were never strong enough motivators.

I addition, I was convinced that I alone would suffer from what Laura dubbed ‘spontaneous sinking’. Despite evidence to the contrary, I figured that without aid I would spontaneously sink to the bottom and die a horrible death.

I take swimming lessons… with debatable results

I hated the pool. I hated the straight lines. I hated the smell. I hated the repetitive and tedious routine of swimming. I also absolutely refused to believe I would float. Despite fully understanding the physics of bodies floating, I irrationally believed I would be the exception to the rule.

I was also a stroppy miserable trainee swimmer. I was the one with an accent and an attitude and the instructors tended to give me a wide berth.

I reckon it took me a year before I swam a complete width of the pool in freestyle. I could not float on my back. I was shockingly terrible at breast stroke. I could only breathe on one side. I refused to cross the midpoint of the pool. Treading water was a dark art and I was never initiated into it. Not one teacher could get me to jump into the deep end despite the fact that I watched several other people jump in and bob back up to the surface.

One bossy teacher, Texas, managed to instill some bravery into me. I even managed to swim nine tenths of a length on three occasions. Then, Texas left for a new job in South Seattle. Damn! None of the other teachers could coax me into the deep end. They had other students to teach so they got on with that. Almost no-one but me did more than 10 weeks of swimming lessons. I did back to back sessions of ten weeks for two whole years. Sometimes I did two sets of classes a week.

‘Honey, we leave in a couple of months. How’s the swimming going?’
‘Pretty bad!’

As time ticked down to our departure date, I was ever more keen to get this swimming stuff sorted. One kid in my class said he was learning to swim because he wanted to snorkel on an upcoming trip to the Yucatan. Never occurred to me that would be an option. I still figured I would stay beach bound while Laura went off to explore the ocean. This swimming stuff was for emergencies only.

Laura was getting worried. She really wanted me to be confident in the water. I started having private lessons. I asked the pool to match me up with swim coaches who took no excuses and would get me in the deep. Didn’t happen. No-one can force you if you don’t want to. There is no rational reason why, but I just could not jump into deep water. There was a mental wall between me and it.

And, then it was time to leave. To be honest, we didn’t consider ourselves beach people so we hadn’t planned to be near the ocean much. For the first few months, the only wild water action we had was Laura briefly swimming in the chilly waters of Song Kul, a high altitude lake in Kyrgyzstan.

Bunaken Island – a pivotal moment in our trip

Pure Indonesia. Bunaken
The clear sea at Bunaken… where I didn’t get in.

Several months into the trip, we stopped off on the tiny island of Bunaken during our trip through the Indonesian province of Sulawesi. We stayed at a dive resort where Laura wanted to snorkel the reef.

Meals were communal so we ended up hearing lots of tales from divers. It sounded amazing. Surprisingly, Laura decided to do a discovery dive. Her sister, Kelsey, is an avid diver but Laura hadn’t really given it much thought until now. Laura loved it. Her first dive was a real beauty and she was hooked.

Togean Islands – swimming is way easier in the ocean

Sandy Bay, Malenge Island, Togean Islands
The coast of Malenge in the Togean Islands.

I have to admit that I was entranced by these stories of weird fish and gorgeous coral. We stopped at two beaches in the Togean Islands in Indonesia and both had small coral gardens in front. Laura ventured out and came back and raved about it. F@##! I felt like I was missing out.

I gritted my teeth and waded in. It was the first time I had ever been in the ocean. And it wasn’t pleasant. I forgot to put my goggles over my eyes and got water in my nose. But, floating was easier in salt water and somehow I felt more comfortable in the ocean than in the pool. This did not make sense to me. The ocean was big, deep, and scary, right?

My first experience of coral gardens and tropical fish was decidedly unimpressive in hindsight. Some smallish lumps of pretty coral and the odd Moorish idol. Still, this was much more fascinating than plodding along in a chlorinated pool. There is something very institutional about swimming pools. Paul doesn’t like institutional.

I also had one huge moment of realizing how much I was missing out on by not swimming. We took a boat out to a magnificent atoll. The water was incredibly clear and calm. Even from the boat I could see cool fish and coral. It was too deep for me to swim in but Laura had an epic snorkel while I waited in the boat. She came back and told me about reef sharks, cuttlefish, and massive bumphead parrotfish. Now, I was bummed!

Suddenly, I had a genuine reason for wanting to swim. I really wanted to see more of the ocean and its weird underwater world. My swimming was still crap but I kept going at it.

The house reef at Sera Beach Resort was interesting enough and coaxed me out into slightly deeper waters. That resort is set on a sheltered bay where I felt safe from the depths. Every morning and afternoon, Laura gave me swimming lessons. I got better, but every now and then I still had to put my feet down on the sandy bottom. On one occasion I got a bit carried away and swam much deeper than I intended. After ten minutes or so, I had to put my feet down. Alas, down was a lot further down than I imagined and I ended up sucking in saltwater as I sank. Laura came to the rescue and dragged me to the shallows. Even with this incident, there was significant improvement in my attitude towards water.

Ko Lanta – Laura gets her Open Water, Paul finds a ‘take no bullshit’ teacher

While Laura was doing her Open Water Course with Blue Planet Divers in Thailand, the owner of the dive shop gave me some swimming lessons. He gave me some good pointers on my stroke technique. More importantly, he didn’t accept any of my pathetic excuses for not getting in the deep end. He made me lie on the floor of the pool, he made me swim in the deep end, and then he put some scuba gear on me and guided me under the water for ten minutes or so. Not earth shattering stuff, but all very useful on this painfully slow journey.

Brave in the Banda Islands

A happy snorkeler. Hatta
The inviting waters of Pulau Hatta.

Hatta Island. If you cannot think of a decent reason to learn to swim, go to Hatta in the Banda Islands in Indonesia. Walk three feet out into the water and stick your head in it. You will see amazing coral and an incredible amount of weird and wonderful fish. If that doesn’t encourage you, then you have a genuine fear or hatred of water.

My first day in was frustrating and pathetic. But, I stuck at it. I snorkeled for hours at Hatta. I always had to have a safe spot where I could put my feet down on sand (never on the coral!) if I felt uncomfortable. But, I swam and swam. It was astonishing. We stayed there for five days and I can’t recall being happier. Laura was confident enough in my swimming to go wandering off to deeper spots as I snorkeled around the shallows.

My safe spot routine took a bit of a blow too. On our last day, an Aussie guy showed me some GoPro footage of a stonefish lurking on the sand. At Hatta reef. Seriously venomous and very hard to see on the sandy bottom. You gotta stay afloat, boy!

Deep water was still a no-go area for me. We did a snorkeling trip to Pulau Ai. Despite wearing a life vest and being surrounded by supportive and helpful swimmers I refused to go into the deep. Eventually, I dropped off the boat and clung for dear life onto the ladder. I let go a couple of times. The views were amazing.

Back to Banda: Off the Boat and Into the Deep

Snorkeling at Hatta
Snorkeling in deep water at Pulau Hatta.

We had many reasons to revisit the Banda Islands a few months later, but one of the key motivators was that it was an area that I associated with a huge improvement in my swimming. On our return, we went on a couple of snorkel trips that helped me break through a couple of mental barriers.

On the first trip to several snorkel spots around Banda Besar and Gunung Api, the usual fears came back. It wasn’t until the third snorkel of the day that I would jump in. I swam over a couple of small trenches in the reef that were clearly several meters deep. Later on, I jumped off the boat and swam in waters ten meters deep. Neptune rewarded me for my ‘bravery’. I saw my first shark!

A few days later, we went to Hatta for a day of snorkeling. I jumped right on in. But, hell, I was terrified. It was a moderate drift snorkel where the current carried us parallel to the shore. I kept looking at the boat as I drifted away. Nope, there was no way I could swim back. I decided I might as well try to enjoy it. It wasn’t so bad! Saw some fantastic fish and coral. Loving this shit!

The Philippines and Bali: It gets easier every time

Selfie. Moalboal
Me and Laura at Moalboal.

Almost laughably, Laura and I chatted about me doing an Open Water Diver course before the end of the trip. But before Laura opened the purse strings, she wanted to see how I coped in deeper waters. I swam with turtles in Apo Island. In Siquijor, I surprised Laura and abandoned the life vest for a deep water swim over the coral gardens at Tubod Marine Sanctuary.

In Moalboal, Laura challenged me to swim over a reef dropoff in water too deep to see the bottom. Even with a life vest on, this still terrified me. At first, I just couldn’t do it. Laura swam over the enormous swirling sardine shoal there and was insistent I join her. I was irrationally petrified. Laura offered to hold my hand. This seemed kind of pathetic and so I just took a deep breath and floated over the drop off. I loved it! I had so much fun chasing the sardines around to make them form swirly patterns that I completely forgot that I was 50m over the bottom of the ocean.

Next up, swim in the open ocean… with whale sharks. No problem. I jumped off the side of a boat and joyfully swam four feet above the world’s largest fish. A nine meter long whale shark is certainly more motivating than anything else thrown my way! The next day, I went in for more. Without Laura, while she was off diving. This was a big step. Laura had been a reassuring presence during all my previous fishy adventures.

This was becoming easy. Laura tried to see some manta rays on a dive in the Philippines but she only caught a fleeting glimpse of them. We had a stopover in Bali where there is a very famous manta cleaning station at Nusa Penida. We signed up for a snorkel trip. Once again, I leapt on in without a care in the world. I still felt awkward in the water, but the sight of the huge, graceful manta rays circling around the cleaning station overrode all my worries.

Diving in Komodo

Learning to dive in Komodo

Diving with my instructor at Komodo.

It still seems utterly ridiculous that I went diving in Komodo National Park. I was still petrified of the idea when I walked into Wicked Diving in Labuan Bajo. I didn’t finish my PADI course, partly because of Komodo’s notoriously difficult diving conditions and partly because I still don’t have great confidence maneuvering my body in the water. And, I will be honest, the ocean still scares the shit out of me.

Even so, I have dived in Komodo. I have had manta rays float over my head while I gripped onto a small piece of rock on the ocean floor. I have dived in one of Komodo’s notorious down currents. I have hurtled along 12m down in one of Komodo’s strongest side currents. I have seen octopus, trevally, napoleon wrasse, huge schools of anthias, grouper, batfish, turtles, squid, nudibranches, and filefish. I have manoeuvred through astonishing gardens of glorious coral. In fact, almost all my most memorable moments on this trip have been in or under the water.

Return to the Togean Islands: Snorkeling the dropoffs

Swimming splash. Togean Islands
Deep dropoff? No problem.

Why return to the Togeans? We had been once before. It is a pain in the ass to get to. And, our bucket list of other places to visit was rapidly expanding. I will tell you why. Because, it is awesome and the last time we visited we missed out on the all the great dives and snorkels as Buxton was such a wimp! Well, not to mention that neither of us were certified divers!

The Togeans were where our trip really came alive and it felt right that we return to finish up our trip at the place where I had my first taste of ocean love. I swam over crazy drop offs at Poya Lisa. I swam with lovably ugly bumphead parrotfish at Malenge. Even better, I snorkeled at the offshore atolls of Bomba and Reef #5. Both of which were utterly magical experiences.

Swimming changed our trip

Us at the desert island
Us, at a desert island in Komodo National Park.

I would have expected my top ten experiences of the trip to look like this.

  • Mount Everest and Gokyo Trek
  • Pamir Highway Trip in Tajikistan
  • Seven Lakes Trek in Tajikistan
  • Arslanbob Trek in Kyrgyzstan
  • Khiva, Uzbekistan
  • Kathmandu Valley
  • Mrauk U in Myanmar
  • Akha villages in Northern Laos
  • Ifugao Rice Terraces in Luzon
  • Seeing wild orangutans in Borneo

All good stuff with my feet planted on solid ground. All fantastic too. But, my actual top ten looks something like this.

  • Mount Everest and Gokyo
  • Diving in Komodo
  • Swimming with Mantas in Bali
  • Snorkeling in Hatta
  • Snorkeling in Komodo
  • Snorkeling in the Togean Islands
  • Swimming with Whale Sharks in Donsol
  • Snorkeling in the Moalboal Sardine Shoal
  • Khiva, Uzbekistan
  • Mrauk U in Myanmar

It just goes to show that you have to keep an open mind when you hit the road. Our trip has been hugely enriched by our ocean adventures. It has also opened up a multitude of options for shorter trips in the future. We are already planning trips to dive meccas such as French Polynesia, Raja Ampat, Belize, Seychelles, Maldives, and the Solomon Islands. I want to finish my Open Water certification so that I can dive with Laura on our next vacation. This was unthinkable less than a year ago.

Final Thoughts

Coral forest. Reef 5
The amazing underwater world.

I am not keen on pontificating on about my own personal growth. I have done plenty of that personal and career growth stuff over the years. But, I have never really shared my experiences with others. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of people have benefited from what I have learned. I just don’t share my personal stories of how I got there. So, I won’t start here!

But, I will say this. Much of the world above sea level is known to us and most of it is accessible. Sure, Mount Everest changes in different light and by the season. But, on the whole you pretty much know what you are going to get. The ocean is different. You can swim in the same spot day in day out and it is always different. You never know what will turn up. And, the ocean contains such weird and wonderful stuff. There is absolutely no equivalent above sea level. It is truly the most magnificent natural wonder on Earth. You might hate swimming, but I bet you will absolutely adore the underwater world. It took me a long time to find something to motivate me to do that swimming stuff. And, f#@k yeah, have I found it. So, here is a message to you reluctant swimmers.

Get back into that pool and swim. A whole new world is awaiting you!

3 thoughts on “Looking Into the Abyss: Getting Over a Fear of Water

  1. Mary Fedoroff

    As a fellow non-swimmer and after a lifetime of failed lessons and near-drownings, I appreciate hearing about your experiences in the water. Similarly, the motivation for me came from the curiosity of seeing what is under the surface and having the experience of immersion that world. I still do not swim well; you won’t catch me swimming laps in a community pool, but with proper floatation equipment and a source of air, I can and do enjoy the undersea world. Even though I am usually terrified.

    Reply
    1. Paul Buxton Post author

      Hi Mary! I often joke to Laura that some swimming pools should be salt water based with underwater screens that project ever changing scenes of oceanic life. Plenty of distraction and inspiration to swim. Probably a nightmare for life guards though. It is incredible that the fear can be so strong even when wearing a life jacket. I have to test out each one before I leap into the depths though. Hoping to finally crack the fear this winter. Hope there is a swim coach who will be straight up no-nonsense get your ass in the deep end type!

      Reply
  2. Lorraine

    I found your blog very interesting. I had the same problem. I have fear getting into water and getting drown. I learn something from you. Thank you!

    Reply

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