Getting my scuba certification in paradise

9. Get my scuba certification

Since before I can remember, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the ocean. The ocean is one of my favorite things to live by, look at, go to, and I love the beach. I know whenever I settle down, it will have to be in a place near the ocean, as I’ve grown up my whole life with the salty ocean breeze as the air I breathe.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve always had trepidation when it comes to swimming in the ocean, the immensity of it, the unpredictability it represents. I think my main issue is with waves, and that fear I have in the back of my mind of drowning because I’m not a very strong swimmer. And, I have the added bonus of being prone to sea sickness on boats.

The only bad experience I can remember with the ocean is when I was 8 or 9, my dad took me out boogey boarding, to a spot further out than I had gone before. He turned his back for a minute to talk to my brother, and a wave crashed over me with no warning. I just remember not being able to pick myself up again, the ocean kept dragging me in, and I felt completely helpless and resigned, until my dad found me and helped me out of the ocean.

That experience is partly why I’m a walking oxymoron of a California girl who doesn’t surf.

A fear I’ve been wanting to tackle because to my core I really do love the ocean, I took my first steps of getting over my apprehension by diving head first (literally) into my fear and took a 4 day PADI Open Water course to get my scuba certification on the lesser known island of Koh Rong Samloem, off the coast of Cambodia.

I was originally thinking of getting my certification in Thailand or Vietnam, it’s where most people get their PADI, and there are some well renowned dive shops in those two countries. However, I wanted a different, more personal experience than a big dive company that just cycles through certifications, and when I found out that Cambodia came out to be slightly cheaper anyway, I was sold.

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After some research, I chose The Dive Shop Cambodia. I was equally dreadful and beyond excited when I booked my dates for my PADI course, knowing how big of an accomplishment it would be for me if I was able to complete the course. Most people have heard of the party island of Koh Rong, but the course was instead on the more untouched neighbor island of Koh Rong Samloem. The Dive Shop actually owns the side of the island I stayed on, so the only people on the island are the instructors, the local Cambodian chefs, and the PADI students. When I was there, it was about 15 people in total.

It is the closest I’ve had to a serene deserted island paradise. There are only two restaurants/bungalows, no Wi-Fi, electricity is used only four hours a day, and there’s a jungle reminiscent of the TV show LOST to explore right in the middle of it all. There’s also an unhealthy amount of hermit crabs that take over the beach at night, we learned quickly to bring a flashlight with us at night.

Always the overachieving straight-A student, I took to reading my PADI Open Water theory book before we even left for the island. Once on the island, the first day was simply watching videos and eating some delicious Cambodian curry. The next day involved multiple quizzes, and one big exam to pass my written component of the certification. And then it was on to my first taste of salt water, the confined dives were in the shallow part of the ocean, this was clearly not going to be a gradual course.

Doing my course in the off-season (read: wet season) was both good and bad. I had one-on-one instruction with my teacher, Jake, but it was also stormy for most of my dives. The ocean was choppy and at times the sky would open up to torrential rains. My first day in the ocean, we had to walk right into the choppy waves from the beach. I managed to stifle an oncoming panic attack, took a deep breath, walked right into the waves that were getting more violent by the minute, and I breathed for the first time underwater.

It is like no other experience I have ever had, I can see why diving hooks people and never let’s them go. You use your all of your senses in such a different way, it’s a completely new world under the sea, and for the first time in my life I was a part of it.

The next two days consisted of open water dives, four in total in the deep sea, and I loved it. My only issues were taking off my mask under the water as I wear contacts so I had to take off my mask, put it back on, and clear it all while not being able to see. Being blind in the ocean freaked me out, but I was definitely not going to let a little thing like that keep me from getting my certification.

And I realized shortly after that it was especially important to keep my eyes closed since I had forgotten my extra pairs of contacts back on the mainland. In other words, I had no room to screw it up, or else I would be blind for the rest of my certification.

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Buoyancy is another aspect that took getting used to under the water, it all amounts to how deeply you breathe in and out. It reminded me of yoga and how you have to pay attention to your controlled breathing in order to reap the benefits of your practice. By my last dive, I finally had it down and I could easily go up and around corals, avoid sea life on the bottom, and really enjoy diving without thinking too hard about the details.

Overall, getting my Open Water PADI Certification was a great experience, and I would recommend The Dive Shop Cambodia. The only issue I had with the company was that they were a little disorganized, especially at their office on the mainland in Sihanoukville. It took a lot of effort to get my paperwork from them on time in order to send away for my PADI card. Regardless, I had a wonderful few days on the island, learning the ways of diving with my instructor, and most importantly, taking the first step towards getting over a deep rooted anxiety.

Next up is learning how to surf, and then I can truly fulfill the cliché of a California surfer girl. I guess it’s a good thing that I’ll have a whole summer in Australia to tackle the waves.

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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