Flashback: Fighting for Breath

Just the other day, I was going through old files when I chanced upon some scuba diving photos from a Tioman trip back in June 2014. It was the first time I took up diving and the experience resides so vividly in memory.

I’ve told this story, probably, numerous of times to people who ask how the trip went but I never got to put pen to paper and write about it – with accompanying pictures. As excited beginners, my best friend and I flooded our cameras with buttloads of shots of the underwater world – some brilliant, some plain scrap.

So to those who haven’t heard of my hilariously traumatising diving experience, let me tell you of the day I thought was going to be my last.

A nong, nong, nong time ago in Singapore, two friends decided to escape to Tioman, Malaysia for a weekend getaway. Young, wild and free, they encountered sea snakes, conquered boulders at midnight to stargaze, terrorised sleeping villages with roaring ATVs, jumped off rapid waterfalls, snorkelled without life vests and dove without wetsuits in open water.

You see, the adventurous, yet reckless duo hadn’t bothered to get travel insurance thinking nothing disastrous would happen to them. But Heizeline never thought she would find herself fighting for breath metres deep underwater.

In the middle of the expedition, I was trailing a little bit behind to take selfies and pictures of corals and clownfishes. A while later, seawater had somehow crept its way into my lungs, and I could no longer breathe in through my mouthpiece. I started to suffocate.

Trailing a little behind my instructor and companion to snap shots.

If you ever find yourself trapped in water, take my word of advice, do not, I repeat, do not panic. In that situation, the right move would have been to stay calm and empty my lungs thoroughly by exhaling as much as possible. But I had allowed the frightening feeling to take control of me and my fight or flight response was to do the one thing that came to mind – swim to the surface. Real fast.

Now, while I was in a state of panic, I had not realised I dropped the GoPro which, funnily, sunk to the seabed and continued snapping shots of the entire ascension in burst mode.

Here is a rather unflattering shot of me giving up on my mouthpiece before making the ascension to the surface.

My instructor had noticed my distress and swam-chased after me. I had not realised he was following behind, my only focus was to be able to breathe again. The ascension was an arduous one – I did not know how deep underwater I was and halfway through, was starting to get exhausted before making it to the top.

Here is a GIF animation of me “swimming towards the light”. The first figure you see would be me, while the one following behind would be my instructor.

You hear stories of people experiencing a flashback of their lives when they’re at the verge of death and sure enough, I had mine as I swam towards the sunlight. As dramatic as it sounds, I wasn’t satisfied with my flashback, I felt there were so many more things I wanted to do in life. No way in hell I was gonna die at 21, so I strove on to reach the top. But just when I got super close to the surface, I felt something strong pull me down. My instructor was preventing me from making it to the surface.

He later told me he did that to prevent my lungs from rupturing due to the adjustment between water and air pressure – I was ascending too fast. But I didn’t know it at that point, so I wriggled myself out of his grasp, pushed him away and continued swimming to the surface.

Upon finally making it to the top and breathing again, I think I passed out a bit but was okay after a while, albeit, traumatised.

The lost GoPro was retrieved thanks to our instructor who knew the underwater route well – GoPro actually snapped a shot of him saving it.

Am I scarred for life? Would I go scuba diving again? Those were questions I got asked post-experience.

Sure, it was stressful, frightening, and traumatic when it happened but quite the humorous experience in retrospect. Classic Heizeline, choked on seawater and almost died.

But I will not let that experience deter me from scuba diving again. All in all, it was a breathtaking (figuratively and literally!) experience. Swimming alongside fishes, holding a clownfish in my hand, admiring beautiful corals and immersing in a totally different world is nothing like anything you will experience on land.

It’s amazing how much fear can inhibit our fervour for life, so don’t ever allow it.

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