Mary, Post-Panic Attack, Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii

How Mary Conquered Her Fear of Water

& Learned To Love Scuba!

I’ve had a crippling fear of water (specifically, putting my face into it) ever since I was little.


For two weeks each summer, I stayed with my grandparents in New Hampshire on the banks of the Merrimack River. My grandmother would watch us play in the water, but couldn’t swim, so she was terrified that we’d go under and she wouldn’t be able to save us. You could see the tension in her eyes, encompassing her entire body. Her fear of water became my own, and I became more and more cautious every time I entered the water.


I also vividly remember getting caught up in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean at the Jersey Shore as a child. I was sitting at the shoreline and a huge wave tumbled me. I got caught up in wave after wave, rolling with the surf, and couldn’t find my way up for what seemed like a very long time. Even though I was close to the shore, it was very scary. Is it any wonder that even the thought of putting my face in the water started giving me the heebie-jeebies?

I’d gone snorkeling a few times in my life, but always walked in gradually from the shore, and always stayed in shallow depths. But in February 2009, three months after Bret and I met, we went snorkeling in Hawaii‘s Kealakekua Bay. I was extremely nervous about jumping from the Zodiac into the open water. If something went wrong, it didn’t look like there was an easy way to climb back in the boat or hold onto anything. My fear of water had never been stronger.



Snorkeling With Sea Turtles on Hawaii’s Big Island


So when it was time to snorkel and everyone else jumped into the water, I had a full-blown panic attack. I couldn’t breathe. My heart was beating so fast, it felt like it was gonna jump out of my chest. I felt like I was going to be swallowed up by my fear. I choked back tears, and I felt helpless to make even the slightest move towards the water.


At the same time, I didn’t want to miss out, and I didn’t want Bret to see my fear. So I gathered just enough courage to jump in the water, and then I panicked again. I felt frantic, with an out-of-control loop of thoughts in my mind. My tremendous fear battled with embarrassment. Finally, with a lot of coaching and encouragement, a few minutes to collect myself, and a death grip on Bret’s hand, we were snorkeling together for the first time.


The next day we snorkeled with sea turtles, and it was much better because we walked in from the shore.  I wore a life vest (even though I can swim) and held Bret’s hand, as I was nervous to go to a place where I couldn’t touch. But the sea turtles were incredibly curious and would swim right up to us. In that moment, I forgot how scared I was and got lost in amazement at these gorgeous, graceful 300 lb creatures. Perhaps that reward was what convinced me to push myself even further on our next trip.



Dolphin Training at Curacao’s Dolphin Academy

The thought of diving 15 ft down in Curacao’s Dolphin Academy made me totally terrified. You had to be completely self-sufficient with your own Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, and our brief hour of classroom instruction was nowhere near complete enough to help me conquer my fear of water. Getting in (and under) the water was really rough, but as soon as I settled in and saw the fish and coral of so many different colors, I started to calm down a bit (though I still held a death grip on the Divemaster’s hand to steady my nerves).


When the dolphins started interacting with us, I remember giggling and feeling an overwhelming sense of joy.  Slowly, I was finally able to let go of the Divemaster’s hand and enjoy an entire underwater world that I’d never seen before. By the end of the dive, I was 10 feet down, hand-feeding huge sharks through a plexiglass hole!



White Tipped Reef Shark in Panama


Diving in Panama’s Coiba National Park was a whole new experience. We had extensive 1-on-1 instruction before our first dive, and I got to practice the basic skills in shallow water. When I told our instructor that I feared putting my face in the water, he asked me why. And for the first time ever, I verbalized my fear of water– that it would get in my mask and I’d become disoriented, lose my contacts, become blinded, and no one would be able to help me. As soon as I said it out loud, I thought, “Oh, that’s what it is? I can deal with that!”


When we jumped off the boat after our Discover Scuba training, I was scared for about the first 10 seconds. Then I saw how beautiful the water was and how colorful the fish were. For the first time, I didn’t hold the Divemaster’s hand out of fear. When we got about 40 ft down, we saw four white-tipped reef sharks, which was fantastic. I had more trouble containing my excitement than containing my fear. I knew then that I wanted to get Scuba certified.



Scuba Diving Coiba National Park


Learning the facts about Scuba during our 6-week class at The Dive Shop made all the difference in dealing with my emotional fear response. We spent hours in the 12-foot indoor pool, practicing simple strategies like STOP, THINK, BREATHE & ACT. The basic rationality of, “If you’re breathing, everything is good, and you can figure out the rest later” taught me how to deal with issues logically and control my panic. It made a huge difference for me, both in and out of the water.


Some people get certified in 2-day resort dive courses, but because of my fear of water I really needed the 6-week class. We learned to take our mask off, put it back on and clear it. We learned to throw our regulator hose over our shoulders underwater, and then find it, clear it and breathe normally. We learned to pretend to be out of air, and share air with our buddies. I needed the practice and the challenges of these skills to make me face my fear of water.


Our instructor, Alan Spears, was wonderful. When we were down 60 ft in Fort Lauderdale, doing our Open Water certification dives and executing the skills we’d practiced in the pool, I could hear Alan’s voice in my head, saying, “STOP, THINK, BREATHE & ACT.”  In the pool, Alan was patient and gave lots of encouragement, which was really appreciated. He knew I was scared, but didn’t judge me for it. Having the logical strategies for how to deal with my fear of water helped tremendously.



Celebrating our Scuba Certification in Fort Lauderdale


In Fort Lauderdale, where we got certified by Nick Casper with South Florida Diving Headquarters, we got to dive our first shipwreck, The Copenhagen. I’d never done anything like that before, so seeing the remnants of the ship with a rare red grouper, trumpetfish, cowfish and myriad other species swimming around and fan coral growing on the anchor was pretty incredible. There was a group of advanced divers on our boat that dived a more intact shipwreck 90 ft down. We weren’t experienced enough for that, but it made me think how cool that must be to see a full shipwreck, and it made me want to do even more Scuba training in the future. When Nick isn’t diving, he’s working on his Masters at Nova Southeastern University and is a wealth of information about marine life. Nick took special care to point out several invasive lionfish hiding under rock ledges while we were underwater and later explained how they are eating the native red grouper’s food source causing them to die of starvation.


It’s been an interesting evolution since my first open water snorkeling experience in Hawaii four years ago. The first step I take into open water, I always hear the scared little voice in my head saying, “I don’t want to!” But now, I know that I can. I feel much stronger after getting Scuba certified. I was so scared of open water for so long, but now I think I can use some of the same coping mechanisms I learned in the class for other areas of my life.


So what would I say to others who have a fear of water? Figure out why you’re scared, and then focus on the logic instead of the emotion. Use the logic to combat fear, because there is a whole new world beneath the sea that is waiting for you to explore. Honestly, I don’t think you can have a full appreciation of the ocean without seeing what’s in it up close. There’s a whole incredible ecosystem of coral, fish and other marine creatures so varied in color, shape and size that it’ll blow your mind. Face your fear head-on, and you’ll feel much stronger for doing so!  –Mary Gabbett 


If you enjoyed our story about Facing A Fear of Water, you might also like: 

HAWAII: Outdoor Adventures on Hawaii’s Big Island

CURACAO- Top 5 Eco Attractions

PANAMA Photo Gallery- Sharks, Crocs & Prison at Coiba National Park

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS- Swimming With Sea Lions




51 Responses to How Mary Conquered Her Fear of Water & Learned To Love Scuba!

  • Jim says:

    Way to go Mary, brave girl! Shame to miss out on such experiences by letting fear hold you back! Now a whole new dimension to this world has opened up.

  • Alyson says:

    I was the same! Scared to death of deep water and not being able to see what was down there, terrible Jaws like images would run through my head and I’d panic. BUT, I’ve always loved marine wildlife with a passion so I gave the scuba thing a try. Loved it! When you’re under the water and can see everything around you it takes away the fear, for me, anyway. That was 12 years ago. I had one terrifying scuba experience, it’s in my travel horror stories, I really should write a full post about it, but I got straight back in the water because what was down there was just too beautiful to miss. The kids stop us diving so much these days, but we manage to snorkel whenever we can, we live on the Great Barrier Reef so we have an advantage there! Well done Mary!

  • Good for you Mary, conquering the fear! Great first post too…hope to see more from you here:)

  • Very encouraging to read this. As my husband can tell you, I refused to get within 600 feet of his Scuba class during our Belize honeymoon! Perhaps someday I shall conquer my fear as you have!

    • I’m a big fan of starting with snorkeling from the shore. It’s a great way to control how deep you go. I’m also a super big fan of holding someone’s hand the first few times. I held 3 different Dive Master’s hands on multiple occasions before I could do it on my own. There’s nothing wrong with taking tiny steps 🙂

  • I’m not afraid of the water but I found learning to scuba dive very confronting – the fear of powerlessness should anything go wrong – and nearly quit after the first day. I persevered and felt a huge sense of accomplishment in controlling my fear and getting certified. Rock climbing can have similar fears – but the satisfaction of controlling (rational) fears and continuing up the cliff makes me feel strong. Well done Mary and great piece. Can’t believe you haven’t written anything until now!

  • Rachel says:

    A fear I share with you Mary — or used to before you conquered it.

    I have yet to face my fear of scuba diving. But your words have clarified a lot of the things I didn’t know, which were the cause for my vague fear in the first place.

    I won’t say I can’t wait to try, because I’m still pretty tentative about the whole thing. But I know that I will, and your story has a lot to do with what I’ll be thinking and feeling in those final moments before I take the plunge.

    Thank you, Mary!

    • Thank you for your kind words. I was really embarrassed by my fear and it makes me feel good to think that someone might benefit from my story. It took me 4 years to go from being terrified to certified. While I’ll probably always be scared when I jump into open water, at least now I have the tools to calm myself down and enjoy it. It’s OK to be scared, just don’t let it hold you back! You can do it 🙂

  • gabi klaf says:

    i admire your ability to overcome your fear of water. i’ve seen jaws too many times as a child to get near the water. maybe one day. i truly admire this, and the underwater world you discovered…

    • I appreciate your kind words. It’s funny that you mention the movie Jaws. I saw white tip reef sharks on both of my Resort/Discover Scuba dives and they never scared me. I was more concerned with the whole not being able to breath underwater thing.

  • Right on, Mary! We are so proud of you.

  • I’m not scared of water/snorkeling etc, but the idea of being many feet underwater and having something go wrong terrifies me. I tried taking scuba diving classes and ended up quitting part way through… hopefully one of these days I’ll be able to try it again because it seems like there’s an amazing world under the ocean just waiting to be seen. Congratulations on conquering your fear!

    • We got half way through our scuba class when Bret wanted to quit. I seriously think he is part fish and didn’t need as much practice. We were also insanely busy at the time. As for me, it took a lot of courage for me to even sign up for the class and I knew if I stopped at any point that I might chicken out. I have my fear to thank for getting me through the class. The most helpful part of the class was practicing all of the “what if” scenarios – what if I run out of air, or my mask fills up with water, or my BC gets caught on something. Now that I know what to do, I feel a lot calmer being many feet underwater.

  • Sophie says:

    Good on ya, Mary. Very courageous! Not too keen on water myself, don’t even like getting water in my face in the shower. Or flying across an ocean. Very silly. Even though I’ve tried all sorts of watery activities, like rafting the Zambezi, or walking on the bottom of the sea with one of those odd helmets, I’ve never really gotten past being uncomfortable in water. Fortunately it doesn’t extend to boats. I love sailing.

    • LOL, I face backward in the shower so my face doesn’t get wet too! It took me 4 years with multiple snorkeling trips and two dive resort courses to have enough courage to enroll in a scuba certification class. I don’t think I’ll ever be totally at ease in the water, but at least now I can calm myself enough to enjoy it. I’d love to try sailing!

  • Ava Apollo says:

    GO MARY! SCUBA is just awesome.

  • Angela says:

    Fantastic experience, I would spend most of my day floating in such crystal waters!

  • Paul Krol says:

    I’m gonna fwd. this article to my wife, as she’s afraid of water as well! Hope it works out for her too.

    • It was a 4 year journey for me from panic attack to getting scuba certified. Taking a 6 week course and practicing in a pool made all the difference in helping me deal with my fear. I recommend lots of patience and encouragement 🙂

  • Laurence says:

    Superb post Mary – congratulations. Conquering a fear is always a massive achievement, and the positive way you did this could really apply to any fear. The only thing I’ve got that comes close to this would be slight vertigo in certain situations.. although my body generally seems to take over and leave my brain out of it 😉 Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Laurence! I appreciate your kind words. Facing any fear is something to be celebrated. Based on your amazing photos from extremely high vistas, I would have never thought that you struggled with vertigo. Then again, most people didn’t know I had a fear of water. Good for you for powering through whatever tries to hold you back.

  • Vera says:

    I love your post – I always find it very inspiring when people share their fears, and in your case, you have even overcome them!! I’m pretty sure that’s quite rare, actually. Water-wise I’m in the ‘fish’ category – the kind of fish that swims and snorkels, but doesn’t dive. About ten years ago, I started having panic attacks – I felt I couldn’t breathe. I have never been exactly confident, but was always willing to try new stuff, which changed due to something that wasn’t even logical. And although I would really want to try diving, the idea that I could have a panic attack under water makes me put it off. Reading how you managed to master your fear (and like you say, not only for the water, but for life in general) by taking your time, pushing your boundaries and acknowledging the rewards, opened up the possibility for me that maybe the problem is the solution, and therefore not to be avoided, but to be tackled. Now I just need to find the time, place and money for a 6-week diving course:) Thanks for sharing, and to many more awesome underwater trips!

    • Thank you for sharing your story and struggle. The fear of the unknown is pretty regular thing in my life. I’ve come to accept that I’ll most likely always be scared of new things, but as long as I don’t let the fear hold me back then that’s OK. Finding the time & money for the course is no small task. I hope you find a way to make it work because I think you would really like it!

  • Anita says:

    Wow! Congrats! That’s such a big deal! I bet it has been such a special experience! The shots are beautiful as well!

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  • I think scuba diving is difficult for everyone to learn. I cannot imagine how much harder it would be with a fear of water. Well done!

  • Linda says:

    Great piece, and very encouraging for anyone who thinks they can’t do it. I was just the same, and add to that that I don’t even swim that well (for the same reason – something inherited from my father)! I think it took me around 6 weeks too (don’t remember how many times per week) and I was lucky to have an instructor in whom I had utmost confidence and who had great patience with me. There were times when I felt I was only denting my self esteem, but in the end, having achieved certification of course it did the opposite, and boosted it! The course was a 50th birthday present, so it helped dispel any notions about being past-it-at-50 too!

    I do think everyone should do the proper certification though. My son has worked as an assistant instructor and has stories of supposedly “qualified” divers making awful mistakes/panicking/being a danger. As you say, it also helps build up confidence too. Sooner or later something will happen you don’t expect (as it did to me) and you need to not panic!

    • Thank you for your kind words. It’s been interesting to learn how many people struggle with the fear of water. Yay for you! I love reading that you believe in yourself and your abilities regardless of age. Great inspiration for all of us who are not in our 20’s anymore! 🙂

  • Jarmo says:

    Glad that you got over your fear of water, diving is so amazing. I love it, so many amazing things to see down there!

  • Great post! I am also a little afraid of water – but for more practical reasons – I actually can’t properly swim. I took classes as a kid but never made it past one of the basic levels, and they failed me so many times in a row that my mom refused to pay for any more lessons haha! I can float, and probably not die if there isn’t a strong current, but I don’t have the strength in my arms especially to actually swim. Whenever I go snorkelling I always take one those floaty noodle things with me which makes me look like a gigantic loser, but I feel more calm knowing that I wont get tired and just sink!

  • Well done Mary! I’m a big scuba diving fanatic and find the experience incredibly satisfying and exhilarating – I hope you get to do more!

  • Congratulations! I’m half-way there — conquered snorkeling this summer!

  • Congrats Mary! Many of us can learn from your example. I’m a firm believer that all fears can be conquered with time. Welcome to the SCUBA club! 😀

  • Lauren says:

    Well done, Mary! I’m absolutely terrified of diving.. I’ve had discover SCUBA lessons booked and cancelled them about 5 times now… I just can’t work up the courage, although posts like yours help 🙂 One day!

  • Ali says:

    Congrats Mary! That’s so awesome that you faced your fear and you’re now certified for SCUBA! It’s always a great feeling to realize you’re stronger than your fear and to conquer that fear.

  • Turtle says:

    Awesome! And what a way to overcome that fear! I guess if anything is going to be worth doing it for, though, it would be this. Looks fantastic!

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  • Giulia says:

    I spent 30 years of my life swearing I would never dive, and I even worked in a dive shop without ever trying it… and then I don’t know what happened, someone convinced me, I gave it a try, and I got certified and love it! Can’t wait to dive more and planning a visit to the Red Sea for the purpose. Also, I lived in Egypt for years and never took advantage of the Red Sea… I think I missed out!!!
    Glad to hear you had a similar experience, water always scared me too, but then when you enter the water, it’s so peaceful and beautiful. Well done:)
    Giulia recently posted..When you live in Roatan…My Profile

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  • So great to hear stories like this! I love the water but I’ve always been afraid of going under the “ocean”. I get so nervous when snorkeling that I panic, just like you explained. I’m hoping to have an open mind to scuba diving since my husband loves it! If you can do, I guess I can too! Thanks for sharing!
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  • Ria says:

    I read your story and I can say I feel the same 🙂 I scared to drown so all water activities seems to me so scary 🙁 But just last weekend I faced my fear – wasn’t easy but I did my first ever scuba diving 🙂 I can admit that diving was easier than snorkeling 😀
    Ria recently posted..Facing my fears – first scuba diving in BaliMy Profile

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