So you don’t like fish… then why are you a dive instructor?

So you don’t like fish… then why are you a dive instructor?

I only recently admitted to my friends, colleagues and bosses that I do not particularly like fish. Why then, you may ask, am I a dive instructor?

Another truth that I had to admit to myself bosses, colleagues and even students and customers is that I initially did not enjoy diving. Everything was foreign to me; the gear was uncomfortable and heavy and made me feel restricted. I did not want to trust the regulator for giving me the air that I needed and my mask kept leaking, leaving me feeling like I’m sniffing the entire pool up my nose.

Diving in colder water meant that I had to struggle my way into a 5mm wet suit that left me panting, hot and feeling like the Michelin man. This might lead you to another question: Why did I continue diving?

Anything you can do, I can do better!

My brother was the first in our family to take up this ‘extreme sport’ and convinced my father to join him. I was then pulled in with the motivation that this will be a good way to spend some family time away from the city life.

Being the nerd that I am I applied as much discipline and dedication to learning the theory and skills for the open water course as I did to my university studies. I even pushed further to do my very first sea dive (up to this point my diving was restricted to diving in a quarry where, amongst the artificial wrecks of helicopters, busses, planes and yachts you miiiight spot a fish or two) and here I completed my Advanced open water course.

By this time I had caught up to the certification level that my brother and dad had achieved. Now, it has to be mentioned that my family is very competitive. It is natural, then that we were not content with being mere recreational divers. I competed with my brother and father all the way through the EFR and rescue courses, pushing my boundaries, adding to my skills and growing stronger as a diver and person. The boys and I eventually moved on to the Divemaster course.

It is during this challenging course where I found my passion for diving. As I became more comfortable in my new world under water I realised that I am by far not the only person who felt like a fish out of water at first.

As I assisted with students who took their first breath underwater, getting used to moving in this foreign space, learning skills that are completely new and even unnatural I realised that it not as easy for everyone as my instructors make it look.

Through the Dive master, Instructor development course and exams I learned that even instructors need to LEARN to make skills look easy. In fact for about a year I was not able to remove my mask without having a mini panic attack.

As I mentioned before my family is very competitive. We are not ones for giving up half way, for admitting that we cannot do something. This inability to leave something unfinished made me push myself to go into the pool on weekends, with some very good friends as my support, and practise removing and replacing my mask until my breathing became more relaxed and regular, until I no longer had to stand up, spluttering as soon as the water hit my face and pushed up my nose, until, eventually, I managed to swim with no mask, without looking like a startled puffer fish.

Turning tadpoles into mermaids

So why did I became a dive instructor? Because every time I struggled through removing my mask, replacing it and clearing it of water it became easier. With every try I was facing my fear, pushing my boundaries and becoming more and more empowered. The skill, you see, is not just a physical one but a mental one. It is filled with will power and endurance and the belief that you will not give up until you have conquered this.

I often see this in my students, see them struggling as they fight to keep their breathing regular, take some time to compose themselves and get control back. I see them fighting the panic. Sometimes the darkness takes over and we need to get up for a breather. We take a moment to rub the salt water from our eyes and, very un-lady like, clear the gunk from our sinuses.

Most of the times after a few moments on the surface they are ready to try again… ready to face the fear again… and conquer it. This, for me, is more rewarding than finding a brightly coloured fish or sea creature.

I am fortunate enough to see people struggle to overcome a fear every day, push their personal limits, empower themselves and grow stronger through facing that fear, pushing through the uncomfortable experiences and eventually come out from a dive with a sense of accomplishment. Maybe one day I’ll even see my little tadpoles turn into mermaids!

*A version of this article first appeared at

Juanita Pienaar

Juanita Pienaar is a citizen of the world, recently settled back down in her home country, South Africa, after spending time traveling and living in Asia and Africa. She has a passionate love affair with the ocean and loves to share that passion by teaching scuba diving. She is a yoga teacher and fully believe in finding the balance in life. She has recently discovered the joy and freedom of wearing yoga pants ‘out-and-about’. Juanita loses herself in the written and spoken word.

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