My only expectations of the Maldives were to relax by a white sand beach and gloat on social media about my overwater villa. From the plane, I could see the small islands surrounded by light blue waters different from the rest of the sea. Each little island had a tail that reminded me of manta rays, and each whipping tail had tiny huts visible from my plane, as I descended into Malé (the capital of the Maldives). When the plane finally landed, though, I was extremely excited to view my room and the other amenities at the brand-new Hilton Maldives Amingiri Resort and Spa.
Once settled in, I was excited to spend the following days relaxing by the water and stereotypically drinking a piña colada. However, a sudden change of plans led me to join a group on a snorkelling adventure, guided by a marine biologist, to the house reef of Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu. Wading in the water, I was not necessarily afraid but unsure how I would react to this activity, as I had tried once on another island and found myself unable to finish the excursion.
Putting the mask over my hair and fitting it above my facial hair felt unnatural. The slippery rubber of the cover was pulling at what felt like every facial hair, and only breathing through my mouth felt odd. As the group began swimming ahead, I shifted from side to side, attempting to put on my flippers. Finally ready, I almost belly-splashed into the water, fearing being left behind more than anything else.
Growing up, I’ve always dealt with various mental wellness topics, including anxiety, and being down there without knowing how to breathe put my body and mind on high alert. After moments of being in the water and not seeing anything, I panicked. My mask altered my typical breathing techniques, and my anxiety went overdrive. I began hyperventilating and had to pull out immediately.
The next day, I was ready to try again. I had found tools to work through my anxiety in other situations and felt better prepared. The day was filled with rain for the most part, and the ocean contained a milkiness creating poor visibility. Donning the rubbery mask and flippers, I listened carefully to what the instructor said. I didn’t know if it was my nervousness or general lack of understanding, but all I could hear was, “Listen to your breathing.” With those words, I tried again and could float in the water belly-down for a few moments. Hearing my breathing calmed me down instantly.
“Diving is a very mindful and meditative activity,” explained Sam Whiting, Marine Biologist and Diving Instructor at the Hilton Maldives Amingiri Resort and Spa. “So, for me, diving, meditation, and mindful breathing all go hand in hand. I noticed how much calmer my brain is because of diving and because of (mindful) breathing. Some people describe themselves as feeling trapped or claustrophobic in the water. Much of it is mental and has nothing to do with physical. It’s about a shift in perspective.
“My breathing is slow, methodical even. When beginner divers learn to blow water from their masks, it’s an exhilarating accomplishment. Diving is very satisfying because you’re in this foreign environment, and solving a problem underwater is mentally empowering. You have this positive reinforcement, and suddenly you feel like you accomplished something big even though it’s fairly simple. You have this feeling every time you dive, and you feel safer underwater.”
Feeling accomplished with my snorkel experience, I took a scuba diving lesson. I barely possessed any experience with snorkelling, much less scuba diving, but my one small accomplishment gave me enough confidence to try it out. The Maldives is known as a diving paradise, and I would have severe remorse if I didn’t at least try.
Again at Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu, I was instructed by a diving instructor and a fellow certified diver, and we were set to go under from the beach. Before doing so, we practiced quick dives a few times with the tank already on. With each practice dive, I felt my anxiety rising. First, my mask kept letting water in; then, my breathing was fast and short. A duo of beach loungers was staring from a distance, and I could feel my anxiety and shame overwhelming all other senses. Giving up, I told the instructor and diver to go on without me. The instructor asked me to try one more time and that they would hold my hand.
As we submerged, they joined their thumb and index finger to form a loop symbolizing “okay,” I responded with the same. Suddenly, we sank deeper since they controlled my lowering and rising mechanism. Following a large water pipe down, my panicked emotions could only produce one thought “you freak out now, and you will probably die.” Passing the same milkiness I encountered earlier, my thoughts raced to any doomsday situation they could form. It wasn’t until we passed the milk cloud that I saw it, and my thoughts went blank.
The house reef at Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu has had time to heal, and it was lush and colorful. My eyes blurred at the sight, but I saw a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, with pink and yellow corals and fish swimming around me once they focused. The bundles and colonies of coral swayed with the movement of water, waving hello to me. Their colors were so bright tears began forming in my eyes. Fish of all different types and colors—green, blue, and black—floated around us, dancing in schools that felt almost rehearsed.
I could hear my breathing going in and out, and at that moment, I felt a calmness that I had never felt before. I was in a new world, and my anxiety didn’t matter. As we swam further, my heartbeat slowed, and my breathing became uniform. At one moment, we pass by a Hawksbill sea turtle looping a coral. Barely paying attention to us, it bumped its shell on the coral and began rising to the surface. As I followed its trail with my eyes, I settled on the sun’s yellow glare from below the water. That’s when I knew this would be a life-long memory.
Relaxing in my modern over-the-water villa at the Hilton Maldives Amingiri Resort and Spa, a smile would emerge whenever I thought of my adventure, and I knew I would continue it. Walking along the wooden dock that connected the room to the Indian Ocean, I plopped down on the edge. I could hear and feel my breathing calm and steady. The experience had inadvertently created a healing point for my mental wellness.
“Everything in diving has to be slow and always starts with the breath.” Whiting continued, “The best dives are not about whether I see a whale shark or something I’ve never seen before. The best dives were when I was relaxed and in my own world.”