5 reasons why scuba diving is good for your health
Research shows that being near, in, on or under water can make you a happier, healthier and more connected humans. Discover why scuba diving is good for your mental health.
The boundless beauty of the ocean still astounds me as I glide over the long, elongated branches of an underwater paddock of dusky pink sea whips, swaying in the current below on Half Moon Wall. No matter how many times I dive into her depths, the mesmerizing colours, the changing shades of blue, the smell and the sounds of the sea still entrance me. What is it about water that intoxicates and draws us into a suspended state of bliss?
I am enjoying a week of scuba diving on one of Aggressor fleet’s liveaboard vessels stationed in Belize, home to the world’s second-longest barrier reef. The reef system that runs parallel to the country’s entire coastline, promising adrenalin-induced encounters with beautiful, bizarre life forms, countless species of fish and exotic gardens of soft and hard coral.
Get comfortable, admire the scenery. Take in the fascinating limestone formations alongside you. Eventually, all you will hear is the deep inhalations of your breathing.
Today’s dive is an eerie descent into the country’s Great Blue Hole — a giant marine sinkhole that, seen from the air, shimmers perfectly circular in shape, approximately 70km offshore at Lighthouse Reef. The famous 1971 explorations of Jacques Cousteau put the cave system on the map when he declared it one of the top five scuba diving sites in the world. Decorated with long, heavy stalactites dropping down from the cave ceiling like oversized, colossal teardrops; these can only form on dry land, confirming that sea levels must have risen at least 100 metres all that time ago.
As we glide through the southeastern passage on our early morning approach to the hole, the ocean’s deep aqua hues change to an eclectic mix of pale teal and translucent blue. The outside deck is bustling with an underlining energy pulsing through the divers. This will be a deep dive, perhaps deeper than many of us have ever done. Jerome, our boat captain, will lead today and he gathers everyone for a significant briefing. No one wants to mess things up at 40 metres.
“The hole is approximately 125 metres deep, so don’t go wandering off on your own somewhere getting lost. Stick close to the wall so that you don’t get disorientated. We will make our way over the sloping sand at about 12 metres and then begin our descent into the hole as a group. Be mindful to remain neutrally buoyant and try not to stir up too much sediment here at the beginning — whatever you stir up on top before descent will quickly come to meet you at the bottom, hindering our visibility,” Jerome says.
Everyone is listening intently; there’s none of the usual banter and chatter. “As we drop down,” continues Jerome, “it will appear quite dark. Very dark in fact, but slowly your eyes will adapt. The tempo of the dive will pick up a little, so make sure you keep up. At around 33 metres we meet our first stalactite and start heading underneath the formations. There are some huge, huge stalactites coming down from the ceiling here. Absorb it. Enjoy it. Get comfortable, admire the scenery. Take in the fascinating limestone formations alongside you. Eventually, all you will hear is the deep inhalations of your breathing. There’s a real form of sensory enhancement down there.”
Travel itself is said to be an act of letting go. Combine travel with diving for the ultimate holiday for your mind, body and soul.
The adrenalin starts to pump and I feel those neurotransmitters kicking in, giving me a feel-good, nervous dopamine rush. I check and recheck my gear even though it normally comes second nature. Is my air on? Are my computers working? Is my mask clean? Where’s my camera? Damn, how could I have forgotten my camera?
Finally, we enter the water and make our way over to the side of the hole. Peering over the edge we see that it drops instantly, dramatically — a sheer vertical wall unlike anything I have ever descended. My heart beats way too fast and I need to slow my breathing, but seeing our group dropping down, down, down, dark black silhouettes with bubbles trailing, sinking through this lonely mass of blue, is electrifying.
Sure enough, at 33 metres we come to our first stalactite, and having descended through a thermocline where the temperature drops, the water visibility is negligible. Literally, I feel as if I can’t even see it, it’s just not there. Maybe my senses are on red alert, but everything is pin sharp, crisper than ever, I feel as if we are weightless astronauts, floating in space. Slowing we make our way through a system of stalactites, keeping the cave wall on our right, six-metre tall stalactites piercing the depths on our left. Clearly, everyone is thrilled. There is a flurry of hand signals, thumb waving, wide eyes, rapid bubble blowing and exhilarating high fives as this intoxicating swim-through comes to an end.
Dispelled are any doubts in my mind that diving is, indeed, great for your health. Diving improves our emotional wellbeing, improves blood circulation, helps relieve stress, improves concentration capacity, and strengthens the flexibility of our muscles. Travel itself is said to be an act of letting go. Combine travel with diving for the ultimate holiday for your mind, body and soul.
5 reasons why diving is good for your health
Deep breathing — inhale courage, exhale fear
Divers develop a strong association with their breath, taught to breathe deeply, slow and steady. Deep inhale, slow exhale — just as in meditation or the attention to your breath during yoga. It helps to conserve a diver’s air intake, which in turn enables them to stay and enjoy the underwater adventure for longer. Deep breathing induces a calm state of mind, reduces stress, and over time increases your lung capacity. Strong lung capacity is known to strengthen the respiratory system and balance the nervous system. Learning to draw in your breath, deep into your belly, is beneficial in all aspects of health. Your breathing is the one dominant sound underwater when diving. You become acutely aware of your strong intake of air as it travels through your throat, down your windpipe and into your lungs. Oxygen is then absorbed into the red blood cells that carry it to all the different parts of the body, aiding cardiovascular health. The slow and deep breathing effect helps lower blood pressure and keeps you calm throughout the dive.
Water’s healing powers
Water is not only used for recreational and exercise purposes but also for the healing of the body, mind, and spirit. There’s nothing better than the healing effect of salty water and sun on our skin and bones. Our body make-up is over 70 per cent water, the same percentage of water that covers the earth’s surface. Many scientists believe there is nothing more relaxing than being submerged in water and have long recognised the benefits of flotation therapy. Diving exhibits the same feeling of weightlessness, giving the body time to de-stress and rejuvenate the mind, reducing cortisol levels and decreasing stress and anxiety. Perhaps it takes us back to our suspended time in our mother’s womb. Salt water also holds great health benefits that can open our pores to allow the skin to absorb important minerals and remove disease-causing toxins from your body. Wallace J Nichols writes in his book Blue Mind, “Being near, in or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected and better at what you do.”
Strength and physical fitness
Depending on where you are diving and the day’s weather conditions, sometimes divers need to swim against some very strong currents. In Belize, for instance, I barely had to use my fins, the diving was so easy. In stark contrast, my previous dive trip in Raja Ampat in West Papua, Indonesia, presented wild currents on most dives (keep in mind the big stuff hangs out in these currents and there’s nothing like the thrill of flying over a reef on a current). Fighting against the resistance of water strengthens your core and leg strength while increasing your overall endurance and flexibility. Swimming is one of the best aerobic workouts we can do. It’s both a cardiovascular workout and a muscular workout with little or no strain on the joints. Add to this the need to carry your tank and weight belt everywhere, and you have an instant all-over body workout aiding an increase to your fitness. Plus, you will sleep at night like a baby.
Marine life encounters
The array of life introduced to you under the water can only warm your heart, tapping into all of your happy chemicals. Every creature, every colour, and all of the different species will charm and delight you. Whether it’s a tiny Nemo playing hide-and-seek with you, ducking in and out of a translucent anemone, or a huge reef shark smiling smugly as it glides past, the underwater world holds everything from tiny macro specs to the large electrifying players, all set to decrease your stress and improve your heart health. It is widely accepted that watching fish in a fish tank is calming — imagine the effect of an entire ocean reef. Colours lift our mood, and interactions with animals soothe any emotional agitations. The serenity of just you and the environment will have a hypnotic effect, increasing levels of your feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Try being in the centre of a circling school of fish. It’s truly mesmerising.
Our brains need mental stimulation to stay happy and healthy. Diving opens your eyes to another world that you will no doubt rapidly want to learn more about. Fish and coral identification enhance the underwater experience, and it is inevitable that you will want to flick open the guidebooks on return from your latest dive to recognise and study more about some of what you have seen. As your passion grows for everything under the surface, so too does your need to preserve it. There are many conservation and environmental awareness projects that you might want to join or become a volunteer. Volunteering also arouses feel-good feelings as we join and spread the importance of water health, a commodity that is vital to the happiness of all of us. All of these things will stimulate your brain and do wonders for your mental health.
Awakening the senses
It is in our DNA to be drawn to the sea. Waterview properties hold the largest ticket prices. We love the feeling of gazing out over the sea and the delicious awakening of our senses when jumping into its depths. There are opportunities to dive all over the world and many of these options can be joined with other healthy movements such as yoga at the end of a jetty or on the back deck of a boat, qi gong gazing out to the ocean, or even just floating weightlessly in an outdoor heated plunge pool. I combined a recent dive off Byron Bay, NSW, with a weekend stay at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat. In the morning, I swam with countless pregnant wobbegongs, a loggerhead turtle, hundreds of fish and adventurous swim-throughs. That evening, as the coolness of night set in, I noticed the clouds of steam rising from my outdoor plunge pool set under the towering gum trees with a view out to the distant ocean. I could not resist. As the first rays of morning light danced upon our faces, we were doing qi gong on the resort mountaintop, overlooking the reflective surface of the beautiful ocean below, drawn into its intoxicating pull, nurturing my personal growth and healing.
Diving: Aggressor Adventures offer liveaboard diving holidays all over the world on beautiful yachts stationed on pristine reefs. Staff are always highly professional and a lot of fun.
Wellness: My favourite Australian health retreat overlooking the ocean is Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat. You can dive offshore from Coolangatta on the Gold Coast or nearby Byron Bay and then be pampered at Gwinganna, just 20 minutes’ drive into the hinterland.