Overcoming Fear in Fiji
How kindness proved to be the best medicine to treat anxious water woes
For most, this would be a dream. For me, it’s a potential nightmare. Heading out on a snorkeling trip, I’ve never seen shades of water this blue. The lush, verdant island shore recedes behind the dive boat’s long wake, and swooping, swaying palms recede into the endless South Pacific horizon.
All around me, people start nonchalantly slipping on snorkels and fins. With each passing moment, my heart beats faster in my chest and a sense of dread builds in my stomach.
I’m in Fiji, an absolute Polynesian paradise, and my two-week trip includes daily water activities. But right now, there are few things that I fear more than underwater immersion.
At age 41, this is new for me. I loved aquatic activities as a kid, and my love of swimming continued into adulthood. Visiting far-flung destinations as a travel writer, I’ve had the opportunity to snorkel some of the world’s most famous reefs, and I earned my scuba license on a tropical island in the Philippines.
Whitewater rafting became a favorite pursuit, and I embraced the thrill of paddling right into the eye of the storm, adrenaline rising as the raft crashed through frothy waves, the possibility of being thrown into its wild waters always just an inch away.
Then I got sucked into a whirlpool. On perhaps my dozenth time paddling whitewater, on a not particularly technical set of rapids, I was tossed from the raft. I’d been in this position before, on many occasions. Normally, I’d surface a moment later, let the life jacket do its work and ride the crest of the current to calmer waters, where I would climb back into the raft.
But that didn’t happen this time. Instead of promptly popping back into the fresh air, the churning pool held me down in the dark water for what felt like an eternity. I could see the surface, but like a shirt in a washing machine, the force of the water kept turning me. Up, daylight. Down, darkness. Over and over again. Maybe five full rotations, maybe more, maybe less. To this day, I have no idea how long I was under.
At the pre-tour briefing, they’d warned us about the whirlpools, and instructed us that if we fell in, we should stay calm and not fight it. You’d pop out soon enough. And for the first few seconds, I kept things under control, telling my body, against every one of my impulses, to relax. But when my panicky brain told me that I’d never break free, I began thrashing and kicking. A second or two later, I finally surfaced, somehow having traveled to the far side of the river. Grasping a rock, my chest heaved as I pulled in as much fresh air as possible. The raft, with everyone else back on board, came by and scooped me up. I held my breath for the rest of the ride, terrified I’d fall in again. We made it to the takeout without another incident.
"Come hell or high water, with every day featuring a new water-related experience, I was determined that these two weeks in Fiji were going to restore that lost part of my life."
Water woes take hold
But my fond relationship with water was over. Now on even a casual boat trip, I would tremble a little. A year after the rafting incident, on a morning canoe excursion to Mayan ruins in Central America, I asked the guide to turn back early despite the perfectly calm waters. I was so nervous, I felt dizzy. A few months later in the Caribbean, I made an attempt to snorkel but never got more than an arm’s length from the boat, my heart pounding when I swam out any farther, gasping anxious breaths through my mouthpiece. I started turning down outings that involved deep water, even spectacular opportunities.
And then, Fiji. One of my favorite places on Earth. The tourism board offered me a chance to visit on a travel assignment. I was worried. I let it hang for a few days while I worked through my anxiety.
I eventually decided to be proactive and use this opportunity to help me get over my fear of deep water. I worked closely with the tourism board to plan every detail of the journey, and made sure to build in plenty of aquatic experiences that would force me to face my fear.
Through prior travels, I knew Fijians are some of the kindest, most patient people on Earth. They would help me. Come hell or high water, with every day featuring a new water-related experience, I was determined that these two weeks in Fiji were going to restore that lost part of my life.
I arrive at Viti Levu, the country’s largest island, and my first true test is a trip to swim and snorkel at the resort’s private island, which is surrounded by a lagoon girded with coral reefs. I meet Simi Serukalou, the boat captain, and marine scientist Kelly-Dawn Bentley, who will accompany me on the trip. Today I’m the only guest, and I explain the situation to them. “Will I be OK?” I ask. They nod thoughtfully, faces drawn. The question hangs in the air. For a moment, I’m sure they’ll tell me to forget the whole thing. Then Bentley’s face brightens. “We will figure it out,” she says cheerfully.
And we do. Getting into the water, we take baby strokes. It’s definitely humbling — but maybe humility is key to healing. I was once a proud diver, going nose to nose with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez. Now I’m floating on a pool noodle, clinging to a life ring pulled by Bentley, who swims powerfully enough for both of us.
And it’s worth it. The world below is a rainbow of coral and colorful fish. At one point a big octopus retreats from us, camouflaging itself in the coral. Stopping on the island, Serukalou tells me that Fijians love country music, and he plays a couple of tunes on his guitar. Rolling back, he belts out the Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers song “Islands in the Stream,” and my soul feels full.
Immersion therapy does the trick
Over the next few days, I make incremental advancements. On the beach, I put on a pair of fins and swim out as far as I can until I feel nervous, making it a little farther every time.
On Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, a gentle giant named Ed Oliver guides me and a couple of new Fijian friends down the Upper Navua River in an inner tube. The fast-moving water starts out shallow, even just ankle deep, but grows deeper and deeper as the waterway widens and the mountains rise all around. A strong, kind man, Oliver makes sure the tube doesn’t flip or go astray. The Fijians, together, distract me from any tension by telling stories and jokes.
Soon after, I check into Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, cofounded by its namesake oceanographic explorer, son of the renowned marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. The absolute highlight of my trip is snorkeling around Namena Marine Reserve, one of the world’s great coral reefs, and a destination that even a few days ago I would have passed on due to my fear.
The tension builds in my chest as we near the site. I’m accompanied by staff marine biologist Ofa Morell, and she explains that there will be a strong current, which is not at all the news I want to hear. “We can either swim upstream or drift with it,” she explains. We opt for the latter — to go with the flow.
We splash off the back of the boat into the warm water. I decide against floating on the pool noodle but keep a hand on a life ring pulled by Morell. Keeping my breathing modulated, we’re quickly moving with the current.
The world below is, indeed, a dream. The coral is stacked as high as a six-story building. The big stuff is truly awesome — reef sharks and barracudas — but the small creatures dazzle too — upside-down jellyfish, blue devil fish, horned unicorn fish.
I am mesmerized. So much so that I don’t realize I’ve released the life ring until minutes after the fact. Morell is watchful by my side, letting me get lost in the moment.
The current carries me high over the reef. I feel like I’m soaring, free from gravity and reality. And, I realize, from my fear of deep water. It’s a transformative moment.
In the months since, I’ve been much more comfortable around water, even in potentially stressful situations. I’ve hopped huge waves driving a jet ski off Australia’s Gold Coast and snorkeled stress-free in Maui. I’ve even rafted down a frothy river in Alaska, perhaps the ultimate act in overcoming my fear.
Fiji, and the gentle patience and strength of the people there, healed me. And, ultimately, that’s what I will always take with me. Yes, I’m happy to enjoy aquatic adventures again. But it’s the Fijians’ kindness and eagerness to help their fellow man that I'll remember every time I put my foot in the water.
Travel writer Tim Johnson has visited 146 countries on all seven continents, always in search of a good story. He’s taken the Trans-Siberian Railway during the coldest winter in a decade, descended to the ocean floor in a submarine in Antarctica and tracked lions on foot in Botswana. And he’s written about it for The New Yorker, Bloomberg, CNN Travel, Reader’s Digest and others.
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