"To be 'fearless' means nothing. When you have fears, and you conquer those fears, that's courage."
Former U.S. Navy SEAL diver Stephen Kaplan was talking to my teenage son while bobbing in the warm, blue water off Oahu's west coast in Hawaii. We had signed up for the PADI Discover Scuba Diving program through his company, Trident Adventures. The thought of being submersed several metres below the sea's surface with an oxygen tank on his back was not an activity my 14-year-old cared to experience, despite his willingness to don the requisite gear and plunge into the Pacific. He'd go in the water then right back out. At least, that was his thinking.
As part of a milestone birthday trip (mine, not his), our family of four had planned on snorkelling; scuba diving wasn't even on the bucket list. It wasn't until the day before our outing that we learned of the PADI program. You don't need any experience, and there's no pool time; it's straight from boat deck to ocean bottom (slowly, of course). The program is offered all over the world, but here, where Trident is based, in an area known as Ko Olina—a master-planned community about a 30-minute drive from Honolulu and home to a handful of resorts, including Disney's Aulani and the Four Seasons—being under the guidance of Kaplan and his crew meant having some of the best and most experienced divers in the world right by our side.
Kaplan, mustachioed and sporting a bright, boyish grin, joined the Navy SEALs in 2002 out of a belief it was his life's calling. Members of the elite special forces go through the toughest military training in the world to be able to execute unfathomably difficult warfare missions. For a few years prior to retiring in 2018, Kaplan led all things safety-related for some of the riskiest training in the armed forces.
Business partner James Beck is a fellow retired Navy SEAL and consults and performs stunts for shows like Hawaii Five-0. Other members of Trident's crew are just as impressive in their own right.
At the helm of the boat is captain Mel Pu'u, an imposing local legend with a laugh as large as the waves he charges with a jet ski in hair-raising rescues at big-wave surf competitions—a life-saving method he pioneered. A father of eight, former professional longboard surfer and outrigger paddler, Pu'u is at home in the ocean, and he is onboard as a lifeguard.
Though none of us had ever touched a regulator before, less than half an hour after our briefing, my 12-year-old son and I had made our way to a depth of approximately nine metres. Every minute or two the guides checked in with us via eye contact and hand signals (OK? Go up?), reminding us to equalize just as often: plug your nose and blow, as if on an airplane. They did all the work adjusting our gauges. Our job was simple and twofold: breathe, and don't come up too fast.
Weightless in wonder, we saw yellow tang fish, parrot fish, and green sea turtles with their gentle eyes; propelling themselves with wing-like front flippers, they resemble majestic birds.
But still no sign of my eldest son.
Back at the boat, he was feeling too fearful to descend. My husband offered to stay with him to snorkel instead. But I knew he could do it, and I knew Kaplan was the one to help him. After some impassioned spousal discussion while we treaded water, we left the two of them together.
Five minutes went by, then another five. Or was it three, or 10? Time has no meaning when you're in an octopus's garden for the first time.
Eventually, a tap on my shoulder: there was my boy, one hand holding Kaplan's, the other flashing the Hawaiian "Hang Loose" sign.
There was elation all 'round, the only sound our own breathing.
Surrounded by blue, swimming at the bottom of the sea felt like being on another planet. After slowly making our way up—never too fast to avoid the "bends"—we poked up into the air, exhilarated. And also a little relieved.
Trident Adventures partners with the Four Seasons Resort O'hau at Ko Olina for trips like this and its "Navy SEAL for the Day" program. The latter includes tandem skydiving from a helicopter, tactical shooting at a private gun range, and jumping out of a helicopter into the water to scuba with dive propulsion vehicles.
Maybe next time.
For now, a holiday highlight, a life lesson, a baby octopus in that uncertain son's hand: discovering scuba and conquering fears.