One fear that I’m sure each diver holds is the prospect of panicking underwater. Even the most seasoned scuba diver will admit that it’s a possibility. The question is, how would you handle it?
I’ve logged 122 dives so far, and in all those dives, I’d like to think I’ve been mindful of safety — mine and my companions’. But there have been three occasions when I met panic face to face, and I’d like to relate now how I beat it.
The first time I knew I was probably in a state of panic underwater was when I first experienced strong currents. I was still very much a newbie diver then. Immediately upon entering the water, I felt this terrible force that kept me from moving. No matter how much effort I exerted, I could barely move; meanwhile, my dive companions were already far ahead of me. It was a totally new situation for me, and I wasn’t equipped to handle it. Number one concern for me then was air: If I fought the current, I might go through my tank faster than the others would. I didn’t want to inconvenience them, so I surfaced. I was only at 10 or 12 feet (3m) then anyway.
During one of my checkout dives as an Open Water student, there was a strong current again, and my mind recalled that previous experience. Suddenly I felt trapped and fast losing control. Irrationally, I felt like surfacing right away, but I was already at 60 feet. I knew I shouldn’t shoot up, but I stopped my descent and urgently signaled to my dive master, Carabao Dive Center’s Karlo Butlig. I guess he saw in my face that I was wild-eyed, so he deliberately and carefully checked my gear one by one. Later I realized it was his way of reassuring me that everything was OK. Thanks to Karlo, the moment passed and I felt much better.
(During surface interval, I told the DM that seeing clownfish has a calming effect on me somehow. On our second dive that day, he went out of his way to look for clownfish. I don’t know why it is, but to this day I always feel relaxed when I spot those feisty little anemonefish.)
My next encounter with near panic was much scarier. I completely ran out of air underwater! My buddy, Andy Cadby, and I had come from a deep dive and was now hovering at 45 feet (14m), on the final leg of our dive. That was when my second stage seemed to have jammed, and then I remembered that the SPG showed only 500psi (less than 35 bars) when I last checked. I had gotten so engrossed in taking photos of schooling bannerfish and other fish that my air situation escaped my attention!
It was a precarious spot I put myself in, and the feeling from not being able to breathe anymore was simply horrifying. A part of me wanted to surface immediately, to kick as hard as I could to reach the open air above. But another part resisted and kept me from moving my legs. However, I was already floating up slowly, due to the empty tank. Right away, my left hand went to the bottom of my tank for the tank banger.
It felt like an eternity that I was banging on my tank. I couldn’t see Andy anywhere — I guess, in my near-panicked state (and the poor viz), I couldn’t sense him behind me. And just when I was totally out of breath for nearly a minute (and the dive computer screaming for me to descend), I saw my dive buddy finning energetically towards me with octopus already in his outstretched hand.
After my first lungful of sweet, heavenly air, Andy pulled me back to proper depth and we both fulfilled our deco stops. He saved my life, and even kept me safe from the bends.
In both situations, I didn’t really panic. Not totally anyway. There was always a lucid part of me that remained in control. Recently, though, I nearly had it bad. Very bad.
Our dive group was to swim through an underwater cave on a wall at maybe 80 feet (24m). I used to have claustrophobia — at least, I thought I’d gotten over it — and then discovered during this dive that I still had it.
Upon descending, we’d missed the cave entrance by a few meters and had to swim towards it against an impossibly strong current (again!). I was panting hard by the time I reached it. And when I saw the mouth of the cave — dark and foreboding — my sight grew dim. It wasn’t narc, it was something I thought I’d overcome decades ago. The long-forgotten claustrophobic sensations resurfaced and took hold of my senses. I wanted to spit out my regulator, throw away my mask and extricate myself from my constricting BCD. Even my fins felt too tight and heavy on me.
My sober side was fighting to regain dominance, and it was telling me that I was losing it. And fast. If not for something entirely from left field, I would’ve shot straight up and ignored all training. I was able to grab hold of one of my dive buddies, Christian Te. I can just imagine how I must’ve looked to him when I gave the hand signal for “trouble”, and the one for “go up”. Somehow, I was able to keep myself from surfacing, though. I held on to a rock, heart palpitating wildly, and tried to focus on the coral in front of me. (Sadly, no clownfish were in sight.)
The moment I realized that Christian had lost his chance to go through the cave, my heart stopped beating frantically and the bout of claustrophobia passed. The embarrassment from having shown weakness was so overwhelming it crowded out other irrational, and more dangerous, emotions. And then I was back to my senses, chagrined but completely safe.
- Always let your buddy know if something’s wrong. Somehow, just letting them know could mitigate a potentially hairy situation.
- Carry a signalling device at all times — there are several kinds to choose from.
- Know your limits. There’s no sense at all in being macho when diving.
- When you feel illogical fears coming on, keep breathing. Starving your brain of oxygen would only heighten the panic.
- Mind your pressure gauge constantly.
- Before diving, agree with your buddy at what psi/bar level you should safety-stop.
- Know all there is to know about a dive site. Part of the reason why I panicked when I saw the cave was the errant thought that I’d be inside it for too long. I hadn’t heard it when the dive master mentioned it would take less than two minutes to swim through the cave.
I’m thankful for the dive buddies that I have, and for the dive masters and instructors who have taught me generously. Still, no matter how much training and experience you have under your weight belt, it all boils down to how you face your fears — underwater or otherwise.