Easy Diving | Keeping Calm
At some time most divers are going to need to avoid a dangerous situation or know how to diffuse one. Here's some great tips on what to do when things start going wrong
We've learned to dive. We can control our presence in the water, find our way around, and now we’re starting to notice that some other divers aren’t quite as comfortable and confident as we are. Perhaps they’re out of trim, overweighted or flailing around like a gnat in a hurricane, all bubbles and no poise. Maybe their eyes are wide with panic, maybe they are seriously out of control – maybe they’re about to have an accident.
Experience and training count for a lot when it comes to diving, but log-book numbers and certification cards cannot be relied on to guarantee safety in the event of an accident. I’ve seen freshly certified divers with such presence of mind and control in the water that I’d follow them if they led me, and at the other end of the scale, I’ve seen people with hundreds of dives go to pieces at the first sign of a bit of current. How people respond in an emergency can never be predicted; once the animal brain takes over, the instinct for fight-or-flight can affect people very differently indeed.
I’m not going to attempt to teach a rescue course in these pages (training is available!) because the techniques involved do require a bit of practice. Rather I shall try to give some basic tips that should apply to every diver, regardless of their experience level. It might also get you to revisit some of your basic training – it’s unfortunately rather often that the people who have accidents are those who have reached a certain level of experience and become a little too blasé about the risks involved in diving.
The Briefing and the Plan
When it comes to dive safety, the overriding concern should be to eliminate as many problems as possible before you get in the water, through a pre-dive briefing from a guide, or planning session from an unguided group. Any dive should include somebody with at least some knowledge of the local environment – if this is not the case, a more thorough planning session is required.
Maximum depths, bottom times and signals should be discussed and pre-arranged so that everybody is reading from the same script. Although there are generally accepted standards, hand signals can and do vary, from air pressure checks to aquatic life spottings. I once guided a dive where a group responded to my air check signal by placing one fist against their temples. ‘What’s that?’ I though. ‘Half a hammerhead?’ until I looked at their gauges and realised they were signaling ‘50 bar’.
Whatever your concern is – whether you’re nervous about current strength and direction, bottomless walls, overhead cave or wreck penetration – pipe up before you get in the water. Ask for reassurances about the environment, how to get out, or signals to abort. If you don’t get them and don’t feel comfortable, don’t dive.
The rule is, if you don’t feel it, don’t do it. And if you observe somebody who is not feeling it, tell them it’s okay to sit this one out – nobody will think any the less of them.
The Pre-Dive Safety check
I think this is a misunderstood exercise. I hear constant debates about the buddy check and people proclaiming their buddy is ‘fit to dive’. I admit that if I’m diving with an experienced colleague, the safety check is just a quick show-and-tell – but it should be more rigourous than that.
The mistake people make is that they only check the other person is ready. They forget the buddy check is for their sake as well. For example, check you know where your buddy’s alternate air supply is and how it functions, because you might need it. Equipment can malfunction, such as a high pressure hose exploding at depth (rare, but it’s happened to me). Then, it doesn’t matter if your buddy is an instructor with 10,000 dives or ‘merely’ an Open Water diver – their octopus is your lifeline. Perhaps you’ve been diving with an undiagnosed medical condition which suddenly rears its head underwater; it would be useful if your buddy knew how to get you out of your backplate and wing, even if you consider their own rental BC sadly inferior.
These should be the basic checks: that the tank is open; that the breathing apparatus works; that the weights are present and securely fastened. It may only save you from sheepish embarrassment (forgetting weights or to turn your air on happens all the time!), but it may prevent a serious accident.
Look for signs of stress both pre-dive and under the water. A diver may be overweighted without realising it. I once dived with a group that included a girl who had made a check-dive that morning. She was underweighted and the instructor had added some weights to her BC pockets. After the check dive he told her that she needed 8kg on her weight belt, but she misunderstood and took that to mean she needed 8kg plus the weights already in her pockets. She was a small girl and ended up diving with 12kg. I saw the classic signs of poor buoyancy control, but it soon became apparent she was struggling in the water. There were lots of bubbles, big wide eyes, constant finning and she never let go of her inflator hose. This is a classic sign of a diver not being comfortable in the water. It’s like white knuckles on the steering wheel of a car – ‘THIS is my last resort, and I am not letting go!’ the diver is saying.
These are some of the signs that all is not okay that you can look out for: constant finning, either in legs down (overweighted or underinflated) or head down (overinflated and often, therefore, overweighted) positions; heavy breathing; flapping arms. These symptoms can become more dangerous the longer the diver remains underwater with the problem unresolved. Excessive breathing leads to a carbon dioxide build-up in the body which causes more excessive breathing which eventually leads to a panic cycle that can spiral out of control – which is what the young lady in the above example was experiencing.
Sometimes all it takes is a short tug on the kidney dump valve to let air out and stop the problem escalating. Other times, there’s no option but to abort, ascend, discuss the problem and maybe try again later.
The panicked diver
Early in my dive master training, I was practicing buddy breathing and I screwed up. The skill is no longer taught by some agencies as it dates from a time when regulators could only handle one second stage for breathing. The idea is that a diver would share air with his out-of air buddy by passing his primary regulator back and forth. But I made the mistake of exhaling before handing my regulator to my buddy, which meant I had no air at all in my lungs, and was about to drown. Fortunately, we were in a swimming pool, so I just sort of stood up, but my first instinct was to pull the regulator out of my buddy’s mouth. I had only done about 80 dives at the time, but instinct took over. I’ve never forgotten it, nor am I ashamed to admit it – in fact I use this example all the time when I’m teaching.
My first thought was self-preservation, and I reacted automatically. If we follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion, that could have meant that I would have lived and my buddy would have drowned. That was me on 80 dives, in a professional training environment, in a pool. Imagine that’s you, on a deep wreck, with no escape and no possibility of simply standing up. How would you react? Calmly reach for your buddy’s alternate? Are you sure?
Experience in terms of number of dives is not always meaningful in these circumstances. When somebody really panics, it’s blind and uncontrollable. You have to do your best given the situation you find yourself presented with. The basic philosophy is stop, think, then act. Do not rush into unpredictable situations, and judge how much difficulty you might get into yourself.
Approach a panicking diver cautiously. Attempt to make eye contact and reassure the diver that everything is okay. They may respond, just to have another person with them, but they may not. I once saw a diver from a different boat dropping past me at Shark Reef in Sharm (maximum depth 756m) clutching her inflator, waggling her fins, staring into the blue. I caught her at 25m and I had to swim hard to reach her. I established buoyancy for her, then prised her cold fingers from the inflator, frantically signalling my own dive team to remain at 15m and keep their eyes on me. I swam the diver up to 5m where the guide from that centre finally took over. Never once did the diver look at me or react to my signals. I watched events unfold at the surface for as long as the visibility and current allowed, and it was only at the surface that I saw her arms moving again. I wonder if she even noticed my presence. I wonder if she remembers?
This is known as passive panic, and although I’ve only seen it happen a few times, it’s very frightening. It might sound strange, but a diver who is obviously in distress is somewhat easier to deal with – for example, I’d rather see a diver bolting for the surface than sinking, because although they risk serious injury, it’s better than plunging into the depths.
One of the most common causes of diver fatalities is an inability to establish positive buoyancy at the surface. A diver could have a problem underwater, swim to the surface, be unable to (or simply forget to) inflate their jackets or ditch their weights; they tire, sink and drown.
Should you see somebody bolting, the priorities are to slow them down if possible, but without putting yourself in danger of being pulled too rapidly to the surface. Should you not be able to remain with them, follow them at a safe ascent rate. At the surface, ditch their weights – if possible, do this while you’re still under water, because this is the one place you can be assured they won’t attempt to grab you. Once they’re floating, they can thrash and scream until they run out of breath, and you can sit back and wait for the panic to subside, because once they’ve run out of steam, you’ll be more able to assist them.
My course director used to say: ‘Crowley, with recreational diving, it doesn’t matter how you get there, at least at the surface there’s a chance we can patch you up’ – and he’s right. A rapid ascent or a near drowning incident will inevitably result in a visit to hospital or the chamber, but that’s a whole lot better than a visit to the morgue. There is always up, and in recreational diving, up is almost always better than down; floating is always better than sinking; breathing air is better than breathing water.
In most recreational diving situations, the likelihood is that there will be somebody in the water more experienced than you, in which case you should try to get their attention so they can deal with the problem. The most important rule is to keep yourself safe, so unless you’re prepared to deal with a problem, don’t attempt to put yourself in harm’s way.
On the other hand, through some basic, easy practices and simple observation, you can go a long way to improving the safety of the underwater world for everybody you dive with.
- Attend a rescue training class, Even if all the rescue training sessions ever conducted only saved one life, then they were all worth it
- Think before you act; your own safety is paramount
- Plan your dive and dive your plan
- Pay careful attention to those around you
- Rush headlong into anything you’re not prepared to deal with
- Assume that somebody with more dives than you always knows better
- Give in to peer pressure. If you don’t want to do it, don’t
- Panic. Serious diving problems are rare, and most can be easily prevented through proper planning