It happened to me
Forcing your ears to equalise on a descent can lead to much more than just discomfort, as Laura Hignett discovered during a dive in the Caribbean
It was the last dive of an excellent trip – my family and I had escaped to catch some winter sun and celebrate Christmas and New Year in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
The sun was shining, the water was warm and the corals were full of colour. I was looking forward to diving for one last time before I headed off back to Britain. It was also my first dive as a newly qualified open-water diver – I had spent the previous two weeks completing my course.
The boat set off to a dive site called the Coral Gardens, a beautiful reef full of life such as grunts, blue tangs and snapper. However, that morning I had awoken feeling rather bunged up – I had put the air conditioning on full blast the night before, because it was so stuffy and humid.
My father and I set up our gear, checked our regulators and sorted out our weight belts. I was feeling full of the cold. My nose was blocked up and my throat felt dry. Nevertheless, I didn’t tell anyone, as I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to do the final dive. I told myself that I would feel better once in the water, assuring myself that the sea air would clear my sinuses.
Following a 45-minute boat ride, we reached the dive site. I started to feel a bit nervous because my congestion had not cleared up. Undeterred, I put on my kit and did a buddy check with my dad.
We jumped in, exchanged the okay signal and went down to the reef. As I descended, however, I slowly began to feel discomfort in my ears, and had to equalise twice as hard as normal. I tried to ascend to ease the pain and then descend again slowly. It wasn’t a deep dive site – only 10m at the most. But at about 5m, I couldn’t equalise at all.
I signalled to my dad that my ears were causing discomfort, then ascended again, hoping the aching would ease. On my last attempt at descending, I felt a sharp shooting pain in my ears. I tried to ignore it because I wanted to descend to the reef and not keep my dad waiting. He had been patiently waiting for me to equalise for more than ten minutes.
All of a sudden, I was disorientated. I felt a throbbing pain in my left ear and lost control of my breathing. I thought I was going to pass out. My dad could see I was in a state of panic and helped me
to ascend slowly.
When I finally reached the surface, I felt so weak. I had never felt so much agony in my whole life. ‘Looks like you’ve perforated your eardrum,’ my dad said to me. As soon as I got back on the boat, I lay down. I was starting to feel dizzy and was relieved to get out of the water.
When I finally got onto dry land, I went to see the doctor. I was told that I had indeed perforated my eardrum, causing inner bleeding. I was prescribed a ten-day course of antibiotics and eardrops. The doctor told me to avoid allowing any water near my ears for two weeks. I also had to wait another week before I could fly home. On the plus side, I was able to stay in the sun for an extra week!
I was lucky that there was no permanent damage to my ears. In the worst cases, such perforations can cause irreparable damage, leading to hearing difficulties.
The accident made me a little wary about diving again. However, I soon got over it. My first dive following the accident was seven months later, during a holiday in Fiji. As soon as I was in the water, I realised that nothing would ever put me off diving again. I have dived in many fabulous sites around the world since.
I learned many lessons from the incident. First, never dive if you are not feeling 100 per cent fit to do so. Second, never, ever be forceful when equalising. If you can’t equalise, it’s time to call off the dive!