It happened to me
On her first dive to 40m, Liz Evans found out how quickly a small problem can escalate to a major panic
Last summer, my boyfriend and I took a diving holiday on the Greek island of Zante, also known as Zakynthos. The island is famous for its nesting turtles and has a marine park preserving the island’s natural environment, which was a major attraction for us.
We did a few shore dives and were amazed at the quality and abundance of sea life, and soon wanted to go further afield using the dive centre’s RIB. As it was the latter part of the season, the boat was almost empty, with as many staff diving as actual punters. After a few days, we became familiar with the team and were invited on a dive to around 40m – a depth that neither of us had done before.
We’re both quite experienced divers; I’ve been diving for five years and my boyfriend for ten. We’d always wondered what the fascination was in diving to such depths – whether it made a worthwhile dive or
was just bravado.
The day before the dive, I came down with a slight cold and decided not to do it as I wouldn’t be able to equalise my ears. Instead, I stayed on the RIB as an observer and enviously watched my boyfriend descend into the sea with the dive guide. The owner of the RIB said we could come back the next day so I’d get another chance to do the dive.
When the divers finally surfaced, I was told about the fabulous sights I’d missed – a situation any restricted diver can relate to – and this continued all evening. My boyfriend wouldn’t shut up about the massive, cocky lobsters clinging to the reef at 42m. He did warn me that the alarm on his dive computer, a model we both have, sounded at 40m, but found that this was simply an alert that could be switched off.
The next day, I felt better but still had a sniffle. I decided to try the deep dive and to resurface if I struggled to equalise. All appeared to be going well, but at 30m I suddenly found the pressure building up.
This is a problem I often encounter, so, as usual, I ascended slightly then descended again. As I did, I started to notice the open ocean around me and elements of doubt crept into my head. All I could see was vast blue emptiness surrounding and smothering me. I had no point of reference to fix on as the bottom and now barely visible surface were so distant. Every metre I descended made the surface agonisingly further away.
I suddenly felt all alone, even though I knew both the dive guide and my boyfriend were just below me and could see their bubbles. My breathing became erratic, and every inhalation was a struggle. I started feeling that everything was against me; it was difficult to equalise and even the straightforward task of breathing had become complicated. The more I thought about it, the more the problem escalated.
I still had some self-awareness at this point – I could feel myself begin to panic, but I couldn’t stop. The more I tried to concentrate and relax, the worse I felt. I kept thinking about how deep I was, and visualising my depth as the height of a 13-storey building. I realised it would take me a long time to get up to the surface.
As I got to 40m, my dive computer alarm went off, just as I had been warned, but it was the last straw: I was in the midst of a panic attack. My breathing was out of control and I was sucking the air out of my tank, which made me even worse as I thought about my air levels.
I grabbed my boyfriend’s head, inadvertently kicking him, and struggled to remain calm. I wasn’t communicating properly, but suddenly the dive guide was next to me and helped me slow down my breathing and regain my composure. I was still distressed by the whole experience but managed to continue the dive.
As we ascended, I became worried about what everybody would say when we surfaced. But the divemaster was great. He made sure I was okay without a fuss, and kept the whole incident between us.
When I look back on the experience, I feel a tinge of embarrassment, even though I’m told that it can happen to anyone. I pushed myself too far and was not ready to go so deep. This hasn’t deterred me from getting back in the water or even going to the same depth again. However, I’ll approach a deep dive differently next time, and progress deeper by a few metres over several dives to build my confidence. I’ve learned that pushing myself too far too quickly can be extremely dangerous.