It happened to me
Dive guide Mark Russell found that the effects of nitrogen narcosis are no laughing matter
Ask a diver if they have ever been ‘narked’ and many will say ‘not me’.
Nitrogen narcosis seems to have denial attached, as if it makes you less of a diver if it happens to you. The truth is, if you’ve been to 30-ish metres, you have probably been a bit ‘squiffy’ and felt the effects of narcosis and not even realised it.
I’ve been a full-time instructor for more than five years, so I have dealt with any number of underwater problems, ranging from comical to life-threatening – and narcosis has the potential to sit in both categories. Severe narcosis is rare and it often gets glossed over in basic training, with students reading stories about divers offering their regulators to fish.
The most severe case of narcosis I’ve seen was a few years ago. I was guiding a regular customer on the 30m-deep wreck of the Superior Producer, just outside the main port of Curaçao in the Caribbean.
I had been warned that this particular diver had previously had an underwater panic attack, but no causal factor had been determined at the time. I had dived with her several times before and had no cause for concern prior to this dive.
After swimming through the open hull of the Producer, we levelled up to the deck at around 25m and my buddy grabbed me. She shook her hand in a very vigorous ‘something is wrong’ signal and then, rather surprisingly, sprinted back down into the wreck.
This was odd behaviour by any stretch of the imagination. I swam after her, not letting her out of my sight. When I caught up with her, it took an impressive display of underwater semaphore before I could coax her out of the wreck, whereupon her hand locked onto mine with bone-crushing force, and her breathing became so rapid that the piston in her first stage must have been glowing. We slowly made our ascent back up over the reef, and at around 22m, she let go of my hand, and normal service was resumed… like magic.
Narcosis is not always easy to identify. As a dive guide, I have seen any amount of ridiculousness underwater, so trying to figure out what is going wrong is not always straightforward, but the fact that this particular problem disappeared so rapidly on our ascent confirmed what I was already thinking: severe narcosis.
After this incident, we had a very serious talk, during which I discovered that her other panic attack also happened at around 30m. Despite being a fairly experienced rescue diver, she had not identified the symptoms as narcosis on either occasion.
Most of our dives in Curaçao were to a maximum of about 20m, and her experience at depth was limited. My advice to her was to keep it that way for a while, and maybe start to explore her limits step by step in the company of an experienced diver who knows upfront what might happen.
The thing is, narcosis sometimes causes slightly jolly underwater silliness; sometimes it causes blind panic. It’s therefore important to recognise that narcosis happens, but also that it affects different people differently, rather like alcohol. One person might feel completely sober after half a bottle of wine; another might be dancing on the tables.
Although I remained clear-headed throughout this incident, I’m a purely recreational guide and rarely spend much time at 30m, so squiffiness is something I still look for in myself when I do. Being aware that divers around you might be somewhat impaired at depth may well prove valuable one day. Being aware that you yourself might be affected – even slightly – is far more important.