It happened to me
Know Your Limits
Isobella Findlay discovered the dangers of nitrogen narcosis on a dive in the Red Sea
On a club liveaboard holiday to the Red Sea some years ago, we were about to dive Thomas Reef. The weather was perfect, the sea calm and our dive leader’s instructions very clear. ‘The maximum depth for this dive is 30m,’ he said. ‘If you go below the first arch you are below 30m. Stay above the arch.’
We kitted up, did a buddy check and then a giant stride into the water. When we were all ready, we signalled ‘okay’ and descended. I kept close to my buddy and to the reef; I was new to the sport and a little anxious.
I remember that I wanted to stay close to another diver. I have no recollection of seeing my buddy as we descended, but I knew I was following another experienced diver from our club who was in my line of vision. The deeper we descended, the more I became fixated with following the person I could see. My buddy didn’t even exist.
I do remember the arch. It was quite high and wide, spanning over a deep gully. By this time, I was quite anxious to catch up with the diver who was still some way in front of me. The dive leader’s warning forgotten, I followed under the arch. I swam faster, trying to catch his attention, and realised I didn’t feel well. It was as if I was breathing anaesthetic – I thought I was going to lose consciousness. I seem to remember a second arch.
Something was wrong. I checked my depth gauge and saw I was already at 45m. We were in the blue with no visual references. All I had to guide me was the diver in front and I still hadn’t caught up with him. I didn’t dare look anywhere else for fear of losing sight of him. Then I would be alone. I was trying not to panic. To my relief, he finally turned round. Now everything was going to be okay, I thought.
I immediately signalled I wanted to go up, thinking he would want to do the same. To my horror, he started making signs to me that he felt drunk and put his hand to his mouth as if he was drinking a glass of beer, tipping the glass back and forth, chuckling. He was telling me he was narked.
Now I was desperate. I signalled with both thumbs that I wanted to go up. I remember getting hold of my inflator valve to help me ascend when my training kicked in and I let go of it, not wanting to ascend too fast. I did, however, grab the other diver and held on for dear life.
We gradually ascended to shallower water and at around 22m I felt okay again. We joined the rest of our group and I met up with my buddy. We continued the dive back on the reef; I had a visual reference and felt fine.
Once back on board, the reality of what could have happened hit me. I had been narked and it was a terrifying experience. Apparently, the whole group watched the scenario from above the arch. By then, there was nothing anyone else could have done to stop me. At one stage I was apparently clawing at the water, but I don’t remember that. There is still discussion as to whether we reached 50 or 60m. At the time I was a novice diver, well out of my depth, my experience and my competency.
The diver I had followed had no doubts about his depth and had no responsibility for me, not knowing, until he turned round, that I was behind him. I should have kept my eye on my buddy, making sure he was well within reach, and if I had started to feel unwell I could have signalled my need to ascend. But the narcosis didn’t allow for any of that. On subsequent dives I began to experience a similar feeling of breathing anaesthetic around 28m, so since then I have been happier to keep to that limit.
Now, as a theory instructor and an assistant diving instructor, I impress on trainees the absolute need to listen to the dive plan and follow it, to keep a check on their depth and air, not to dive beyond their experience or competence and to always know the whereabouts of their buddy.
I learned a valuable lesson – always stick to your limits!