Divemaster Mike Laird recounts his first experience of dealing with a panicked diver
When you get up in the morning you don’t really know how the day will pan out. This was destined to be one of those days. I was a trainee DM, almost finished my course and heading out on a boat dive off the north-east coast of Malta. We were going on a deep dive to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer and then the Imperial Eagle wreck.
The group consisted of two instructors, a Master Scuba Diver, a Lithuanian tourist who was an Advanced Open Water diver with 51 logged dives and myself. I was buddied with the woman from Lithuania. Pre-dive buddy checks were carried out on the boat. I speak a modest amount of Russian and re-confirmed our depth, air limits and signals with her in Russian as she understood this better than English.
On entering the water she experienced some difficulties with her mask. On attempting to descend she was uncomfortable with the mask so we surfaced from one metre and I assisted. In the end I swapped my mask and snorkel with her and she seemed a lot more comfortable.
We descended holding a line and she was clearing her mask frequently but responded positively to the 'Are you Okay?' signal which I gave to her a couple of times per minute. I was descending the line backwards so that I could maintain eye contact and I was also always within arm’s reach of her. I was also maintaining eye contact with the group below me.
When we left the line and swam towards the Christ statue she seemed calm. I was holding her hand at this point and adjusting both our buoyancies with gentle adjustments to each BCD.
On leaving the statue and swimming to the wreck she suddenly panicked. I could not ascertain any particular reason. I tried to calm her but she repeatedly gave the 'thumbs up' signal to ascend. She clearly knew the difference between this and the 'Okay' sign which some divers confuse.
Her BCD had a little air in it and mine also. We were at about 28m, having been to 31m at our deepest. Her state was morphing into major panic and no amount of eye contact, signalling and gesture was having any effect. It was my first time facing this for real rather than in a training scenario, so everything that I had been taught was now coming into play. I signalled to one of the instructors that I was going to ascend. He immediately communicated this to the other two divers.
I did my best to maintain eye contact, calm her breathing, encourage her to stay at depth but she physically struggled with me several times and at one point knocked my regulator clean out of my mouth.
The best judgement that I could apply was to stay with her and to slow her ascent as much as possible without otherwise compromising her ability to continue breathing or to add to her state of panic. I maintained eye contact with her, demonstrated calm, slow and deep breathing while trying not to ascend beyond the 18m/m safe limit. She though, had the power to bring us both up in under one minute.
On surfacing, I fully inflated her BCD, then my BCD and then spoke to calm her. I rolled her onto her back and towed her back to the boat. I took off her fins and her BCD and our boat handler helped her climb the ladder into the boat. I was struggling to breathe, initially, I just thought through exertion but I knew I had taken some sea water into my lungs.
Once I had also got onto the boat we assessed her, asked questions about her breathing, lungs, ears, sinuses and state of being in case she needed oxygen. She said she was fine, declined O2 and we maintained our observation. We ensured she drank water and did not get cold. Our bottom time has been just 9 minutes and I had a de-brief with the two instructors when they surfaced.
Thankfully she was fine, but by the next morning, I was experiencing difficulty with my breathing, headaches and considerable joint pain. The course director from Diveshack took me immediately to Mater Dei hospital for assessment. I was admitted with a temperature well over 39°C and a heart rate that peaked at 114 bpm, put on oxygen and a drip for four days. I was looked after by Dr Zammit and his fantastic team and also interviewed at length by three fantastic barotrauma doctors led by Dr Matity. No DCS, but there was a bit of sea water in my lungs. My temperature was nothing more than a virus that coincidentally cropped up at the same time.
It was the first challenging diving situation I had ever been in and I’m very appreciative of the great training I received from all of my DM course instructors at Diveshack. I completed my DM course a few weeks later and now have my sights set on the IDC and plenty more fun and safe diving to come!