This post is a bit more personal, I’m writing about a panic situation that I myself experienced. As all divers propably know, panic underwater is one of the most dangerous problems a diver is likely to come across.
Last June (2012) I did my PADI Rescue Diver certification. We were working on the open water rescue scenarios in relatively shallow water. As we were doing an underwater search scenario with two other divers, I noticed I had a slight buoancy problem. I was getting underbuoyant, and unable to control it with my bcd. This wasn’t a big problem, though, as we were skimming the bottom anyway, searching for the ”missing diver” (that was in fact a thrash can lid that the instructor had thrown into the water.)
The visibility at the site was not very good, about 2-3 meters, quite ideal to make the search scenario a bit more challenging. And now that I was constantly pushing myself off the bottom, blowing up more debris at the same time, our visibility deteriorated even more. We had our work cut out just keep together, even though we were literally only an arm’s length away from each other. This wasn’t a big problem, though, since we all knew where we were going, doing a U-pattern search with compasses.
Eventually I found the cause of my buoancy problem. My inflator quick disconnect valve had come off my bcd. Maybe I had not connected it properly before the dive, I don’t know. But it had come off, and it was causing me to sink to the bottom. So I thought to myself -calmly-, ’stop, breathe, think, act’. The thing is, if I stop, the others won’t notice me being left behind because we had practically no visibility. So I didn’t stop. That wasn’t a big problem, though, since I did breathe and I did think, and we really were not deep at all, only about three or four meters max.
So I thought. And came up with a plan of action: I’d get the valve back on while on the move. But as my hands were working on the valve issue, they were no longer keeping me off the bottom. So I fell to the bottom, scattering a thick cloud of debris around me and slowing me down. I’d have to hurry up now to catch up with the others. This wasn’t a big problem, though. I had my compass, so I knew which way to go. And the others would notice I wasn’t in my place in the search line, so they’d wait for me.
So I stopped on the bottom to work on the valve and get it back in its place. The thing is, because the water was relatively cold, I had my neoprene gloves on. So I wasn’t able to get the valve back in place. I couldn’t take the gloves off, because my computer and compass were tied on my wrists, on top of the gloves. Now that WAS a big problem! I could-not-get-the-bloody-valve-back-in-place! SO stressful! I felt my breathing rate increase, my hands started to shake, I couldn’t get enough air from my regulator, and still I just COULD NOT GET THE VALVE BACK ON! I was lost from my buddies in cold water, I had no visibility, no buoancy control, and -as I felt- I was running out of air! I felt overwhelming fear, and a strong urge to get rid of my regulator and just get to the surface as fast as possible.
Luckily my dive buddies found me. They were never far away in the first place, and they noticed I had a problem. So -as we had just learned on the rescue diver course- they assessed the situation, approached me from the front, made contact (looked me in the eyes and took my hand) to calm me down, and assisted me to the surface. There I was able to establish buoancy and calmed down again.
The situation was not supposed to be in any way dangerous. We were all relatively experienced divers. We were in shallow water, with the instructors watching over us from the surface. And we were so close to shore that I could literally have walked along the bottom to the beach. But, as I learned, it doesn’t take much to make a situation feel dangerous and overwhelming. Even small, seemingly trivial problems can cause excessive stress underwater.
Looking back, there were many stress factors that contributed to my problem underwater: There was peer pressure, because I was the most experienced of the students doing the course. There was my own will to perform well at the tasks. There was also some physical strain from previous rescue scenarios. Put on top of that the conditions at the dive; the poor visibility, coldish water, and the difficult task that we were supposed to perform. And the little problem with my inflator quick disconnect. Pile enough seemingly trivial stress factors on top of each other, and they can overwhelm a diver. They say that the Rescue Diver course is one of the most challenging courses both physically and mentally, and for me, it really was. So far.