I pause, grabbing hold of the thick woven anchor rope my heart leaps forward into my mouth.
My breathing becomes irregular and I start to take large gulps of air. I’m hovering, suspended in a bubble of deep blue walls that are inching closer to my mask with every breath.
Looking down I see my buddy disappearing into the inky water below, his bubbles rush past me as they escape to the surface.
Panic washes over me. I’m alone now, frozen with fear.
‘What’s the one thing we must never do underwater?’ David asks me.
My eyelids are heavy. I’m sat in the stuffy classroom above the dive shop running through the multiple choice open water scuba review. I know the answer but my brain is unable to signal a response from my mouth. The heat from the Costa Rican sun is beating down on the back of my neck and sending my thoughts into a hazy dream.
As my instructor David recounts the hazards involved with breath holding at depth I contemplate the irregular nature of the activity. Breathing underwater is something our distant ancestors had once been able to do. Mother Nature had steered us away from an aquatic existence, why was I trying to defy such an evolutionary development?
The depth to which I had experienced the underwater world was a feeble four metres. I had yet to submerge myself in the Pacific Ocean however I was now rather well acquainted with a crab who lived at the bottom of the training pool in the nearby hotel.
You must never hold your breath underwater.
I knew this. It had been drummed into me by my instructor since I began my training.
I remove my hand from the anchor line and take hold of my regulator. I find it calming to have hold of the air source keeping me alive. Trying desperately to control my breathing I grasp at happy childhood memories in a bid to escape the tight grip of panic that is crushing my chest.
Credit | CC Fotopedia
Suddenly I’m engulfed by bubbles. Looking down through my fins I see my dive buddy slowly ascending the line.
Grabbing hold of my BCD he gives me a bewildered look.
I know exactly what he’s thinking.
I’ve had over forty days of training for my PADI divemaster qualification, why on earth was I panicking at a depth of just eleven metres?
‘Charli you set the compass and Ben you count kick cycles, Amanda will play the role of missing diver,’ instructs the Course Director.
It’s three weeks into my training and I’m a qualified advanced open water diver. I’ve been to thirty metres and preformed nitrogen narcosis tests, mastered the art of buoyancy and learnt the basic techniques of underwater search and recovery.
The next phase of the course utilises those skills to respond to incidents that may occur throughout your diving career. The whole ‘missing diver’ scenario has ruffled my feathers.
Credit | CC Fotopedia
‘Exactly why would Amanda be missing?’ I enquire.
‘Things sometimes go wrong underwater and we need to be prepared for all eventualities,’ replies the course director.
We’re told the topography of the sea bed and choose our preferred search method. Descending to around nine metres the rocky floor of the sheltered bay becomes visible. Rather than do these exercises out in the clearer water at the dive sites around the island we’re given ‘real life’ scenarios that involve bad visibility and unfamiliar terrain.
Working through the exercise I start to notice how asphyxiating the dim environment appears. The shallower water is clouded with sand and debris caught in the bay making the search for Amanda much harder than I had first imagined.
Holding onto the anchor line tears collect in the bottom of my mask. I have the urge to wipe them away. The familiar irritation of water in my mask distracts me from my panic momentarily although does not deter the feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach.
I have started to shake from the anxiety building within me and I feel as though I may implode.
My buddy signals for me to relax my breathing. I check my dive computer; I’ve used almost a quarter of my tank.
He grasps my shoulders and I return my gaze forward. He looks concerned but his efforts to subdue my panic ignite a desire to control my nervous system which is currently on overload.
Credit | CC Fotopedia
Taking one deep breath I fight to regulate the rate of my exhalation and slowly my lungs relax.
My buddy signals for me to ascend.
‘It’s vital that you maintain rescue breaths while removing the diver’s equipment,’ shouts the course director from the boat.
I’m treading water and pretending to resuscitate my buddy having just ‘rescued’ him from the bottom of the bay. I’m exhausted. This is the fourth time I’ve had to perform the exercise and my thighs are burning from the pressure of keeping myself and my ‘victim’ afloat.
Credit | Rich Coast Diving
Supporting his neck with my left hand I continue to reach over and tap my chin onto his, signifying a rescue breath. Having removed his equipment while simultaneously giving him ‘in water’ CPR I begin to swim with him towards the boat.
On the deck are two of my fellow divemasters in training and together we carefully lift him from the water at which point they take over the rescue.
As I grasp hold of the guard rails on the deck I exhale and let my legs dangle over the side. The pain is searing hot, like knives piercing my muscles. I pray that I’m never witness to the ‘real life scenario’ we’re training for.
Again my buddy signals for me to ascend but I know I need to work through my panic and complete the dive. If I surface my fear will envelop me and I know I’ll struggle to get back in the water. I shake my head and signal for us to descend.
Credit | CC Fotopedia
Squeezing my hand he leads me down the line and into the blue, just a few metres pass and the familiar sight of the sea bed fills my field of vision.
A wave of relief sweeps over me as I realise my breathing has returned to a relaxed pace. The course director gives me a knowing look and the ‘OK’ signal.
I’m beginning to overcome my panic and signal ‘OK’ in response.
Back on the surface I’m quizzed as to the cause of my ‘mid blue freak out’. I feign equalising issues to subdue interest in the episode but contemplate it myself for the rest of the afternoon.
‘We’ll be descending to ten meters and you’ll be acting assistant for Amanda who’s going to be running through open water skills with James, ok?’
I’m sitting on the deck clad in my wetsuit and scuba gear. I’m trying desperately to produce enough saliva with which to coat the inside of my mask but my mouth is dry. The events of the previous day are etched on my brain. I have yet to determine what sent me into a panic.
I descend without incident and kneeling on the sandy bottom I watch as Amanda takes her student through the required skills. My mind flicks through my forty days of training as I search desperately for the cause of my anxiety.
Suddenly something knocks me from my subconscious dream and I realise I should be paying more attention to the training. Ironically my role is to provide assistance and I’m aware I need to be vigilant.
As I watch James remove and replace his mask I realise I’m finding it harder and harder to breath. Checking my computer I realise it is not registering an air source.
Image | Charli Diving The Poor Knights Islands
What the ..
As I suck the last of the air from my regulator I lurch forward, my arms and legs disturbing the sand around me. My rescue diver training takes hold and I signal ‘out of air’ to Amanda and James.
I look to Amanda for her alternative air source but she’s just staring at me blankly. My lungs scream as I fight the urge to inhale. Grasping at her equipment I fail to find her spare regulator and turn to James who thrusts his alternate towards me.
Purging the regulator I take a deep breath, the air flows to my lungs like a steam train revitalising my body with a cold hit of oxygen. I begin to shake violently. My eyes well up with tears and I grasp hold of James to steady myself.
Was this really happening?
Tapping my shoulder Amanda lifts my wrist into view and I see the gauge on my computer is reading a full tank of air. My brain momentarily halts all rational functions and I stare at the reading with disbelief.
‘But I couldn’t breathe,’ I think to myself.
Purging my own regulator air rushes to the surface leaving me severely confused. Switching back to my primary source I thank James for his assistance and shrug to Amanda who is pointing at something behind me.
I’m confused and begin to feel ridiculous, had the episode from the day before induced aquatic hallucinations?
Was I losing the plot?
Turing round I notice the course director hovering above me. He waves in a rather jovial manner and makes a signal reminiscent to turning off a tank.
I’ve been sabotaged.
Learning about my irrational behaviour when descending the day before, he had decided to give me the ultimate emergency response training. By providing me with the ‘real life scenario’ I’d been so terribly fearful of he hoped to help me overcome my fear.
Hovering at five metres during my safety stop I contemplate the events of the last twenty four hours. I realise that I should not dismiss my anxiety but utilise it to ensure a safe diving practise for myself and my scuba buddies.
Diving is an adrenaline sport and consequently there are risks involved, however with the Divemaster training I’ve received I know I am better placed to manage those risks.
I’m pleased to report that with the help and support of my dive buddy (my other half Ben) and a brilliant PADI Course Director I am now a qualified PADI Divemaster. My experience of dive training has given me the confidence to react to any situation I may find myself in while exploring the underwater world.
Since qualifying I’ve spent time scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, experienced open ocean diving at Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea and explored the volcanic architecture of the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand.
Have you ever suffered from a freak out mid blue? I’d love to hear your tales of adventure from the underwater world.