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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.

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‘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.

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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.

Confessions of a Divemaster 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?

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‘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.

Confessions of a Divemaster 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.

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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.

Confessions of a Divemaster 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.

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‘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.

Confessions of a Divemaster 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.

Confessions of a Divemaster 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.

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‘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.

Confessions of a Divemaster 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.

rich-coast-diving-divemaster (1)Image | Rich Coast Diving

‘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.

scuba diving osprey reef coral sea

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.

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Have you  ever suffered from a freak out mid blue? I’d love to hear your tales of adventure from the underwater world.

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32 Responses

  1. Victoria Ellen Lee

    Super post and really well written. I’m learning to dive when I get to SE Asia in a few months. I’ve not been at all nervous about learning but reading this has suddenly made me realise how scary it’s going to be!!

  2. Linda McCormick

    Great post, Charli!
    Many moons ago I was really keen to do my dive master course, but life took a different direction. WOuld have loved to spend at least six months working on dive boats 🙂
    I know of the freaky feeling you’re talking about. Happened me on a wreck dive once. It was far too overcrowded. I got stuck in a cabin swim through because the people in front were farting about and didn’t realise I was behind. Reminded me what I was doing wasn’t quite normal! Didn’t stop me doing it again though, just have more of a healthy fear… and I guess am safer because of it.

  3. Toni

    I hate to say this Charli but I think you’ve just put me off training for my divemaster :s lol I really am 50/50 regarding taking my dive career further (currently only an open water but wanted to take it as far as I could) but whenever I’m down there in the ‘big blue’, I often find myself thinking that I actually just enjoying being able to swim along without any responsibility (yet still knowing what I’m doing).
    Your post has just given me huge pause for thought and perhaps not in the way you intended (but at least you were honest!) – thank you 🙂

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Thanks Oliver, I’ll head over to your site and check out the course in more detail. We’re hoping to experience the underwater world in Bali at some point so I’ll have to give you a call and pop over to say hello.

      • Oliver Radosav

        Thank you…

        I found a nice home here in Bali & I´ll stay a few more month.

        You´re welcome any time… to dive with me here in Indonesia…

        I can promise you… It´s amazing diving here…

  4. Kathleen | Our Favorite Adventure

    Hi Charli, I just wanted to tell you that I love your writing. I have have never done anything like this before but I felt like I was experiencing it as you described this whole ordeal! I am so glad you got through it and are a Master now 🙂

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Thanks Kathleen, so thrilled to hear you loved the piece. It’s been sat a long time on my editing shelf, as I’m sure you’ll have gathered it was quite a challenging episode and I still find myself with pre dive jitters even now. I’m pleased will the final edit though so it’s great to hear it kept you enthralled!

  5. jill

    I’m with Jessica – having a short of breath reading this post. I’m totally terrified of diving despite just recently getting certified. I’m sooo glad you managed to get yourself out of the sabotaged scenario! Good on you for not going into full blown panic attack!

  6. Jessica

    Okay, I think I had a mini-panic attack just reading that. I am a diver, but a reluctant one, and I often have to calm myself in the middle of deep blue.

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Sorry to induce panic there Jessica! I have to say the experience taught me so much and oddly I’m a little grateful that I went through it so early on in my dive career. I still have to calm my mind at certain times during a dive, I think I’ll always be prone to panic. The feeling is programmed deep inside me.

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Thanks Sofie, glad you loved the piece. It’s not my usual writing style but this just seemed to flow out of me. It happened nearly two years ago but it’s taken me this long to put it to rest and construct a piece that truly represents the events of my training.

      I love being under the water and exploring and I’m confident in my ability to deal with any situation I find myself in while I’m down there. If you have the time I really recommend undertaking the Divemaster internship. We worked out a deal with the dive shop we trained with to keep our costs to a minimum. the additional training is so beneficial and really makes you a far technically superior diver.

  7. Heather

    Very impressive! I’m not sure I could do it. I went snorkeling once and freaked out when I saw an eel. Haven’t been snorkeling since!

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Thanks Heather, I have to say it was one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do. I’ve always been a little bit a of woosie, if something scares me I tend to avoid it or refuse to take part.

      Since qualifying I’ve found a new strength to push past the boundaries my fear sets out on front of me.

      P.s Eels are relatively harmless and sort of woosies themselves!

  8. Chris |

    Sounds like an experience you will never forget. You acted appropriately, gave the signal, didn’t bolt and resolved the situation.

    Your posts and pictures are really making me miss diving. I really should get to the South of Thailand and spend a few days in the water.

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Thanks for the kudos Chris, we’re currently in the south of New Zealand and I fear the water temperatures will be a little less tempting over here! We managed to dive up in the very north just before Christmas and if we can find somewhere to get drysuit qualified we may pop in for a dip down here!

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Thanks CD, it was a really challenging experience for me. I haven’t really elaborated that much however there was a lot of additional training that got me back on track and comfortable in the water again. I really owe a debt to the staff who looked after me so well.

  9. Ligeia

    Congratulations on becoming a dive master!!! 🙂
    This post was exhilarating to read as the scenarios are one’s I have dreaded. I must say that I would have been severely pissed off if my instructor had turned off my tank though. Congrats again! 🙂

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      I’m actually really grateful he did turn off my tank as now I know exactly what the sensation of being unable to breath and in panic underwater feels like.

      Although obviously very shaken I was thrilled that my training kicked in and I was able to get myself to another air source rather than shoot for the surface. My CD was hovering above me to prevent a quick ascent should I have lost my cool and tried to surface.

      The entire course provided me with some great life lessons. I highly recommend trying your hand at scuba diving, it opens up some incredible opportunities to explore.

  10. Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Very nice, real descriptions of some of the fears and confessions from divemasters. I am certified as a DM and I have led a few groups during my course, but I’ve not worked fully as one yet. It is scary, because you really are taking responsibility for someone’s life. Congratulations on the certification! It’s awesome. What’s next for ya?

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      I actually qualified in 2011 and have yet to put my qualification to good use in an employment sense. I have volunteered on the dive deck of a 5 star live aboard on the Great Barrier Reef which my DM status facilitated but other than that I’ve just been exploring the underwater world!

  11. Naomi

    I love this. Though I really love diving, there’s inevitably a point in every dive day for me that I begin to freak out while underwater, so it’s nice to read about another person’s experience with anxiety. I only hope that someday I can feel as confident as you sound now 🙂

    • Charli | Wanderlusters

      Thanks for your comment Naomi, I must admit I am still very easily spooked! If the water is rough or we’re planning a deep dive I can’t help but feel a little anxious. I just have to tell myself I’m being silly. I’ve had countless hours of dive training and more than 150 dives!

      I think a little fear makes sure we keep a healthy respect for the ocean and the potential hazards we face while underwater. So often when diving with inexperienced divers I see dive practise that scares me more than the concept of a difficult dive! Throwing caution to the wind and negating to stick to training guidelines can be deadly.