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July 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Can You Handle A Crisis Underwater?

or are you toast if something unexpected happens?

from the July, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Some of us have been diving for so long that we feel extremely comfortable in the underwater environment, but then something unexpected happens, and we have to handle it, or else we're toast.

You probably recall the concerns you had during your first forays beneath the surface. "What if my regulator stops all of a sudden?" "Do I remember how to clear my mask if it floods?" "What if I run out of air?" Most likely, you eventually developed habits to handle such eventualities and learned to enjoy yourself without worrying so much.

Former dive instructors such as myself didn't worry about crises so much, because we handled them on a pretty regular basis -- divers in my care have inadvertently dropped their weight belts, inexplicably attempted to make a dash for the surface, and swam over to me showing a gauge indicating nearly zero air left -- and good instructors learned to anticipate such occurrences. Every dive became a potential emergency that needed to be shut down. But then we went sport diving and got into the habit of looking after only ourselves, and maybe a regular buddy. Years go by with uneventful diving. We and our buddies enjoy "same ocean diving" until an emergency underwater happens. And that's when we'll discover what diving skills we really have.

However, a little knowledge can also be a dangerous thing. I remember well a dive with a group on a submerged pinnacle, where the skipper had dropped a buoyed shotline to mark the spot, but one diver had pulled herself down the rope, unsuspectingly pulling the locating weight off the pinnacle. It plunged downward to the depths, and she pulled herself down with it.

Meanwhile, her two buddies returned to the surface, reluctant to pursue her. It needed decisive action, so I descended past the inadequate submerged buoy (now crushed up by the pressure at around 60 feet deep) and found her unaware of what had happened -- and without a depth gauge or computer -- at more than 200 feet. I brought her back up, making the required deco stop at 20 feet, and fortunately, she had no issues.

Her buddies later said that they couldn't get to her because she went deeper than 185 feet, the maximum operating depth for the air we were breathing. Despite both being experienced divers, they were unable to make the right decision at the right time because it was outside their experience -- they preferred to cling to the dogma of the training manual. But like any experienced instructor, I was ready for unplanned emergencies and determined we weren't going to lose a diver on my watch. Any other experienced instructor would have done the same.

However, consider the sad story in our March issue, "The Fatal Effects of 'Rapture of the Deep," of a death of a 64-year-old diver who went deeper than he should have, and how his wife, a middleaged grandmother, nearly managed to get to him in time, but failed. We questioned why a younger and fitter dive guide had not come to the rescue and guessed it was because the diver had gone deeper than the maximum operating depth of the nitrox they were all using. But oxygen toxicity would not have come into play during the short time the dive guide would have needed to get down there and bring the man back up. He might not have known that. It just needed the right decision to be made at the right time.

So, how do you prepare for emergencies and make the right decisions? Practice, practice, practice. Do air-sharing and mask removal underwater with a buddy. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Of course, there's nothing better than realworld experience -- doing CPR for real is very different from practicing on a dummy -- but training to tackle a developing problem before it becomes a crisis is a better route to take.

Keep a close eye on those with whom you dive. Most of all, avoid being casual when in the familiar, yet hostile, environment called underwater.

-- John Bantin

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