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February 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Panic Kills Too Many Divers

be aware that loss of control is a killer

from the February, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

James Tuttle had only recently joined the diving liveaboard MV Royal Evolution, operating between Egypt and Sudan, as a dive guide, when he asked a passenger who had been on similar trips to guide him around inside the wreck of the Umbria, a wartime Italian passenger liner scuttled in Port Sudan. It was a night dive, and in the darkness, things did not go as planned.

That passenger later wrote, "One wrong turn was all it needed. My heart raced as I suddenly realized the implications; that my lifeless body might only be recovered long after I ran out of anything to breathe. What an awful feeling it is when you realize you are trapped inside a wreck at night. You can get disorientated and lost so easily. Everywhere I looked was familiar except that it seemed that whatever direction I swam, I was confronted by an impenetrable bulkhead.

"After three or four attempts at different routes and seeing even our careful finning beginning to stir up the sediment and reduce the visibility, my anger at not finding what I was looking for began to turn to fear -- the fear that we might never find our way out. It was then that my heart began to climb out of my chest. My buddy, James, seemed oblivious to our predicament. He trusted me. I was responsible." ¹

Those thoughts going through a diver's mind could easily lead to panic and a fatal loss of control. Thankfully, the diver was able to stop, regain control, and think his way out of the predicament.

Panic kills too many divers -- even the most experienced. We have written about diver panic many times in the past. (https://goo.gl/eE97PB). Now, words from a famous cave diver prompt us to consider it again.

Caving Into Panic

Cave diving, of course, is a highly technical sport, where a diver is in the dark and with no direct escape to the surface. Canadian Jill Heinerth manages to undertake some of the most daunting cave explorations. She was the first to dive the ice caves on Antarctica and recently explored the caves of Christmas Island. How does she do it? How does she keep calm under pressure?

A recent feature in CBS News (British Columbia) by Lisa Johnson went some way toward explaining how when she interviewed Jill Heinerth.

"I enter the water scared," said Heinerth. "It's important for me to embrace that fear because that tickling sensation on the back of my neck is self-preservation."

Inside a cave, which Heinerth describes as "swimming through the veins of Mother Earth," many things could go wrong. She could get lost, unable to see because of silt clouding the water. She could get stuck or run out of air to breathe, several kilometers from escape. Rather than ignore these risks, Heinerth says she imagines every one before she dives.

"What's the worst that could happen today?" she asks herself, before running through possible scenarios like a checklist.

"I'm prepared. I have the technology. I know what to do," she tells herself. "That way, when I actually enter the water, I've sort of freed my mind of all of those negative thoughts."

When something scary does happen, Heinerth says the first thing she does is try to control her stress response.

"When your heart starts to race, you begin breathing faster, and that's the last thing that I can allow to happen to me underwater, with a limited gas supply," said Heinerth. "I have to get control over my breathing. I have to take a deep breath and say to myself, 'Emotions, you won't serve me now' and I have to send them away."

Of course, it takes a certain sort of person to cope with cave conditions. Heinerth works within the moment, as time seems to slow. Even if escape is uncertain, she looks for the next best step. It's something she learned to do during her early days when she fended off an intruder who broke into her apartment when she was a university student in Toronto.

For a sport scuba diver, if you find yourself in a tricky situation, before panic sets in, regain control. Think, plan and then act. Plan for the worst while hoping for the best. Panic can lose you your life.

For more evidence-based information on stress, anxiety, and panic while diving with practical solutions on how to prevent or deal with them can be found here: https://sites.google.com/site/divepsych

(¹ excerpt from 'Trapped' in Amazing Diving Stories)

- John Bantin

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