Panic is one of the leading causes of death in scuba diving. Lose control and lose your life. A DAN report cites a survey that showed more than 25 per cent of divers out of 12,000 surveyed had experienced at least one panic attack but at least they lived to tell the tale. A lifetime of diving experiences and thousands of dives logged may not absolve you from the sudden onset of panic given the right circumstances. However, regaining control, keeping a cool head and thinking your way out of a problem usually works.
Most of us have been there at some time and it usually stems from a stupid error. Like the time I had an early rebreather with manual set-point switching. I found I’d accidentally done a lengthy dive at the low-set point with my nitrogen absorption calculated at the high set-point. I was in a strong current in the open ocean and I could see the pick-up boat waiting above me. After the initial dismay, I switched the unit to 100 per cent oxygen, surfaced and indicated that I need to go back in where there was no current. An hour at 20 feet deep breathing pure oxygen sorted out my decompression requirement and there were no ill effects afterwards. My initial panic at discovering I had made a crucial mistake was mitigated by a plan to rectify the situation. Provided you can breathe, you’ve got time to save the day.
What are the signs of panic underwater? It could rapid breathing or the feeling that you cannot get enough air to breathe. It could be a rapid heart-rate or heart palpitations. It could be a feeling of impending disaster. You might suffer from that, or a diver you are with might be suffering from that. How can you tell if it’s not you?
Hyperventilating might be a signal that a diver is near to panic (difficult to see with a rebreather). Watch out for jerky limb movements and the inability to see you due to ever narrowing tunnel vision. Unreasonable or inexplicable behaviour is another sign. Finally, ripping the regulator from their mouth and shooting towards the surface clinches your suspicions. Better to take control before it gets that far.
Some divers take on dives that they believe are beyond their ability but are too frightened or ashamed to abort a planned dive. It could be you.
Pains in the stomach, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea are sure signs things are not right before a dive. Muscle tension, headaches, a trembling voice, an inability to speak or even a garrulous humor can be signs of impending panic. Feeling cold when it’s warm or sweating when it’s cold indicates it’s time to call the dive before it’s begun.
— John Bantin