by Jennifer Sylvester
The importance of breath work in our everyday lives cannot be emphasized enough. The involuntary, and gratuitous, act of breathing air translates to inhaling a mixture of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen and 1% argon and other trace gasses. It is an unconscious gesture to be on the earth’s surface, going about our Inflatable Irish pub various activities, and relying on the function of expiration to remove the dead gas, or CO2, from our lungs. This is not an article on the mechanics of breathing but, rather, a personal story about how yogic breathing greatly reduced the chances of my demise in a Florida spring cavern.
I took up technical scuba diving around my 50th birthday in 2012. Drawn to the pristine beauty of North Florida’s “cave country,” there was an undeniable urge to put another notch on my “activity” belt. Heck, my kids are grown and off pursuing their dreams and have been encouraged to live their lives according to their unique inner voices and individual passions. This could be a learned trait because I never was a comfortable cookie-bakin’ Mama. Opportunity sometimes didn’t come knocking, so I’d create something to resemble such and head on off to an abyss. Perhaps that was the initial lure…the dark, mysterious aquifer dappled with rays of light beckoning me to go just a little further. Oedipally heading back to the womb, perhaps. Was there a relation between losing my dear Mother and deciding to brace against the flow of a Magnitude One spring, gushing out millions of gallons of life-generating water a day to the masses who take for granted the life-giving properties of crystal clear water just as they believe they’ll wake up every morning and suck down some good old oxygen? Yes, I digress, but the association is a crucial one to examine. So, dear Reader, herein lies a tale of risk taking, unforeseen circumstances and the importance of proper training, and assuaging anxiety and fear by concentrating on THE BREATH.
It was a beautiful day at Jackson Blue Spring in Marianna, FL. My dive buddy, a trained cave diver/instructor and an Abe Davis Award recipient, had been my trusted companion on nearly all of my 50 logged cavern dives. Scuba training came quite naturally for me, and I had recently completed my IANTD sidemount/cavern/nitrox certification courses with a trusted dive company in Florida. My diving experience would come in spurts, as I live in Maine during the summer months, where diving is not a preferred activity. Two days earlier, we had a fabulous 90-minute dive at Vortex spring where the flow was light, but depths reached nearly 100 feet. I had exclaimed after we ascended that Vortex was my favorite dive to date. We saw at least 10 American eels and huge catfish along the way and lots of fascinating restrictions that we passed on. I do not dive above my training level, though sometimes I patiently wait while my more experienced dive partner checks out things on his own. I stay within the light of the cavern zone at all times.
So nothing seemed amiss as we discussed our dive plan on the surface, checked our respective gear and slowly descended to 90 feet, where we tied off a line at the cavern opening and headed on in. The visibility was 50+ feet, and the flow steady. Just an amazing karst in this system. My eyes are always wide open, as each new dive reveals the amazing natural beauty of the Florida aquifer. I always feel like the proverbial kid in a candy shop…amazed, amused and hungry to explore. Everything was progressing according to Hoyle, until 20 minutes into the dive when we swam up 10 feet and then down 10 feet cresting over a rock formation while still following the main guide line into the cave.
My gaze focused on a scooter, which was tied off along the line. Suddenly, everything shifted, and I had the sensation of vertigo. The floor and the ceiling of the cave shifted, and I grabbed onto the floor of the rock formation to steady myself. My partner detected something in my gesture that wasn’t quite right and immediately turned the dive, signaling me to lead the way out of the cave. By now, the vertigo had passed, but something wasn’t right. The air that I was breathing seemed thin, and my lungs felt tight. For non-divers, sidemount configuration puts redundancy of gear close to your body. The valves of your two tanks are located near your underarm, allowing easy access in the case of a rolloff. You have two regulators, with two separate depth/psi gauges. At this stage in your training, there should have been many drills performed so that muscle memory allows you to fix an existing problem at the source. I’d had my share of tangled regulators, masks filled with water, a lost tank valve cover and just a touch of oxygen toxicity to recognize what I needed to do in the case of a problem underwater. This was different, and it was scary.
The lightheadedness started at the same time panic set in. My legs started to droop, and I couldn’t kick. I felt myself dropping toward the cavern floor, and I had a fleeting thought of my kids and how horrible it would be if I never were to see them again. This entire anxious episode happened in the span of just a few minutes. My dive partner knew I was in trouble, and came to my side. I signaled for him to stop and that’s when I knew that I had to take control of the situation or there would be serious repercussions. I hovered above the main line and grabbed a rock. Closing my eyes, I began to regulate my breathing. This was the point where my awareness was totally focused on my breath and nothing else. Realizing that I was hyperventilating because of the anxiety, my breaths were coming in gulps and that sickening feeling that happens when you aren’t getting enough oxygen.
I’m a certified yoga instructor/personal trainer and a believer in the power of meditation to overcome stress and other biorhythmic disorders. After several minutes of slow, steady breathing with my eyes closed (as this helped to force me to concentrate on the task at hand), the palpating heart and anxiety began to pass. Still present, however, was this urge to GET OUT. This had never happened to me in an overhead situation before, and it was a painful reminder how we must listen to that “hunch” that, perhaps, this isn’t a good day to dive. As Simon Pridmore conveys in his comprehensive book Scuba Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver, “Follow your feelings, don’t dive when you feel bad. Always have the self-discipline to sit a dive out, even if it means disappointing your friends. If you don’t feel like diving or have a feeling of foreboding about the dive, even if you cannot identify a reason for it, don’t do it.”
Interestingly enough, I’d had very little sleep the night before. An argument with my partner, a lingering pain in my lower back, and a week of traveling non-stop had left me very tired emotionally and physically. In the past, I’ve always jumped on the bandwagon and gone right off to my next adventure. I’m 54 years old now and need to realize that I have nothing to prove to anybody when it comes to my physical pursuits. Sometimes, we just have to have a V-8 moment, when we say “Ah-hah,”…I got this one.
Technical diving reminds me of the game of golf. You can plug away for years and years and still not master the sport. Every position, movement, and execution of the body will affect the outcome of the drive or dive. You won’t always make it to the hole, or to the end of your dive plan. Your handicap may differ widely from course to course, and there will be good days and bad days. I wish to publish this story to inform the excitable new diver to be cognizant of the inherent risks associated with this sport and the importance of training and practicing skills on EVERY dive. I thank my dive instructor who always reinforced the importance of keeping safe in the overhead by randomly performing OOA drills, mask clearing, lights out, tank roll offs, equipment dumping and various other scenarios designed to help me become a better diver. Remember the creed….”live to dive another day.” Be safe out there everyone!