My personal experience with uncontrolled panic was not my own. We had booked a beautiful day for a boat dive and I was out to take a tour of two other divers. One had completed the PADI ReActivate Program a week or two prior and decided to jump on for the tour. She was a calm and confident mother of 2. She was looking forward to getting back in the water. We chatted as we motored our way out. Mostly asking questions of what it is like and what we can see under the surface. We geared up and rolled off of the boat one by one.
My tour group gathered at the anchor line and the three of us got ready for our descent. The dive plan was to descend down the line down to 18 meters, swim around for 10 minutes or and spend 20 more minutes slowly ascending along the rocks which sit around 10 meters or less. An easy dive with some good vis on a fantastic day and nearly no swell. A very rare day for Kaikōura. However things happened very differently, we descended down to 16 metres.
Doing my diver checks everyone signals okay so I looked at my compass and started to lead. No more than 30 seconds later I have a very rapid tapping on my shoulder (very polite for a precursor of panic). She had water in her mask so, as you do, I proceeded to demonstrate the skill of clearing a mask. She tried once and performed it correctly but the mask was leaking just a little bit. Please note that it is vital to have the correct fitting equipment and an understanding of their function. The simplest leak in a mask that cannot be properly cleared can snowball into a series of events such as this. What ensued was a flurry of hand signals or gestures. She was trying to say ‘Help’ but panic can occur in mere seconds. Despite her confidence and cool calmness above the water, she had no control over her sense of panic due to the change in her ability to breathe and see.
Watching someone switch into panic is quite shocking. I reached out and grabbed onto her BCD strap to maintain her stability and signalled to the other to wait. She was unable to focus on me, yet I was signalling ‘watch me’ and ‘breathe’. It was as if something had flicked on in her head. I felt as though the cool, chatty person I was talking about fish with on the boat had been totally taken over. She would spit out her regulator, refuse my emergency octo, try to rip the regulator out of my mouth, knock off her mask, fight me to get to the surface and refuse any of my instructions. To reduce her risk of drowning I needed her to calm down before we surfaced, or at least have a source of air. She would not calm down or look me at me in the eye. It was up to me to take charge to get her to the surface however she kept refusing my emergency regulator. The result was me cramming my emergency regulator into her mouth and holding it while she fought me. Luckily she was not a black belt in Jiu Jitsu or we both probably would have drowned.
I could tell that my regulator was giving her air and her breathing was calming. She was coming back out of that state of panic. I had the ‘pleasure’ of watching her eyes roll back into her head and passing out.
This was where I had my own initial sense of panic. Luckily for my experience and training I was able to separate myself from it to attend to the situation. At this point I had no idea if she was drowning or overwhelmed (and after being too overwhelmed usually you need a lay down/nap, no?).
The only thought I had was ‘get to the boat’, I signalled to ascend to our observer and made for the surface. Once at the surface I called out to the boat, I do not think I said any words but just made noises until someone noticed what was happening. Then quickly checked for her breathing while thinking ‘two rescue breaths? 30 chest compressions?’ but thankfully she was lightly breathing as I handed her off to the instructor.
She became conscious and was put on O2 thanks to our team on the boat. As I got back onto the boat she was sitting upright and back to normal. She turned to me jokingly and asked how my dive was and went back to being the happy chatty person earlier.
To reiterate calm, relaxed breathing is important. This was not a scared person but rather brave. She had not gone for a dive for a while and proved her skills in the ReActivate Program a week before. The conditions were perfect for any diver with an open water certificate. Panic can occur within anyone.
Going from being unable to swim in the ocean to saving a life in deep water is something that I am proud of and has been good for my ego. Immersing myself in one of my biggest phobias helped me be able to notice that fear in someone else and without that I think I would have dealt with a scenario like that differently. I got to feel like Batman for 10 minutes that day, how cool is that. I encourage all who are reading this to go challenge your fears no matter how intense. Please start slowly and grow accustomed to the feeling bit by bit. It can change your life and the confidence you carry.