Panic: The sudden and often unpredictable onset of intense, sometimes blinding, fearfulness or terror; usually associated with feelings of impending doom. When a diver experiences panic underwater, it creates a dangerous situation, not just for the diver experiencing the panic, but for those endeavouring to help them.

How to Spot a Diver in Distress

Active panic is often easy to identify with the diver racing towards the surface, throwing away their regulator and ripping off their mask.

Other signs include:

  • Fixed stare with eyes bulging
  • Rapid, shallow, inefficient breathing
  • Flailing with the arms and legs (“climbing a ladder” in appearance)

Passive panic is harder to spot and the diver can often just freeze and become unable to move or respond in any way.

This passive panic can be just as dangerous to a diver as an active panic as they may sink if they are negatively buoyant and may drop to depths where it is unsafe to rescue them.

Passive panic can very suddenly turn to active – often when the diver is approached by a rescuer at this stage the diver may grab for the rescuer’s regulator, dislodge their mask or attempt to “climb” the rescuer to get to the surface.

What to Do to Help Manage Panic in a Diver

The best way to manage panic is to prevent it. Try to eliminate triggers before they occur.

  • Is your buddy comfortable with the dive you are about to make?
  • Is he talking too much… or too little?
  • Is he behaving erratically underwater?
  • Is all his equipment in good condition – no leaking masks or almost broken fin straps.
  • Observe for unusual behaviours during the dive.

Once panic occurs the first concern is your own safety do not put yourself in danger to try and help another. One person in trouble is easier to manage than two.

  • If possible approach from behind.
  • Try to slow the ascent down

Once on the surface:

  • Assist them to establish positive buoyancy
    • Inflate their BCD/wing
    • Drop their weights (if necessary)
  • Speak calmly and reassure them
  • You may need to assist them to the boat or shore.

Dive safe and watch your buddy.

Scott Jamieson

General Manager DAN Asia-Pacific

Notes to the video above:

In the video early signs of panic start with the diver fixating on a task, not returning signals and making small erratic hand movements. (about the 17 second mark).

This progresses during the initial attempt to surface where breathing becomes rapid (lots of bubbles) and the diver starts to “claw” to the surface with a very ineffective swimming technique – flailing.

Eventually the full panic hits. Wide fixed eyes, mask and regulator ripped off and no thoughts of anything at all except getting to the surface.