By Simon Pridmore
It is something every dive-master or dive guide experiences at least once – that heart-stopping moment when a diver in your charge suddenly bolts for the surface. You assemble the other divers to accompany you or you leave them in the care of an assistant and you ascend slowly, praying that the diver who bolted is OK and cursing under your breath for not spotting that problem earlier.
You have done at least one thing correctly though. You have resisted the urge to chase them to the surface, knowing that, once a diver bolts, their own impetus along with expanding air makes it impossible to reach them and by going up quickly yourself to try and catch them, you risk turning one problem into two. You also have a responsibility to make sure the other divers in your group are OK before you deal with the diver who has bolted; they might have seen what has happened and become nervous too. In addition, if you suddenly disappear they might start to panic too.
As in many cases, you reunite with the panicked diver on the surface and they are OK; they had the presence of mind or the instinct to breathe out and vent their BCD as they ascended. But you know from your experience and training what could have happened and that you might have had a seriously injured diver on your hands. For many nights afterwards, you lie in bed wondering how you did not see the problem coming.
One of the most important things that we, as dive professionals, need to learn is how to identify stress in ourselves, recognise it in others and handle it when it occurs. If stress is not controlled early, it can lead to panic, and when people panic they usually respond in a way that makes the situation worse. In scuba diving, panic is a life threatening event and the major cause of diving fatalities worldwide.
Maybe you did not notice the signs of the impending panic because you were distracted by other issues. Your own stress can make you blind to signs of stress in others. So the first rule as soon as you put on your dive-master “hat,” is that you must put everything else behind you and give 100 percent of your attention to the divers in your care.
All this information and more can be obtained by chatting easily with them as they arrive to get their gear ready. You can use your boat and dive briefings to defuse many of the potential concerns and much of the apprehension. Anticipate what they might be worried about, for example, fast currents, cold water or poor visibility, and explain what steps you will be taking to minimise the problems these conditions can cause. All this information and more can be obtained by chatting easily with them as they arrive to get their gear ready. You can use your boat and dive briefings to defuse many of the potential concerns and much of the apprehension. Anticipate what they might be worried about, for example, fast currents, cold water or poor visibility, and explain what steps you will be taking to minimise the problems these conditions can cause.
You might also consider adopting and introducing your divers to visualisation and the in-water check, a couple of techniques that technical divers use before big dives but which I have found to be valuable tools for everyone.
After the boat briefing, encourage the divers to find a quiet place to sit on their own or with their buddy on the way to the dive-site, remove all thoughts from their minds about whatever else is going on in their lives and think only about the dive ahead. They should reflect on your briefing and what they have researched about the site or what they remember from previous dives there. Think positive thoughts, think about what they are going to see and visualise a successful dive. Picture them in control, relaxed, maintaining a steady breathing rate and good buoyancy and staying in touch with the dive team. Then reflect on the dive itself and all the cool things they might see. They should visualise themselves checking their computer and SPG frequently and making a slow, safe and controlled ascent with a safety stop, finally establishing buoyancy on the surface and ending the dive with plenty of air.
Visualising the dive and thinking about what is about to take place and how to deal with it builds self-confidence and puts a diver in a relaxed, positive, forward-looking frame of mind, the exact sort of attitude that everyone should have before any endeavour.
But this is not the only benefit. It is often the case that a positive visualisation before a dive will remove feelings of apprehension. Apprehension is best defined as a feeling of uncertainty about your ability to cope with a situation. The principal danger of embarking on a dive when you are apprehensive can build and turn into full-blown panic in the event of even a minor emergency.
Visualisation can also help the diver identify problems in advance or warn them of any aspects of the dive that they may not be comfortable with that they can then share with you. Maybe they will realise during their visualisation of the end of the dive that they have forgotten their safety sausage. Far better to remember that before the dive than when they reach for it later!
We all learn the pre-dive safety check during our Open Water course and this soon becomes something we do instinctively. Another really good habit to acquire is to perform an in-water check at the start of your dive. The whole process of gearing up on a busy boat, entering the water and descending can be rushed and stressful and it can undo all the positive effects of your pre-dive visualisation. So once you have left the surface and are a couple of metres under water, surrounded by the peace and quiet of the ocean, go through a quick in-water check. Take a few seconds to compose yourself, relax, get a long, slow, deep breathing cycle going, make sure all your equipment is intact, buckles are fastened, nothing is leaking and gauges are working before setting off calmly for the depths.
Controlling Stress on the Dive
Even if a diver has completely prepared, there is always the possibility that stress can occur during a dive. The most common forms are:
– time pressure stress from having a limited air supply; and
– compounded stress from task loading; for instance, the feeling of inadequacy can arise when you are managing an underwater camera and dive light on a night dive while controlling buoyancy and trying to keep in touch with the rest of your team.
Careful observation and managing the speed of your group will ensure that these stressors do not escalate into panic. A useful trick to help you monitor how much air your divers have left without constantly going around asking them to show you their SPGs is to spot something cool to show them about 10 minutes into the dive and then circle behind them while they are all crowding to look at it to take a sneaky look at how much air they each have left. See who has used most and then you will know which diver you have to keep an eye on, in the certain knowledge that the others will always have more left than he does (yes, it is usually a he!).
If you want to be even more subtle, compare how much air your target diver has with how much you have left and do a little mental arithmetic as the dive progresses. For example: when you check your target diver after 10 minutes and he has used 20 bar while you have used 10 bar. It is likely therefore that by the time you have used 50 bar he will have used 100 bar – easy, isn’t it?
Of course this is not an exact science and you need to be conservative. You should be alert too for changes in breathing patterns; an out-of-shape diver with good buoyancy going with the flow and sipping his air may suddenly become a panting, gas-guzzling monster if the current drops or shifts direction.
The identification and management of stress is an important topic that does not always receive the attention it should in diver training materials. If you are interested in learning more I recommend the excellent book by Arthur Bachrach and Glen Egstrom, Stress and Performance in Diving. It is thought provoking and highly readable. Also worth looking at are articles titled The Tao of Survival Underwater and Psychological Aspects and Survival Strategies easily found on the Internet.
Indications of Diver Stress
- Lack of preparedness or procrastination on the part of the diver
- Increased or rapid breathing/shallow breathing
- Poor aquatic ability and scuba skills
- Unnecessary treading of water
- Evidence of claustrophobia or discomfort with gear
- Constant fiddling with equipment
- Lack of any buoyancy control
- Wide-eyed expression
- Not acknowledging signals
- Constant complaints about gear, diving conditions, skill performances
- Excessive kidding around or inappropriate joking
- Constant eagerness to swim to the surface
- Reluctance to enter the water
- Extreme passiveness
Taken from Asian Diver Issue 03/2009