What When a Dive Goes Wrong? Dealing with Panic Underwater

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What do you do when a dive goes wrong? Instructor Rudi Baert explains what panic is, and how to deal with it.

26-12-2015 -  by Kevin Van der Straeten


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What do you do when a dive goes wrong? Instructor RudiBaert explains what panic is, and how to deal with it.


Hi Rudi, welcome to our studio.  


Hello Kevin.  


Today's topic is how to deal with crisis situations under water. And then the first thing that pops up is: panic. But what exactly is panic?  


Well, first of all panic is one of the most common causes of drowning. Practically 60-65% of drownings are caused by panic underwater. What is panic? That was the basic question. Well, panic is essentially caused by stress-hormones, a very common mechanism in the human body. It's very common. Everybody knows the phenomenon.  


The flight-or-fight-reaction.  


Exactly, exactly. That is caused by stress- hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. When a human being is confronted with a situation that seems dangerous, that is perceived as dangerous...  


That can be a difference.  


That can be a difference. Then stress-hormones are produced. And that's a matter of seconds, milliseconds even. Cortisol and adrenaline. They increase breathing, they increase heart-rate, they nearly shut down human functions, that are not critical in a dangerous situation. Such as: the reasoning centres of the brain. Everything is done by reflexes at that time.  


But under water that sounds a bit dangerous.  


It can be dangerous. It could be dangerous above the water, but it is a lot less dangerous above the water, because who cares when the heart rate goes up and your breathing goes faster, but under water there are some complications. Which means that your regulator has a limited capacity, because it's a mechanism, it is not unlimited. When your breathing is going up, it could seem as if your regulator is failing, because it's not giving enough air. Together with a slight claustrophobic effect, of the mask and the regulator, and the fact of being under water, that could very easily lead to a quick panic. What happens then: you come into a spiral that causes drowning, because you try to breathe faster and faster. People even take out the regulator.  


That's not a good idea.  


That's a very bad idea, of course. That's a very bad idea. Because they get the feeling that it's not functioning anymore. And sometimes in a reflex they try to get to the surface as quickly as possible, which is very often a bad idea as well, as you well know.  


But what can you do to prevent panicking?  


On the prevention-side, there are two words popping up: Experience and training. Experience of course comes with the number of dives, or even the months and years that you're diving. Because you run into different kinds of situations, you learn from these situations, you learn to distinguish between what is really dangerous and what is less dangerous. Of course you run into some near-misses. From these situations you learn where your limits are, and you learn when you need to abort a dive. Sometimes it's very wise to abort a dive, even when there is no dangerous situation imminent. Because something is going wrong, for instance... Let's say you forgot your auxiliary regulator, your second regulator. You simply forgot it at home. While preparing for the dive, you discuss this with your buddy: "well, I have my auxiliary, no problem. Let's go diving." All of a sudden there is one of the two computers failing.  


That is not a direct risk but...  


You could easily continue diving. But two material flaws, two equipment flaws in one dive is perhaps one too many. Perhaps you need to abort the dive in an early stage, when there is no imminent danger. That's on the experience side. On the training side is: the exercise and even the drill of life-saving reflexes. Life-saving gestures such as exhaling while coming up, such as buddy briefing, et cetera. You need to drill that. Because in a calm situation you can easily reason and remember what to do, in a panic situation you should be able to do that without any reasoning or thinking.


And act instinctively?  


Instinctively, exactly. So, that's on the prevention side. Of course you have to avoid to find yourself in a dangerous situation. That's also a kind of prevention.  


Keep to the rules and things like that?  


Exactly. Avoid diving with wind of gale-force 7 to 8.  


That's good advice. But what happens... I did do my trainings, but something happens and nevertheless I panic. What should I do?  


Well, one advice, four words, is: stop, breathe, think, act. I will explain them. Stop every activity you're doing. Stop moving even, because what you need to do is to break the vicious circle of breathing going up, heart rate coming up, blood pressure going up. You need... Your organism, your body asks for more air. You increase your need for air, so you need to stop that vicious circle. So stop all actions and movement. Your CO2- level will drop and you will feel more comfortable. Breathe: make sure you breathe thoroughly. Break the reflex of superficial breathing. Especially exhaling is important. You need to get rid of the CO2. When your breathing is under control: think. Try to re-engage your reasoning capacities. What is the best solution now? Let's take the example of the diver getting stuck into a fishing line or a fishing net. When it is perceived as dangerous, people will try to break the line by pulling it. Which is a very bad idea. You get tired, your need of air will increase, stop any movement, try to control your breathing, think what's the best solution. Perhaps the best solution is to reach for your knife, or for signalling your buddy. Give him the opportunity to cut the line or cut the net. That's even a better idea. And then act accordingly.  


Maybe one last question: what happens when you see your buddy... because in diving you're always with two. What if you see that your buddy is getting nervous, is getting panicked? How can you help him, or her of course?  


Yeah, of course, we're not discriminating. No, no, I wouldn't dare. No, bad idea. Well, first of all, there is a prevention side as well. You should be sure that you cover any panic or near-panic situation in your briefing, in the preparation of your dive. When you see that your buddy is nervous, or you know that his panic-threshold is rather low, you should prepare for these kind of situations. You should discuss these kind of situations in your briefing. You should even visualise what happens, what he should do or she should do, and what you are going to do in that case. Then: what to do when it happens under water. Physical contact is very important. A firm grip: one hand, two hands, a firm grip. Not too firm, because that could be perceived as panic as well, but a firm grip, saying without words: "I'm here. I'm controlling the situation". Make him stop moving. Put into practice, but then as a buddy, the stop-breathe-think-act-principle. Make him do that. If you have discussed that in your briefing, it helps. It helps to recognise. So a physical contact reassures a panicking diver.  


And once this situation is under control, I suppose you abort the dive?  


Yes certainly, you abort the dive anyway. So you're surfacing, but make sure you're not surfacing while the breathing of your diving buddy is still not under control. That could re-engage the vicious panic-circle. Make surface when breathing is under control, making use of course of your BC, your buoyancy compensator etcetera. Try to limit the physical activities to a minimum.  


Okay Rudi, thank you very much for this advice.  


You're welcome!  


And you at home: thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week!


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