On SCUBA Diving, Panicking and Stupid Mistakes

Last January I went on a week long live-aboard cruise with All Star Liveaboards and had a great time doing it. Since it was going to be a fantastic week of diving in an area I wasn't likely to ever go back to, I borrowed my buddy Sam's Hero 3 GoPro for the trip. On the third dive of the trip, my dive buddy ran out of air (<300PSI in his tank) and a 500 meter surface swim later, the camera had fallen out of my BCD's pocket, and all was lost. I ended up splitting the cost of a Hero 5 Black with him, and he said he'd lend it to me whenever I wanted it for diving.

Fast forward to June and someone got in touch with him, saying that they'd found the Hero 3, and Sam now had two GoPros. Last weekend, I borrowed the Hero 5 and went diving in Tobermory, nearly lost it, and ruptured my eardrum saving it.

Our first dive was plagued with technical problems, my hood didn't fit which fucked up my breathing; my buddy's reg started free-flowing and he couldn't get it to stop; then without the hood the 12 degree thermocline was far more than I could handle; so dive aborted. The second dive was fun and easy, and on our way back I still had 500 PSI more than either of my two buddies, so I (made mistake number one) was going to forego the surface swim and get back to the boat a couple meters under water.

After a couple minutes of practicing buoyancy control I noticed a difference in the weight on my wrist, and looked down to see the GoPro sinking into the inky depths of Lake Huron. This is when I made the second mistake, which cost me my eardrum. Forgetting the warning that the boat Captain had given us about the deceptive distances we'd experience, 10 meters looking like 5, I figured I could quickly grab it. What I thought was about 2 meters was just over five, and after diving down while ignoring the rapidly building pressure in my ear I grabbed the camera. As if on cue when my hand closed around the handle my ear popped, light flashed in my eyes, and the entire world started spinning.

By spinning, I really mean spinning. Bubbles were floating in spirals, I couldn't tell where the light was coming from, I couldn't tell up from down, or where I needed to go. I tried to swim up, and realized I had absolutely no idea which way that was, nor did I have any ability to orient myself towards it.

This was the point where I started to panic, deep honking breaths, panicked flailing, and "Oh fuck, I have no idea how to get out of this. I'm actually fucked here." I remember thinking to myself that if I could just get a good breath of air I'd be fine, and to do that I'd need more than my reg would give me. Obviously that means that I should just take it out for one quick second.

That was the point where I realized that panicking wasn't going to do anything for me other than get me dead. I remember as soon as I thought to myself that taking my reg out of my mouth was actually a bad idea, an immediate calm washed over me.

I often find myself crediting the training I did in flight school for helping me retain my cool and think logically in panic-inducing situations, but this was probably the best example of it.

I closed my eyes, took a long slow deep breath and let it out and then got to remembering my training. Logically I knew I was at most about 5 meters down (actually about 8), and since I'd just been at the surface, worst case I could pop and I'd be fine. Worst case being what it is, I decided to take it slowly. Since I was incapable of figuring out which way up was, I'd let physics do the work for me. I pumped a tiny bit of air into my BC at a time until I felt a bit of a pressure change in my not-broken ear, dumped a bit out just to be safe, and felt myself slowly ascend.

At the top tossed my googles on my head and called out for help, got a buddy tow back to the boat, and that was the end of my diving trip.

Obviously I made a bunch of dumb decisions, and I'm lucky that a burst eardrum is the only injury I've ever had, or hope to have, diving. However, the fact that I actually paid attention to my emergency procedures, practiced them, remembered the bad things that could happen, and very rapidly regained my composure made me feel good about the way the training is structured for those that actually want to learn.