Excess Caution Leads to Diver's First Underwater Emergency

By Mtich Coleman

For the experienced diver, a novice dive buddy can provide an instant refresher course in underwater safety.

My friend Jenny had recently been certified and was making her fifth open water dive when we stepped off a pier into the calm, clear waters of Bonaire. I had brought Jenny to this island because it offers some of the easiest and most beautiful diving in the Caribbean. It seemed the perfect place to put a novice diver at ease.

The dive began smoothly. We descended to 60 feet and began cruising the reef. We were surrounded by feeding schools of Creole Wrasse and dogged by the ever-present, ever-hungry Yellowtail Snappers. Then, in one frightening moment, Jenny's worst fears were realized. As I looked on from just a few feet away, she stopped, took a quick look at her gauge console, turned to me and began frantically making the throat slashing gesture she had practiced so often in the pool during her certification class.

Rushing to her side, I offered her my octopus. After waiting a few moments for her to calm down, I checked her air pressure gauge and was surprised to see it read 2,500 psi. I reached for her regulator and drew a breath. Not only was it difficult to draw but, with each breath, the indicator dropped from 2,500 down to zero, then back again.

Back on shore I examined her tank and found the valve had only been turned on halfway. When I turned it on full, the regulator functioned normally. Jenny realized she had turned the knob all the way and then half a crank back. But, because of her anxiety about diving, she often double, triple and even quadruple-checked her equipment. While making one of these checks she forgot she had already turned her air on. She ended up turning it all the way off and half a crank on.

At sea level there was enough air getting past the valve to fool her (and her pressure indicator) into thinking her tank valve was open. But, at 60 feet, the regulator couldn't provide enough air to meet her demands. Fortunately, she stayed calm and responded to her training.

Later we both laughed at how her excess caution had actually caused her first dive emergency. But, the emergencies weren't over.

After three days of diving we were enjoying an oceanfront dinner with our dive group when Jenny suddenly began to feel strange. She experienced numbness in her right arm and side. She felt dizzy and disoriented. Her first thought was that she had somehow gotten bent and was just beginning to feel the effects. This caused her some degree of anxiety that added to her symptoms.

I called the divemaster over and he suggested we move Jenny back to her room and put her on oxygen. He thought it unlikely she was bent but he thought the oxygen might help to calm her while we discussed other possibilities.

After breathing oxygen for about an hour, her symptoms hadn't abated but she did feel calmer now believing she wasn't experiencing the bends. The dry air made her thirsty and it was then we discovered the problem; she was simply dehydrated.

She had forgotten that diving depletes the body of moisture and that a diver should drink lots of liquids, even if he or she isn't thirsty. After consuming large quantities of water and getting a good night's sleep, Jenny greeted the new day ready for diving. Now it was my turn to be nervous. What would happen next?

In the years since these early diving adventures, Jenny and I have gotten married. We've also completed training for our advanced open water certifications and logged more than 100 dives together. These two mini-emergencies helped cement our bond, both as life partners and dive partners. Fortunately we've had no problems since but the lessons we both learned have stayed with us on every dive.

Before entering the water, have your buddy check your air. (I should have done this in Bonaire. I never fail to do it now.) Once underwater, never stray too far from your buddy. Even 20 feet can seem like a mile when you're out of air and fighting panic.

On shore, drink plenty of liquids, even when you aren't thirsty. And remember, alcohol acts as a diuretic and can cause you to pass more liquids than you are taking in. If you're drinking alcohol be sure to supplement it with plenty of water.

These are simple lessons and ones we all learned in our first two weeks of dive class. But, thanks to the education I got from my novice partner, they are lessons I will never forget.