Confined Water Sessions
Lately I have seen a large increase in new divers asking for advice in Facebook’s SCUBA Diving forums on how to overcome their fear of being underwater.
Diving can be one of the most amazing sports out there. Imagine floating weightlessly in a warm current. Imagine being lulled in by waves gently swaying you back and forth. Think of how a single fin stroke can change propel you forward into new adventure.
This is what diving feels like when you are a confident and comfortable diver. If you are a new be that has not quite wrapped their mind around it, every little tuck of current, every particle obscuring your visibility and every drop of water leaking into your mask will convince you that you’re just about to die.
I have a confession to make
I was once that diver. Terrified to the point of immobility or shooting up to the surface, convinced that I was going to drown at any moment and dreading to go into the water. Honestly, it took me almost 40 dives until I had the “This is fucking awesome” moment. I endured 39 more or less miserable dives out of pure spite but in the end it was so worth it. I owe a lot to the amazing summer 2017 crew at Parrots Dive Center in Utila, Honduras. They not only made the island feel like home, but their passion for diving and the ocean kept me going.
How it all began
My first venture into the world of SCUBA diving took place in 2010 at one of the worlds most renown dive sites: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
I was so stoked. I’d be a real SCUBA diver and dive the worlds oceans and lakes. I’d discover some epical treasures and be a real life Lara Croft. The reality looked very different. I HATED every single second of it. It started with my instructor almost drowning me during a pool session and it didn’t get any better. Up to today I am convinced the only reason I got Open Water certified was because the instructor conveniently forgot to have us do the emergency ascent.
The worst is yet to come
We were out on a live aboard and for some reason the dive shop thought it would be a good idea to throw their newly certified open waters into their fun dives without a Dive Master, computer or even dive watch. Even newly certified, this seemed like a horrendously bad idea to me and so I instead opted to do the Advanced Course. Hey, at least I’d have an instructor with me, right?
As far as I understood, the plan was to do a navigational dive where a dingy dropped us of away from the live aboard and we’d then dive back to it. Unfortunately the instructor got turned around and let us into open water. Believe me if I tell you that visibility was fucking awful. I kept loosing sight of the group, had miscalculated my weights, as they had switched tanks from steel to aluminium. So I was badly underweight and kept drifting up. To top it all of, I developed a really bad case of vertigo. When I finally managed to signal to the instructor that something was wrong he gave me an extra weight and dismissed my vertigo and fear and dove on.
When we came up eventually, the live aboard was more than a kilometre away and the current kept sweeping us further out. None of the SMB’s would stay inflated and all we could do was hope for the staff on board to come and find us. Luckily the captain got worried and spotted us. Shortly after they picked us up. Needless to say that I was done with diving. I was scared shitless and spend my remaining two days sitting on board. I even refused to go snorkelling around the reef.
Seven years later
Seven years later I went backpacking in Central America and heard about this almost legendary island of the coast of Honduras, where rum was cheap and SCUBA diving even cheaper. Okay, almost. Believe it or not that diving experience in Australia still haunted me. But I have this conviction that fears are meant to be conquered and I had learned a lot about fear management and mental strength during the previous years in my martial arts classes.
I figured I’d go and redo my Open Water Certification, just to prove that I had the mental strength to do it. I didn’t expect to like it and I didn’t. The only reason I made it through was because of my instructor. The one and only amazing Georgia, who was so patient and kind and happy and confident under water. And above all she understands that not everyone is a natural mermaid and will do anything in her power to make you a safe and confident diver. I highly recommend you dive with her if you’re planning on getting certified in Malta.
Not all is well
I finished my Open Water Course, but knew not so deep down that if I stopped there I would never dive again and I would still feel like an utter failure. The truth about the PADI Open Water is, and I say that as one of their very own Dive Masters, that it does not qualify everyone to go out diving on their own on their fifth Open Water Dive. It certifies you to do so but that doesn’t mean that you should do it.
I knew that I was not ready to dive on my own, not even with a dive master leading the dive. And so I did my advanced course. The advanced course doesn’t really teach you any new skills. What it gives you however, is five more dives with an instructor by your side, watching your every move and potentially saving your ass. The advanced course helped me somewhat in terms of confidence, but I still didn’t enjoy it. In the back of my mind I was still somewhat convinced that each dive could be my last.
How fear works
I won’t bore you with the details of which hormone causes exactly which reaction in the body. Its fascinating but not really relevant to us.
Fear is an emotion induced by a perceived threat or danger occurring in humans and animals. It causes a change in metabolic and organ function that eventually leads to fleeing, freezing or hiding. Fear occurs as a response to a certain stimulus that we perceive as a threat. Whether or not that thread is real is not relevant for the initial reaction.
Imagine the following scenario
You are walking down a dark path and you hear something bustle in the underbrush. What would shoot into your mind instantly? Large Predator, Rapist, Werewolf, Vampire? Now, you know for a fact that there are no large predators in your area, crime is ridiculously low and werewolves and vampires are the stuff of legend. And yet, for a split second your heart rate speeds up, the adrenaline is pumping and you’re ready to run or fight for your life.
This is your thalamus collecting environmental data and sending a “better safe than sorry” reaction to your body.
At the same time your sensory cortex starts to make a more sophisticated assessment of the situation based on knowledge and experience. This is the rational part of your brain that will tell you that there is nothing there that can harm you. Your breathing and heart rate will normalise as your thalamus receives the sensory cortex’s feedback and shuts down the fight to flight response. We don’t have any influence over this process. It often happens within split seconds. In fact our body constantly assesses thread levels around us. This a remnant from when we were furry little critters at the bottom of the food chain rather than the worlds apex predator.
While we can’t influence the process of threat evaluation directly, we can trick it to some extend.
What you can do during your Open Water Course
Let me tell you about a few trick I have used to get through my Open Water Course. I am not talking about cheating or cutting corners, but little tweaks that help you make it easier.
Flooded Mask/Mask Clearing:
- Quickly flood your mask. Many instructors teach you to let water trickle in slowly. I found this way more unnerving as it only builds up anxiety.
- I know it sounds counter intuitive but keep your eyes open. The discomfort of having water in your eyes fades within the first second or so and being able to see your surroundings will make it far less threatening. It also will help with your sense of balance which gets slightly skewed by being under water in the first place.
Taking off and replacing your mask
Swim without a mask
Out of air simulation
- Keep in mind that your instructor has their hand on your tank valve at any time and is watching you and your pressure gauge closely. They won’t let you run out of air!
Something that has always worked for me is to focus on my breathing. Whenever I get overwhelmed under water I focus on my breathing. Counting out in your mind for your inhales and exhales helps to refocus your mind and slows down your heart rate and breathing. It also gives you something to do while you’re waiting for the other course members to finish their skills. Bonus point: Slow deep breathing will improve your air consumption.
Be patient with yourself and don’t compare yourself with others. Some people are naturally confident under water, while others need some time to adjust. Don’t let anyone make you feel like a burden. You are there to learn. As long as you pay attention and seriously try no-one has a right to be impatient with you.
I am hoping that some of those tips for the more common struggles will help new divers through their Open Water Course.
Is there anything you are struggling with in the skillset? Let us know. If you already are an experienced diver or even a new be that found a way to deal with a particular struggle, let us know in the comments as well.
I hope you enjoyed the first part of “Fear Management for new SCUBA Divers”. The second part will be released on Thursday the 18.10.2018. Sign up to our newsletter and have it delivered straight into your inbox.
I am not a PADI Instructor of any rank, just a Dive Master. I am therefore neither allowed nor qualified to teach Open Water Courses on my own. The advice I am sharing here results from personal experience during my own Open Water Certification and during courses in which I assisted. I am not responsible for any injuries, loss of life, property etc. sustained during SCUBA diving activities. All advice is give with good faith and worked for me and other Open Water Students. This does not mean that has to work for everybody though.