Keep Breathing

When an incident happens and causes a problem underwater, you should be able to rely on your training to overcome the difficulty and get the best possible outcome. Photo by Stephen Frink

Being prepared can help in risky situations.

It was the final day of checkout dives for my master scuba diver course, and I could not wait to get to the lake and dive. Early that morning our class members met at the local shop, grabbed our rental gear and threw it all into the back of four pickup trucks bound for Canyon Lake near New Braunfels, Texas.

An open-water class would also be diving at the lake that day, so the atmosphere was a bit chaotic as 20 divers unloaded gear and set up equipment. After I squeezed into my 3 mm wetsuit, grabbed a tank and connected my regulator, I noticed that the tank was less than half full. Perhaps an open-water student had unknowingly replaced the cap on the valve, causing this tank to not get refilled, but I knew I could still get a full tank from the truck. Before I could swap cylinders, however, a classmate asked for help finding his mask. The entire class rummaged through almost all the half-empty gear bags scattered along the rocky shoreline, looked inside the trucks and on the truck beds, and checked any potential place the mask could be. We finally found the mask covered up by clothes in someone’s bag.

Searching for the mask cut into the time we’d usually spend carefully setting up and checking gear, but we had to adhere to our schedule. Like a disappointed parent, the instructor began to lecture the master class, harping on and on about how the open-water students were already in the water while we were still trying to get ready. He quickly paired us into buddy teams and told us to get moving. I was paired with someone I knew from class, but we had never been buddies before; unfortunately there was no time to get to know this guy before we hit the water. We slung our tanks on our backs and didn’t speak as we shamefully trudged into the lake, spitting into our masks for a last-minute defog. After we swam out to deep water and the class was together, the instructor called out, “Ready” — more as a statement than a question. We began our descent into the dark, cold and murky lake.

The first dive was our deep dive. We had made our dive plan in class the previous day, so I felt prepared and knew what to expect — or so I thought. Throughout our descent, I meticulously checked the dive computer on my wrist until we reached the lake bottom at 90 feet. I could identify my buddy’s location only by the faint glow of his dive light, so I held onto his upper arm to ensure I stayed with him the entire dive instead of mistakenly ditching him for another similar dive light. With the lack of visibility, it seemed like I might be floating through darkness forever.

The instructor finally illuminated his hand to signal for us to begin to our ascent; as we slowly began to rise, we finally got some lighting. Although the visibility was still only about 10 feet, I felt much more comfortable than I did in the dark. Just when I thought I could finally breathe easily again, I felt some strange resistance. I took another slow, deep breath and told myself to relax, but I realized something was clearly wrong. When I looked at my pressure gauge and saw the needle pointed at zero, reality hit me like a big truck: I never swapped my tank.

I looked up from my depth gauge and didn’t see my dive buddy. I told myself to stay calm and remember what we practiced so many times at the bottom of the 12-foot-deep pool. There I was, 70 feet underwater and about to employ the same skills my instructor had drilled into us. Not wasting time to search for my designated buddy, I swam to the closest diver. I gave him clear “out of air” and “share air” signals. After a brief deer-in-the-headlights moment, he jumped into action, extending his alternate second stage to me. We shared air throughout our entire slow, controlled ascent and completed a three-minute safety stop before surfacing as a team.

After we removed our gear back on shore, the instructor gathered the group for a debriefing. I expected the worse reprimanding of my life, but instead the instructor asked, “Is everyone all right?” He praised our ability to use our dive skills in action to safely share air and terminate the dive in a calm and controlled manner. Later, in private, my instructor gave me a hard time about being his only student to ever run out of air, but you can bet that I will never let that happen again.

While several factors contributed to the situation, it was entirely preventable and luckily had a positive outcome. In the end it was a learning experience for the entire team: We experienced the importance of being prepared, staying organized before a dive and completing a buddy check. It is ultimately up to divers to be responsible for themselves. On that dive I was irresponsible, but fortunately my classmate was there to help me, and I learned my lesson without casualty.

Be prepared for unexpected underwater situations by taking the initiative to be a responsible diver, keeping your cool and following your training.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2019