WHY DIVE PROS SHOULD TALK ABOUT BAD DIVES
Why is it so taboo for Dive Pros to talk about about bad dives or when things go wrong?
We're not gods, we're not gurus, we're just normal people. And the fact that we regularly submerge ourselves in an environment where normal people can't survive without specialised equipment increases our chances of things going wrong.
Couple that with the fact that it's our job to take whole groups of other, normal people down there with us... I guarantee that things will go wrong!
We don't talk about it because we feel embarrassed or ashamed. This isn't helped by the culture that exists in our industry that prevents us from speaking up.
As Dive Pros, we will experience distress when things don't go as expected. Depending on the severity of the event and how we react to stress as individuals, it can get stuck and cause real problems in our working and personal lives.
In this article, I'm going to talk about a stressful dive I had a couple of months ago. It was a bad dive where something went wrong and it was actually the first time in my diving career where I thought "yup, there's a chance I might not get out of this".
I'm also going to share another article with you by Laura Walton at Fit-To-Dive. She explains what diving stress does to you and why it's important not to let it get stuck in your head (and body). She helped me process that scary dive and her blog post explains many of the techniques she told me to use to work through what happened.
I was supposed to be fun diving with my mates on this dive. But when I noticed another group and saw they were struggling, the dive pro in me couldn't just swim past.
To cut a long story short, because this bit isn't particularly unusual on my dives, the group leader decided to abort the dive with the student who was having issues and I was to buddy up with the remaining qualified fun diver to carry on.
Because of all the kafuffle, I lost track of where I was on the dive site - I didn't know it particularly well to start with. The current was picking up so I didn't have much choice but to drift with it. This middle part of the dive was pretty uneventful. We saw some nice schools of fish, some nudies, the usual.
I was keeping an eye on gas and time. I decided to shallow up from 20m to 10m looked up at the surface and thought "Great, that's proper choppy it's going to be fun getting back on the boat."
We kept going a bit further and as we neared 70bar I decided to start launching my SMB and shallowing up for safety stops. I got it out of my pocket and momentarily lost sight of my buddy. The current had become a bit washing-machiney, but we quickly found each other again and I went back to my SMB.
Suddenly we were down at 15m... wtf?
I signalled to my buddy to start ascending again. We stuck very close together. In hindsight, I was lucky that my buddy was switched on enough to do that after the washing machine. I still had my SMB and reel, unrolled and ready to go in my hand. There was too much going on to get it back in my pocket.
I was watching my computer like a hawk, I knew something wasn't right. We were ascending nicely getting back up to 12m, 10m... 10.5m, 10.8m, 11.5m, 12m, 12.7m... shit. We're in a down current.
I wasn't panicking, but I was very aware of the situation we were in. Potential action plans were running through my head like a combination lock. Rotating and clunking in, trying to find a combination that would fix the problem. I'd never experienced a down current before, but I had knowledge of it, stories in passing of how to deal with it and the potential outcomes.
The first combo clicked in:
- Ride it out, it'll spit you out eventually... and the other dials were still turning
- I don't know how deep it might send us or how long it might take - what's our gas situation
- I've got 50bar left, my buddy was less than me the last time I checked so he's probably got less again, no time to check
It didn't unlock, next combo:
- Fight the downward force... swim up again but with effort this time, break through it
- I don't know if my buddy can do this - no time to communicate about it
- Grab him and go for it
So I started swimming up and I made sure I had hold of him so he 100% came with me. I got back up to about 9m but couldn't get any further...
- So, swimming worked a bit, but we need more force to get past this last little bit. It's time to inflate.
- Wait, one hand is holding my buddy, my SMB and reel is in the other. Go-go t-rex arms (I was obviously overloaded here because I didn't think to drop my SMB)
- It's working. I can't see my dive com but it's getting lighter and I can hear my BCD overpressure valve popping like mad. Can I slow this down though? Time to deflate a bit.
With my full hands, I managed to stop the rapid ascent at about 3m, but by that time I'd had enough of being underwater. I let ourselves go those last few meters to make sure we were floating firmly on the surface.
I made sure my buddy was ok and we signalled the boat. I let everyone know what happened and they could tell I'd had a fright. I de-kitted and checked in with my buddy again and told him to monitor for DCS just in case. I wish I'd taken more time to talk with him about what happened, but I wasn't in the right frame of mind for that.
If that had happened with my original group - just me and my mates, I don't think I'd have found it as stressful. I'd have probably gone with combo 1 and rode it out. My mates are instructors too so with all the factors, combo 1 would have unlocked. It probably would have been quite fun!
As a dive pro, my stress on this dive was increased significantly because I now had a customer's life in my hands. My thoughts of "I might not get out of this" was less about getting myself out of a sticky situation, but more about keeping them safe. Also, if the unthinkable had happened and I lost contact with him how could I live with that? My job, my business, my team. All gone in the blink of an eye.
DEALING WITH THE STRESS AFTER THE DIVE
The what-ifs were starting to run riot in my head immediately after this event. I didn't find being stuck in a down current as stressful as what could have happened to my customer. It made me feel sick.
I recognised straight away that this had the potential to get stuck and lodge itself as a trauma that would definitely affect my diving. I couldn't stop thinking about the what-ifs. What if I'd let go? What if my buddy wasn't him but a newbie student? What if there were more of us?
I knew the first thing I had to do was talk about it. As soon as we got back to base, I asked my team if we could do a bit of a debrief. I ran through the timeline of what happened. It was important for me to start sorting through everything, but it was also a learning opportunity for all of us. It was my first time in a down current, my teammates had never encountered one either.
My next port of call was Laura. I'm incredibly lucky to know her (and even more fortunate to have her on our team). I talk about her a lot. She's a clinical psychologist by day and PADI Master Instructor by night. Her real area of expertise is bringing these two things together.
She explained how my brain needed to file away and categorise what happened. Like a literal filing cabinet with labelled sections in my head. She said that walking would really help, and not to specifically think about the situation. Just to walk and let things flit in and out and do their own thing.
Yesterday, Laura wrote an excellent blog that explains why stress is a bit like nitrogen loading. She also lists a whole host of techniques that help you deal with the stress after an event - most of which I've used myself so I can tell you that they definitely work (I'm using one right now by writing about it!).
After these few months of working through what happened, it doesn't feel as stressful anymore. My dance with the down current will always stick in my memory, and I see that as a good thing. It's not a trauma that brings back bad feelings, it's something I can use in my job. As a Dive Pro, I need to live through experiences like this. When I next encounter something similar, my combination lock code will click into place much faster. This knowledge might even come in useful when I next encounter something novel and it takes a few rotations of the dials as I draw from my bag of experience to make action plans.
It's OK to be a Dive Pro and feel stressed. It's not OK to bottle it up, feel embarrassed or not talk to anyone about it.
On a personal level, not talking will lead to this one-off bad event getting stuck in your brain and turning itself into something more serious that could knock your diving career.
On a team or industry level, not talking is a huge learning opportunity missed by everyone.
The next time you have a bad dive, re-read Laura's article to help work through any potential issues.
And if you need more than self-help, there are professionals who can work wonders. Laura is the only diving psychologist in the UK - perhaps even the world. Reach out to her if you need her. She's a good egg.