Staying cool under pressure

Usually when I do travel posts it’s about good stuff. This one is not. This one is about a potentially catastrophic experience I had yesterday, I decided to post it because I’ve always wondered what this would feel like, and now I know.

I’m advanced diver, over 300 dives in many parts of the world in many different conditions. In those dives I’ve my share of “exciting moments” (just like anyone driving a car might while driving). However, in the past, my exciting moments have always involved wildlife, and generally very large wildlife. This was different.

Picture this: morning in Cozumel Mexico. I’m diving with a high-end dive shop, with top notch ultra-experienced and qualified dive masters. I am nitrox (enriched air, more oxygen) certified, and we have nitrox. I’m on the boat with my son, four other advanced divers, dive master and captain. It’s a beautiful morning. We decided to go to Punta Sur and do “Devil’s Throat”, a favorite dive, very advanced, but not without risks. It’s deep (~110ft, ~30m), and there are confined passageways. This is absolutely not for the casual diver, and only a small percentage of divers in Cozumel go there.

We hit the water, and everything is fine. We start our descent. On the way down I noticed I was having a little trouble equalizing, but nothing serious or too unusual, but nowhere near enough to abort the dive. At about 90ft, my equalization problems get worse. Shortly after, we start on the passageways.

We’re swimming in the passageways in a pre-determined single file order and continuing do descend. My left ear won’t clear. I know better than to force it, as that could rupture my ear drum and put a damper on the rest of the trip. Because my ear won’t clear, the water pressure around me now exceeds the air pressure in my middle ear. In layman’s terms: “it hurts”. But it didn’t hurt so badly that I wanted to abort (awkward given I was Number 3 and there were 3 other divers behind me). So, I sucked it up and carried on.

(here’s the hard part, I am going to try to eloquently convey what happened next, although I don’t think words come close to describing the feeling I had).

First, I lost all sense of direction, I didn’t know what was up and what was down. I looked at my computer, I was at 105ft (you can’t just “pop up” to the surface from there).

Next, things started to spin slowly. I it was like I was in a tunnel with my body spinning on axis, only I knew it wasn’t, my brain was making it seem this way.

Next came the really fun part, the spinning accelerated, and my vision started to blur. Although I think my body was still, my eyes were seeing this crazily spinning-out-of-control vortex, and it was spinning FAST. Remember 2001 A Space Odyssey, or when spaceships in movies go to warp speed? It was like that, a chaotic kaleidoscopic swirling blur rotating impossibly fast. If I concentrated really hard, I could get enough visual stability to kind of get a sense of what was directly in front of me, but just that, only a rough idea, I couldn’t really see it.

I knew where I was, I was totally lucid, I knew how much time I had left at that depth (105ft!), and most importantly I stayed calm. The passage got darker and turned downwards at 90 degrees. I’m not sure how I managed to do that downward turn, but I’ll bet I wasn’t very graceful.

Next, fortunately, we emerged from the passageway, and were in open water, although still in a confined space. The two divers ahead of me had gone on, but I didn’t know that at the time. I couldn’t orient myself or communicate with my fellow divers (it’d be like being in a spinning clothes dryer try to write on a slate). I could only see blurs, and could not tell what was a diver, a coral head or water. It was very disconcerting, a quick descent into utter incomprehensible madness. Worst perhaps was that I knew I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling my brain they were seeing, because I knew it wasn’t real. My only thought was: “Stay calm. What can I do now to get out of this?”.

Somewhere in all of that there was a “pop” in my left ear. Because I was so disoriented, I don’t know if that was before or after my “wild light-speed kaleidoscope ride”, but after that, the pain in my ear was fine. Some place in the back of my brain I started wondering if I had just ruptured my ear drum, but that was the least of my problems at the time.

Eventually, everything stopped turning, and the vision blur went away. I completed the dive, ascended with no issues, and went on to do the second dive (without incident) a shipwreck that was shallower, but there were enclosed passageways, ascending decks, dark places, etc. I was understandably a bit nervous after my “swirling vortex” encounter a few hours prior, but had no problems. Then, I even did a night dive, which was a record (for me) 2 hours long, and just spectacular.

This morning I thought it may be an idea to get my ear looked at. Verdict: inner ear infection. Doctor said “don’t dive for 3 or 4 days”, I said “I understand what you’re saying, but NO! That’s not going to happen. I’m only here for a few more days. Give me whatever it takes to make me better FAST”. So: shot of steroids (“so strong we can only do this once”), high dose of a special type of targeted Amoxicillin, and an anti-inflammatory that is not approved for use in the US/UK/Canada, has been banned in some countries. But the EU says the benefits outweigh the risks, so I’ll go with that. She didn’t seem surprised at my reaction, I’ll bet most advanced divers say the same, “just fix it”.

Morals of this story:

  • always always remain calm on a dive, no matter what
  • never underestimate the effects of sinus/inner ear/ear infections on a dive
  • never exceed the limits of you abilities. I was able to handle what I went through because of training and experience, others with less experience/confidence could have had a far worse outcome

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Reader Comments (1)

Nice writeup, Brian, and great work! Working through a problem is always preferred. Several pilots I know have similar stories.

August 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Allred

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