Oh! To take your very first breath underwater! It is exciting and scary and completely illogical all at the same time. All divers start out wide-eyed and giddy, ready to explore the underwater world. This excitement of the day is usually mixed with some anxiety, uncertainty and fear of the unknown. Here are a few common things most divers encounter when they first learn to dive.
Practice, practice, practice
New divers sometimes see courses as a clear pass/fail. They think that since they are paying for the course they have to qualify. This is especially true for resort courses in holiday destinations where courses are about 4 days long on average and students have limited time available to complete their dive course. Look at your diving course similar to a course at school or uni, though. You need to do the skills and keep repeating them not just until you can do them well but until it becomes seeped into your muscle memory.
Dive qualifications are earned and the only way you can do this is to master the skills required for each qualification. Diving puts you in a novel environment, doing things that you wouldn’t usually do on the surface (sometimes things that doesn’t even make sense on the surface) you need to train your body and your brain to adapt to the new setting. This might come quicker to some than to others, and that is perfectly ok.
Having used the phrase pass/fail I need to make it clear that not being able to do a skill or finish a training dive does not mean you have failed the course, it just means you need more practice. Make some time to get back into the pool or book a one-on-one session with an instructor to practice your skills. Do this until you feel comfortable enough that you would be able to perform the skill on your own.
No more fogging.
After doing a few dives- or maybe even before you get into your first pool session you will want to purchase your own mask. A mask can make or spoil a dive- especially if it keeps leaking of fogging up! Once you get your mask and take it home, all shiney and new in it’s packaging there are a few things you need to do before hitting the water. There is a tin, invisible film of silicone and mold release agents that form on the lenses of dive masks while they manufacture it. This film causes your new mask to fog up. Before your first dive you need to remove this film.
An abrasive agent like white toothpaste (not the gel kind) can be used to remove this layer. Just put a small amount of toothpaste in each lens and get scrubbing. Use your thumbs and some good old elbow grease to work the toothpaste onto the lenses for a few minutes. Try to get as close to the skirt (the silicone bit that sits on your face) as possible to avoid the edges of your mask fogging up. Remember to rinse your mask well afterwards to avoid toothpaste eye!
Baby shamphoo (also fondly known as baby Johnsons) work well as a defogger. Put a drop of baby shampoo on each lens before your dive, rub it around and rinse before you put your mask on your face. Choose an environmentally friendly, biodegradable product to protect the reef and yourself from harmful chemicals. You can also try to cool down your face by splashing it with cool water before you put your mask on to avoid any condensation from happening.
I have found that spit is still one of the best, cheapest and most environmentally friendly, ways to prevent your mask from fogging up. The trick here is to use the good thick stuff at the back of your throat as opposed to licking your finger and trying to spread it onto your lenses. No need to be embarrassed, we all know diving is more about ‘wiping-snot-off-your-face’ than surfacing looking like one of the models in the dive magazines.
If all else fails you can burn the protective layer off of the inside of your mask with a lighter. This is a bit of a controversial method. Some manufacturers say that the heat of the flame could compromise the strength of the tempered glass lenses, causing them to shatter (not necessarily while you are burning them) so proceed with caution.
You panicked… now what?
Diving puts us in new and novel situations, usually we have very little to no previous experience or knowledge to fall back on that could help us deal with these situations. Because we are in a foreign environment with little idea of how to deal with certain situations we might end up in a place of anxiety, fear or even – dam-dam-dam- panic.
There is a split second before an uncomfortable situation turns into a panic situation. The moment where you either ‘Stop. Breathe. Think. Breathe and Act’ (otherwise known as ‘fight mode’), or find yourself panicking (know as ‘flight mode’). In that split second what you tell yourself can either help you to take control of the situation or escalate the situation.
As a new Dive Master I had an experience that left me extremely anxious, especially with mask skills. I felt like I was supposed to be a leader in the dive industry and students were looking up to me and I wasn’t supposed to show that I was scared – panicky even- especially when needing to remove my mask. But diving was my passion and I had decided that I wanted to pursue it as a career. So I kept at it.
I faced my fear and got back into the pool with a trusted friend and practiced mask skill after mask skill over and over. I felt like I was learning it all from scratch again. I stood up when I wasn’t comfortable and pushed myself when I felt confident until mask skills became second nature to me.
By doing the thing that created so much anxiety in me over and over, I realised that it is not as scary as I made it to be in my head. I had a bit of tunnel vision and all I could do was think about how big and scary it was.
Most divers experience moments of panic during their dive careers. While some catch it in that moment to take control of the situation, for others it might develop into a full on panic episode. That is ok. Do not judge yourself and your experience. Get back into the water with someone you trust and work on overcoming the negative thoughts and feelings that the experience has brought up in you. This in turn will make you a safer diver. Don’t give up, there are many, many dives awaiting you yet!
Trouble clearing your ears
How easily you equalise could change from one day to the next. There are two ways to equalise, pinching your nose and blowing lightly, or pushing your tongue to the roof of your mouth and swallowing. Sometimes neither of these work and this could lead to frustration on your dive. The worst thing you can do is ignore the pain and continue down, or forcefully blow to try and equalise.
If your ears do not equalise while using one of the above methods, go up a meter or two and try again. If this solves the problem slow down your descent rate and equalise more often.
If it does not work try wiggling your jaw and tilt your head side to side. You can also rub the bit of skin at the opening of your ear or tug on your ear gently and then try to equalise again.
Sometimes divers clench their jaws without realising it – maybe to hold on to their regulator, because the water is cold or because they are a bit nervous. This tightens the muscles around your Eustachian tube which could make it more difficult to push air into it in order to equalise. Focus on relaxing your jaw muscles and try again.
Ensure that your nasal passages are clear before going on a dive. A rinse with salt water often works well, although it is a bit uncomfortable. Avoid using medication to do this as it could cause reverse blocks when it wears off.
If nothing you try works, call the dive.
What size wetsuit am I?
Your wetsuit should fit ‘like a glove’. Not too tight, nor too loose. It is normal to feel a bit uncomfortable in your wetsuit while you are on the surface. It is, after all, a rubber suit designed to fit snugly to keep you warm.
If, however, you feel too much constriction of movement or any difficulty in breathing, try a bigger size. On the other hand, if you suit is too big, with air pockets in places, water will circulate through, cooling you down very quickly- making the suit useless.
Keep these in mind when you go for your very first dive… or your 40th. We all keep learning as we go along.