Masking the Problem
There are many divers who harbour a dangerous secret. Hermione is one of them.
On a recent dive, the latest of over 200 she has done over the past 12 years, the unthinkable happened. Despite having followed her usual careful pre-dive cleaning routine, halfway through the dive her mask started fogging up.
The dive guide was pointing out small creature after small creature and eventually the fog became so thick, she could not see what he was showing her.
She screamed into her mouthpiece in frustration and the guide, looking at her, indicated that she should clear her mask. She dimly perceived his signals through the mist and squealed again, signalling with her thumb that she wanted to go up.
They ascended and when they arrived at the surface, Hermione made herself positively buoyant, took off her mask, flushed it out, spat in it, wiped the spit around and flushed it out again before replacing it on her face carefully and brushing strands of hair out from beneath the rim.
The divemaster waited patiently and when she had finished he asked why they had had to ascend and why she had not just cleared her mask under water.
“Because I CAN’T!” she screeched, still stressed. “I never could.”
Hermione’s secret, one shared by more divers than you would imagine, is that she lives every dive terrified of getting water into her mask and onto her face. So she is certainly not going to voluntarily allow water to enter her mask so she can defog it. She knows that if she does this or if her mask ever fails in any way, there is a good chance that she will panic and bolt to the surface.
She therefore spends every dive conscious that she is always potentially seconds away from disaster. Yet she is so keen on the sport that she continues to dive nevertheless, hoping that it will never happen. Over time, this hope turns into a misplaced conviction.
The false logic she applies is that if she has done x hundred dives and has never had a mask leak, been caught by a flying fin or had a mask-strap break, then none of these things will happen on the next x hundred dives either. And, if her mask fogs up then she can always ascend and sort it out on the surface, even though this may spoil the dive.
It does not feel natural for anyone to have water covering their nostrils while they are breathing through their mouth. A lot of people understandably become anxious in such circumstances, worrying that they may inadvertently inhale water and choke.
However, it is a common experience for divers to be under water with water inside their mask and we teach them in their beginners’ course how to manage their anxiety and deal with this, as well as how to deal with an emergency situation where they lose their mask completely and have either to replace it or ascend without it.
Nevertheless, as we see from Hermione’s example, evidently there are divers who become divers without actually learning to manage the skills or their anxiety. How can we as professionals manage this problem? We can try to tackle it at the source.
Agencies can train instructors better, greater focus can be placed on mask skills in beginners’ training and instructors can be told to insist on mastery of mask skills as a prerequisite of graduation. However, some people need more time to learn than others, especially when the things they have to learn involve overcoming fears that can be deep-seated.
Today, with large classes and tight schedules, there is often little time for extra lessons or one-on-one sessions, and both students and dive-centre bosses expect a 100% pass rate on courses.
So the Hermiones of the future will continue to slip through the system. In the chapter “Real Risk Awareness” I tell the story of another diver who slipped through and how it happened.
When divers embark on technical diver training, they are put through a rigorous stress-testing session in confined water. This gives them experience of difficult situations and teaches them how to resolve these situations.
The training also guides them towards adopting a mind-set where they work to build instinctive reactions, which replace fear and stress as the automatic response to difficult situations.
A large part of these sessions is run with the diver not wearing a mask and technical instructors find that although the students may have had no difficulty performing the mask skills when they first learned to dive, nevertheless they still find it hard to stay calm and think logically when they have no mask on.
However, when they are given multiple tasks to do under water with no mask on, their focus shifts to the job in hand and gradually their fears fall away completely.
Breathing under water without their nose and eyes covered becomes completely natural and this does wonders for their confidence.
A Clinical Solution
So how do we get Hermione and others like her to this level without requiring them to sign up for technical diver courses?
The solution is mask clinics. Many sports encourage their adherents to keep in shape and improve their performance by attending regular training sessions and scuba-diving should be no exception.
Indeed dive clubs and dive centres often run pool sessions during the off-seasons to keep divers involved and give them opportunities to practise their skills. Some of these sessions could be designated as mask clinics. The mask clinics would be open to all divers. Technical divers could practise stress tests; divers of less exalted rank could practise mask-clearing or replacing a mask and more advanced divers could work on achieving technical-diver-esque levels of no-mask confidence.
Attending only one such clinic would not solve Hermione’s issues at a stroke but perhaps she could start off by spending the first session just snorkelling up and down on the surface without a mask, before moving on to scuba in a subsequent session.
With divers of all experience levels there, no stigma would be attached to attending the clinics and therefore Hermione need not be embarrassed by her problem. As the instructors running the clinics would be operating outside of a formal course structure, they would not be restricted to standard training agency teaching techniques and could develop no-mask games or competitions to help build diver confidence and make the sessions more fun.
Eventually Hermione would conquer her fears and finally be able to enjoy her diving without the constant fear of impending doom looming at the edge of her consciousness.
Be Professional by:
• Recognising that many divers have long-term problems with mask skills and that these represent a significant safety issue.
• Doing something about it.
When to Cancel a Dive
As an instructor or dive master you are responsible for many things but your key responsibility is the safety of the divers in your care. Sometimes this means that you have to make difficult and highly unpopular decisions, such as cancelling a dive at the last moment if you think the prevailing conditions might be dangerous.
Kate was a divemaster in Hong Kong; it was a beautiful Sunday in early September and she was in charge of a dozen divers who had assembled at the dock for a two-tank boat dive. The sky was blue and the sea was calm.
Everyone had turned up early and there was a buzz of conversation about what a great day they were all going to have. They were all Hong Kong residents with busy lives in the city and were excited at the opportunity for a rare day off and out on the water.
However, Kate had been listening to the radio on the drive to work that morning and had heard that a storm was forecast later in the day, coming in from the east.
The boat dock was on the east side of Hong Kong and all the dive sites accessible from there were around the small islands even further east.
Kate knew from experience how quickly the weather can change at sea and she was concerned. On arrival at the boat she spoke with the captain, who had not heard the weather report but felt that the good conditions would hold at least through the day. All around, other dive-boats were loading their customers and preparing to set off.
Kate took a look at her group of divers. All were quite new to the sport and inexperienced. She could see how excited they were. She thought for a while, then gathered everyone around and explained regretfully and sympathetically that, although it seemed that it was going to be a beautiful day now, bad weather was on the way and she felt it would be better for everyone if they cancelled the trip.
The mood turned ugly fast. This was not news the divers had expected. After all, they could see other boats pulling out with happy divers on board. Some accused Kate of cancelling for no other reason than that she wanted to have a day off work; others called the dive-centre owner and tried to convince him to over-rule her. He told them it was Kate’s call.
Kate stuck to her decision and the divers eventually got back into their cars, disappointed and annoyed.
On their way back to the city the sky became dark behind them and heavy drops of rain started bouncing off their windshields. Within an hour a fierce storm was battering Hong Kong.
The dive-boats that had gone out rolled and pitched back to port through high seas, most with a cargo of very sick customers on board. No-one dived in Hong Kong that day.
To their credit, many of the divers later called to apologise to Kate and thank her for sparing them an unpleasant experience.
But the apologies came too late to spare Kate the hurt of their accusations the previous day, when all she was doing was trying to make sure they did not come to harm.
Andrew was a divemaster working in Thailand for a dive centre that was in financial difficulties. One day the owner told him that he had a group of six divers the next day who wanted to do a wreck dive. All had prepaid and the income from this trip would enable the owner to pay his staff that week.
Everything went fine on the way to the site and the boat tied up to a marker-buoy attached to the wreck while the divers prepared their equipment. As everyone was getting ready, Andrew noticed that the line from the buoy to the boat was starting to quiver and that whirlpools were forming in the sea around them.
He told the divers that the current seemed to be picking up and that it might be difficult for them to swim to the buoy and the descent line to the wreck. He advised them that it might be better to wait until conditions improved.
The divers were all in their wetsuits by now, sitting fully geared up on the dive deck in the heat of the day. They were not happy to hear this and told Andrew that they did not want to wait. They were ready, they were hot and they had plans for that afternoon, so did not want to spend all day on a dive-boat.
Andrew relented and instructed the crew to set a surface line from the marker buoy. He told the divers that if they wanted to go now the only way to reach the buoy would be to grab the surface line as they jumped into the water, pull themselves hand over hand to the buoy and then descend along the line to the wreck. But he warned them again that the current was very strong and that he felt it would be better to wait.
They ignored the warning and the spokesman of the group stood up and made his way to the entry point.
He dropped in, grabbed the line and held on briefly before the current tore it from his grasp and carried him away. Within seconds he was 100m behind the boat and shouting for help.
Andrew asked the other divers to sit down, told the crew to untie the boat and set off to pick up the drifting diver. As the boat pulled away, the current pulled the marker buoy under the surface, hiding the wreck’s location.
With no other wrecks in the area and no option now but to go elsewhere, Andrew took the divers to a sheltered location, where they did a reef dive instead. Later, back at the dive centre, the group asked for a refund on the basis that the promised wreck dive had not been delivered! They blamed Andrew for doing a bad job and, once the group had left, the owner blamed him too.
It’s Your Call
You may not be the most powerful or influential person in the company but as the person actually running the dive, the final responsibility is yours, which means that you need to be a decision-maker.
As you can see from the above examples, the decision to cancel a dive is rarely straightforward. It can be influenced by a number of competing factors and often requires a great deal of courage and conviction.
Nobody can tell you in advance what decision to make, as the circumstances will always be different.
However, what holds true in every case is that if your first priority is always the safety of your dive group then, no matter if the decision you take turns out to be the correct one or not, you will always know that you acted for the right reasons.
Smart dive-centre owners should always support staff who put the well-being of the customers first and, if your boss does not support you, maybe you should be working for a different dive centre!
A Word about Premonition
On rare occasions when you are planning a dive or on the way to the dive-site you may find yourself overcome by a powerful feeling of foreboding, a premonition that something will go wrong. If this happens, review the plan and consider your dive group and the prevailing conditions to see if there is anything you may have missed.
Run through the dive in your head and, if the negative feelings just will not go away, consider changing the dive site or dive plan for a safer option, or even cancel the dive completely.
When interviewed after an incident many people report that they felt something bad was going to happen. As you gain more experience in the diving world you develop instincts. Learn to trust these instincts and act upon them.
Be Professional by:
• Having the courage of your convictions.
• Always putting the safety and well-being of your divers before everything else.
Simon Pridmore was born in England in 1957. He learnt to dive with a BSAC club while working as a teacher in Oman, and quickly became an instructor.
He joined the Royal Hong Kong Police in 1982, transferring to the Hong Kong civil service 10 years later and retiring as an assistant political adviser in 1997.
After becoming a PADI instructor Simon trained in Australia to become one of the first IANTD nitrox and technical instructor-trainers in Asia.
In 1996 he took part in the first sport rebreather training course in Asia, and completed cave-diver and trimix-diver training with Tom Mount in Florida.
In 1997 he established the first dedicated technical diver training centre in South-east Asia in Guam and assisted Mount in Thailand with the first trimix instructor course in the region.
He dived with Billy Deans in search of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora del Pilar off Guam, and in 2001 was part of Kevin Gurr's Pilar Project rebreather team.
From 1997-2003 Simon ran IANTD Micronesia, including facilities in Palau, Truk and Bikini, and from 2003-2008 owned and ran IANTD UK and headed sales & marketing for Delta P Technology.
He is now Regional Training Director for IANTD South-east Asia and lives, writes and dives in Bali, Indonesia. Last year his book Scuba Confidential – An Insiders Guide to Becoming a Better Diver was published.
Scuba Professional: Insights into Sport Diver Training & Operations by Simon Pridmore is published by Sandsmedia Publishing, www.scubaconfidential.com This softback book, ISBN 9781507621073, costs £10.99 and is available from Amazon.