A diver-in-training finds herself in the middle of a near panic attack more than 100 feet underwater. How she chooses to handle it teaches her more about herself than the actual dive.
The water ahead is so dark that it seems to be actively drawing light in. The colorful tropical fish we were surrounded by earlier have disappeared and the ethereal corals have slowly given way to blank sand. I adjust my regulator and try to slow down my breathing. I check my oxygen tank level for the third time in five minutes; I’m too nervous, it’s becoming obvious. But my dive computer says we’re 98 feet down and I don’t want to be caught with no air to breathe. We’re too far down now to surface.
We’ve been descending long enough that I can’t see where the ocean gives way to air. I’m starting to feel the weight of all the water above me and suddenly it feels like far too much to bear. My breathing is getting quicker, my hands are starting to tingle and I’m beginning to hyperventilate into my regulator.
I know the signs because it’s happened to me once before — I’m going to faint. I can’t faint down here or I’ll die. But I can’t surface right now. When you’re this deep you have to slowly surface over a course of 30 minutes or so; if you surface suddenly you’ll get decompression sickness, essentially a death warrant in itself since there isn’t a decompression chamber within a few hours of where we are.
I start to lose my vision around the edges. I close my eyes right before I start to black out.
We’d landed in Colombia almost a week ago, the beginning of a much-anticipated backpacking trip through the country. Mention Colombia and you’ll get a lot of negative opinions, none of which are deserved anymore. The people are warm, the food is savory and the landscape is lush. We’d been lazy all through Bogota, mostly searching for and eating street churros for three days straight. Once we’d eaten ourselves sick, we decided to head down to the coast for some scuba diving. We’d arranged our certification online and met our guide, Lobo, on arrival.
Lobo, whose name means wolf in Spanish, was also getting certified — to get his dive instructor license. He was exceedingly friendly, knowledgeable and a self-proclaimed adventure junkie. He’s been diving all over the world for the past thirty years, has lived on every continent except Antarctica, speaks four languages and rides a motorcycle. I want to be Lobo. Except I’m prone to this pesky emotion called fear, and I notoriously underestimate how much something is going to scare me. I once hiked four hours up a mountain just to be so scared when I got on the zipline that I closed my eyes almost the whole way down.
There are five dives required for an advanced scuba certification, and as a group they’re called ‘adventure’ dives. We’ve already gone on one dive today, and we’re sitting on the boat about to start the deep dive. Lobo has stripped his wetsuit down to his waist and is basking in the tropical sunshine. The boat gently rocks back and forth, a palm tree waves on the beach a couple of hundred feet away and the breeze is warm. Lobo runs his hand over his stubbly scalp as he tells us about our next dive.
“Once you get to around 30 meters deep the air in your tank is very compressed. The inert gases in your O2 tank are very concentrated and they begin to make you feel… a little weird. Some people lose their fear of things, and then they make dumb choices and put themselves in danger. I will be watching you carefully once we get that deep, and we will do a test to see how different you feel.”
What Lobo is talking about is called ‘nitrogen narcosis.’ Some divers call it the ‘martini effect’ for the comparable effect on your consciousness. It’s said that you can descend 20 meters with no effect — the air isn’t that compressed. But for every additional 10 meters you descend past that, your mental state is impaired by the equivalent of drinking one martini on an empty stomach. And just like being drunk, you’re usually in complete denial until you come back up to fresh air.
We do a number test on the boat. Lobo holds up a plastic board with the numbers 1 through 20 randomly written all over it. We point to number one, touch our nose, point to number two and then touch our nose, point to number three and so on. He times both of us as we do this. He also says he’ll hold up an object while we are down there, and we need to write down what it is — he’s got a little whiteboard and a wax pencil so we can write underwater.
It’s time to dive.
We start in a light reef. There are several dozen colorful fish flicking in and out of the swaying corals. We don’t stop and admire them as there’s no time. When you’re diving this deep, you have to watch your oxygen and time spent underwater closely. My dive computer is strapped tightly to my left wrist looking like an obnoxiously large wristwatch.
The dive computer is an absolute essential. It tells me how much time I have left before I need to start ascending. If you don’t ascend within your dive computer’s limit, you have to make decompression stops — where you wait at certain depths underwater and let your body naturally clear the nitrogen in your blood. This can get messy when you need to stop but you’re running low on oxygen, so it’s much better to just stay within your dive limits.
We hug the sandy bottom and swim steadily down.
Lobo checks up on us frequently. There are hand signals for everything, so it’s easy to communicate. He’s constantly asking how much oxygen we have. It’s making me nervous how often he’s checking on me until I remember that Lobo is being evaluated, too. We pass seventy feet of depth with no incident. The water gets cold quickly, and my thick wetsuit feels useless. The landscape is barren. It’s reminiscent of the lunar surface, only underwater. My breathing is loud and rhythmic, but I can hear my heart pounding over it. We pass eighty feet.
We are slowly swimming single-file down a gentle slope. I am last in line. Nobody is looking at me. My breathing is speeding up, I can’t feel my hands at all. I’m getting light-headed, and I can’t quite catch my breath. I want nothing more than to rip my regulator out and breathe. I’m trying to calm down, but the water is crushing me. I’m on the brink of hyperventilating; I’m going to pass out. Nobody will notice if I faint until it’s too late. Until I’ve woken back up with my regulator out and taken an instinctual big breath of air — except without my regulator in, it will be a big breath of water.
I start to lose my vision around the edges. I close my eyes right before I start to black out.
I feel a hand gently slide into mine. I open my eyes, and Lobo is in front of me, staring. He signals to ask if I’m okay. I have to get my breathing under control. I signal that I’m not; he asks me what’s wrong and hands me the wax pencil.
“J..u..s..t.. S..c..a..r..e..d.. ” I write.
He takes my hand and firmly places it over his heart. You’re okay, he signals. I force myself to close my eyes and breathe slow and steady as Lobo guides me. We continue to swim downwards for a few more minutes. I have Lobo’s hand in a death grip. We hit 104 feet and finally stop descending. My dive computer says we only have three minutes at this depth. My husband is trying to swim in a circle around us, but Lobo grabs him and makes him put knees in the sand. A small puff of sand swirls around him as he settles down.
We do the numbers test, but I’m having trouble concentrating because I just need to go up. I want to ascend, I want to get out of this ocean. The sea feels vast and unforgiving, nowhere that I belong. I want to breathe the beautiful, fresh air and feel it on my skin. But I probably never will because I know I’m going to die at any moment. Lobo holds up a potato or rock or something and hands me the wax pencil. Why did Lobo bring a potato down here? Oh, I’m supposed to write down the name of the object he’s holding. It doesn’t make sense that he would bring a potato so I write kiwi — maybe he’s going to try and eat it?
Time is finally up. I may be submerged in water, but I can feel my hands sweating. Lobo puts his kiwi away and signals us to begin our way back to the boat. He’s making us swim very slowly, but I don’t care — every moment is closer to the surface, and to life. I might actually survive this.
Within a few minutes, I feel as though a weight is lifted off my chest. My dive computer says we are already up to 75 feet. After this, our ascent is uneventful. We swim slowly towards the surface, and after a while, I can make out where the shimmering ceiling above us turns into air. My body feels like I got hit by a truck; I’m exhausted beyond belief. Before I know it, our boat captain is pulling me out of the water, and I have a big chunk of chocolate in my hand. Lobo takes a large bite and talks through his chewing.
“It helps after a deep dive, with the exhaustion.” So it’s not just me. My husband has stripped himself of his scuba gear and is lying in the sun in the front of the boat, half asleep.
“You did a good job down there. With the fear.” Lobo’s compliment takes me off guard. I thought I did terribly. I’m embarrassed that I panicked, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy such a unique experience because I was scared. I tell him as much.
“What’s important is not that you were afraid. What’s important is that you didn’t let it stop you. You pushed your body to its physical and mental limits, and you remained in control. We cannot always control how we feel, but we can control how we react to those feelings. You did the best you could even in a very scary situation. And that’s something to be proud of.”
It also turns out that the kiwi that Lobo had down underwater with him was actually a tomato — the water at that depth had absorbed all the red wavelengths, making the tomato appear brown. My husband had thought it was an egg. Maybe the narcosis had more of an effect on me than I thought. As our boat heads back to shore, I think about what Lobo said. I can’t control the fact that I’m easily scared. But I can choose to overcome it. I can choose to be afraid and do it anyway.
We still have one more dive to do today, the night dive. We’ll be meeting back up here again in seven hours. After what happened today, I’m not sure I can do it. I ask Lobo if there is anything to be concerned about.
“It’s incredible. All the best creatures come out at night; you get to see so much. If we’re lucky, we might even see sharks!”
And for the second time that day, I think I’m going to faint.