Fear while scuba diving; is it normal and how you can overcome it
Diving is about having fun! We are all just happy to be in the water and excited about learning to dive. We do not often think about the more difficult emotions, like fear. But fear is normal and it is important that we know how to handle it when we dive.
Over the last few weeks, the Girls that Scuba have been talking about their experiences of fear in diving. Sharing these experiences openly with other divers, especially the new divers, has lead to some open discussions about how we handle fear when we dive. We have been reading over some of the conversations and wanted to highlight some of the themes discussed and share some of the advice from the amazing Girls that Scuba. Author Laura Walton explains more
Fear is normal
If anything can be learned from the recent conversations on Girls that Scuba it is this: fear is normal. In fact, it is part of the experience of diving.
“You are going into an unknown environment on life support,… if you weren’t putting some extra thought into this then I’d be worried … I have 500+ ocean dives and still get a bit of the butterflies”
All divers, even the experienced professionals encounter fear and nerves:
“I still get nervous when doing something new”
“We all have moments where we feel unsure, no matter how long we’ve been diving”
“I’ve got 200 dives and still have moments where I have to gather myself”
But fear and excitement are two sides of the same coin. In terms of how they feel in our bodies, they are pretty much the same thing. The difference is in how we interpret the feelings.
“I’m always excited/nervous because it’s a wonderful but dangerous activity”
There are many fears in scuba diving
If something is frightening you, the most important thing to know is that you are not the only diver to have experienced this. GTS have been sharing there fears of all sorts of aspects of diving. This is a short list, but there are lots more.
Power of water /Vastness of the ocean
Not being able to breath
Getting water up the nose
Not being able to communicate
Failure and embarrassment
Mask clearing skills!
Dangerous marine life
Depth / “heights”
Although there are common themes, fear is very personal and it is possible to hold a fear of something very specific, which may not be shared by the other divers around us.
“I was terrified of damselfish, and although they never got close enough to attack, the fear was real! After learning more about damsels and their propensity for charging if I got too close, I simply kept my distance and reduced my overall fear” – Nicole Helgason, reefdivers.io
Let’s talk about other divers
We are usually diving with other people and this can influence our fear and how we deal with it. We are also often diving in a system where we need to be ready for the dive at the specified time and keeping up with the group. In some ways this can be helpful in managing fear:
“ being rushed .. can sometimes be the best thing! … no time to let nerves even get a remote grip in the wrong way – for example lining up penguin SAS style with 20 blokes on the dive deck … and jumping off to catch the current at exactly the right point. Buddy checks done and ‘go go GO!!’ Straight in and down but no time to start to be consumed by anxiety – none!”
On the other hand we occasionally encounter individuals or groups that have different attitudes to our own. Unfortunately several of the GTS have had bad experiences with other divers. For example: being criticised by others on the boat, being hassled and rushed into the water or pushed to do something beyond their training or ability. Sadly this occasionally includes diving professionals.
Sometimes we also encounter cultures where hiding fear or inadequacies is the norm. This can be difficult if we are frightened or anxious because these social environments are lacking in support and can aggravate fear and sometimes promote poor practices in diving.
In these situations we can become subject to peer pressures which lead us to conform to the group. Depending on our individual style and experiences, this may mean hiding fear and not asking for important safety information, not speaking up when we are not comfortable or going along with a group decision even if we believe it to be incorrect.
Fear and safety
To dive, we enter an extreme environment, wearing specialist equipment and applying a set of skills that are all essential for our survival. There are inherent dangers within this environment, not least our own and other people’s behaviours. Fear is a useful emotion as it signals potential risks and helps us to gauge our level of comfort with a situation. Ignoring or dismissing fear can have a negative impact on safety, ours and the safety of other divers.
“Diving is dangerous, having the wrong mindset or not being in your groove can have serious consequences”
“Diving relies on a culture of safety. A diver should not feel pressured to do a dive unless they feel comfortable and safe with the dive”-Anna Torres
A fearful state of mind can predispose panic, so we need to know how to respond effectively to this emotion. Sometimes this will mean choosing not to dive on a particular day and we have to be okay with that.
As divers we need to learn to do something with fear. Fears that run away from us can lead to panic in the water and panic is the real danger here. In order to be safe in diving, we need to learn how to respond to our own fear. Not only does this allow us to be better divers, it can also be a huge achievement and, for some people, its life-changing.
“The more dives you make, the more experienced you become – you just start trusting yourself, understanding that all the actions underwater become just automatic and very natural”
“Each time you get past the fear it will diminish and before you know it, it turns into experience and confidence!”
Making some room for fear can be important in overcoming it:
“Experience is the only way and sometimes it just happens so quickly you have no choice but to NOT let fear in when you are rushed or stuck or hit a problem. There is often no option! … And then when you realise you coped you can deal with so much more.”
The GTS Facebook group is filled with stories from women who found ways through their fear and are diving all over the world. Many of them are now professional divers … they may even be your instructor! If we can do it, so can you!
“Before I learnt to dive 4 years ago, I was too scared to go into open water any deeper than my knees.. the challenges of relearning how to relax and breathe in & under water have however made me much stronger & empowered in other areas of my life. because yes if I can do this diving, I can do anything!”
Factors Affecting Visibility When Scuba Diving
Natalie Gibb owns a dive shop in Mexico and is a PADI-certified open water scuba instructor and TDI-certified full cave diving instructor.
Put simply, in diving terms, visibility is an estimation of water clarity and is defined as the distance a diver can see horizontally. Many divers abbreviate visibility with the slang term “viz.” Visibility is given in units of distance, such as “50 feet of viz.”
What Are Factors That Affect Visibility Underwater?
PADI’s review questions from the open water course review several main factors that affect visibility underwater: weather, suspended particles, and water movement. These seem like only one factor to me, as weather causes water to move, which causes particles to float into the water. Here is my list of five common factors that can disturb visibility underwater.
1. Particles in the Water
Suspended particles of sand, mud, clay, or other bottom sediments affect the visibility underwater in much the same way as fog effects visibility on land – distant shapes become colorless, poorly-defined shadows. Visibility reduction caused by suspended particles may be slight or severe depending upon the density, type, and amount of sediment suspended in the water. As an example, clay sediment will become suspended easily, will reduce the visibility to nearly zero feet in a few moments, and will remain in suspension for many hours. In contrast, sand does not become suspended as easily as clay, rarely reduces the visibility to zero, and will fall out of suspension in a matter of minutes.
Sediment particles become suspended when they are disturbed by water movement or by divers. Natural causes of water movement that forces particles into suspension include currents, wave action, choppy seas, runoff, and rough weather. A diver can stir up bottom sediments and reduce visibility by using improper kicking techniques, by swimming with his hands, or by landing on the bottom (one of the many reasons these actions are discouraged).
2. Salinity Gradients (Haloclines)
Water of different salinities forms distinct layers in a manner similar to that of olive oil and vinegar. The interface between the two layers is called a “halocline” (halo = salt, cline = gradient). When viewed from above, an undisturbed halocline resembles a shimmering underwater lake or river (an effect caused by the variation of refractive properties with salinity). However, when water of different salinities is mixed, the visibility becomes very blurry. Divers have compared the visual effect of swimming in a disturbed halocline to having lost one contact lens, to being inebriated and unable to focus, and (my favorite) to swimming in Vaseline. The loss of visibility in a halocline may be extreme; a diver can see light but cannot distinguish shapes. In some cases, a diver in a halocline may even have difficulty reading his gauges!
Haloclines are encountered in estuaries, at springs that empty into the ocean, and at inland caves and caverns. A diver may also observe the blurry effect of mixing fresh and salt water near the surface of the ocean during a rainstorm, as the fresh rainwater mixes with the ocean’s salt water.
To avoid the visual disturbance caused by a halocline, a diver must swim above or below the depth where water of different salinities mixes. Once a diver leaves this mixing region, the visibility clears immediately. If ascending or descending to escape the halocline is impossible, a diver can minimize visual disturbances by swimming to the side of (but never behind) other divers, as their kicks will mix the water and make the visual disturbance worse.
3. Temperature Gradients (Thermoclines)
The term “thermocline” signifies a temperature gradient (thermo = temperature and cline = gradient), or a level at which water of two different temperatures meets. Water of different temperatures layers similarly to water of different salinities, although the effect is not as pronounced. Colder water is denser than warmer water and sinks below it. Therefore, divers will typically encounter increasingly cold layers as they descend. When the temperature difference between two water layers is extreme, the interface between the two layers looks “oily” (similar to a halocline). In general, the visual disturbance created by different water temperatures is not great, and a diver quickly passes through the thermocline region as he ascends or descends, hopefully enjoying the pretty visual effect.
4. Organic Particles
Bacteria or algal blooms can disturb the visibility in a very dramatic way. A typical place to encounter this sort of visual disturbance is a body of fresh water with little or no circulation. Algae and bacteria usually require very specific conditions of temperature, salinity, and light, and may be present only seasonally. An example is Cenote Carwash in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where an algal bloom is present only during the warmer months. The algal bloom forms an opaque, greenish cloud extending from the surface to about 5 feet. Divers must descend through the cloud in near zero visibility before reaching the crystal-clear spring water of the cenote. The presence of organic particles may also be indicative of pollution.
5. Hydrogen Sulfide
Unless he is diving in a cave or cavern, a diver is unlikely to encounter hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is most commonly found in fresh water with little circulation where decaying organic matter is present. Large quantities of hydrogen sulfide tend to form a dense, foggy layer, as in Cenote Angelita in Mexico. When only a small amount of hydrogen sulfide is present, it forms thin, smoke-like wisps. Inside a cloud of hydrogen sulfide, the visibility is almost zero. Hydrogen sulfide is worth mentioning because the visual effect is fascinating.
The Take-Home Message About Visibility
Water clarity, or visibility, is affected by a variety of factors. Identifying the cause of a visual disturbance will allow a diver to manage it correctly. Keep in mind that visual disturbances may be caused by factors other than water clarity, such as foggy masks, reduction of ambient light, nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity. The cause of any reduction in visibility or visual disturbance should be identified by the diver, and proper judgment should be used when deciding whether to continue with the dive or not.
Nervous of starting to scuba dive? Read this
On Girls that Scuba we share our achievements and support successes. We see photos of brand new divers who’ve taken their first swims into the world of diving. Experienced divers who are pushing their limits and creating great work. Women who are proud of family and friends they have brought into scuba diving, and instructors who are bursting with pride in their students. Every day you can see women posting with joy and pride in ourselves and each other.
So, we asked, what brings pride and what makes us proud in scuba diving?
We are proud of what we have learned and achieved … we’ve got skills, and we earned them
“Proudest moment… a confident no mask swim, after 100 dives of not believing I could really do it.”
From first dives, to deep specialties and divemaster training, we want to talk about what we have learned. In caverns and caves, walls and wrecks … we want to tell you what it took for us to do it! Because learning can be hard and scuba diving is a wonderful challenge so, forgive us, but sometimes we just can’t believe we are really scuba divers!
“never in a million years did I think I would make it this far, but it just goes to show what you can achieve if you have the right attitude and mindset.”
The beliefs we hold about ourselves often prevent us from realising the things we are capable of, but developing as a diver means letting go of some of that:
“I finally started focusing on advancing my knowledge. … I love it and want to be better at it, as well as the best buddy I can be. .. I’m proud that I’ve learned to stop other people & situations holding me back.”
We take pride in overcoming fears and rising to challenges
There are so many examples of women doing what it takes to overcome fear, here are just a few:
“I am proud that I am OW certified. It took a lot of crying and quitting before I finished.”
“I’m proud that I even saw it through, after being so terrified on my first dive.”
“My proudest moment was when I found the courage to jump with sharks swimming below. I swam with sharks for a whole week, it was awesome!”
“When I think back to how nervous I was this time last year, I can’t believe how much I’ve accomplished in the past 6 months.”
“I passed my dive leader this year and overcame a mental fear of going past 20m. The dive club I am part of really understood the pride I had in achieving this and celebrated my success with me.”
It has taken huge personal power and we’ve earned the right to take pride in ourselves
Pride is often tied to achievement or struggle. Our relationship to scuba diving itself empowers us to tackle the mind gremlins like doubt and self-criticism. It guides us to do what matters to us even in the face of fear. So when we talk of being proud, it is not without gratitude for what scuba diving has done for us. Two stories that illustrated this beautifully:
“Im quite negative about myself by nature and frequently let people walk over me. My [divemaster] internship has not just given me skills that I can take into my dream job, but has also challenged me in the deepest and most personal way possible. I am now more confident in myself … I still have a little bit more to go but I have made steps towards self improvement that wouldn’t have happened if not for diving.”
“I promised myself that if I made it through chemo and came out cancer free at the other end that I would stop hesitating about learning SCUBA. I finally took control of my fears about body issues to walk around in a wetsuit/bathing suit in public. Cancer taught me to overcome my fears and address them head on. I love diving so much and if I die tomorrow, I’m proud that I can say I’m a diver.”
Honestly, we are all just so damn proud to be scuba divers!
…and that we can say: “Finally, I’m one of them!”
We do not take this honour for granted and aim to live up to the title of scuba diver by:
- Acting on values for safety – “Diving can be an amazing fun time, but it is also a sport in which you can ultimately lose your life. … I am proud that I take care to listen to the briefings, follow the safety rules and get back to the boat on time and with a safe amount of air remaining… I am proud to call myself a safe diver”
- “Bailing on dives” when not fit to dive and not being afraid to enforce limits
- Demonstrating dedication and determination – “in the commitment to our sport and especially for me, towards my local club. I am so proud of us, what we are, what we do and what we will be doing. Being engaging and including. Our awareness, our level of activity. It does make one proud
- ”Developing autonomy in our skills – “I was very proud of myself & my buddy the first time we got to dive without a ‘guide’ (DM or instructor) and we were able to navigate the dive site and surface (roughly) where we were supposed to”
- Being independent and building confidence – “… when I started to be more independent and not rely on people” during training. Or having the courage to take a dive trip alone.
- Thinking for ourselves as divers, like “being responsible for your dive profile and not just following the pack”.
- Sharing underwater life, whether by giving talks or taking other people diving, simply sharing love of the ocean and diving.
- And for the professionals, taking pride in our privilege: “Helping people transition into UK seas, and that “ahhhh” moment that comes from watching them do a dive from start to finish, apply their mentoring and that leads to the next… seeing those who I’ve introduced now introducing others to the UK waters.”
Because after all, that is what Girls that Scuba has always been about:
“Showing other women the world of scuba diving and helping them to live it with us” – Sarah Richard, founder of Girls that Scuba
P.S. Careful though, because pride never stays around for long:
“You know that feeling when you just fit into a wetsuit you got 20 years ago! So proud…