Overcome Your 10 Worst Fears

You told us your worst fears, now we tell you how to conquer them (all except that one about your grandmother in a wetsuit). by John Francis

Text by Jon Francis & Photography by Mark Lawrence

I won't be able to breathe! | I'll get the bends! | I'll get eaten! | I'll be trapped!
I won't be able to see! | I'll get lost! | I'll get run over by a boat! | I'll have to use the bathroom! | I'll be embarrassed because I'm a rookie! | I'll panic!

Fear No More

It's natural to be scared at first, but statistics show scuba diving is not particularly dangerous. The Diving Equipment & Marketing Association, a trade group, estimates that there are 2.4 million active divers and 17 million dives made in the U.S. per year. Divers Alert Network, the leading safety organization for divers, reports only 85 fatalities in 1996, and nearly 20 percent of those were on technical dives. You do the math.

Most of us find that as our ability to deal with risks increases, our fears recede. The risks in scuba diving, while real, can all be reduced significantly by what you do for your own safety. Look, for example, at the 10 most common fears of new scuba divers.

1. I won't be able to breathe!

It's understandable if you mistrust your scuba regulator, that mysterious device on which so much depends. But mechanical failure of your breathing equipment is highly unlikely. A regulator is simple, robust and designed so that if it does fail, it delivers more air than you need, not less.

Still, on the principle that anything can happen, you will have redundant breathing systems, and so will your buddy. You should each have an "octopus," the extra second stage to your regulator. Many divers also carry a completely redundant air system with its own regulator, like Spare Air or a pony bottle. The chance of them all failing together is infinitesimal.

Still, low-on-air emergencies do occur. Most often, the diver simply fails to watch his pressure gauge and uses up the air in his tank. It's like running out of gas on the freeway because you didn't check the fuel gauge.

Actually, it's pretty hard to run out of air even if you don't watch the gauge. As you breathe, tank pressure falls steadily and slowly. As the pressure gets lower, your air supply doesn't suddenly stop. Instead, you find you have to suck harder and harder - which warns you're low on air in time to head for the surface or switch to a backup system.

OK, but what if - somehow - all your air supply systems did just stop suddenly? If you are no deeper than about 60 feet, you almost certainly have enough air in your body to reach the surface safely. As you ascend, water pressure on your body decreases, allowing more of the air in your lungs to expand and become breathable. You exhale gently all the way up, to keep your airway open and to vent the carbon dioxide that makes your lungs burn, and when you reach the surface you'll still have more air.

The bottom line is that if you stay above 60 feet and stay out of caves and wrecks - good advice for all new divers - there is no reason to be afraid of running out of air under water.

What to do:

  • Carry redundant breathing systems and practice using them.
  • Service your equipment regularly.
  • Dive with a buddy.
  • Watch your gauges.
  • Stay above 60 feet until you feel comfortable going deeper.


2. I'll get the bends!

"The bends" is the decompression sickness most associated with diving in the popular mind, but in fact it is almost entirely preventable. Divers most often get "bent" by going too deep and coming up too quickly; as pressure decreases, nitrogen dissolved in the body forms bubbles. It is not a serious risk if you stay above 60 feet or, when you do go deeper, you follow the dive profile dictated by your tables or your computer. A safety stop of three minutes at 15 feet is a wise precaution to off-gas nitrogen even further. Unpredicted cases of "the bends" do occur, rarely, but the sickness is normally treatable.

An air embolism is another kind of decompression illness that is more dangerous because it can affect you even on a brief shallow dive. It is, basically, a lung over-expansion injury caused by holding your breath while you ascend. Once again, prevention is entirely in your hands: all you have to do to avoid an embolism is to be healthy and breathe normally.

What to do:

  • Ascend slowly, breathing continuously.
  • Make a three-minute safety stop at 15 feet.
  • Stay well within the limits of dive tables or computers.
  • Stay above 60 feet until you feel comfortable going deeper.


3. I'll get eaten!

It's true that when you're diving, you're playing on someone else's dinner table. Will you become an aquatic rib roast?

Certainly not. In fact, most fish ignore you or run away. Most creatures, except humans, have very narrow diets and eat only what they are accustomed to.

Then there is the shark. Some sharks have been known to make unprovoked attacks on humans. Even here, there is evidence that the shark mistakes a human for his regular meal, a seal or sea lion. For example, surfers and swimmers are statistically more at risk than scuba divers, perhaps because their splashing and their dark silhouette against the surface make them resemble these pinnipeds.

In any event, shark attacks are very rare. Says noted shark expert Dr. Eugenie Clark, "Driving your car to work in the morning is far more dangerous."

A good indication of the lack of danger from sharks may be the popularity of intentionally diving with them. With or without protective cages, many divers who better understand the risks actually seek encounters with sharks.

Other fish, like barracuda, have sharp teeth, and many fish have sharp spines. Almost all will leave you alone if you will do the same for them.

What to do:

  • Don't spearfish. If you do, take speared fish out of the water immediately.
  • If you see a shark, stay calm. Rapid kicking may resemble the movements of injured fish, triggering an attack.
  • Don't annoy sharks by poking at them. You may get what you ask for.
  • Don't reach into places where you can't see. Moray eels, for example, nest in dark holes.


4. I'll be trapped!

Nothing under water is going to reach out and grab you, despite what Hollywood taught you about the octopus and the giant squid.

You're much more likely to swim into kelp or fishing line and tangle yourself in it. Once again, you have control: don't swim there and you won't get entangled. If you do, you can break kelp and most seaweeds with your hands.

Fishing line, however, is much tougher, can be hard to see and is common around sites attractive to both fishermen and divers, like wrecks and reefs. That's why you should carry at least one knife, preferably two, and a pair of shears. So should your buddy.

Wrecks and caves can trap you by collapsing suddenly. You should never enter a wreck or a cave without special training and equipment.

What to do:

  • Carry several cutting tools and keep them sharp.
  • Stay near your buddy.
  • Stay out of wrecks and caves until you're trained for them.


5. I won't be able to see!

We humans are primarily visual animals and naturally feel uncomfortable when our vision is impaired. Some people just cannot adjust to looking through a mask at a world whose horizon is 30 feet or less away. If that's you, you may not enjoy diving.

However, there's no reason to fear limited visibility. Poor vis is an occasional fact of life for divers, but you will generally know about it before you enter the water. If it makes you feel anxious, abort the dive and wait for a better day: this is supposed to be fun.

Visibility will not deteriorate suddenly except in two cases. One is when your fins kick up silt that has settled on the bottom. Normally, this happens only in caves and wrecks - one reason they are off-limits to novice divers. If that happens in the open, ascend slowly and quietly out of the cloud.

The other reason for sudden vision loss is flooding or loss of your mask. In that event, calmly put it back on and clear it. If you lose your mask entirely, you can still make a safe return to the surface. Remind yourself that as long as you are breathing, all problems are solvable.

With a little experience, fear of not being able to see will recede to the point that you'll want to try one of diving's most beautiful experiences, a night dive.

What to do:

  • Don't combine poor vis with high surge and current.
  • Assess your comfort level before you leave the ascent line.
  • Practice clearing your mask.


6. I'll get lost!

You can't see as far under water, you can't shout for help, you can't pull into a gas station to ask for directions.

On the other hand, you can't go very fast or far from your starting point. And however far you go, the surface is still just above you.

You're most likely to feel disoriented in the first minutes of your dive, when you're adjusting to weightlessness and getting comfortable with your equipment. But during that time, you have a bread-crumb trail to your starting point - the boat's ascent line (usually, it's the anchor line).

When you reach the bottom (or the depth you've chosen for your dive), take a moment to get your bearings before you leave the line. Clues like the slope of the bottom, the angle of sunlight and the direction in which plants lean in the current will give you a sense of direction.

When in doubt, swim away from the descent line on a compass heading. Returning on the reciprocal course (your outbound heading plus or minus 180 degrees) will bring you right back to the bread-crumb trail. Ultrasonic homing beacons, which can direct you back to the line even in darkness, are available too.

It's rare to feel really lost while under water. It's more common for divers to surface and be surprised that the dive boat is so far away - or even out of sight. That happens when divers fail to allow for current, which can take you pretty far during a 40-minute dive. Experienced divers gauge the amount of current before leaving the ascent line, and swim into the current first so that when they are tired the current will help them return. Horns and flares help you signal the boat from the surface.

What to do:

  • Orient yourself before you leave the ascent line.
  • Swim up-current first.
  • Use your compass.
  • If lost, surface.
  • Carry surface signaling equipment.


7. I'll get run over by a boat!

Sometimes the most dangerous part of diving is returning to the "normal" world, and boat propellers in the last few feet of water are a good example. When you make your safety stop at 15 feet, listen for motor noise; it carries far under water, though it's hard to guess which direction it's coming from. When you first break the surface, look all around you. If you see a boat coming toward you, don't try to wave it off. Instead, dive immediately to 15 feet again.

What to do:

  • When transiting an area of boat traffic - swimming back to your entry point, for example - do it at 15 feet or below.
  • Stop, listen, look: When ascending, stop at 15 feet, listen for motor noise, then look around when you surface.
  • When in doubt, dive.


8. I'll have to use the bathroom!

And there isn't one at 50 feet. Once upon a time, urinating was viewed as the quick way to warm up your wetsuit, but better-fitting wetsuits that don't "flush" easily - not to mention dry suits - have made that technique unattractive as well as unhygienic.

You can reduce the urge to purge by avoiding diuretics like caffeine before you dive. Intentionally dehydrating yourself might seem like a good idea, but dehydration increases fatigue and predisposes you to decompression sickness. Depending on your individual body rhythms, it might help to start your day early so your body has a chance to do its housekeeping chores before your first dive.

And try to stay warm. A side effect of your body's response to cold is the production of urine. Wearing a hooded vest under your wetsuit may save you from having to empty your bladder when you least want to.

What to do:

  • Avoid coffee, tea, cocoa and cola.
  • Get going early on dive days.
  • Wear more exposure protection.


9. I'll be embarrassed because I'm a rookie!

The fear of ridicule is so strong that countless divers (and flyers, climbers, surfers and sailors) have risked their lives to avoid it. Often it happens when a new diver buddies with a stranger who seems more experienced. The rookie is uncomfortable with the buddy's ambitious dive plan but afraid to admit it and gets in over his head. It's crazy, but it's all too human. How do you avoid it?

Consider an area of life where you are experienced. Probably your ridicule goes not to the candid novice but to the beginner who pretends to be a grizzled veteran. Probably you are generous with help to the beginner who openly asks for it. It is pretense that is ridiculous, not inexperience.

So you can prevent embarrassment (and worse) by saying five magic words: "I'm still new at this." It takes courage to display inexperience instead of hiding it, but it will probably turn your dive buddy into a kindly, protective uncle-for-a-day. If he still laughs at you, he's a jerk and an unsafe buddy. Demand a new one.

What to do:

  • Don't fake it.
  • Remember that the other divers in the group are really accountants, clerks, computer programmers, personnel managers - people like you, often as nervous as you.
  • Discount the pre-dive bragging, especially when it is loud. Someone is faking it.
  • Ask for advice. It induces the more experienced diver to display his knowledge constructively.


10. I'll panic!

Blind, irrational fear can overwhelm the intellect and leave some people paralyzed, incapable of taking the escape route that lies in front of them.

The best prevention is training. When you have not only been taught the correct response to danger but have practiced it and internalized it, it will be there when you need it. With a course of action to follow, you're much less likely to lose self-control.

And experience - simply diving over and over - reduces the general anxiety level that is natural when diving is still new. When you realize you are not helpless, your fears are likely to subside. Many divers find that the training and experience of scuba diving create a confidence that stays with them on dry land.

What to do:

  • Opt for a long certification course over a short one.
  • Visualize emergencies and rehearse your responses.
  • Dive, dive, dive.