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The warm, red-brown water faded to black as the two divers descended feet-first toward the river bed. Armed with screwdrivers, mesh bags and a single flashlight each, the women descended hand- in-hand in hopes of ending up near each other in the zero-visibility environment. When their fins hit bottom, they lay out horizontally and stabbed their screwdrivers into the ground to keep from being carried downriver. From there their search for fossils began.

By Caitlyn Ruskell, DAN Content Writer/Editor

Low light, limited visibility water can make any diver nervous

Below the surface of South Carolina’s estuarine Cooper River, you can see only what you illuminate with your dive light, and on a good day you might be working with a 3” by 6” cylinder of light. Aided by this small beam of light, divers daring enough to descend into this pitch- dark river sift through gravel beds to find fossilized megalodon shark teeth and other artifacts.

The women had back-rolled off their skiff three times that day searching for giant teeth. Now, during their fourth and final dive, the experienced instructor and divemaster were hoping more than ever for that lucky find. About 3 minutes into the last dive, the instructor heard what sounded like a small explosion underwater followed by the sound of intense, faraway bubbling. She stopped to think, unsure whether the sound was coming from a boat working upriver, an upset alligator or (most likely) her or her buddy’s equipment failing. Since there was no visibility at all and she could not look to see if she was the one bubbling, she reached back toward her first stage and felt a large, steady stream of gas escaping from her cylinder valve. Within seconds she knew exactly what the issue was: Her O-ring had blown and was likely completely extruded. Despite the issue, she kept breathing and lit up her pressure gauge, confirming that the needle was steadily moving left. Next, she acted, banging on her cylinder with her screwdriver 10 times in a row to let her buddy know there was a problem and that they would need to make their ascent.

If you are running out of air because a piece of your equipment has failed, you are in an emergency, but this does not mean you have to panic. In fact you should do the opposite. Panicking will not solve your problem;
it will complicate and may even preclude your solution. When your solution is making it to the surface before all the gas in the cylinder pours out during a zero-viz dive — surrounded by unknown creatures and debris — losing your cool and bolting to the surface can be tempting but also life-threatening. Because this diver stuck to her training by stopping, breathing, thinking and acting sensibly, she made her way to the surface unscathed. In fact, she popped up to the surface more or less unphased, not even regarding the mishap as an emergency. Keeping your cool underwater in an emergency doesn’t require iron grit or the courage of a war hero. It just requires reliance on your training, preparation and some comfort in the water.

Every time you plan your dives, plan out your response to the emergencies you are most likely to face. For example, if you are lionfish-hunting, create a plan for what to do if you or your buddy get stung; if it happens, you’ll know exactly what to do, and if it doesn’t, that’ll be a pleasant surprise. Clearly communicate all plans with your buddy, as they may play an integral part of the response to a bad situation.

Staying prepared for emergencies requires both mental and physical preparation and may even warrant packing a few extra pieces of equipment, such as dive knives or bailout bottles. With the
right tools on hand and a plan in place, you will be physically and mentally prepared to respond to many problems underwater.

The other part of staying mentally prepared comes with comfort in the water. Even if you have a plan in place and have thought through exactly how you’ll solve that problem, discomfort in the water can completely prevent you from being able to stop, breathe, think or act correctly. A high level of comfort in the water can go a long way to help you prevent panic and problem-solve efficiently underwater.

While some people are born extremely comfortable underwater, many others have to build up to that level of comfort over time. This can be done on your own or under the guidance of a professional. If you want to increase your comfort in the water, jump in — the best way to improve your dive skills is to keep diving. If you are prone to being nervous underwater, think about what makes you nervous and practice experiencing it a controlled environment. If clearing your mask is the bane of your existence, hit the pool to practice mask clearing until you enjoy doing it.

Being comfortable in the water and knowing exactly how you’ll problem-solve on your dives will enable you to keep your cool if something goes wrong. Not all emergencies can be planned for, but if you do your best to expect the unexpected and remember to stop, breathe, think and act correctly, you will have stacked the deck in your favor.