How my pride almost killed me

I learned to SCUBA dive in 2006 and I’ve been doing it here and there since then. However, in 2007 I had an experience that really shook me up, opened my eyes to a personal flaw of mine, and drastically changed the relationship I have with risk and danger.

My wife and I were in Mexico and I was going to be doing a wall dive with a group of about 10-20 divers, at about 80-90 feet. It was my first dive since getting my certification, my first dive in more than a year, and my first dive deeper than 30 feet. In short, it was nothing to take lightly. As we were heading out to the dive site on the boat, a few of the other divers were making loud noises about how they hoped that no one blew through their air too fast and ended the dive early for everyone. We only had one divemaster (which was dumb), so when one person was done, we were all done. Less experienced divers tend to breathe too fast, thrash around more, and go through their air supply faster. These people had paid for a full tank dive and they wanted to get their money’s worth. I didn’t pay much attention to the conversation; I just assumed I’d be fine.

My dive buddy and I headed down to the dive site. The sea-life was amazing: corals, sponges, crabs, shrimp, eels, turtles, rays, and lots of beautiful fish. It was truly breathtaking, and it was easy to lose track of time. Before I knew it, my pressure gauge was reading the level where the divemaster had instructed us to alert him that we should go up. I figured I’d just calm my breathing and give it a few more minutes. Didn’t want to be that guy, you know? The little voice in the back of my head was starting to murmur, but I kept swimming. But a few minutes later, I could feel my breathing start to become a little more labored. I started feeling slightly concerned, but not panicked. I decided to let my dive buddy know that I was low, but he had swam about 20 – 30 feet away to look at something. By the time I got to him, my breathing was really starting to get difficult. He looked at my gauge, but didn’t realize the severity of the situation and turned and swam for the dive master before I could stop him. The dive master was probably 30 – 40 feet away, and my breathing was getting harder and harder. I was really having to pull hard to get air by now, I still wasn’t getting much, and I was starting to feel panic creeping up on me. It took a couple mins for us to reach the divemaster, who took one look at my gauge and urgently gestured us to the surface. My dive buddy and I started our ascent, but after about 10 feet, I ran out of air completely. I couldn’t breathe at all, and we’re at least 70 feet under water. I fought down the panic and the urge to bolt for the surface and started frantically giving the signal for being out of air. My dive buddy took a minute to realize what I meant and then another minute to fumble for his spare regulator, and I could feel darkness creeping in around the edges of my vision. He finally got the regulator to me; that stale air from the tank was the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. We continued our ascent and everything else went fine.

So what then? Well, I didn’t do two things that I could have. First, I didn’t blow it off as nothing and keep doing what I had been doing. That’s a great way to get yourself killed. SCUBA diving is actually more dangerous than skydiving and hang-gliding. So I took the time to really stop and examine the situation and what I did wrong, and especially why I did the wrong thing. There are at least four things I did wrong:

  • Got too far away from my buddy
  • Forgot that air supply runs out faster the deeper you are
  • Didn’t alert him when I hit the air supply level specified
  • Didn’t declare an emergency fast enough

All of these things stemmed from one root cause: my pride. I didn’t want to be seen as the newbie diver who had no idea what he was doing and ruined it for the group. I wanted to be seen as having attained a level of competency that I hadn’t earned. And the ironic thing is that it really could have killed me.

So I took the whole thing very seriously. But the other thing I didn’t do that would have been natural is stop diving. Risk is a part of life, and I want to live a vibrant, exciting life. For me, this means partaking in a lot of activities that carry some degree of risk. I believe that I should understand those risks, and manage them as much as possible, but avoiding risk entirely is both unfeasible and entirely unenjoyable. Later that same day, we did a shallower dive to about 30 feet, and I did two cavern dives the next day. I paid a lot of attention to the safety briefings, asked questions, and followed the instructions I was given. And I also set my own limits where I was comfortable and stuck with them no matter what. Those cavern dives were some of the most amazing I’ve ever done, and I never felt like I was pushing my limits or comfort level in any way.

As a diver, a pilot, and someone who generally engages in moderately-risky activities, I’ve learned to never ignore that little voice in the back of my head. I’d rather make a group of people angry at my inconvenience and perceived incompetence than end up dead.