This is an electronic reprint of an article that appeared in NAUI NEWS
(Now SOURCES), Mar/Apr. 1989, 39-40. This material is copyrighted and
all rights are retained by the author. This material is made available
as a service to the diving community by the author and may be distributed
for any non-commercial or Not-For-Profit use.
I wish to share with the members of NAUI an incident which
occurred to me while I was conducting a NAUI specialty class in
Navigation/Search and Recovery. This class was one module of a
training program that ultimately leads to certification as a NAUI
Master diver. This incident occurred on the second day of training
for this particular specialty rating.
The second morning's protocol involved establishing a 100 foot
baseline at a depth of 20 - 26 feet. After the students had completed
their search-pattern exercises from this baseline, they were told that
they would be required to swim the length of the line without their
The exercise was conducted in the following manner: The NAUI
divemaster waited with the three students at one end of the 100 foot
line. I was on my knees at the starting point a few feet away. One at a
time they got on their knees directly in front of me (at least one knee
was on the line) and after the appropriate signal removed
their mask and gave it to me. I held the mask and waited as they found
the line. They had been told to swim with the fingers of one hand
encircling the line. After swimming 100 feet to the end of the line,
they turned around and swam back to the starting point. As they swam, I
was at all times directly above the students with my hand
on their tank valve. After swimming the two 100 ft. lengths,
the students were given their masks. After the students had replaced
and cleared their masks, they were given a handshake. The exercise was
repeated until all of the students had done the swim.
The first two students performed this exercise with no
difficulty. The third student (who had expressed no vocal concerns
about the exercise, as compared to the other two who had expressed
a lot of verbal anxiety) knelt in front of me and very tentatively
flooded her mask, immediately cleared her mask and violently began
shaking her head "no." ( This surprised me: This non-NAUI certified
advanced diver had been diving almost two years, had at least five
specialty ratings, had more than 40 dives , had had no real difficulty
clearing mask or regulator during the previous day's exercises, had
been helping others in their non-NAUI basic open water training and had
come to me for preparation to become an instructor.)
I signaled "OK?" She responded " OK." I placed my hand on her
shoulder and signaled for her to proceed. She gave me the OK and slowly
flooded her mask. Her respiration rate by this time was very rapid.
After several seconds, she again cleared her mask and looked at me. I
signaled "OK?" and she responded "OK." Once again she flooded and
cleared her mask and indicated that she was OK! (Her respiration rate
was still rapid. I assumed that she realized that she had a problem and
was using the multiple mask clearings to get more comfortable.)
Suddenly, she ripped off her mask and handed it to me. As soon as
I took it, she spit out her regulator and bolted for the surface. I
latched on to her. I attempted to lock my ankles at right angles in an
effort to slow her kick. (The divemaster told me later she was
kicking furiously) She struck me repeatedly in the face, her fists
bouncing off my mask and regulator. (After the incident one of my
students pointed out that I had a bloody nose.) At some point, her
blows must have ripped her snorkel keeper because I surfaced with
only the snorkel in my hand. (My divemaster had retrieved her mask
on his ascent with the other students.) I noticed that she was not
exhaling. I got scared! I raised my left hand toward her
mouth (my intent was to pinch her between the upper and lower jaw to
open her mouth). She screamed! (She later told me that she had sensed
my hand coming up and thought that I was going for her throat and that
that was why she had screamed.) She screamed and fought and kicked for
the rest of the ascent.
As soon as we broke the surface, I asked her "What is your name?"
She looked at me, as if waking up from a dream, and said nothing.
I inflated her b.c. and told her to relax. She whispered her name. The
incident was over.
I broke the class for lunch and talked privately with the
student. I gave her an opportunity to repeat the exercise. She
declined. I then pointed out to her that:
- Everyone has a panic threshold and that today hers had
- A rapid uncontrolled ascent in panic is a most definite
- If I had not slowed her ascent, there was a high probability
that the incident could have caused an air embolism and that
that could have been a fatal injury.
- I did not think it was unreasonable for a diver to be able
to function without a mask. In fact, I believed that it was
an essential basic scuba skill.
- As a NAUI basic diver, I was expected to repeatedly swim
without a mask. Although I have rarely taught basic classes,
when I have done so, swimming without a mask was part of that
- She had a definite problem which today we had clearly
defined. I suggested that she practice putting her face in
a bathtub filled with cold water and practice breathing
using only a snorkel until she could be comfortable.
- Lastly, I pointed out that to her that, unlike some, I
strongly believed that dive training personnel should not only
know how to dive, but do so with ease and comfort. I told her
that I believed that it was both improper and unwise for her
to continue in the open water training of novice divers until
she could be comfortable in the water.
The purpose of this article is to remind everyone, particularly
newer instructors, that:
- Everyone has a panic threshold.
- For some people, the difference between "discomfort" and
"panic" may be very small and that this difference can be
breached in a very short time.
- The "escape-to-the-surface" behavior may be explosively
- As instructors, we often stress our students so that they,
in turn, can widen their own personal "comfort zone". As
we do this, we must always be prepared to prevent their
discomfort or panic from leading to a catastrophic event.
Incidentally, I still strongly believe that divers should be able
to function without their masks and this exercise will continue to be
part of my training program.
About The Author:
Larry "Harris" Taylor, Ph.D. is a biochemist and scuba instructor at the University of Michigan.
He has authored more than 100 scuba related articles. His personal dive library (See Alert Diver,
Mar/Apr, 1997, p. 54) is considered by many as one of the best recreational sources of information
in North America.