Panicked scuba diver in South Africa: classic symptoms and response

When I did my rescue diver qualification, the instructor or assistant instructor would act out the part of the victim and, for several of the scenarios, it starts with a ‘panicking diver’, which the instructor acts out according to the book: upright position, wide eyes, arms and legs helplessly flailing, and sometimes ripping off pieces of equipment.

Having never seen a real panicking diver I could only take PADI’s and my instructors word for it that this was realistic, and it’s easy to assume that it might have been a bit exaggerated, or perhaps a bit too simplistic. Well, no doubt lots of people panic in different ways, but I was interested to see this video earlier today of an unidentified learner diver in South Africa having a fully fledged panic attack underwater.

There are also some news reports but a) they are on either the Daily Mail or the Sun, which I would prefer not to link to and b) they add nothing other than a description of events in the video.

The video opens with the cameraman, who I assume is the instructor, giving everyone the instruction to ascend. Then at about 32-33 seconds, we see the victim for (I think) the first time. She is some distance below him and is displaying the classic signs of panic that rescue divers and divemasters are taught. As I mentioned earlier, the upright position and paddling with the hands is a clear warning sign that there is a problem.

Naturally he swims to her and it seems that just as he arrives, at about 42 seconds, she takes her mask off. This is another classic sign of panic that is taught in the courses, although more in the context of a diver on the surface. I’ve not heard of people doing it underwater but it’s a good illustration of how panic can cloud the thinking and cause illogical actions. It seems to me that her regulator is already out at this point although I’m not 100% sure. She seemed to be blowing bubbles right up until that point, so it’s possible that taking the mask off knocks the reg out, or that she simply releases it from her mouth at this point.

It’s worth noting, without intending any criticism of the victim, who is clearly not thinking logically, that nothing appears to have occurred at this point that a clear-thinking Open Water certified diver could not recover from. Regulator recovery and mask clearing drills are taught early on in the Open Water course, and even in Discover Scuba Diving, so any competent and, as I say, clear-headed open water diver should be able to recover from this without any issues whatsoever. (I could of course be wrong, it is always possible she is out of air, but the fact she was blowing bubbles until seconds ago and is on a shallow training dive would tend to count against that possibility.)

At this point the instructor naturally attempts to put the regulator back in her mouth, but this doesn’t seem to succeed, and she appears to be holding her breath though she does open her mouth at one point and let some bubbles out. This is clearly extremely dangerous but there is little the instructor can do except attempt to slow down her ascent as much as possible and offer her the regulator. From pretty much this point they seem to be ascending and, while it’s difficult to be sure, it looks like a very quick ascent. Look at how the victim pops out of the water at 1:09 for an indication of how quickly they were going up. Clearly, even from a shallow depth, that represents a serious risk to the victim, especially if she was holding her breath, but also to the instructor.

The video pretty much ends at that point.

Without any other context it’s hard to draw too many conclusions but I think this is a worthwhile watch for any diver as it perfectly illustrates what can happen with a panicking diver at depth, and the symptoms, as I mentioned, are almost freakishly by-the-book. It shows the real danger that a panicked diver can pose to themselves and to people around them, and in my opinion it also shows a decent response by the instructor under the circumstances.

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