Battle Royale

(Renamed by NAUI to This Could Happen To You)

by

Larry "Harris" Taylor, Ph.D.

 This is an electronic reprint of an article that appeared in NAUI NEWS (Mar/Apr. 1989, 39-40) under the title This Could Happen To You. This material is copyrighted and all rights retained by the author. This article 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.   

All rights reserved.

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I wish to share with the members of the diving community an incident that occurred to me while I was conducting a  specialty class in Navigation/Search and Recovery. This class was one module of a training program that ultimately leads to certification as a 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 masks.

The exercise was conducted in the following manner: The 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 certified advanced diver had been diving almost two years, had at least five specialty ratings, had more than 40 dives, had no real difficulty clearing mask or regulator during the previous day's exercises, had been helping others in their 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:

       1. Everyone has a panic threshold and that today hers had been exceeded.

       2. A rapid uncontrolled ascent in panic is a most definite life-threatening situation.

       3. If I had not slowed her ascent, there was a high probability that the incident could have caused an air embolism and that could have been a fatal injury.

       4. 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.

       5. As a 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 training.

      6. She had a definite problem that 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.

       7. 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:

       1. Everyone has a panic threshold.

       2. 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.

       3. The "escape-to-the-surface" behavior may be explosively initiated.  

       4. Under stress, the "OK" signal may be a reflex and NOT an indication of diver status.

       5. 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.

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About The Author:

Larry "Harris" Taylor, Ph.D. is a biochemist and Diving Safety Coordinator 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 one of the best recreational sources of information In North America.

  Copyright 2001-2004 by Larry "Harris" Taylor

All rights reserved.

Use of these articles for personal or organizational profit is specifically denied.

These articles may be used for not-for-profit diving education