As everyone who reads The Happy Talent (hopefully) knows, I do some really cool life coaching and college consulting work at my company, Paved With Verbs. Sometimes, when brainstorming ideas for college essays, a student will ask me, "What did you write about? How did you stand out when you applied to Stanford?"
The answer... is scuba diving. I've loved diving ever since I was old enough to pass as a 12-year-old (the minimum age to participate in Discover Diving programs). So maybe since I was nine? I got certified as soon as I was old enough for a PADI Junior Open Water Diver Certification, and began spending summers at ActionQuest, a summer camp in the British Virgin Islands, where I earned my Advanced Open Water Diver, Underwater Naturalist, Underwater Navigator, Search and Recovery and Rescue Diver specialties (in addition to Red Cross CPR for the Professional Rescuer, DAN Oxygen Administrator, and other first aid certs).
Best. Summer camp. EVER.
When I returned to school in the fall, I was still thinking about diving. Just for fun, I ordered The Encyclopedia of Recreational Diving... and read the whole thing, cover to cover. I loved chemistry, and spent at least a few minutes of every class thinking about whether and how what I'd just learned could apply to scuba diving (it always comes back to PV=nRT). When my friends would work on crosswords or flip through the New York Times over a lazy Sunday brunch, I was calculating how much air I'd have to put in a lift bag to raise objects of hypothetical densities off the ocean floor.
Since then, I've been diving all over the world (check out my guide to scuba diving Cabo)... And I recently realized that I've been diving almost 68% of my life.
Which is my long-winded way of saying that I am full of scuba and snorkel safety tips. The lesser-known of which I am going to share today:
1. Free dive BEFORE scuba diving. (Or, Don't free dive after scuba diving.)
If you're planning to snorkel and dive on the same day, this is important. Why?
After scuba diving, you'll have residual gas bubbles in your blood. This is fine -- they go away on their own, in time. BUT. If you free dive with these bubbles in your blood, they will contract and expand, contract and expand, as you dive down deep and return to the surface (PV=nRT). This can cause an air embolism, which is serious.
Free dive first, then scuba dive.
(Likewise, it is inadvisable to sit in the hot tub after scuba diving. Because PV=nRT.)
2. Don't task overload.
In the age of digital photography, everyone has a fancy camera. And everyone has super fancy, cool gear to take diving with them. Which is great -- if you're diving someplace familiar, in familiar conditions, and you're an experienced diver.
But you want to know how people die scuba diving? It's not shark attacks, it's not equipment malfunction and it's not running out of air. It's task overloading.
When someone goes diving with too much gear to deal with -- a camera, a strobe, some fancy extra tank thingy -- it causes a tiny bit of stress. It's a distraction. And it makes all your dive training go out the window. Next thing you know, you've got a little water in your mask, and you can't remember how to clear it, and your hands are completely full of stuff, and you start freaking out, breathing faster... and bolting to the surface. And then your lungs explode.
It's super exciting to have a dive certification -- but remember that, the more you dive, the better you'll be at it. Save the fancy equipment for dives you know well. If the conditions are tricky, consider leaving the camera behind (chances are, you'll be more present that way, anyway). If you're a new diver, use a GoPro or other small camera to document your dives. When you've got experience, THEN invest in a more professional kit.
Keep it simple, stupid! Here's the GoPro Scuba setup I'd recommend for beginners -- and it's only $29!
3. If you don't know what it is, don't touch it.
This advice is just as, if not more, important for experienced divers as it is for noobs. Noobs tend to have a healthy respect for the ocean... but experience can give even the best of us a big head.
FOR EXAMPLE. A buddy of mine posted a GoPro video he made of a shore dive in Point Lobos, CA, recently. To my horror, he had taken a selfie with a ray he saw while diving. But not just any ray -- a Pacific electric ray, which is thought to be responsible for many fatal, unexplained diving accidents.
Pacific electric ray. Photo courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium -- which, by the way, is doing amazing work to protect and preserve our oceans. If you haven't already, donate now. I did!
Likewise, I -- super scuba girl extraordinaire bla bla bla -- was shore diving with my boyfriend, Justin, in Hawaii recently. Someone at the dive shop had told us to watch for helmet snails once we got down to 60 feet on this particular dive. I didn't know what a helmet snail looked like, so when I got to 60 feet, I assumed the first mollusk I saw was a helmet snail. I picked it up and swam over to Justin, who immediately crossed his wrists in front of him (the scuba hand signal for "danger"). It turns out I'd picked up a cone snail -- which is venomous, and capable of stinging humans. I was extremely lucky I didn't get stung.
NOT a helmet head.
4. Don't believe the hippies -- eels are dangerous!
A few weeks back, a video was circulating on social media. It featured a female scuba diver and an eel, who was swimming around the diver in a way that looked very cuddly and affectionate. There was some nonsense caption about love and peace and hippies and nature... and it made me angry.
This eel is not her lifelong friend! Eels are dangerous! They have very bad vision, and navigate mostly through smell. This eel wasn't trying to cuddle the woman -- he was trying to decide whether or not she was edible! Here's a video that shows what's just as likely to happen if you try to "form a lifelong friendship" with this beautiful creature:
Still want to mess with eels? Here's another fact that might change your mind: You know that super creepy scene in Alien with the protruding jaws?
Totally, completely real and earthly. The idea came from eels, who have a second set of jaws called pharyngeal jaws that work just like that. Pharyhgeal jaws launch into the mouth, bite down hard, and pull food into the eel's stomach. (Watch the guy getting his thumb eaten again to see it in action.)
So unless you want to fly to Thailand for an experimental surgery in which a doctor amputates your toe and sews it where your thumb used to be... leave the eels alone. Show some respect. You are a visitor in their home.
But if you still insist on messing with mother nature...
5. If you're carrying fish food, keep your hands where you can see them.
First of all, please don't feed the fish. It disrupts the natural ecosystem, and isn't always completely healthy for the fish. I'll always remember visiting Hanauma Bay as an impressionable youth and learning about how feeding the fish (and overuse of the beach, in general) was destroying the balance of life and causing a shift in animal populations.
But if you must, keep in mind that the fish will bite at the food, whether it's tucked in your hand or floating in the water. If you swim around with food in your hands and you're not paying attention, you might get bit. It's usually just an unnerving nibble -- but a bite from a parrot fish, which is accustomed to eating coral, can really hurt!
Also keep in mind, if you're going to feed fish... the smell of the food stays on your hands (and any part of you that your hands touch) long after the food is gone. I went diving in Stingray City in the Cayman Islands when I was young. As part of the tour, the guide gave each of the divers a bit of squid to feed the stingrays. I fed mine to the rays and thought that that was that. Several minutes later, I mindlessly scratched my leg. Next thing I knew, my leg was burning, right where I'd itched. A stingray had smelled the eel on my leg, and given me the hugest hickey anyone's ever had.
All things considered, these are pretty minor dangers to you. (Unless we're talking about eels, thumbs and sausages.) But the implications can be pretty severe for the fish. So can you maybe just not feed the fish?
Just go to Cabo Pulmo, and you won't need any fish food.
6. Never underestimate the power of eye contact and human touch.
If I had to forget everything I ever learned in all of my Rescue Diver and first aid training except one thing, it would be this.
People don't get hurt because their equipment fails. People don't drown because they don't know how to swim. Disasters happen because people panic. Often over something as trivial as a leaky mask or minor buoyancy issue. If you're on a dive and you notice your buddy is looking a little panicked... approach them calmly. Make eye contact. Put your hands on their elbows -- firmly, but not constrictingly -- and look them in the eyes for several seconds. Think calm thoughts. I'm here. Slow down. Everything is fine. Let's figure this out. We can do this. Breathe. This will usually do the trick.
The number of people I've saved through chest compressions, oxygen tanks, stabilizing spines and stopping the bleeding is zero -- though I did end up using the Heimlich Maneuver once. However, I have prevented several disasters which could have led to any of these procedures several times. It is easily the most useful thing I learned during my rescue training.
Indeed, in practice, 90% of "rescue diving" is preventing panic, and anyone can do that. It's always better to calm someone down before something goes wrong, than it is to airlift them to a hospital after. Which is why, when a buddy began to panic during an abalone diving trip last weekend and his girlfriend dropped his weight belt, I didn't feel a bit bad when we were unable to recover the weights. She did the exact right thing. There's no telling what might have happened had she hesitated or let the panic continue, unchecked -- and I'm glad we didn't have to find out.
7. Approach drowners from behind.
First of all, only attempt to rescue a drowner if you feel certain it is safe for you to do so. If you have no lifeguard training, it's probably not be safe. Saving someone from drowning is dangerous, and drowners are very unpredictable. Even if you have training, you could still be putting yourself in harm's way -- especially in the open water. If you end up getting hurt attempting to rescue someone, you've just made the safety situation twice as difficult -- now, instead of saving one person, rescuers are going to have to save two people.
Second, if at all possible, rescue a drowner either by throwing them a floatation device or extending a long stick, rod or pole to them. Approach them in the water only as a last resort.
But if you've assessed the scene and think it is safe for you to attempt a rescue and you have no other option but to do it in the water, approach the drowner from behind.
The thing about drowning is, if you're drowning, you want to get out of the water. Right now. And how do you get out of the water? You push down on anything you can, trying to push yourself up.
The other thing about drowning is, you're panicking, and nothing you do makes sense. If the "thing" you're pushing under water is another human... you don't care. You don't stop. All you care about is getting out of the water. And as long as that person you're pushing underwater is providing any sense of buoyancy to you (which, since they're struggling to stay afloat and get some air, they will), you will keep grasping that person and pushing them underwater.
Kind of scary, huh?
This is why lifeguards always approach victims from behind -- and why, when they make physical contact, they grab victims hard, from behind, under the arms. Drowners often try to flip around and drown their rescuer. Don't let it happen to you.
And if it does somehow happen that a drowner grabs onto you and pushes you underwater... there's pretty much only one way to make them let you go. And it's going to be the most counter-intuitive thing you'll ever do. Push them upwards -- thereby driving yourself further underwater. If the drowner thinks you are sinking, they will let go of you.
I spent a lot of time learning how to be a Rescue Diver, and I had an amazing time doing it. However, in an ideal world, I will never have to use anything I learned in anything but a hypothetical scenario.
Divers -- what are some of your favorite safety tips and tricks?
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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