The first thing to do is to break down this feeling of ‘fear’, as the cause is different for different individuals. Common concerns may be fear of the unknown, what is under the water, how does the equipment work and how do I breathe? These are all legitimate questions.
For some, it might be a worry of being hurt or attacked by the creatures of the depths. We have all seen movies where various sea creatures attack humans remorselessly and with vengeance. One of the most famous of these is ‘Jaws’. Peter Benchley, the author, often expressed regret about the influence this movie has had on many and how they perceive sharks and their behaviour. The reality, in general, is that the sea creatures are more afraid of you than you should be of them. To them, you are unfamiliar, big and noisy and most creatures will go out of their way to avoid you! Divers counteract this by moving slowly with no sudden movements in order to get close to a subject, never cutting off a way out for the creature and never touching the aquatic life!
People may not understand how the equipment works leading to concerns for their safety underwater. Again, a valid point. Before scuba diving for the first time, it is important to get professional training so that the operation and use of the various pieces of kit are understood. This can start with a Discover Scuba Diving experience which will kick off with a detailed orientation in a pool or confined water. This enables the new diver to become familiar with the kit without having to focus on anything else that might be going on around them. Bizarrely, the most difficult thing some people find to do is ‘keep breathing’!
Adults and children have different psychological approaches to this. When an adult hears ‘put this on your back, this in your mouth and you can breathe underwater’ there is often a healthy dose of scepticism. The same words uttered to a child are usually answered with ‘awesome!’ or ‘cool!’ (or whatever the current youth vernacular might be!).
It should also be noted that what is in your cylinder is compressed air rather than oxygen, a common misconception. So the mix in the tank is approximately 20% oxygen, 79% nitrogen and 1% other gases. The breathing system also mirrors our natural functions, so the air is delivered ‘on demand’ as you breathe rather than being forced into your lungs continuously.
“Won’t I get the bends?” is a common question. When diving, our bodies absorb more nitrogen gas than they would normally do so at sea level. Given this, it is important to manage the gas levels. Gas gets into our body at a partition between the lungs and the bloodstream and it is supposed to be released in the same way! Therefore, if a diver ascends too quickly, the gas may come out in little bubbles in the blood flow itself as the pressure is released. Think about the gas released when opening a bottle of fizzy drink. These bubbles can gather at the joints, causing people to bend over in pain – ‘the bends’. Before the science of diving was fully understood, this was far more common than nowadays. In Saint Lucia, for example, this is more likely to be experienced by an untrained fisherman who goes ‘bounce diving’ for conch or lobster than a trained or supervised scuba diver.
Divers are also instructed not to fly for 24 hours after diving. Going up in a plane is much like ascending rapidly from a dive, so this period allows divers to be sure that all residual nitrogen has been released from their bodies.
Lack of swimming ability is often a concern. It is an interesting fact that, on an island such as Saint Lucia, the majority of locals cannot swim. This must seriously limit careers on and around the water, but we will save that for another article! Somewhat surprisingly, being a strong swimmer is not a requirement to learn to dive. Being comfortable in the water is actually more important. The equipment worn for diving is there for safety and convenience. Your Buoyancy Control Device (BCD or jacket) inflates on the surface to keep you afloat and enables neutral buoyancy at depth so you do not bounce along the beautiful corals! You wear fins (sometimes called flippers) to help propel you under the water and on the surface. Should you then wish to complete your PADI Open Water Course, there are some ‘not over strenuous’ minimum swimming requirements that need to be met.
We, as scuba divers, should never cast aside the above concerns as silly or inconsequential, but instead try to understand and break down these fears – then we may get the chance to introduce many more people to the underwater domain we love and respect.
By Nick Mobley of Dive Saint Lucia