Sunday, July 14, 2024
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Diving Fears

“The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea”

J E Flecker The Gates of Damascus

“Learn the secrets of the seas ? Only those who brave its dangers Comprehend its mystery !”

H J Longfellow The Secrets of the Sea

Two quotes, two views, two perceptions and two reflections of how divers see the arena of their sport – and strangely apposite to one another; the dark, terrored tones of Fleck are acknowledged by the more jaunty invitation to slip beneath the waves to “brave its dangers” contained in Longfellow’s verse. I find them devilishly appropriate to most divers that I have spoken to – but more of that later.

Depending on your view (and there are many out there) diving is the most spectacularly serene sport you could possibly imagine or Satan’s own invitation to hell, to be braved, endured and conquered at submariner’s depths and on a gas mix to float a barrage balloon. Whatever diving is to you, there are unquestionably risks associated with it and the environment into which a diver slips is still one full of mystery. And unlike Longfellow, I am not sure if we shall ever “comprehend its mysteries” but hundreds of thousands of people, all over the world, are having a shot at it.

Diving is an activity like very few others. To plunge into an ocean to interact with its inhabitants is literally like entering an alien world. Humans have, since they stood up and walked, endeavoured to go where perhaps they ought not to. Death and danger was never a final obstacle to a conquest of, say, Everest, the moon, space or the Amazonian jungle. The ocean, birthplace of a thousand and one myths and legends is perhaps the most potentially terrifying wilderness of all because it is more powerful and vast than anything that dry land has yet to propose. Dry land is conquered and we have seen it all, been all over it and exploited it. Little exists of which we do not have at least some knowledge. But the ocean, for all of its familiarity, is only partially explored. It will never be possible to see everything in it, to visit all of its depths, to meet with every one of its inhabitants. Such inaccessibility is the stuff of dark dreams and nightmares for many who fear to leave the shore.

If such grand themes seem to have little place in a piece about the fears of divers, then I make no apology. Because all of us, since childhood have been regaled by tales of the sea. Who did not stand on the deck of a ferry and wonder at the “size” of the ocean. Yet the two dimensional surface that we see is but a tiny fraction of the space beneath it. Great pioneers first went beneath the surface, to the three dimensional world, to discover its secrets. They found many but hardly broke more than that surface if truth be told.


But like all pioneers, early divers saw the danger of their activities as lessons to be learned and in fast forwarding to today, we now have at least a sport of which we know and understand much.

In composing this piece, I have questioned divers of great experience. Summarising their attitudes is difficult but a few trends did emerge. My survey was less than scientific but it did throw up many fascinating answers. I set out to discover what it was that made people enter a very different world from that which we ourselves occupy. Where, in doing so, have all of those childhood fears gone? If they have not gone, how do we hold them in check? Certainly, the wonder of the ocean remains – indeed, I’ll ask answer my own question here – it is this wonder that drives people to do it. The Ocean is so wondrous it almost belies description. Many of those I spoke to made a brave stab at doing so but I don’t think any of us have the words to describe the feeling of being at 100 feet, surveying the vastness about us and the sensation of visiting this alter-world.

But why are we not more afraid? Or if we are, why do we not submit to it? Is the draw of the world to be explored so powerful that we would set aside any fear that comes calling?

I asked myself, “what scares me in the water”? As a relative novice, I am not prey to the dangers that some encounter, for always at my side is a guide or an instructor with men to watch over us at the surface. For me, I battle mostly my own personal demons, stripped of the myriad practical decisions and issues that confront the expert, solo or unguided diver.

Of course, I have considered that the deep blue is but a friendly, social place for the likes of me to enter happily into from time to time. But I do not duel with the sea, only with that which is inside my head. I do not confront the ocean or take it on in its nastier moods or manifestations. It welcomes me on the calm sunny day, smiling to me with its flat face, purring with gentle currents that only occasionally will I become bored with, turning to search out more aggressive aspects of its personality. You might call me a leisure diver. You are polite.


But I have, I believe, experienced the more visceral side of the ocean. I am never less than thrilled to feast my eyes on coral, on a shipwreck, to juggle an inquisitive arrow crab in the palm of my hand, to gasp (if that is the term) at the beauty of a manta or the bulk of a whale shark. But I am no diver to be reckoned with. My common stance is to defer, to err on the side of caution, to do, at all times, exactly what I am told. Yet in this “safe” environment of the lazy diver, he who relies upon those of greater expertise to ensure his safety, contributing to his own welfare with the obedient relish of a novice practising and practising his skills as instructed, I still have those deep fears. What lies beyond my vision ? Is not the ocean teeming with large predators ? Am I not on the menu for at least one of them? Is this not in fact, the fate I wish to tempt by merely donning this metal canister and sinking out of my depth ?

You see, of all the divers I have ever met, not one has ever admitted to the least trepidation, never confessed to the smallest of fears. Unfortunately, I never believe them. Would diving not be boring without those fears? Wouldn’t the post-dive drink carry no frisson without the prospect of danger, of the encounter with the beast of our nightmares or our fantasies ? For me it must be there. Do we only dive to see what is below us ? Just think for a moment. We descend into an unregulated environment occupied by creatures more populous than our own species above, with large wild animals, currents and dangers unknown. Nothing in it is restrained. Nothing knows any restriction. We interact with a world in which we cannot live without aid, to which the human body is vulnerable. I have tried to think of an analogy for such an activity, some non-diving related task that none of us would contemplate as willingly as we do SCUBA. I cannot, not accurately.

Of course, you are saying to yourself that I am pre-supposing that everything in the ocean is dangerous and that something is liable to attack us. Of course, it is not. But I know that at the backs of the minds of many I have spoken to, there is a dark little corner that we are constantly denying. At the back of mine is a fear of sharks. Even when I know I am in an area that rarely experiences them. Yet, and here is the strange thing, I long to do a shark feeding dive ?

Most divers who answered the survey took a clinical and practical view of fear. Fear in itself is not the enemy. How can it be ? The practicalities of diving are the danger if ignored. This is not really what I was after although it was revealing to discover just how professionally most divers take their sport. Then again, they would, wouldn’t they – their lives depend on such considerations ? What really interested me was much simpler. What really scares divers. I am interested in the process of learning to dive and why some will not pursue the sport past the swimming pool. I have stood on boat decks, as surely many have, waiting for someone to pluck up the courage to take to the open water for the first time. Asking them what it is that is frightening them rarely brings a conclusive answer. They never really know. Some allude to the openness, a kind of sub-aqua agoraphobia. Others are more honest – they fear what might come up behind them. Quoting statistics at them is useless. The presence of people with thousands of hours under the water to their name with nothing more than fire coral encounters makes no difference either. “There is nothing about you that a shark would want to eat” is about as useful as a chocolate teapot and about as popular as a fart in a spacesuit. It merely acknowledges the existence of the beasts. Here, I suspect we should say that the film “Jaws” has a lot to answer for. No film has ever implanted itself so firmly into a national psyche !

But I always wonder what it is that paralyses one person yet spurns the other on. Some can rationalise their fears and others cannot. Perhaps confronting the fears is always the best answer. But other divers seem just as stumped for what to say to a terrified novice. In most cases, they say that they would impart the facts, the obvious facts and statistics. “Education will overcome the fears” says one. Will it ? Will telling someone who is afraid of sharks that it is highly unlikely that it will attack them going to help them banish the visions of rows and rows of teeth as “seen on a television near you ?” The only way they will KNOW is to experience it for themselves and how will that happen if they won’t get in the bloody water ?! I often think it might be better to move close to a fearful novice, speaking quietly and in a hushed whispered burr, saying “oooh, there be monsters!”. Perhaps inviting the terror would help conquer it.

Yes, we can equip novices, and ourselves, with rational facts, common sense and the benefit of the experience of others but can we answer the question, as one surveyed diver put it, “What is out there on the edge of visibility” ? I personally try to contain my thoughts to the few thousand cubic metres I am exploring at that moment, my own three dimensional box into which only the friendly and inquisitive, not the hostile and acquisitive will swim. For they are surely out there, the big hungry shark, the giant this, the monstrous that, the volatile other – aren’t they ? It is as if by will alone, I am saved a watery grave. To contemplate the millions and millions of cubic metres beyond my safety box is a possible trigger for the deep seated irrational fears of my unconscious.

Now of course, to a large extent, I am playing Devil’s Advocate. If we worried about everything that could happen, then we would never dive. We can try to limit the possibilities of the worst happening and we know the likelihood of animal attack is very small indeed. So we put it to one side and get on with exploring the majesty of the oceans, experiencing the sensation of weightlessness of this “alien” world. The practical issues associated with diving are a means to an end (although for some, complete mastery of them is an end in itself) and for many divers, the paraphernalia of diving is where much of the fear takes up residence.

So what of the survey ? What secrets did divers divulge ? Not many I don’t think although it was by no means a completely thorough investigation of diverse opinions. I would say that I gathered the opinions of about 200 divers in total – anonymously, mostly, as I hoped they would be more open to admitting fears. Replies from rec.scuba, the internet newsgroup and by asking divers I know to ask divers they know etc., soon racked up the respondents. I asked a number of straightforward questions relating to the experience of divers and their diving careers. I enquired of their deepest fears. I asked about their opinion of diving and I got many an answer of which I have no reason to be doubtful. Therefore, the following is a precis of what I was told, taking snap shots from the survey. Does it answer anything ? We shall see.

Do you have any deep set irrational fears?


48% of those who answered said that they had none. However, I was surprised that more did not fall into the fearless camp ! There were many different irrational fears expressed but of those who said they did have an irrational fear, almost 40% said they were worried about sharks – great whites and Tigers being the most mentioned. The obvious worries, such as running out of air or equipment failure, was common but this also came up under the practical fears section. Cave collapses, being left out at sea by the dive boat, getting caught on something, losing buddy etc. were amongst the other replies. The fear of the unseen also manifested itself and I suspect that there are one hundred other fears within this one ?

The interesting thing here is that most of the divers who expressed a fear of sharks are not in fact “sharkphobic”. And none of them had been attacked by a shark although a couple had been “harassed” by them in the past. Indeed, most of them were very practical when answering how to calm the fears of a novice who was afraid of sharks. The other very interesting fact is that all but one of those who expressed a fear of sharks were experienced divers – one having over 2,000 dives.

What is your greatest practical fear ?

This could be construed as a somewhat obvious question as any diver, with a clear head and rationality abundant, would say that the failure of equipment would be his or her most practical fear. Indeed, 45% expressed their practical fears as being that of equipment failure, running out of air etc. In all, 99% expressed practical fears or fears that are rational and that could possibly happen if due care and attention was not paid. Common amongst these was bad dive buddies. – 15 % saying a bad buddy was their greatest fear. Other factors were boats overhead, snagging etc. Again, the awareness of the dangers of diving are a credit to the dive fraternity – because whilst 44% of those who answered had witnessed mostly minor “accidents” (meaning that 56% hadn’t ever witnessed an accident) only two people who answered had witnessed a fatal accident. That might sound a lot, and for those concerned it was undoubtedly a defining moment in their diving career but there was no discernible reduction in attention to detail and safety from the 56% who had never seen an accident. One might forgive many divers who have made 500+ dives and had never seen a thing go wrong for being complacent but I did not read or hear one reply that betrayed anything like complacency.


Are there any circumstances in which you feel you would panic catastrophically ?

Now I suspected that virtually all of the responses to this would be “no”. Although 60% were, I was very surprised at the number of divers who said there were circumstances or that they did not know. It is a difficult question to answer honestly – for to admit to oneself that one would panic to the extent that it might kill you, is a hard thing to accept. However, I believe those who said “no” honestly do not believe they would red out under the water and this does show a high degree of self awareness and confidence in their abilities. Most who said they might panic said that running out of air would possibly cause it to happen. I particularly admired the fatalism of the chap who said: “finding that my dive boat had left me ten miles offshore would upset me, but not panic me”. Either he is a bloody good swimmer or he is happy to meet his maker !

Divers, it is clear, are a very practical and safety conscious lot. They are pretty damn brave too . The numbers and variety of answers makes it difficult to report on any particular trends other than those I have featured above. Overwhelmingly, the tone of all respondents was that all divers, novices through to experts and instructors should practice, practice, practice. Of course, the nature of the sport dictates that those who take part in it must be very careful not to kill themselves – an event that the smallest slip can induce. But whilst there was a healthy respect for this fact, very few seemed to be neurotic or paranoid – I guess they would not dive at all if they were. Diving is a pleasure that carries with it some practical dangers – very few of which are unavoidable. I did not detect anything that suggested that any of the respondents were doing it FOR the dangerous aspects of the sport – i.e. adrenaline junkies. Undoubtedly there are those who thrive on the more risky and potentially troublesome aspects of diving but they appear to be few and far between. Most desire the odd challenge but to the majority of divers who took part, diving is indeed a relaxing, serene sport that transports you to “another” or “alien world”, two phrases that crop up consistently.

I asked a question at the end of the survey which illustrates the issue of perception; “Do you consider diving to be an inherently dangerous sport” ? Is the glass half empty or half full sort of thing this one. Just over 25% said a flat out “no”, that diving was not an inherently dangerous sport. Just under 17% said that “yes”, diving is an inherently dangerous sport. The remainder – 58% – said that No, diving was not dangerous as long as proper training and permanent attention to safety were observed. There was quite a bit of concern about the standard of training being given by agencies today.

So what can one conclude from this exercise ? Well, I for one am amazed at the calm self assuredness of all divers – proud even ! Novices or intermediates have the same language and outlook as the experts – there seemed to be almost no dissenters in the camp at all, everyone seems to be singing from the same song sheet as far as practical safety and procedure are concerned. Again, this would appear obvious as to fail to recognise the dangers can kill a diver very quickly indeed. But I have two answers to that; first, why are there so few deaths amongst a fraternity of many hundreds of thousands who regularly go into an environment that is completely at odds with their own ? Secondly, why are not other dangerous sports so strongly self-regulated as diving? I happen to think that the ocean is probably the most potentially dangerous environment on the planet for humans, and all divers know this too. But few of them seem to view it as such on a daily basis. Statistically, we are extremely unlikely to encounter an animal in the ocean which is hostile and liable to do us harm so we are left with our own inadequacies, faults and stupidity – and from the looks of it, most divers understand this and most are making sure it doesn’t happen to them.

I have been slightly deflected from my course by the answers that divers have given. I set out to ask the question; do divers have deep set fears and do they deny these fears ? What has come about is an overwhelming endorsement for “professionalism” in the sport. Irrationality has no place in it. Does this mean that people of scientific mind and good sense are the only type attracted to the sport ? Certainly not judging by some of the people I know who partake of it ! So there is only one conclusion, and this brings me nicely to a point I raised at the top of this piece; the rewards of diving are so monumental, so beyond anything offered by any other activity, that nothing – not fears, phobias or failings – will stop those who get to experience it at least once from doing it again and again. The sense “spirituality” one experiences when diving is totally addictive – and I have never met anyone who could “take or leave” diving. If we were afraid of heights, we would not become glider pilots: if were afraid of horses, we would not become jockeys; if we were afraid of dogs we would not become vets. But we are, from this “research”, afraid of a great many things about diving, be it animals, pressure, drowning, yet we decide to confront each head on in pursuit of the wonders of the ocean. I don’t think I have learned anything “new” but I now have renewed vigour for the worth of this most graceful and wonderful sport.


Some of those fears in full !

“I remember always looking behind me when I first started diving. Where is Mr Sharky ? “

“Sometimes, when diving in cold murky water, I think about all the brutal and fatal shark attacks I’ve read about in my shark books since I was a kid and then I imagine what it must feel like, so, I quickly decide that if I am attacked by a great white, I’d rather be killed than lose a limb and then I am glad I am alone so I can bled to death in peace, rather than be rescued and I am happy”. (I commend this diver for his consideration of our over-stretched rescue services !)

“The first couple of minutes of a night dive I do wonder what is out there beyond my light”

“Great white sharks. I know better, but still….floating there on the surface, looking down into the murky green, I can just SEE that great white rush me from below (yeah, like there are great whites in Boston…) On the dive last Saturday, when I was floating in the water waiting for my buddy to get in, with 100ft of murk under me, and I was the only one in the water, yes , I kept looking in all directions at once ‘just in case’. And yes, when I float like that , I do it balled up, to look as un-seal like as possible from below. And yes I know it is stupid but when you see that footage on the Discovery Channel of the murky water, and this HUGE, POWERFUL thing slowly and methodically appears in the murk, all teeth and muscles and slowly comes at you … AAAAAAGGGHHH! ” (A ten year veteran of diving who also studies shark behaviour – see, we are all at the mercy of fear)

And how divers describe their sport in twenty words or less

(“Flying” and “alien” were very common)


“Warm Caribbean waters close over my body like a fitted glove. The weightlessness dropping my cares as if never there”

” A weightless exploration of a world that combines the comfort of a favourite trail with the thrill of a haunted house”



“Can’t be done”

“Fun fun fun”

“A lifetime of awe and adventure, for only sixty grand – $2,000 bucks at a time”

“You go down, swim around, keep breathing, and then come up”

My thanks to everyone who responded.