Underwater, surrounded by electrifying beauty, one can easily forget the dangers one should always be aware of when scuba diving.
You’ve survived the confined water shame, perfected the art of clearing water from your mask by snorting through your nostrils, mastered the underwater signs and packed your head with life-saving acronyms such as BCD (buoyancy control device), AAS (alternative air source) and BWRAF (buoyancy, weights, releases, air, final check — the Padi buddy gear checks), and now you’re ready for the real thing.
The sun is shining on your spanking new fins as you rinse the toothpaste off your mask and adjust it to settle nicely on your face. Rolling back off the edge of the boat, you plunge into the belly of the sea, raring to go.
But remember this: there is no guarantee that you will return safely to the water’s surface.
Divers Alert Network (DAN) (www.diversalertnetwork.org), a US non-profit scuba diving and dive safety association, reported 138 diving deaths worldwide in 2006, with the recorded incidents mostly self-inflicted due to recklessness or ignorance — diving deeper or longer than called for, entering overhead environments (like wrecks and caves) without proper training or equipment, and diving in spite of medical illnesses.
“Almost all scuba diving accidents can be avoided by following good diving practices,” says Lee Boon Leong, 34 of Dolphin Sport Adventure (www.dolphinsportadventure.com), a Padi 5 Star Dive centre and training facility.
“Good scuba divers don’t dive beyond the limits of what their training has taught them. They regularly practice and improve upon scuba diving skills.
They also stay in shape to avoid accidents caused by being unable to swim for an extended period. Finally, they always plan their trips in safe locations and keep an eye on weather reports in order to avoid storms or choppy water.”
In his own experience, Lee finds that it is generally the men who push the limits.
“Men in general seem to take more risks than women. The bottom line is, once certified as an open water diver, whether male or female, the person is responsible for his or her own safety.”
Padi Platinum Course Director (www.idcmalaysia.com), S. F. Chong, 40, says, “I believe the most important factors that keep a diver safe is proper dive education and training. You can develop your diving skills by continuing your dive education from entry level to advanced. Advanced level will bring you to different types of dives.
“For example, during advanced training, you will learn more about deep diving, additional buoyancy control, navigational skills and lots more. Then I’d highly recommend divers to strive for the Rescue Diver level as it helps you to prevent or anticipate accidents and learn self-rescue skills.
“From my observation, many divers are not swimmers, and they can’t maintain themselves comfortably in water too deep to stand up in. It is the responsibility of the certifying instructor to ensure that prior to certification, the student divers must meet water skills and stamina requirements,” he adds.
“While divers may not be aware of training standards, take note that the instructor covers all performance requirements listed in the diver’s manual.
If you feel you are ill-prepared for any skills, talk to your instructor and arrange for additional confined water training.”
“Ideally, the instructor-student ratio should be no more than 1:4,” Lee adds. “Too many divers in the water all at once can be difficult to manage and is potentially dangerous.
In the chaos and confusion, you risk getting slapped in the face by fins, or banging yourself against tanks and getting knocked unconscious.”
One of the best things you can do is to get in shape.
“Scuba diving equipment is heavy, especially if you have it on out of water. Although water takes the weight, scuba diving still requires a strong body to cope with the waves and current,” says Jessica Tan, 30 of Ocean Runner (www.oceanrunner.my), a one-stop scuba centre.
Some countries require a doctor’s medical before you’re allowed to start the diving course but most rely on a self-certification principle whereby you can simply sign it yourself if you don’t have any of the conditions listed on the form.
“It is your responsibility to assess your own fitness to dive, both physical and mental,” says Lt Kol (Dr) Muhd Yusof Abu Bakar, a dive physician from the Institute of Underwater and Hyperbaric Medicine (IUHM), a department in the Armed Forces Hospital Lumut.
“Some medical conditions are serious enough to disqualify a person from scuba diving, like respiratory problems, coronary disease, epilepsy and asthma. Don’t dive if you have a cold, allergy or any other kind of medical condition that affects your breathing.”
In the deep end
It’s important to remember that scuba diving isn’t a solo sport.
“The most enjoyable dives are sometimes when you have a good buddy who shares with you the sights he comes across and paces well with you throughout the dive,” says Ujang, 43, an Ocean Runner Padi instructor. This relaxing activity, however, can turn stressful if you have to chase a pair of fins disappearing into the blue.
“Your dive buddy should always be within arm’s length on the same depth to allow the two of you to share air while you surface. Don’t be tempted to swim off on your own when you spot something interesting. Point it out to your guide and dive buddy and head towards it together.
“If you do lose each other underwater, look around for no more than one to two minutes. If you still cannot find your buddy, slowly ascend to the surface where they should have done the same.”
Says one enthusiast, Azam Manaf, 27, a cadet pilot, “If something isn’t right, or you just don’t feel like it, even after you have started to descend or are in the middle of a dive, inform your buddy and abort the dive.
“A dive that starts going wrong before you even get your fins wet, probably won’t go well in the water. I’ve seen many experienced divers abandon dives due to unfavourable conditions, and that saved them and their dive group a lot of trouble.
It does not mean that you are not a good diver.
“In fact very often, it is the smart diver who knows himself best, and knows when to say ‘No thanks, I’ll pass’,” he opines.
Before a dive, Azam makes it a habit to check the weather report. “Conditions can change quickly. You don’t want to be caught in a storm.”
The bad boys of diving
As you ascend you are ridding your body of nitrogen in the tissues and bloodstream. If you rise too quickly, the nitrogen doesn’t get enough time to work its way out and you risk decompression sickness (DCS) or the bends.
“DCS gets a lot of bad rep, but the good news is that it is well understood, and can be easily prevented by following dive tables and computers, properly ascending at a slow rate, and performing the standard safety stop,’’ says Dr Muhd Yusof.
DCS will earn you a trip to your local hospital’s recompression treatment chamber, a facility where you are placed under increased pressure, similar to being underwater to eliminate the excess nitrogen — a nasty way to end your underwater adventure.
“There are many factors that contribute to DCS, including dehydration, fitness level, amount of sleep, alcohol, drugs and stress. The bends can result in symptoms ranging from a mild skin rash and, in severe cases, neurological and cardiovascular damage. If you begin to exhibit symptoms of DCS, you should take it seriously and seek treatment right away,” he explains.
Along with the bends, arterial gas embolism (AGE) is another dangerous condition to affect a diver.
“AGE is a blockage of an artery. Usually, this occurs when a diver holds his breath while ascending (the number one rule in scuba diving is to breathe normally at all times). This causes air inside the lungs to expand when the pressure drops and can lead to serious damage to the lungs,” he says.
A number of scuba diving mishaps are also a result of nitrogen narcosis, a condition that produces a state similar to alcohol intoxication when diving at depths beyond 30m.
“The most dangerous aspects of narcosis are the loss of decision-making ability, clouded judgment, giddiness or paranoia. Under these circumstances, a diver may disregard normal safe diving practices and behave like a drunk, even to the extent of hallucinating that there’s a talking Nemo,” he adds.
As narcosis only occurs during deep dives, Dr Muhd Yusof points out, a diver keeping to shallower depths can avoid nitrogen narcosis entirely.
“If narcosis does occur, the effects disappear almost immediately upon ascending to a shallower depth. “
Alcohol and diving is a complete cocktail for disaster.
“Don’t drink and dive,” Dr Muhd Yusof cautions. “Obviously you don’t want your judgment or abilities to be impaired. Drinking can also cause you to dehydrate quickly and make nitrogen narcosis more likely.”
Dehydration, he states, can also be a serious problem.
“Breathing the dry air of scuba tanks, combined with exertion and warm-climate exposure, tends to dry out the body, which makes you tire easy, so drink plenty of water,” he says.
However, the most common injury from scuba diving, he reveals, is ear barotrauma when a diver has problems equalising.
“The pain in your ears when you descend is an indication that this could be happening.”
Equalising problems, Lee points out, are not all that uncommon and there are some things you can do to help you descend safely.
“The most common method to solve this problem is to close your mouth, pinch your nostrils and gently blow through your nose,” says Lee.
“Begin equalising as soon as your head is submerged underwater and continue equalising every few feet. If your ears are not clearing properly, go up a few feet to reduce the pressure, then try clearing them again until you have cleared your ears successfully, rinse and repeat. If it’s not working, abort the dive. Or you risk a permanent ear injury.”
Then there are threats from some species of fish and coral that while extremely attractive can also be extremely dangerous.
Many coral and marine animals pack a nasty sting to the unwary diver who accidentally bump into them or try to handle them.
“Fold your arms loosely up by the chest to stop them from flapping around. Perfect your buoyancy so you can hover over delicate reefs. Try not to move at a pace, which makes you out of breath. When your heart is drumming, you’ll start to suck air greedily. After all, the slower you go, the more you’ll see,” says Ujang.
Having some knowledge of the marine life, he adds, can also make the diver aware of animals which may become aggressive when approached.
Diving for women
One area of concern for women is diving during their menstrual cycle.
“Women may wish to exercise caution and err on the side of conservatism — longer safety stops, shallower, shorter and fewer dives,” prescribes Dr Muhd Yusof.
“Obviously, any woman who suffers severe menstrual cramps, headaches or other symptoms related to her period should refrain from diving until fully recovered.”
Worried sharks can sniff the blood?
While these predators are often portrayed as villains in fiction and folklore, says Dr Muhd Yusof, in reality there’s a very small chance you will actually come face to face with a man-eating shark, what more one that will attack you. However the good doctor advises mummies-to-be to abstain from the sport.
“Pregnancy is only nine months, it is simply not worth taking any unnecessary risks,” opines Dr Muhd Yusof.
Also keep in mind — while you can scuba dive right after flying, you can’t fly too soon after scuba diving.
“Due to the excess nitrogen in your system, it’s important not to fly until at least 24 hours after your last dive,” says Dr Muhd Yusof, who doesn’t see the appeal of scuba diving.
“If I wanted to see fishes, I’d visit aquarium displays,” he laughs. “I treat patients who suffer from dive injuries, so I could be classed as somewhat biased.”
Before going airborne, you’ll want to schedule a day off at the end of the dive for lounging on the beach and trading stories about who saw the biggest what.
Better still, discuss how the dive went and ask yourself what can be done better next time to ensure maximum fun and safety.
“Ask for feedback and advice from the pros. Sometimes, little changes to kit or dive posture can make a huge difference to your diving. People will appreciate the fact that you ask,” concludes Azam.
The Heaven for Diving Enthusiasts, Sipadan Island