Night Dive in Cozumel – Reaching My Threshold of Panic

I’ve had two previous near-death experiences, one when I was a three year-old during a day out at the beach when I rushed into the sea and was immediately knocked over by a wave and pulled under the water, the other was a few years ago on the M40 when my daughter and I were caught up in an horrific high-speed pile-up. Despite only being three years old at the time of the first incident, I have a really vivid memory of inhaling a mouthful of water, and suddenly realising that I couldn’t breath, and then being overcome by sheer panic. Luckily a family friend had spotted me and quickly waded in to pull me to the surface. I’m not sure that I had any understanding at all of my own mortality at the time, but I certainly grasped what it meant to not be able to breath and what it was to nearly drown. Those early memories of nearly drowning as a child seeped back into my mind again, like hooded dark acquaintances, as I was being swept out of control by raging current down at 18 metres in the pitch black depths of the ocean last night here in Cozumel.

Last night Siobhan and I took the short boat trip from Cozumel to the dive site known as ‘La Francesca’. The dive site is known as a relatively shallow one, with usually only a reasonably gentle current. However, we had already dived the site the same afternoon and the current seemed quite strong, so we were expecting the conditions to be about the same, which we judged to be manageable. Both of us had only completed two previous night dives, both in totally calm and relaxed waters, one of them being no deeper than seven metres. But we felt prepared and ready for what would be our third night dive, and were looking forward to seeing octopus, nurse sharks and eagle rays out hunting. However, the conditions had changed from the afternoon, and as we jumped from the boat and quickly descended with the four members of of our group and our divemaster we were suddenly aware of how strong the current had become. As our divemaster descended he immediately headed, against the current, towards a protected space behind an outcropping of reef, signalling with his torch that we should also do this. As I descended and tried to follow him I found swimming against such strong current really very tough. By the time I had reached the point where he was we realised that it did not in fact offer any such protection from the current and I was swept away. In the pitch blackness illuminated only by seven torch beams I had lost sight of Siobhan, and I felt I was unable to hold myself together with the other members of the group. Two minutes into the dive and I was already heavily out of breath and heaving on my regulator, so I first tried to grip my fingers into the sand on the bottom and try and stop, but the current was too strong and I was slipping in the sand and was then swept further away. I then tried to find something larger to hold on to, like a piece of rock, but I was going so fast at this point that I just couldn’t find anything to get any purchase on. So, despite being near to hyperventilation I decided to turn and try to swim against the current in order to allow the others to catch up. This in fact worked, and the others came closer and then passed by me, so I moved around and rapidly drifted with the current, but by this point I was very breathless and quite disorientated. I couldn’t identify the divemaster or Siobhan. This pattern was repeated for several minutes. I would occasionally glimpse Siobhan, and could see that she was also struggling with the current and was trying to find something to hold onto. Several times, through no fault of their own, the other divers would clatter into me, some quite heavily, further disorientating me. At other times I was pulled some distance from the other divers who were quite dispersed. After a few minutes I checked my depth gauge and saw we were at 18 metres. I then checked my air gauge and saw that in just a few minutes I had already consumed almost half of my air supply. This is the point at which my head began to go wrong. I realised that my strategy for coping with the dive was not working, that I was becoming increasingly out of breath, severely fatigued, disorientated and now was faced with the prospect of running out of air in only a few more minutes. I remember saying to myself that I should end the dive now, that I should try to find the divemaster and signal to him with my torch that something was wrong and that I needed to go to the surface. But I decided to try and continue, fighting against the current in the dark, and try to orientate myself and get the dive back ‘on track’. At this point I still thought, OK, in a minute the dive will be back on track and everything will be OK. But this didn’t work. I only succeeded in becoming more and more, exhausted, anxious and disorientated. At this point I reached the threshold of panic, and then I knew that it was all going very wrong and it was now very serious.

At this point those old childhood memories suddenly surfaced, and all I could think about was that this was it, I was going to die down here. I was going to drown. I tried to fight this panic, and to think calmly. I had received enough excellent training to know that the very worst thing to do is to panic and lose control of your mind underwater. It is important to try and engage your mind methodically and systematically, and to try and stay calm. But, as I discovered last night, this is an astonishingly difficult thing to do when your mind is literally screaming – “you are going to die…you are going to drown…alone, here in the dark”. I knew that I had to end the dive quickly or something very very bad was going to happen right there. I desperately searched for the divemaster with my torch, and suddenly I could see him a few metres away. I wagged my torch beam in front of him furiously and then held my hand in the beam to signal that something was wrong. He immediately swam over to me and held onto me, and he could see straight away that I was on the verge of panic. I signalled to him that I needed to surface. My breath was completely out of control, and I could not seem to do anything to bring it back. All I wanted to do was go to the surface. At this point Siobhan was able to swim over, and together with the divemaster she held onto to me and kept me calm as he deployed the surface buoy. I moved ever so slightly away from the threshold of panic, and was able to bring my thoughts back under control to some degree, but I still wanted more than anything else to end the dive and come to the surface. My mind was replaying those old childhood memories of nearly drowning, and images of my daughter, and how I wouldn’t ever get to see her again. I found Siobhan’s arms around me immensely reassuring. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever felt more reassured in my entire life before than by her simple embrace at that moment.

Once the buoy was deployed Siobhan and I started to a make a slow ascent up the buoy line, in the raging current. As we ascended I will never forget looking down on the vast cavernous dark of the ocean, illuminated by just a few beams of light growing ever more distant. It seemed to take an age for us to reach the surface, but I knew it was imperative not to rush the ascent as I was not in any immediate danger. But the mind is a terrible thing. The whole time going up the line my mind was still telling me that I was going to die. Once on the surface I felt horribly shaken but elated. I was still alive, and the memories of my childhood experience of near-death receded.

My second near-death experience, an accident on the motorway which happened a few years ago, gave rise to a very weird experience, one that has haunted me ever since. The accident involved six cars, and about ten people in total. No one was killed, or even injured, despite the fact that it was an horrific pile up that spread wreckage for a hundred yards and closed the motorway. Afterwards, when the police and ambulance had arrived, all ten of us, including my daughter, lined up beside the motorway while they cleared away the wrecked vehicles, and I vividly remember looking at my daughter and the other people there and thinking, is that it, are we all in fact dead. Did we actually die out there on the motorway? What are we all waiting here for? It was a very uncanny experience. And it was the same last night. The experience of near-panic at 18 metres, apparently alone in the dark in raging current, was suddenly all over at the surface as we waited for the boat to come and pick us up, and I was left thinking, did I actually die down there. Is this it? Did I drown? I went back in the water again today here in Cozumel, and the conditions were beautiful. After the first dive of the day, I felt my confidence return, together with the knowledge that no, I didn’t drown last night. I’m still here, and I’m still diving. A little bit wiser perhaps, and certainly more experienced, having had a little insight into my own limits.