Panic in the Ocean

I dived at the Navy Pier in Exmouth, an intermediate site. I had a horrible time - the conditions were terrible, the currents were strong, and water kept getting in my mask. Then I panicked.

Day 378

I couldn’t sleep all night because the anticipation of diving in the early morning made me anxious. I woke up countless times, often looking at the clock to make sure I hadn’t overslept. 2:00 am, 3:00 am, 4:00 am…it seemed I couldn’t sleep no matter how hard I tried. Finally, at 6:10 am, my alarm went off minutes after I woke on my own. 

The sun hadn’t risen yet, and it was still mostly dark outside. I threw on my swimsuit, shorts, and a t-shirt so I could walk to the bathroom. I passed the motorhomes and tents where most people were still sleeping. The air was cool, and there was a peacefulness about the atmosphere. 

I drank a protein shake, grabbed my bag with a towel, mask, and snorkel, and walked to the campground entrance. The bus would pick me up at 7:00 am to go diving at the Navy Pier. Days prior, I had read that snorkeling with whale sharks was the popular thing to do in the area, and it was the season for them to be there. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, and they’re not aggressive to humans. The pictures I saw made me want to do it. 

However, all twelve tour companies were sold out for the next two weeks. Australian schools just started a two-week break, and everything was full and crowded. I was disappointed, but after making a few phone calls, I found a dive company to at least go diving. There are a few sites in the area: Ningaloo Reef, some Islands, and the Navy Pier. 

I was able to snag the last spot available for the Navy Pier, which is owned and operated by the Navy. Australia and the US use that area, so the controls are stringent. Dive Ningaloo is the only authorized company that is allowed to offer tours of the pier. 

As I waited outside for the bus, I asked a couple if they were also diving. They were doing the whale shark swim with another company. Two guys overheard me and said they were waiting for the Navy Pier dive too. They had done the whale shark swim two days prior and said it lived up to the hype and was worth the hefty $400 price tag. 

The bus arrived, and I sat in the very back seat. We picked up a few other people and arrived at the dive shop. The woman who had been driving the bus couldn’t get a video to work, so she yelled to all of us about what we would expect.

“You are all assigned a number. This half of the bus start by checking your equipment. The other half start by getting your fins and wetsuit. You have 20 minutes, and we need to be on time. The Navy is extremely strict about times. I’m going to pass around a clipboard. You must fill out your legal name, address, and date of birth. Any Americans on board?”

I was the only one to raise my hand and was surprised that everyone else was Australian. 

“We write the day first, then the month, and then the year.” Everyone laughed. Yeah, I got it. 

I was assigned to the group to get my fins and wetsuit first. One of the guides, Ben, gave me a suit to try on. Some people were confident in their size and didn’t try the suit on. I had to try mine on, and it was very tight. It ultimately fit, but it took me ten minutes to get it on and off. I felt extremely rushed as I grabbed some fins too. 

Most people were done, but I needed to check my equipment. I was the only one still checking gear, while a few others finished getting their wetsuit. I asked Ben if he could help me. The tank made a loud sound when I turned on the air because it was leaking. He seemed annoyed but fixed the connection to my regulator. 

All of a sudden, we were back on the bus. There were 17 divers and only two guides. In Thailand and Vietnam, they never dive with more than four divers per guide. We drove 15 minutes to the pier, and because they couldn’t get the video to work, the woman shouted as she drove the bus. 

She told us about the rules, like no pictures can be taken until we’re on the pier. She also described the currents as powerful; they are only allowed to dive at certain times. The timing was essential, and we would have little time to get out of the bus and into the water. We drove through a national park, past a few gates, and finally went down the pier. 

The crew got the video to work, so they played the last one for us. The woman on the screen described the best path to take while under the pier. There is a large rectangle platform that we were on, and of course, there was a section with the road going back to land. There were also two small platforms on each side. She stressed how important it was not to swim in certain areas because the current could push us against poles covered in barnacles. She also instructed us to hold on to our weight belts, face mask, and regulator because the jump into the water from the pier is higher than usual, and the force will knock them off if we don’t hold on tightly. 

After the video, the woman who had been driving told us that we would see reef sharks. Because it’s a protected area, it’s full of sea life, which draws in sharks. “They’re harmless,” she said. She also told us we could go off on our own if we wished. Only two people raised their hands to say they’d go off alone. The remaining 15 people were divided between the two dive instructors. Because I was alone, I was assigned a “buddy,” which was Ben, one of the instructors. He was heavyset with a thick beard and had an Eastern European accent. 

The woman also went on to warn us about not getting too far out, or the current would pull us farther into the ocean, making it impossible to swim back. They’d have to call for a rescue boat because there were no people around. It was an isolated location. It would take a couple of hours while we’d have to wait out there in the ocean to be rescued. That terrified me. 

You should always dive with a buddy, and the buddy should be side-by-side and in arms’ reach. We got out of the van, and it was still chilly outside, so everyone quickly put on wetsuits. The wind was incredible and powerful. It took me a few minutes to get my wetsuit on again, and by the time I was finished, people were heading down the stairs to jump into the water. 

I went to put on my weight belt, but it wasn’t there. The crew had placed weight belts with weights by our tanks. They determined the weight we needed based on our wetsuits. I told Ben I didn’t have a weight belt, and someone must have taken mine. I also explained that the other times I’ve dived, I needed eight weights. “Eight weights?!” He said, annoyed. Some people are more buoyant than others, and wetsuits make you even more buoyant. In order to sink, you often need weights. 

When I learned how to dive in Thailand, we used a “shorty” wetsuit, which was short sleeves and shorts. I still needed eight weights to sink then. It was at that moment that I realized just how rushed all of this was. They never asked me how many weights I needed. When getting my other gear and checking my equipment, I forgot about them. Knowing your weight is essential, and this time I was wearing a larger wetsuit, which meant I’d probably need more weights. 

Ben said their weights are heavier than most dive companies (1.5 instead of 1.2), and he searched for a weight belt. He frantically gave me one and kept working on getting the other seven people ready for their dive. The belt didn’t fit, and I showed him. Annoyed once again because he was busy with the short time frame, he started looking around. Thankfully, another diver said I could switch with him because his belt was too big for him. 

That belt had four weights on it, and Ben went and got me two more weights. They were heavier than the other ones I have used, so I hoped it would be enough. The tank was also heavier. The woman who drove the bus would be our watch in the water. She and Ben were yelling at everyone to get down the stairs and into the water. They said we had two minutes to be in the water because of the tides, and the Navy would know if we missed the time. 

I put my hand on my regulator and mask to hold them in place and my other hand on my weight belt and jumped into the water. I surfaced and tried adjusting my mask because the water was getting in. The hood around my face made it very difficult to get the mask to seal around my face. My hair was also getting in the way. It didn’t matter. There was no time. Immediately, Ben said we were going down. 

I grabbed the rope that we could use to guide us to the bottom, but I wasn’t sinking. Ben was yelling at me, pointing to go down. I was trying so hard to relax and breathe out slowly so I would sink, but I hovered just under the surface. I felt Ben add two weights to my BCD jacket. I was able to get down but had to pull myself on the rope. My body did not want to go down. I tried to regulate my ears as I went, but it was hard because everyone was going so fast. 

We got to the bottom and let go of the rope. I kept getting a small amount of water in my mask, and I tried to clear it. Everything was happening so fast. I tried to follow Ben, but there were so many people with us, they ran into me, and I ran into them. Breathing has been something I’m working on because I will float up if I take a big breath. That happened to me in Thailand, and since then, it makes me paranoid. 

After five minutes, I was sinking too much and hitting the seafloor because I was overweighted. I added a couple of puffs of air to my vest, and it helped. The visibility was awful. It wasn’t clear, and we could only see a couple meters around us. The poor visibility, combined with water getting into my mask, made it very difficult to see. I tried to follow Ben, but people kept getting in front of me. My buddy wasn’t really a buddy since he was a guide leading seven other people. 

All I could see was murky water and poles from the pier. The current was so strong that it was taking a lot of effort for me to keep up with the group. The more effort I put in, the more I’d breathe. The more I’d breathe, the more my buoyancy was affected. I started to feel myself rising, and I struggled to get myself back down. This terrified me because I had to learn all about the dangers of going up too quickly when I got certified, like getting the bends. It was a constant challenge to stay down.

After about 30 minutes, I started to panic. I don’t know what suddenly made it worse. I think it was a combination of everything: the water in my mask, the poor visibility, my buddy being too far ahead of me, and my heavy breathing and pounding heart. But in one of my breaths, I rose slightly and decided I didn’t want to keep fighting to stay down. I was done

I didn’t have a dive watch, but I knew the deepest we would go was 12 meters, and we didn’t need to do a safety stop. Panicked, I kicked myself to the surface. To my surprise, Ben was quickly at the surface with me. He said, “Do you want to go back down? We need to go back down now.”

I said sure, but he asked again if I wanted to go back down. That was my out. I said I didn’t want to go back down, and I would swim back. He was forceful, mean, and yelling. “Are you okay to go back? I can’t leave the others. I need to go back!” The woman on the pier was at the bottom of the stairs and yelling so I could find her. Ben pointed to her, but the sun was right in the way and was blinding me. I finally found her and told Ben I would swim back. He went back under the water. 

During that brief conversation, I had taken out my regulator. The waves were huge and powerful, and I swallowed a lot of water. Once Ben was gone, I looked around and realized how vast the ocean was. The waves reminded me of the movies you see about a small boat surrounded by waves in a storm. The massive pier looked like a giant oil rig with metal everywhere. 

The woman shouted to me, “Put your regulator in!” I put my regulator in my mouth and started to swim towards her. She kept yelling, so I would hear her. Swimming was proving to be difficult. The tight wetsuit and tight waist belt with heavy weights made me so constricted that it was difficult to breathe. I was exerting a lot of effort and felt like I was barely moving. 

I started swimming backward, hoping it would be easier. In Thailand, we swam that way, and it helped. I used my fins and backstroke. But then I heard the woman again. I turned around and realized I needed to go around the poles. I was terrified and couldn’t remember which area they told us not to swim around, or the waves would bash us into the barnacle filled posts. Crap. Not only was I swimming instead of diving, but I was also in the spot I think I wasn’t supposed to be in. I paused there, trying to find the woman. 

I couldn’t see her, and I was so out of sorts. After a minute, I found her on the bottom staircase. She yelled out, “Do you need a rescue?” For a second, I thought I did. Fear and panic were getting the best of me. I started swimming towards her and around the poles. My head was bobbing up and down, being thrashed around from the waves. Switching between being underwater and above water was disorienting me. I switched to my back again. I was breathing so heavily; I realized I was hyperventilating.

I took the regulator out of my mouth as I swam on my back. The woman shouted, “Put your regulator in.” I shouted back, “I can’t breathe!” Finally, I arrived at the stairs. I grabbed the handle to the staircase, and the woman warned me there was a step missing. I tried to take off my fins to hand to her, but the choppy waves kept crashing into me, pushing me away from the staircase. It felt like a whirlwind. One hand was able to hold on, so I pulled myself back. As soon as the second hand grabbed a hold, the waves pushed me the other direction. I was only able to hold on with the other hand. This back and forth happened several times before I could get a grasp of both handles and hold on. 

The woman told me to take off my weight belt and hand it to her so it would be easier to climb out of the water. I tried to get it off but was struggling in the motion of the waves. She reached down and unhooked it. I warned her that it was very heavy. Just then, she dropped it before being able to pull it out of the water. I handed her one fin at a time and was finally able to climb up. 

I was trying to catch my breath and explain to her what happened as we climbed to the top: water kept getting into my mask because of the hood, which I wasn’t used to; the weights and wetsuit were too tight, making it difficult for me to catch my breath; visibility was weak, there were too many people in the way; and in the end, I panicked. Her response, “How many dives have you done?”

“This was my eighth dive. My first dive was in February in Thailand, where I got certified,” I told her. She replied, “Yeah, this is listed as an intermediate dive. People who are used to diving in Asia often struggle in Australia because they do everything for you in Asia.”

This woman also criticized Queensland. On the bus ride out to the pier, she said, “We make sure you all come back. We’re not queensland here – we don’t leave people in the water.” She was referring to incidents in Queensland where divers were left out in the ocean by mistake. The most notable story is when two Americans were stranded and never found. Because of that, Queensland put in many more rules and regulations to help ensure it doesn’t happen again.

The woman went back down to watch the others in the water. I took my equipment and wetsuit off and put my clothes over my swimsuit. The wind was so intense that I had to grip my towel tightly. I poured some water from a jug into a cup and had a hard time drinking it because the wind was blowing water around in my cup.

Shortly after, a girl came up the stairs. I thought the group must be done, but she told me that she bailed early. She was 26, fit, had long blonde hair, and was from Sydney. As she took off her equipment, she told me the visibility was so poor, and her mask was so foggy that she could barely see. She was frustrated by the conditions and decided to surface. I asked how many dives she’d done, and she said 30. I felt better knowing she was much more experienced than me and also struggled with the conditions. She saw one reef shark sitting at the bottom and only a handful of fish. 

We continued to talk, and it turns out she lived in Whistler for a few years until her visa recently ran out. She moved back in with her parents and was starting a corporate job in Sydney. I love Whistler, so we bonded over the small mountain town in Canada. Ten minutes later, people started coming back up the stairs. Ben walked over to me and apologized for leaving me. He explained that he had one kid in his group who was only 13 and couldn’t leave him. 

Once we were ready, we boarded the bus and drove back to Exmouth. On the drive back, I thought about that woman’s comment about how Asia does everything for divers. In Thailand, the company I used to learn how to scuba and get certified for four days was extremely professional. My trainers were from Estonia and England. They were friendly but strict, and they taught me well. They taught me what to look out for with other dive companies. I wish I would have remembered those warnings sooner. 

I realized that this company never told us which type of air and equipment we were using. They were so rushed; they never asked how many weights we needed and whether we’d dived in full wetsuits. When I booked online, I listed my certification and how many dives I’ve completed, but my guide never asked me anything about my experience level. He was my assigned buddy, and there should have been a conversation about this. In fact, all of this should have been discussed so we’d be prepared. 

I didn’t want to upset anybody, but looking back, I should have spoken up. In Vietnam, the dive company wasn’t as good as Thailand, but they also limited each guide to four divers. The guide asked about my experience, comfort level, and understood that I was still learning to perfect my buoyancy as a new diver. 

The company in Exmouth had way too many people assigned per guide. They were also so rushed they did not talk with each person about their skill level or type of equipment they’re used to. When I got back to my room, I looked at Trip Advisor and saw a few poor reviews with similar concerns. There was one from a new diver who basically felt the same way I had: she was still new, but they catered to the experienced divers. They are the only dive company allowed to take divers to the pier, which is listed as one of the world’s top ten dive sites. 

I got dropped off where I was staying. I had to take my car into the shop for repair, but they were too busy and told me to return in a few hours. I ate some food and went back to take a nap. I had been sleep-deprived the night before, and all the anxiety had worn me out. Once I woke up, I walked to a nearby booking office and scheduled some tours. Then back to the car shop. The guy there was very friendly and explained the plastic part above my left tire had worn too much for him to repair it. It wouldn’t affect my driving, so he recommended I repair it in a bigger city with second-hand parts and cheaper costs.

I picked up some groceries and went back to my room. I felt wiped out, so I binged watched the new season of Stranger Things on my iPad. I messaged my sister and mom and let them know what happened during the dive. My sister said, “You just described anxiety to a T.” It’s interesting. I never considered myself an anxious person, but I’m learning that I might have it after all. I’ve just been good at holding it in. But I’m unable to hold it in any longer, and I get frustrated at the loss of control. 

When I was driving across the Nullarbor, there were frequent signs posted in the restrooms bringing awareness about anxiety. For years, my doctors have told me that I’m healthy, but it seems I’m under extreme stress. I was always confused because I didn’t feel that stressed. I think it was anxiety slowly eating away at me. 

Sign posted in a restroom on the Nullarbor

For years, when friends described their panic attacks or anxiety to me, it was usually over a party coming up, or a test, or a presentation at work. Even though sometimes those things made me nervous, I never let the nerves stop me from doing them, so I thought I didn’t have anxiety. I’ve been slowly learning exactly what anxiety is and how it manifests itself in me. I think I ignored it in the past because when I give in to it, I can’t function. 

There were times as a kid that I had anxiety, but that word didn’t really exist. Instead, my friends called me a “worry wart.” When I was swimming back to the pier and letting the anxiety take over, I struggled to breathe. I let my mind go to the worst places: I’ll be swept out to sea. A boat will have to try and find me. I’m swallowing too much water. They won’t let me dive again. I’ll get pushed into a pole with barnacles and die. 

Anxiety is a vicious beast. I let it take control of me, and I was embarrassed. I wanted to run away and hide. The mind is such a powerful thing that can dictate reality. While I still think the dive company is partially to blame, I was also at fault. The other divers seemed to handle the company okay. I don’t want to give up on diving. I just need to figure out a way to manage my fears. 

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Post Edited by: Mandy Strider

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6 Responses

  1. Yep sounds like a panic attack. I get some when I am just snorkeling! I don’t think I will ever go diving. Glad you are safe. What an enthralling story!

  2. Sorry you had such a negative diving experience.
    Perhaps we will meet again while traveling and I will gladly be your dive buddy.
    Clark Waters

    1. That would be great! I ended diving on the Great Barrier Reef, which was a much better experience. But I would love to have you as a Dive buddy!

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