Fears and misconceptions – The first-time diver

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To people that have yet to discover diving, there are often some major concerns and misconceptions regarding the sport that might put them off the idea of ever learning. These can range from very rational fears such as having ear problems, to the relatively irrational such as the fear of predatory marine life or being unable to breathe at depth. There are as many fears and concerns as there are divers. In this article I would like to address some of those most common and explain what the reality of the situation is. Much like telling someone who is afraid of flying that they are in more danger on the way to the airport than on the plane, I know that without a logical explanation there is little point just telling somebody that diving is perfectly safe. If they have an innate concern about some aspect of it, it doesn’t matter how many times someone tells them. I asked a handful of instructors what fears they had heard from open water students before they started diving, so let’s delve into some which kept re appearing.

Diving Fears
Image courtesy of Robert Stansfield

“Won’t I get eaten by sharks”- Fear of predatory marine life

This is a very common one, and with the way that modern day media likes to spin a story for readers, it’s not surprising that many people have developed a major concern about the presence of marine predators which would obviously eat a diver at the first opportunity… right? Well, as exciting as that may sound to some people, there is almost nothing to worry about in terms of encounters with hostile marine life. The only injuries I’ve ever sustained from aquatic life were times I didn’t pay attention to where a limb was and ended up brushing a sea urchin or fire coral. The times I have dived with sharks, they have been shy most of the time and mildly curious at best. Most wildlife when diving just isn’t interested in you. We are a large and unnaturally clumsy visitor to their world, which emits bubbles and has a metal cylinder strapped to its back. In fact, most creatures will steer well clear of you if you swim towards them. Shark especially can tell we aren’t a fish, the lump of metal we carry is almost certainly a huge alien object to their sensitive electro receptors, nothing they’d ever want to try nibbling on. There are some exceptions in areas where due to years of interaction with fishermen or frequent divers, marine life has become very accustomed to people and will actively interact with you. These are not dangerous encounters if you are with a guide that knows what to expect.    

“I won’t be able to breathe”- Fear of suffocating

Drowning is a perfectly normal fear when you are swimming in deep water, or perhaps if you have ever tried to swim underwater in a pool or free dive to any depth. Maybe if you have been snorkelling before trying diving, you have had the experience of a wave bringing water into the tube and your mouth unexpectedly, or ducking your head a little too far with the same result. The great news is that it’s actually easier to breathe through a regulator than you might think, and that it is just as easy to breathe at the surface as it is underwater. Because the regulator is fed by the pressurized cylinder on your back, it can always deliver air in a way that it effortless to breathe. It is easier to breathe from a scuba regulator than a snorkel, because as soon as you begin to inhale, the air is gently pushed into your lungs by the regulator. When snorkelling, and even just breathing normally, your diaphragm has to do work to pump air in and out of your lungs. The pressurized system used in scuba diving actually assists your lungs, making it easier to breathe than normal! There’s also no chance of you getting an accidental mouthful of water with a properly maintained regulator, because there’s no way for water to make it into the air line. 

“I can’t equalise” – Worries about ear damage

Anyone that has tried freediving quickly to anything more than a couple of meters will have experienced the sharp pressure that this causes on your ear drums. You might be thinking, if I get pain at the bottom of a pool, how could I go deeper in the sea? The reality is that unless you have a specific problem equalising your ears (such as a blocked eustachian tube), scuba diving involves very slow descents and ascents, much slower than the speed you would be trying to duck dive. When you learn to dive, you will practice equalising on the surface, to make sure you can do it properly before even getting in the water. Once you have the technique down, it is just a case of getting used to doing it underwater. Your instructor should remind you to equalise frequently and gently, while also descending at a slow pace so that your ears are not overwhelmed. Each time you equalise you will no longer feel the pressure in your ears, so by slowly descending a few feet, equalising and repeating this, it is possible to reach any desire depth with no discomfort in the ears at all. Scuba diving is not a rush, you can take as long as you like to descend. If you cannot manage to equalize, then there is no shame in ending the dive. This is actually a common way to end a dive for any number of reasons, nobody knows if you can equalise or not other than you, so it’s a perfect get out clause if you are feeling uncomfortable. 

Diving Fears
Image courtesy of Robert Stansfield

“I’m Claustrophobic”

This is an interesting one, because some diving paperwork actually specifies that you shouldn’t dive at all if you are claustrophobic. By that logic I would not be an instructor. People have varying degrees of claustrophobia, some people might not like having a diving mask on, while others might just be uncomfortable with the idea of cave diving (who isn’t from an outside perspective?). I will admit I consider myself claustrophobic, but this has never really bothered me when diving in clear, warm water. For me, I become uncomfortable when diving in a combination of cold-water gear and low visibility. I have dived with no issues in a drysuit, hood and gloves when the water has been clear, I have also dived in low visibility (less than 2m) in a wetsuit and been relatively comfortable, but the two of these variables together is too much. The reality is that in most locations where you’d actually want to dive as someone new to the sport, such as the tropics, you don’t need much exposure protection and the water is typically very clear. If you are able to snorkel happily with a mask on your face and breathing from a tube, it is very unlikely that the transition to diving will make you feel any more claustrophobic. It’s also important to note that the more you dive in a range of conditions, the more your comfort zone expands, so the less the issues would bother you the more time you logged underwater. Some people may feel trapped by the fact you are underwater, in that the water itself is all around you, unlike when you are swimming at the surface. I have had friends tell me that they don’t like the idea of only having a tank of air on your back and that you can’t breathe anything else around you. This leads into the next common concern…

“I don’t want to go that deep” / Agoraphobia

Sometimes mistakenly assumed to be the fear of open spaces, actually the fear of being out in an escapable situation that may cause someone to panic. Agoraphobia is almost inherently combatted within training, because you will always gradually work up the depths you are diving to. During an open water course, you will spend a significant portion of the course in a swimming pool, and then at depths likely less than 6m in the sea. That might sound like a lot to a newcomer, but given that water makes things appear closer than they are, it will not feel particularly deep. Any diving shallower than 5-6m in clear water tends to feel like you could almost brush the surface, it looks so near. If you have any problems, it is easy to signal your instructor and make a safe ascent to the surface. It is likely that the first few open water dives you do will be undertaken off a beach, meaning that you can walk out along the sand and gradually work your way into greater depths. This means that you are not overwhelmed by the sensation of being in deep water immediately, and your brain is given time to adjust to the new environment as you slowly move deeper. Assuming you undertake gradual training with a professional as you should, the baby steps towards diving at your qualifying depth which is typically around 16-20m will barely be noticeable. If you are diving somewhere without easy beach access and are forced to boat dive, you may feel that it is a little harder to make an exit if you start to become uncomfortable. The stride into comparatively deep water versus a beach entry can also be daunting initially. It is important to remember that your instructor and any other professionals present are there for your safety and comfort, communicating a problem is the quickest way to make your way safely out of the water if the needed arises. In no stop recreational diving, there is direct route to the surface in 99% of cases, so there should be no feeling that you cannot return to the surface if you really need to. 

Hopefully this has helped to alleviate some concerns that you might have as a new diver. Diving is a very safe activity which is conducted in a gradual and adaptive training environment, such that your comfort zones should be gently expanded rather than being thrown into something totally unfamiliar. Obviously, if you are somebody that has trouble being in the sea or are actively afraid of it, then diving might be more challenging to you than someone else (but I’d still never say impossible). Then again, if you are afraid of the sea you probably wouldn’t be thinking about learning to dive! Ultimately, as long as you are aware of your own limits and are honest about these with your instructor, there is no reason why you shouldn’t give diving a fair shot. Nobody is completely comfortable at the beginning, just like you would be with any activity, but that should not mean you don’t give it a try!    

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About Author

Adan Banga is a newly qualified PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor from the UK. He is hoping to return to the tropics (pandemic permitting!) to begin teaching in the near future. He has also begun to venture into the realm of technical diving, and hopes to continue improving his diving by advancing further down the tech route.

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