FAQ: Don’t you feel claustrophobic underwater?

Many people seem to think that they’ll experience claustrophobia when they put their faces in the water, with their breathing restricted to their regulator, wearing a wetsuit, and having all that water around them.

Here are some facts…

Breathing from a regulator

A regulator or demand valve is a brilliantly designed piece of equipment that attaches to a hose linked to a cylinder of compressed air. It’s constructed so that it’s easy to breathe from – no more effort is required than breathing without one, it gives you as much air as you need, and you can even cough or (I know this from sad experience) vomit with it in your mouth and you won’t have ANY trouble at all with the consequences… If you get my drift. In the unlikely event that it fails, it won’t fail in the “off” position and stop your air supply; it will free flow (deliver a continuous stream of air). One of the skills you do in your Open Water course is breathing off a free-flowing regulator, so you are fully equipped to handle this situation.

Your regulator delivers more than enough air, NOT less than you get breathing on land. If you do at some point feel as though you’re not getting enough, it’s because you’re breathing too shallowly. When you dive, your breathing must be deep and slow. Extracting the full goodness out of each breath maximises your enjoyment: your air will last longer, and you’ll feel more relaxed.

Bubbles rising in the Atlantic
Bubbles rising in the Atlantic

Having to breathe out of your regulator – as opposed to being able to go take one breath in each corner of the room, or open your mouth as wide as it can go – is not restrictive at all. If you think about it, when you breathe on land, you’re drawing in the air that is in front of your face. There’s no hardship in not being able to take in the air from down the passageway – that’s not where you are.

What’s more, having the regulator in your mouth only feels funny for the first few minutes. It’s made with soft rubbery flanges that fit in your mouth (mouthpieces come in different sizes, too) and once it’s seated properly you won’t even know it’s there. If you’ve snorkeled, you know what it feels like to have a mouthpiece between your teeth. Breathing from a regulator is easier than breathing from a snorkel, and what’s more you don’t have to worry about rogue waves splashing water into your breathing apparatus! So if you can snorkel, you can definitely scuba dive.

All that equipment

Some people worry about wearing a mask, and think they might feel closed in with one covering their eyes and nose. Firstly, it’s important to note that it’s essential for the mask to cover your nose so that you can equalise your ears . If you wore swimmers’ goggles, they would get compressed onto your face at depth (which would hurt, and might look funny). This way, you can exhale through your nose into the mask to equalise (one of many techniques).

To be honest, a mask is no more claustrophobic to wear than a pair of wrap around sunglasses, and it’s probably going to be a lot more comfortable once you’ve found the one that suits your face shape.

Oscar enjoying all that space
Oscar enjoying all that space

Others worry about wearing a wetsuit, that they won’t feel free to move. They’re right about that: wearing a wetsuit on land is one of the least comfortable things you can do. They’re hot, restrictive, and tight. In the water, however, you won’t even notice it’s there. Wetsuits keep you warm (important in the Cape) and protect you from marine creatures that might sting or scratch you as you pass through their domain. Deciding you won’t like or try diving because wetsuits make you feel cramped is like deciding you aren’t going to eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream because you don’t like the font they write their product labels in.

All that water

Finally, some people worry that they’ll feel trapped under the weight of all the water above them, and that it’s impossibly far to get to the surface. There are a few answers to this:

Firstly, you’ll learn a skill called a CESA, or Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, on your Open Water course. This enables you to swim for the surface in a controlled, non-panicky manner if you need to. This is not something you’ll just do if you’re feeling uncomfortable one day – it’s for when you run out of air and have no buddy nearby to borrow an octo from.

Second, when you learn to dive you’re not suddenly going to start spending all your time at 30 metres. The PADI Open Water course qualifies you to dive to 18 metres, and you have to do an Advanced course to get to 30 metres, and a Deep specialty to get to 40 metres. So these things come with time. Some divers have no interest in deep diving, and there’s nothing wrong with that – Tony and I spend most of our time in less than 10 metres of water because the best and easiest photographic opportunities are there, and we can stay down a looooong time because our air lasts forever! Your first diving experiences will be in relatively shallow water, and only as you get used to being underwater will your instructor gradually increase the depth you go to.

Looking up in the clear Atlantic
Looking up in the clear Atlantic

I will admit that when visibility is poor, one loses the feeling of having three beautiful dimensions around one to play in. But this is infrequent, and if you’re diving for fun, then you hopefully won’t have to get in the water when conditions aren’t great (unless you’re desperate to get wet, in which case you won’t care!). But the feeling of space when one drops into the gin-clear water of the Atlantic on a summer’s day is so extreme as to make one almost dizzy. Being underwater is the closest I get to flying, and I love it.

In conclusion, diving involves a fair amount of unfamiliar equipment, and is quite different to our day-to-day experiences as human beings on planet earth. You may not like it; but you probably will. If you’re not sure, sign up for a Discover Scuba Diving experience (DSD). Tony even sometimes does these in people’s swimming pools – just to give you a taste of the freedom that comes with breathing underwater. You can make an educated decision about diving after that.

Out of air!

Out of air emergencies should not happen. Diving safely includes being sure that you have checked everything yourself, doing a buddy check and diving within your own personal limits. Always avoid making too many changes to your gear configuration and don’t test more than one new item at a time unless you are in shallow, confined water.

Most incidents are a culmination of several small mishaps and would most likely not have occurred had just one error being omitted. The other issue to be aware of is trusting your training and avoid thinking you know better. Here’s why…

I was diving in Mozambique, did a backward roll, and a negative entry (that’s when you don’t hang around on the surface with an inflated BCD, but start your descent immediately). Now, doing negative entries is not ideal, but the surface current was strong, we were diving a small reef and I wanted to get down quickly. So after the roll I finned down head first as fast as I could, without a buddy… Mistakes number one and two.

At 18 meters I found breathing to be difficult. Having just over-exerted myself I stopped to catch my breath but found as I reached the end of my breath my regulator stopped giving me air. Slow breaths were okay but it would not deliver what I needed. I instinctively looked at my pressure gauge, plenty of air in the cylinder but the needle dropped off as I took a deep breath.

“AHA my cylinder is not all the way open,” I thought so I reached up to try and check. It felt open, but convinced I was not doing it properly I took my kit off, held it in front of me and checked. The cylinder was all the way open, and now suddenly I was not getting air at all. I swam to the surface, slowing at about 8 metres to grab a few breaths from a buddy pair descending slowly.

On the surface I signaled the boat and whilst remaining in the water had the top man change my regulators – mistake number three. Straight back down to 18 metres I went, breathing normally and as soon as I turned face down to scan the sea for the group I ran out of air again. Back to the surface as fast as possible! A CESA from 18 metres is relatively difficult once you are stressed and short of breath from over exertion.

On the second descent logic was telling me the problem had to be my cylinder, but arguing with myself I dismissed this as I had serviced my cylinder less than three months prior to this and felt it could not possibly be at fault.

Back in camp I stripped my pillar valve and found it to be blocked with rust and sand. How could this be?

After investigating it turns out the cylinder was dropped from a vehicle a few weeks before this by the compressor operator. The pillar valve was damaged, so they drained it in a hurry, causing condensation, dropped it again in the sand, rinsed it with the water used for cooling cylinders whilst filling (salty water), emptied the water out, replaced the pillar valve with a used one, without a snorkel (a small pipe that runs from the bottom of the pillar valve into the cylinder). I got it back full of air unaware of the incident. The salty water inside rusted the cylinder, the absence of a snorkel meant that every time I was pointed head down the scales inside slowly drifted into the pillar valve until it was totally blocked.

It is not unusual for a little spot of rust to develop in a cylinder. It’s not ideal but it won’t kill you. However a snorkel ensures the pillar valve is supplied with clean air and the scales are kept out – in my situation in Mozambique, the scales would have settled around the top of the snorkel where it attaches to the pillar valve, instead of blocking the valve completely. The other end of the snorkel would have been a bit further into the cylinder, drawing clean air. When I took my cylinders to Orca Industries recently for their annual maintenance, I was very impressed that they insisted on checking each one for snorkels, and fitting them if they were absent.