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Don’t Panic: Understanding the Causes and Remedies of Diver Panic

The “Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy” summarized it neatly: Don’t Panic! For good reason: taken together panic/anxiety/stress have been ranked as one the top three risk factors in scuba diving incidents. Here clinical psychologist and scuba instructor Laura Walton dives into the definition and causes of panic, explains why seeking to avoid panic can make matters worse, and offers effective strategies to consider.

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by Laura Walton. Header image and photos courtesy of the GUE Archives

54% of experienced recreational divers reported panic while diving (Morgan, 1995)

A handful of studies suggest that as many as a quarter to a half of qualified (i.e. open water or higher) recreational divers have experienced panic or near-panic on at least one occasion (Colvard & Colvard, 2003; Morgan, 1995). 

Incident reports: of those where mental/behavioural state was noted, panic featured in 68% of incidents (Davis, Warner & Ward, 2002).

Taken together panic/anxiety/stress has been ranked as one of the top three risk factors for scuba diving incidents (Buzzacott et al., 2009).

Panic, underwater, risks significant consequences for divers of all levels.  Some research data and professional opinion lists panic as a significant factor in the majority of recreational scuba diving fatalities. Yet, the number of divers who can tell a story of the time they panicked, or almost panicked, suggests that it’s not uncommon.  Avoiding panic seems reasonable.  Paradoxically, however, it is a willingness to approach and understand the risks and experience discomfort may reduce the likelihood of a diver panicking. Successful progression in diving includes exposure to challenging situations that necessitate the development of effective technical and non-technical (See: The Human Diver) skills for responding to stress.  Often less talked about, it is the skills to regulate cognitive and emotional reactions to problems that prevent panic.  For divers seeking to improve their chances, this article highlights the more subtle processes involved in steering away from panic underwater. More experienced divers and instructors may recognize existing practices and be interested in the theoretical underpinnings.

Divers who panic underwater are at significant risk of injury or death, are unable to reason clearly, and cannot consciously control their actions. Their sole focus is to reach safety, and their erratic attempts to do so are usually ineffective and dangerous, often more so than the precipitating event that caused their alarm.

What is panic?

Panic is a physiological and psychological state that can occur when a person is—or perceives themselves to be—under severe stress. Panic interferes with thinking, information processing, and attention to one’s surroundings. It also inhibits one’s ability to consciously control their actions. Panic induces instinctive behavior, leading to survivalist actions which can be effective on land but potentially fatal underwater.

People in a state of panic are also unable to communicate effectively or respond to instructions and are unlikely to form an accurate memory of an event.

Divers are, understandably, warned not to panic. This is probably one of the least controversial opinions in diving; regardless of either one’s training or their experience level, divers will generally agree that panicking at depth can kill. While a range of barriers hamper attempts to gather data on diver panic—including the subjectivity of reporting and innate biases—various formal studies of recreational diving cite panic as a major contributor to dive injuries and fatalities (Buzzacott et al., 2009; Davis et al., 2002; Morgan, 1995). SO DON’T PANIC!  

What makes a scuba diver panic?

Effective risk management for divers’ panic attacks involves understanding, addressing, and managing the factors that cause them.

Various interacting elements can change a diver’s psychological and physiological state, potentially leading to panic. These factors are wide-ranging and can occur at any time—even long after a stressful event. This complex set of factors may be grouped into three broad areas: readiness, regulation, and specific stressor(s). Problems on all three sides of this triangle spark panic: 

“A scuba diver panics when they encounter a stressor(s) that they are: (1) incapable of dealing with due to inadequate level of training, insufficient experience, or improper or deficient equipment (i.e. they lack readiness), and they are (2) unable to regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours to remain sufficiently aware, alert, and stable enough to respond effectively (i.e. difficulty in regulation). In that situation, the scuba diver perceives that the situation is out of their control, the stress levels escalate, and thinking ability deteriorates. Unable to see any available solution, the brain “short-circuits,” with the primitive parts of the brain driving increasingly frantic behaviour in an effort to survive.” (Walton, 2019a)

Avoiding panic and anxiety seems reasonable, but …

Panic is not an action one can choose or not; it is an outcome that arises out of multiple precipitants, and a few drops of discomfort can quickly escalate into a panic storm. An anxious diver knows, rationally, that staying calm and solving their actual problem is the best course of action, but when that anxiety escalates into full-blown panic, the panicked diver is locked in an attempt to escape their own unpleasant experiences, so much so that they are incapable of calm and efficient action. 

Oddly, evidence supports the theory that attempting to prevent panic may inadvertently lead to an escalation of the problem in both the immediate situation as well as over time. After one episode of underwater panic, the diver is often keen to avoid another. Investing time and effort into tackling the problem, one finds creative ways to move away from the internal storm of fearful thoughts and uncomfortable emotions. 

Moving to prevent panic is a good thing, and reflecting upon a panic-inducing dive to develop risk mitigation strategies for the future is wise. Improving skills, upgrading equipment, and diving within more conservative limits can all help divers increase their diving safety. Yet, if these moves are made with a fixed focus on stopping the experience of panic, solution overload can increase anxiety.

Fight or flight fuels panic 

A panic attack can be understood as a cycle (Clark, 1986). Fear is a precursor to panic, and frightening events trigger a cascade of endocrine and neurological processes that are intended to protect us—like the release of adrenaline and nerve signals that increase muscle tension. A fearful diver may start to worry, overthink, or distract from the unwanted emotion as their alarm grows. 

This arousal state colours thoughts with anxiety, generating further neurological and endocrine signals that the body is under threat. Often aided by narcosis, hypercapnia, or both, the reaction tips into panic, a vicious cycle in which the diver becomes more stressed and less capable at an exponential rate. The person is locked in a positive feedback loop: The more they fight against or flee from their own inner experience, the more of a problem it seems, and the more distressed they become.


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Entrapped by fear, shame, and guilt: how emotions take over actions

In the early 90s, Jenifer Hunt studied divers’ reactions to decompression injury (Hunt, 1993). Although she didn’t study the role of panic, her research found that shame, guilt, and embarrassment were common reactions to panic, anxiety, and a perceived loss of control. Humans generally dislike and avoid such feelings, and divers are no different. 

Divers often tend to minimize instances of panic or avoid talking about anxiety in diving. But, each time divers become anxious in the future, they’ll still experience their body’s unwanted reactions, including anticipatory fear of embarrassment, also called “experiential avoidance.”

As their willingness to feel certain emotions or sensations decreases, their anxiety increases. This can be a particularly strong motivator for divers because panicking underwater is objectively dangerous, and there are very sound reasons for wanting to prevent it. 

People with a (non-clinical) history of panic report higher levels of experiential avoidance and are more likely to use avoidance strategies when facing emotionally distressing stimuli (Tull & Roemer, 2007). In addition, anticipation of panic itself motivates avoidance of situations and experiences associated with a past panic episode (Craske & Barlow, 1988). For some divers, particularly novices, this may mean avoiding diving entirely. If the person continues to dive, their avoidance tactics will look very different: they will impose restrictions on who they will dive with, where they dive, how deep, or under what environmental conditions.  

Again, placing such limits on oneself to avoid severe consequences is a highly sensible response to panic in diving. However, when enacted in service of experiential avoidance, these restrictions can increase the problem. When a person feels a little more in control of their feelings, they feel better—a neurochemical reward. But, further experiences of discomfort only trigger more avoidance behaviour and, as the restrictions accumulate, the diver’s “safe” opportunities decline. Eventually, they can no longer dive without encountering the unpleasant thoughts and emotions they are trying to avoid. 

Entanglement in language: how our words contribute to the generation of panic 

How humans talk and think about stressful events impacts their reactions to future stimuli. Language has the capacity to shut down awareness and, therefore, drive subtle forms of avoidance that can contribute to future panic. 

Human beings have an awesome ability to create mental representations from verbal knowledge.  Words and stories yield versions of objects and events in the mind without the need for direct experience, activating knowledge, memories, and emotions in response to personal symbolism. This ability is tremendously useful. It can support situational awareness and enhance dive planning, as well as indicate workable solutions such as practicing for potential scenarios. However, the propensity for language to create mental representations and wake up neurological networks can be problematic. 

The human mind can create an imagined, mental construct about a single word. Pause for a moment and watch what your mind does with these three letters: DCI. 

Has your brain ever hit the button underwater?

  Three letters, a series of pixels on your screen—but do they create an image for you? A story? Connect with previous memories? Try OOG (out of gas), CESA (Controlled emergency swimming ascent), AGE (arterial gas embolism), and CAGE (cerebral arterial gas embolism).  

They are just letters. But, words are symbols that stimulate verbal networks in the brain, stirring up emotions and bodily sensations in the process. We react to our thoughts almost as if they were physically tangible. Thinking about a past incident or imagining a future catastrophe can evoke as much (or more) distress than the event happening in reality.

Divers who have experienced panic underwater, or who consciously avoid it, can generate highly aversive mental and bodily reactions (often without actually entering the water!). These reactions are unpleasant, unwanted, and can drive experiential avoidance via language alone, entangling behaviours and reaffirming anxieties. 

Struggling with language 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Steven Hayes’s Relational Frame Theory (RFT) explores links between human language and behavior (Hayes & Hayes, 1992). RFT helps to explain the role verbal behavior plays in psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and panic disorders. RFT describes human thought and action in response to verbal stimuli. This complex theory describes the evolution of panic in all settings, including diving. For a detailed primer on RFT, check out: What is Relational Frame Theory (Part One) and part two.

 “Humans can verbally construct a future and plan for it in great detail, thereby increasing the chances of survival. However, RFT also argues that derived relational responding makes verbal self-knowledge emotional and difficult”

― Barnes-Holmes et al., 2004

RFT is about how humans create relational frames between concepts using words. For example, if one dived to 37 m/121 ft in the morning at site A and the maximum depth for the afternoon dive at site B is 25 metres/82 ft, they would detect a relationship between those two dive sites: A is deeper than B, and B is shallower than A. This is a relational frame, where the names of site A and B can be verbal symbols of deep and shallow. If a third option is proposed for a site that is shallower than site A and deeper than site B, site C establishes a triangular frame. Such relational frames provide useful information for dive planning. 

But what happens when discomfort or trauma is added in? If a person with no history of anxiety or panic does their first dive to 35 m/114 ft and has an unfortunate incident—perhaps they accidentally stir up silt and lose visibility—the combination of psychological stress and physical effects of gas density cause anxiety, but they manage to cope with the situation.  

Their next dive is planned to 40 m/130 ft. There is a chance that hearing the depth will trigger bodily stress responses. This stress is a response to verbal stimuli—hearing the words “40 metres.” Why? There was a relational frame generated in the previous experience: 35 meters = deep = panic = “I almost died.” Our relational frame of shallow/deep then automatically connects in with another relational frame: better/worse. If 35 m = panic, then 40 m = worse panic! The low visibility may also impact this frame; the diver may learn to react strongly to low visibility through the association with panic on the first dive. The diver is now experiencing anticipatory anxiety for an event in the future that only exists in their mind as verbal stimuli. 

This is partly because relational frames are bidirectional. During training, an instructor will show a student an object—a BCD, for instance—and tell them what it is called. They see the object, hear the word, and understand that the object is known by that word. 

But, this phenomenon is reciprocal. Immediately, when the student is asked to put on the BCD, they can infer the word’s meaning: If the object is called a BCD, then the word BCD must mean that object. This process is automatic, unstoppable, and irreversible, so using language to escape anxiety can become a problem. What are the unstated reciprocals of each statement below? (Here’s a hint: safe/unsafe; easy/difficult; relax/panic)

“I feel safe when I am close to the guide”

“It will be an easy dive if the visibility is good today”

“When I dive with [name of favorite buddy], I can relax”

When divers encounter discomfort, they may seek to avoid the experience in the future by organising their actions according to the concepts linked in their mind: They create rules, like the statements above. Safety rules may be very helpful. But, if the function of the rules is to avoid unwanted emotions, the diver may get tangled in the reciprocal that they have unconsciously derived. When their favoured buddy cannot equalise or the visibility is not as expected, the reversed story becomes a source of anxiety in and of itself, even when nothing is actually wrong.

By unwittingly creating a neural network to signal danger if the reverse of their rules is to occur, any mental perception of rule-breaking could be enough to set off the panic cycle. Holding tightly to rules as a way to prevent panic becomes the fuel for further episodes. As anxiety increases, the rules increase and become more rigid, creating a restrictive network of relational frames. The diver is then caught up in a struggle with symbols of disaster in their own mind.

“As ideas enter a frame of coordination with “panic” then the specter of panic gets larger and larger while a person’s world gets smaller and smaller as they avoid an increasing number of things.” (Smith, 2008)

The alternative? Approach panic. 

Avoiding emotions or mental images isn’t sustainable. Avoidance can sometimes be healthy; for example, sitting it out when not fit to dive. But, avoiding their own experience is exactly what causes divers to get lost in panic. When they struggle to escape panic, they spiral out of awareness into increasing emotional reactivity and a fusion with language that keeps them stuck in their own minds.  The alternative to avoidance is approach: turning toward experience to become open to learning and accepting of discomfort. Drop the struggle with thoughts. Stay present in an emotional storm.

“I am not fearless. I’m alive today because I’ve learned to embrace fear …”

― Jill Heinerth, Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver

If unaddressed early, a diver’s unhelpful beliefs, thoughts, and emotions may spark panic. By creating space for uncomfortable experiences, instead of shutting down, they can retain situational awareness and more control over their behaviour. Skill at distancing from the words helps maintain calm; the awareness that a thought is a thought tends to decrease the emotional reaction. In responding with openness and space, there is more room to notice the language networks the person may be tangled in. Limiting beliefs and rules may allow a person to feel as if they are controlling stress, but, in the long-term, makes it worse. 

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

― Viktor E. Frankl

In the panic state, conscious choice is not an option. But, there are many moments in the seconds/minutes/hours/days/weeks/months/years before the cycle spirals when there is a choice. How divers relate to panic is a choice: approach the thought and the fear it generates to think through a useful response (e.g. problem-solve, train in necessary skills, apply risk management); or find ways to avoid the symbolic representation and the emotions it raises (i.e. worry, distract, project). Arguably, that choice makes all the difference in whether a diver is prone to panic.

Plan and make stops 

Making room for uncomfortable experiences is (rather obviously) uncomfortable! It requires stopping and assessing when there is an urge to bolt. It means applying focus on the important task when one is cold, in pain, or frustrated. It calls for putting time and effort into training and practice. It demands admitting fears, communicating needs, and risking rejection. It acknowledges gaps in knowledge and seeks to self-educate, preventing panic through curiosity.

Rather than turning away from panic, it is possible to create more moments to acknowledge its precipitants and choose responses: simple pause points like taking a few minutes to stare at the sea between pre-dive checks and entering the water, setting up points on the descent to stop and offload stress while nothing else is demanding attention, or doing a bubble check of equipment to take note of any psychological leaks (Pacher et al., 2017). Panic is the end of a build-up of stress—a point of no return. The practice of pausing with a willingness to take notice creates opportunities for becoming aware of issues long before reaching the zenith of panic.

Stopping sounds easy. It’s not. A genuine pause to do nothing but be aware of one’s own state can feel vulnerable. It involves exposure to difficult thoughts and sensations. Showing up through fear is more challenging than dissociating. But, it works. Every effective way to address panic or overcome fear involves some form of exposure. By increasing the willingness to experience these, the diver regains control over their actions. 

To illustrate, someone learning to clear their mask may struggle with the aversive experiences of water in their nose and fear of drowning. To avoid these uncomfortable sensations and emotions they could tough it out, mentally disconnect, use distraction to get away from the feeling—rushing to get it over with. Or, they could slow down, notice the sensations, focus on staying present, and being aware of performing the skill. In the second option, there is exposure to the sensations and emotions, and that exposure is important in allowing habituation.2 Being more willing to be uncomfortable makes it easier to become familiar with it. 

Getting help to approach to panic

When someone has been stuck for a while, perhaps due to prolonged avoidance strategies or severe psychological trauma, the problem may be more entrenched. If the issue impacts the person beyond diving, it may even meet criteria for a condition such as post-traumatic stress or an anxiety disorder. Even if the problem only happens in diving contexts, there are evidence-based psychological approaches that are effective in disentangling the person from the problem.  

Therapies for panic, anxiety, and trauma involve turning from avoidance to approach and will include some form of exposure. For example, in Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), patients ponder a distressing scenario and allow themselves to notice the unpleasant reactions they experience (while sitting safely in a comfortable chair). In doing this, the brain gradually gets used to the experience and is finally able to file it away. When the person returns to similar situations, they are no longer so reactive to the stressors and can select a more helpful state—calm, focused or confident.  

Cognitive Behaviour Therapies also tend to involve various forms of exposure, such as mentally rehearsing difficult situations and practicing effective responses in the water. One of the most well-known and effective forms of addressing panic, anxiety, and phobia involves “graded exposure,” where the person gradually faces their fears by doing increasingly challenging versions of it, until it no longer causes them to panic. One of the main reasons this works is because it tackles overt and covert avoidance.  


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Greet Discomfort, Avoid Panic

In response to difficult experiences, shoving thoughts and emotions away temporarily works. If anxiety or panic occurs when circumstances trigger unprocessed trauma, then there is a risk of re-traumatisation. It’s like forcing yourself to run on an injured leg—the repetition of intense emotions is painful and feeds cycles of unhealthy avoidance. People can and do work through trauma without formal therapy; like bones and skin, the brain and nerves have innate healing processes. But, sometimes wounds need help to heal. Therapies for trauma and anxiety can help divers to approach panic. PFOs aren’t the only holes in the heart that can be repaired. 

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Panic is an outcome—an unwanted one—and an event we cannot directly prevent or choose. It is an involuntary human process triggered by various factors. Everything about diver panic—from the way it feels to the potential physical and social impacts—is aversive. So, it’s natural to avoid all its aspects. To prevent panic in scuba diving, one needs to be more willing to be uncomfortable—to be less concerned with getting soaked in the precipitants in order to retain focus on finding solutions. 

Panic Survey: Please help us to better understand the experience of scuba divers with panic, and answer questions raised this article by Dr. Laura Walton. Please compete the Panic Survey here.

Footnotes

  1. Behaviourism is a traditional school of psychology that explains all behaviour in terms of stimulus and response; i.e. what we do is learned via interaction with the external environment.  Traditional behaviourism virtually ignored the role of human thought and language and was considered flawed for this reason.   
  2. Habituation: innate reactions to a stimuli decrease when the stimuli is given frequently.  For example, the strong reaction to breathing underwater for the first time lessens as we get used to it. 

References

Barnes-Holmes, Y., Barnes-Holmes, D., Mchugh, L., & Hayes, S. C. (2004). Relational Frame Theory: Some Implications for Understanding and Treating Human Psychopathology. In International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy (Vol. 4, Issue 2).

Buzzacott, P., Rosenberg, M., & Pikora, T. (2009). Using a Delphi technique to rank potential causes of scuba diving incidents. Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine, 39(1). 

Clark, D. M. (1986). A cognitive approach to panic. Behavior Research and Therapy, 24(4), 461–470. 

Colvard, D. F., & Colvard, L. Y. (2003). A Study of Panic in Recreational Scuba Divers. Undersea Journal

Craske, M. G., & Barlow, D. H. (1988). A review of the relationship between panic and avoidance. Clinical Psychology Review, 8(6), 667–685. 

Davis, M., Warner, M., & Ward, B. (2002). Snorkelling and scuba diving deaths in New Zealand, 1980-2000. South Pacific and Underwater Medicine Society (SPUMS) Journal

Hayes, S. C., & Hayes, L. J. (1992). Verbal Relations and the Evolution of Behavior Analysis. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1383–1395. 

Hunt, J. (1993). Straightening out the bends. aquaCORPS

Morgan, W. P. (1995). Anxiety and Panic in Recreational Scuba Divers. Sports Medicine, 20(6), 398–421.

Pacher, A., Cleveland, S., Muth, T., & Schipke, J. (2017). Fatal Diving Accidents in Alpine Waters: A Series of Triggers Leading to Disaster? Austin Sports Medicine, 2(1), 1014. 

Smith, S. T. (2008). What is Relational Frame Theory (Part Two). Ironshrink. 

Tull, M. T., & Roemer, L. (2007). Emotion Regulation Difficulties Associated with the Experience of Uncued Panic Attacks: Evidence of Experiential Avoidance, Emotional Nonacceptance, and Decreased Emotional Clarity. Behavior Therapy, 38(4), 378–391. 

Walton, L. (2019a). Panic Triangle: What makes scuba divers panic? – YouTube. Fit To Dive Youtube . 

Walton, L. (2019b). PREVENT PANIC in Scuba Diving. In Fit To Dive.  

Additional resources:

Undercurrent (2003) survey of more than 12,000 divers: Panic in Recreational Scuba Divers

Alert Diver.Eu (2011): Psychological reactions and scuba diving, description of a treatment  by Maria Luisa Gargiulo

Alert Diver.Eu (2015): No Panic, we’re Divers! by Andreas Aceranti and Simonetta Vernocchi

What does the absence of panic in face of extraordinarily stressful circumstances look like? Here WKPP co-founder and explorer Bill Gavin reports on a freak incident that resulted in the death of WKPP co-founder and explorer Parker Turner. The report was mandatory reading for Capt. Billy Deans mixed gas courses in the early 1990s: The Incident Report at Indian Springs by Bill Gavin

Check out Dr. Walton’s online course:


Laura Walton is a Clinical Psychologist and scuba diving instructor bringing together psychology and scuba diving to help people with their diving. She provides specialist psychological services for scuba divers in the UK and widely accessible online courses. Laura has been guiding and teaching scuba diving in the UK since 2012 and is currently a PADI Master Instructor at The Fifth Point Diving Centre, Blyth, UK. Find her blog here: Fit To Dive Blog.

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Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive

Known for his deep air diving exploits back in the day, 86-year-old Hal Watts, aka “Mr. Scuba,” is one of the pioneers of early scuba and credited with coining the motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan.” He founded the Professional Scuba Instructors Association International (PSAI) in 1962, which eventually embraced tech diving, but never relinquished its deep air “Narcosis Management” training. Italian explorer and instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini caught up with Watts and teased out a few stories from the training graybeard.

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Interview by Andrea Murdock Alpini 
English text by Vincenza Croce

Hal Watts, Terrence Tysall, and Bill Stone in March of 1993.  This was the last stop in the U.S. for a test dive of the Cis-Lunar Mk-4 rebreather prior to Stone’s San Agustin expedition (1994) for its first real sump dive.

“Plan your dive, dive your plan,” is a common refrain in diving, but it’s easy to forget the meaning of this phrase has changed over time.

The underwater explorers of the early days learned to plan their dives with watches, depth gauges, and US Navy tables. Back then, decompression tables were the Bible for divers—something miraculous, halfway between alchemy and physiology. Those trail-blazing divers defined what it meant to “plan” a dive.

But, at the time, the term “technical diving” did not exist; divers breathed air on the bottom as well as during decompression. Only after many years was oxygen added, followed by the famous jump into the hyperbaric chamber.  

Later came new innovations after a few decades of experiments: hyperoxygenated binary mixtures, the NOAA tables, Heli-air (i.e. the addition of helium in tanks loaded with air), the change in the speed of ascent, new molecules to be studied, new physiological and narcotic effects, and their consequent impacts on humans and their psyches.

In a very short time, diving traditions underwent a metamorphosis. The spool and the coral tank became a proper reel, the ascent bin and the plastic bag disappeared in favor of the buoyancy control device (BCD), the surface marker buoy appeared—and then, even later on, wrists were adorned with underwater computers instead of decompression slates.

Divers later renewed and revolutionized a niche discipline, transforming it into a sporting phenomenon and a vocation. Faced with imminent change, there is often nothing that can be done when an anomalous wave arrives; you cannot stop its irresistible force with the wave of a hand. And thus was the American revolution of underwater technique, where the means of exploration—read mixed gas and scooters—have become the end.

The self-proclaimed originator of the “plan your dive, dive your plan” motto was 86-year old Hal Watts, the founder of American didactic Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI) and a diving pioneer who once held the Guinness Book of World records for deep diving. Though the use of trimix grew in popularity, Hal continued to believe in deep air, in the ancient technique of coral fishermen. He supported wreck and cave diving—with decompressive mixtures and new configurations through PSAI; but, above all, he believed (and continues to believe) that deep air, if properly practiced, is a discipline with unique logistics, hidden dangers, and irresistible charms that can take you to a parallel world.

Hal Watts speaking at aquaCORPS tek.93 Conference

First of all, Hal, what was the dive that changed your way of seeing scuba diving? I mean, a dive that was like an epiphany, a dive which changed your point of view on a technical matter?

Hal Watts: Wow, you sure are really trying to test my old man memory. Now I’ll have to review some of my old logbook entries. 

The first scuba dive that really got my attention as to just how serious and dangerous scuba diving can be was on December 2, 1962. I was diving with Bob Brown, co-owner of Florida State Skindiving School in Orlando, Florida. I was a member of a dive club in Orlando known as Orlando Sport Diving Club. Bob and I had heard of a sinkhole in Ocala known locally as Zuber Sink as well as Blue Sink. Years later, I later leased the property and renamed it as Hal Watts’s 40 Fathom Grotto, and I eventually purchased the Grotto in mid-1979.

We had never talked to anyone about the sinkhole; therefore, we had no idea about the visibility or the depth. Up to this point, I had constructed my favorite BCD, using a large white Clorox plastic jug, which we tied to our twin tank system. We put air into the BCD from our “Safe Second Stage” mouthpieces. 

Bob and I tied our safety line to a tree on the bank of the sink and reviewed our dive plan. I am reminded of the motto I came up with, many moons ago—Plan your dive, dive your plan. 

We all know that motto. I didn’t realize that it was you who coined it.

It was back in the 1960s when I was writing course manuals for NASDS [National Association of Scuba Diving Schools] and opened up my Mr. Scuba dive shop.

Mr. Scuba’s Magic Bus!

But back to the dive at Zuber. I’ve failed to mention the fact that neither of us had been doing any dives below 30 m/100 ft. We followed the cave line down slowly, not paying enough attention to our depth. Before we realized it, we had hit the bottom, stirred it up, and had no clear water.

Lucky for us, I kept the cave diving reel in my hand, and Bob kept his hand on the line. I couldn’t see; however, I could feel Bob’s hand, squeeze his fingers tight on the line, grab his thumb, and give it the “thumbs up” signal. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were both able to use our NASDS safe second stages and add air into the Clorox “BCDs.” We were actually fated to begin an uncontrolled, too-rapid ascent. All of a sudden, we hit an overhead wall, which stopped our ascent at a depth of 9 m/30 ft. 

We looked at each other, and gave the OK hand signal. While decompressing, following the old Scubapro SOS mechanical computer, I started to pull up the loose line until the dive reel appeared. Wow, we sure had an awful lot of loose line floating around us. Were we extremely lucky? Of course, we were. Our problem was that we never planned our dive, and consequently, were unable to dive a plan.

After that dive, I worked with Scuba Pro and Sportsways to create the “Octopus,” or “safe second.” A while later, the octopus appeared for the first time in Scuba Pro catalogs. I was also the first to add a pressure gauge along with the Octopus.

Hal Watts set the world deep air record to 120m/390 ft in 1967

Ah yes, the “Safe Second.” That’s what NASDS called backup second stages, right? Sheck Exley (1949-1994), the legendary cave explorer with whom you were friends, was also credited with fitting a redundant second stage reg with a necklace. I want to ask you more about Exley, but first, I want to know: What are the best wrecks you ever dived?

This is really very hard to answer. I’ll have to list four, in the order that I dived them: the USS Monitor, Andrea Doria, Japanese wrecks located in Truk Lagoon, and the Lusitania in Ireland.

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The most important would have to be the USS Monitor, a submarine used during the Civil War. A group of well-known USA divers applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to dive the Monitor, as she was located in protected waters. In addition to myself, the group consisted of: Gary Gentile, attorney Peter Hess, and several other well-known expert divers. At first, NOAA refused. Then, Peter Hess filed proper papers asking that we get the NOAA permit. To that end, we presented my Deep Air training material to the concerned NOAA group. I appeared as an expert witness and provided NOAA staff and their legal representatives with my internationally accepted training material and my record of training several world record deep air divers. Our deep air training has been accepted worldwide with zero diving deaths. After that, we received the permit. 

Other than the Monitor, my favorite deep wreck dive would be the Lusitania, which is a very personal and proud story for me. The main reason is because venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owned the diving rights to the Lucey at the time. Gregg had contacted me requesting that I train him on PSAI Narcosis Management Level V, on air—which is 73 m/240 ft—and then train him on trimix so he and I could dive to 91 m/300 ft on the Lusitania lying off the coast of Ireland. 

When word got out that I had enrolled Gregg in my Narcosis Management Course, a well-known international course director (a personal friend of mine) called and told me, “Hal, do not teach Gregg deep diving.” 

PSAI’s ad in aquaCORPS Journal circa 1994 offering deep air training.

He told me that he had been training Gregg at his facility, and that he was a “train wreck.” “He is from a very well-off family in Texas, and if you cause him any injuries, you will be sued and put out of business,” my friend said. Well, guess what? Gregg completed the 240 Level V Deep Air course, then our PSAI Trimix course. My wife, Jan Watts, Gregg, and I went to Ireland to dive the Lusitania. He and I made an awesome 91 m/300 ft trimix dive to the deck.

Diving on the Andrea Doria with Tom Mount, Peter Hess, and several great wreck divers was also an awesome dive. Last but not least was a great trip to Truk to dive on some of the Japanese wrecks.

Please tell us about Sheck.  What was your relationship with him like?

Sheck and I became friends and made several dives together, and one of my favorites happened when Sheck, his Mary Ellen, my wife Jan, and I were diving at 40 Fathoms. Sheck wanted to practice gas switches during descents. Sheck was practicing, getting ready for a planned very deep dive (I think in Mexico with Jim Bowden). The four of us swam to the east side of The Grotto, slowly following the wall during our controlled descent, watching Sheck practice gas switching. 

Sheck Exley and Hal Watts at a NSS-CDS conference

After reaching our planned depth of 73 m/240 ft, we began our controlled ascent up to our first planned deco stop. During our last deco stop on our 4.5 m/15 ft platforms, I noticed that Sheck had a funny look on his face and was messing with his drysuit between his legs. I remembered then that he had told me that he had an attachment installed in the drysuit that would allow him to pee underwater. He was clearly in a bit of discomfort and Mary Ellen, Jan and I just floated nearby and watched.

I’ve heard that Sheck later used diapers, or just cut it loose in one of his old neoprene drysuits on his big dives, so evidently he didn’t get that early p-valve to work. What about your friendship and job collaboration with Gary Taylor, your brother-in-arms and a co-owner of PSAI?

Andrea, get comfortable, since this question will take some time to properly answer.

I first met Gary in Miami, which is where we became friends when I was staying in his home and taking Tom Mount’s nitrox course.  I have a photo of Tom, Gary, and me gas blending on the floor of Tom’s garage. During the course, Tom was still using his worn-out hand written paper flip charts as his notes.

Gary was impressed with my deep air program and offered to put together an updated slideshow presentation for me to teach with. PSAI still uses an updated version of this system to date. Gary stayed with Tom until Tom thought he had sold IANTD [International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers] to another individual. After that sale came about, Gary contacted me wanting to get more involved with PSAI. Being smarter than folks thought I was, I jumped at the chance to have Gary on the PSAI Team. Tom’s deal fell through, but Gary was totally involved with PSAI, and now is a partner and president of our agency. Thanks to Gary and Tom. 

Many, many years ago I was still taking some type of classes—I think regarding mixed gasses, maybe with Rebreathers—at Tom’s house. In fact, I was one of Tom’s instructors who did the final proofreading of one of Kevin Gurr’s manuals. Too far back to recall much about this mixed gas stuff—remember my reputation for being a deep air diver.

Tom Mount and Gary Taylor mixing up some trimix in the garage.

Speaking of the people with whom you’ve dived, was the aim of The Forty Fathom Scubapros Club?

Before I invested in a sinkhole in the Ocala, Florida, area—which was locally referred to as Blue Sink or Zuber Sink, and is now referred to as 40 Fathom Grotto—several diving buddies whom I had dived with and trained for extreme deep air diving—as well as cave exploring—got together and planned to dive The Grotto at least one Friday night per month. Within a short period of time, several other buddies joined our group, which eventually became known as The 40 Fathom Scubapro’s dive club. Each diver had to meet my requirements of training. 

Forty Fathom Grotto aka Zuber Sink
An early Sheck Exley mix course at Forty Fathom Grotto
An Eric Hutcheson drawing of Forty Fathom Grotto

Eventually, our group set specific personal requirements—being a good person, supporting our club safety rules, and making at least one 40 Fathom Grotto dive per month. We set a limit of 14 or 15 members. Three 40 Fathom members eventually set World Records for deep air: I was one, A. J. Muns, and Herb Johnson set ocean records, and later I set the air depth record for cave diving. Naturally, as time passed and we got older, our membership got smaller. It is notable that none of our club members have died during any scuba dive.

Finally, what led you to create the iconic motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan?” 

I used to be a private pilot, and we used to say, “Plan your flight, fly your plan.” This was back in probably 1961 when I had just started diving and there were so many instances where all the other divers would get in the water without saying anything. I’ve seen so many incidents and fatalities that could have been avoided through proper planning.

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Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, the new one is on the way, out on fall 2022. 

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