You’re gliding through a warm, clear ocean, with the sunlight splintering overhead and swarms of tropical fish darting in front of your eyes. It’s the picture of tranquillity and calm. You spot a turtle sculling lazily beneath you and turn to point it out to your buddy. But he’s not there. Momentarily disorientated you turn circles in the water, stretching your peripheries to find him, but still you can’t see him. Panicked now, you retrace your path, searching desperately for a tell-tale string of bubbles or flash of fin. And then you see him floating motionlessly beneath you, head down, regulator out, unconscious.
This is every diver’s worst nightmare, and a situation you hope against all hopes that you’ll never find yourself in. And the chances are that you never will. But, slim as those odds might be, there will always be an inherent risk with an activity that involves you unnaturally breathing underwater at depths of up to 130 feet, especially if you’re doing so daily.* That’s why PADI offer the Rescue Diver course which teaches you the skills needed to effectively handle an emergency whilst diving.
I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to the Rescue course. It’s not that I was dreading it per se – in fact, I was actually keen to learn the skills and get my confidence up underwater – but it’s a somewhat morbid way to spend 4 days. The course focuses on worst case scenarios, and you go to bed with visions of underwater heart attacks, life-threatening Decompression Sickness and lethal stings from huge, poisonous jellyfish circling round your mind. Whilst I know that hiding your head in the sand and pretending these things would never happen is both ignorant and irresponsible, the Rescue course material doesn’t make for merry reading.
It started with the EFR course – Emergency First Response – which shows you the basics of primary assessment and first aid. Over the course of a day, I learned about all the nasty ways your body can fail you and was then shown the skills needed to react should ever I have to. I practiced CPR and treating for shock, I learned how to stop someone choking to death, and I bandaged someone up until they resemble a mummified crash-test-dummy. It ended with a short exam which tests what you’ve learned. It’s not particularly inspiring stuff and it’s not geared specifically towards diving or in-water emergencies, but it is useful to know and acts as a solid foundation upon which to build your skills.
The Rescue course itself follows the usual PADI pattern – 5 chapters worth of information laid out in a manual, each accompanied by a cheesy video and a set of detailed questions which test your understanding as you go; 2 confined water dives where you practice the lessons you’ve learned in the water; and a final open water dive where all those skills are brought together and tested in one continuous sequence. Loosely speaking, the skills are broken down like so:
Assisting a responsive diver
In these scenarios, the victim is imagined to be hurt or endangered, but alive, breathing and responsive. This could take the form of a panicked diver who you need to prevent from making a dangerously rapid assent to the surface, an exhausted diver who lacks the energy to continue the dive or a diver who’s been cut, bitten or stung underwater.
I found these scenarios interesting to deal with because, although they’re not immediately life-threatening and therefore potentially ‘easier’ issues to solve, they include a live and kicking person at the heart of them. In our practice sessions, I’d approach someone thrashing around at the surface, flailing their arms and legs around wildly and trying their damnedest to dunk me whenever I got close, and find myself wondering how I’d respond in person. In reality, there’s no real choice to make when you’re faced with a non-breathing body – you know you should act as quickly as possible and your only thought is to get them to safety and further aid. But when someone is threatening your safety whilst in throes of panic, it’s harder to be so unequivocally sympathetic.
I’m also vey squeamish, so in situations where large amounts of blood or exposed bones would be involved, I honestly can’t say how I’d respond. Taking the Rescue course is the best step I can take towards overcoming my queasy tendencies and I’d hope that in an emergency a combination of training and adrenaline would kick in and render my phobia obsolete.
Bringing a non-responsive diver to safety
In my mind, this is the key aspect of this course and the skill that I was most keen to develop. Most people either have enough common sense or first aid training that they could have a reasonable go at treating for shock, dressing a wound or calling the Emergency Services. But hauling an unresponsive body from the depths of the ocean to the shore or to a boat is a completely alien scenario and one that I was nervous about achieving. I’m not the biggest person (I’m what my granddad would describe as a scrap of a thing) and I worried that my strength – or lack thereof – would put me at a disadvantage. But over the course of 3 dives, I learned that I can effectively bring a body to the surface, that I can administer mouth-to-mouth whilst towing that body to safety, and that I can even carry someone who is over 6 feet long clean out of the water to the shore. Thanks to the fact that I threw myself into the scenarios and tried my best, I now know that I’d have a reasonable chance at saving someone’s life, and that’s a pretty good feeling.
Administering aid to a non-breathing diver
The final steps in the chain of events that see you take your rescue abilities to their logical conclusion, is administering first aid to a victim until the emergency services reach you. Whether you’re on the shore or on a boat, this involves giving CPR and/or administering 100% oxygen until the professionals can take over. It’s at this point where you’re going to make a real difference to someone’s chances of survival or recovery, and it’s hard to know how you’d respond in a real-life emergency. The actual practice of giving chest compressions or securing a freeflow oxygen mask are relatively simple, but the emotional stress of doing so is hard to imagine. There’s no guarantee that even your best efforts will revive someone, and even if they do you’re not necessarily going to see a full recovery. This is a sad reality, but one that’s true the world over, not just in diving. The best you can do is equip yourself with the necessary training, practise your skills and try your hardest to help if ever it’s needed. And if you’re lucky, it’ll make the difference between life and death.
After completing the course I was tired but satisfied. No one knows how they’ll respond to real danger until they’re forced to, but completing the Rescue course has armed me with a crucial set of skills and information. I hope I’ll never need to use what I learned, but I’m pleased that the information is now lodged firmly in my brain, ready to call upon if ever I have to.
* – I recently wrote a post for the online travel magazine Travelettes about some of the most common misconceptions people have about diving. The very first myth I wanted to bust was that diving is a dangerous sport. It’s true that you put yourself at a certain level of risk by choosing to dive, just as you do if you drive a car or cycle to work. But it saddens me that people let the preconceived idea of danger put them off even trying before they know the facts.
Whilst aspects of diving come with a risk attached, there are ways to minimise any potential danger if you wish to. Firstly, if you’re a nervous or inexperienced diver, you can remain in relative safety by not exceeding depths of 18 metres. You can stay even shallower if you’d prefer – one of the best dives I’ve ever had was at about 4 metres deep. Secondly, unlike other potentially risky pursuits such as skiing or rock-climbing which allow you to get stuck into with no real training, you’re always be in safe hands whilst diving. If you’re not qualified, you’ll be accompanied by an instructor at all times. Not only are they rescue trained, but they have hundreds of dives under their belt and are on hand throughout the experience to help if it’s needed. If you do want to dive without a chaperone, much like driving, you need to take a certification to prove that you can be a safe, responsible and competent independent diver.
If, like me, you dive regularly, I urge you to build upon the skills you learned in your Open Water and take the Rescue course. Not only will it teach you vital self-rescue and buddy-rescue techniques, but it will improve your confidence under water and give you the small peace of mind that you’d know how to response if the worst happened.