Jack’s recently received a request to contribute to magazine column. The question posed to one of our divemasters was, “What’s the most challenging situation you’ve faced underwater?” We put the question to one our PADI IDC Staff Instructors, Sven Lindemann. Sven has been teaching Scuba in Hawaii for over 12 years. Here’s his most challenging situation underwater…
Learning to Breathe – Sven Lindemann
It was a beautiful summer day in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i when I greeted a new customer from the mainland (let’s call him “Donald” to protect his privacy) at our dive shop, Jack’s Diving Locker. Donald was in his 60s and had signed up for a PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy class. He had about 12 dives under his belt. This was not his first salt water dive, but his intention was to improve his buoyancy control under water.
The ocean conditions were perfect with 100+ (30+ meters) feet visibility; the water was calm – no currents, no swells. Our dive site, Golden Arches, has a nice big sand patch, perfect for practicing buoyancy skills without endangering the fragile underwater environment. The depth is 25 feet (7+ meters).
Donald was really excited for his dive, but also very nervous because of the unfamiliar open water environment. After a thorough briefing about the subjects of buoyancy control we did a standard buoyancy check as taught in open water certification classes.
During descent I noticed that Donald descended without any control right into the sand patch. There was obviously something wrong. His first reaction upon hitting the sand patch was to push the inflator button to lift himself off the sand. The result was, that of course, he was rising up very fast; I had to stop him by grabbing him on his BCD, deflate his BCD to avoid an uncontrolled ascend, and go back down to the sand patch.
My intention was to practice some buoyancy control techniques like fin pivots. After a demonstration I noticed that Donald had a hard time preforming this skill at all. Not only was he overusing his inflator and deflator button, but I also noticed a very unusual breathing pattern as his bubbles were coming out of the exhaust valves of his regulator just randomly. I realized there was a breathing problem that created a barrier to continuing with appropriate skill performance requirements and ability. My student “stuttered” while breathing, not using deep inhalations and exhalations. This ended in a “yoyo dive” with no buoyancy control at all. After about 20 minutes Donald was down to 500 psi. We had to end the class. After ascending I explained to him that before we continue the actual class and performance requirements he needed to learn how to breathe!
I decided to take an extra day in the Jack’s Diving Locker training pool for some breathing meditation, practicing diaphragmatic breathing.
Breathing is an involuntary reflex for humans. We start breathing on our own the moment we are born. For Scuba divers breathing is not only an exchange of gases (O2 exchanged for CO2), but also a matter for buoyancy control. As for the gas exchange, we deeply inhale and exhale to clear our dead air spaces (trachea, or all parts of our breathing system that are not actively involved in the gas exchange). Simultaneously, as our lungs are expanding and the lung volume increases, our body has the tendency to go slightly up in the water. The exact opposite will happen as we exhale; our lung volume decreases, and we will go down. For several reasons (anxiety, stress) some people may become disconnected from this normal breathing pattern. As a result, their gas exchange is very inefficient, leading to an increased use of their breathing gas underwater. In addition, they will have buoyancy control issues, continuously trying to correct their buoyancy deficiency by kicking down or waving their hands. This will cause an increase in drag underwater which leads to an additional use of gas and a shorter dive time.
An efficient diaphragmatic breath is like watching the waves at the beach, with each breath swelling up from abdomen to chest and back down again.
On the next day, I began our session with a very thorough briefing about breathing, our lungs’ work, and the effects of our inhalations and exhalations on buoyancy control. Afterwards we spent 45 minutes in the Jack’s Diving Locker training pool at 12 feet (3.66 meters) of water, starting with 10 minutes of deeply inhaling and exhaling. Adding a little bit of air to our BCDs, Donald now realized that his buttocks were moving up when inhaling, and moving down when exhaling (I call it the “butt pivot”). Next we were laying down on our tummies in the superman position with a totally deflated BCD, repeating the procedure. After only a few inflations of the BCD during the inhale our upper bodies raised up from the bottom, and as we exhaled, our upper bodies went down.
Our last step was to practice hovering, always focusing on breathing in and out, not using the inflator and deflator button too much. About 20 minutes later, Donald performed like he had been doing this his whole life.
On the next day I could see Donald in the open water diving from 25 feet to 60 feet without having any buoyancy issues at all. His breathing patterns were normal, and he was able to successfully perform all the required skills for the Peak Performance Buoyancy class. He finished his dive after 15 minutes at the same depth levels, coming up with 500 psi.
My conclusion is that as instructors we have to be aware of our students’ breathing patterns. (The Hoberman’s Sphere is an example for a helpful tool to visualize healthy breathing patterns). Instead of focusing solely on skills performances, we should practice breath awareness during our open water classes.