Panic on the Straits of Komodo (and how you need a frozen cucumber on standby)

Pull up a chair, enjoy these happy family snaps of more innocent times, while I tell tales of blood-curdling terror. “Once upon a time (screen goes wibbly)…

…It all started so well. We ran around Mischief excitedly when we arrived – Oooo! Little cupboards! Portholes! It was a good-looking boat for sure (why do I feel like I want to say ‘She’s Yar!’ about boats? Did I see it on The Philadelphia Story?) and the crew had been extremely well-briefed about how to deal with over-stuffed Westerners and their feral offspring. But despite all her natural advantages, Mischief Cabin Fever set in, for me at least, on Day 2. The main problem was this: Mischief is a Dive Boat and … I couldn’t dive. I tried. I managed two dives on Day 1 and enjoyed them. But then 10 minutes into the first dive on Day 2, I had a massive, crippling panic attack.

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If you’ve never had one, a) you lucky sod b) it’s hard to describe the sheer terror that comes over you from nowhere. You’re suddenly aware of the panic rising. It manifests itself in confusion, disorientation, and shortness of breath and then your heart starts to beat out of your chest. Then the hyperventilation really kicks in and you’re sure that you’re going to die. The more you try to tell yourself you’re fine, the more you notice the gap between ‘fine’ and how you’re feeling: it just makes it worse. Mind over matter is not an option.

Now, on dry land this must be awful. But imagine, if you will, how apocalyptically awful it is 20 metres underwater. It’s utterly terrifying. It’s really, really hard to overstate how terrifying. It’s like Captain Terror steering the Terror Ship straight into the Iceberg of Doom. And sniggering the whole time he’s doing it.

Again, the rational part of your brain tells you you’ve got oxygen so you’ll be ok, as long as you hold out. You try to distract yourself with the pretty fish, but then they also take on a sinister aspect (the bastards have gills, no wonder they’re flitting around like they haven’t a care in the world) – even the clown fish stop being funny. And then there’s a much louder voice from deep in the Abu Ghraib section of your consciousness (it sounds a bit like James Earl Jones but more menacing and, weirdly, with a Cornish lilt) reminding you that you’re in a dangerous situation and that anything that goes wrong down here can easily lead to death.

Need more ‘colour’? OK – added to that is the realization that you’re endangering everyone else on the dive, by taking up the instructor’s attention and freaking everyone else out. And one of those fellow divers is your 11 year-old daughter who you really, really hope never goes through anything remotely similar. It’s – without doubt – the worst feeling I’ve ever felt. And all the while, there’s that rushing sound of compressed air and the glassy ‘ting’ of bubbles popping in your ears, which instantly morphs into the soundtrack to a horror movie.

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As those who know him will attest, Adam is as cool as a frozen cucumber, which is exactly who you want as your dive buddy in a panic attack at 20 metres. He’s also a Dive Master and trained (apparently) in dealing with panicking divers. He saw me doing the vigorous wobbly hand signal (international diving signage for ‘I’m totally losing my shit’) and he gave me a ‘raised eyebrows’ question-y face followed by a ‘O’ sign for ‘OK, well there’s nowt doing ’bout it so chill, queen’.  This worked for a while but then it all kicked off again. This time I ‘wobbly-handed’ our instructor, Hery who swam over and basically gave me a massive hug for about 5 minutes, gently swimming me up to shallower water at the same time. Again, this worked for a while and we carried on. But then about 20 minutes later, there was a third wave. At this point I actually just cried into my dive mask, which is an interesting experience and feels a bit like you’re a crazy, begoggled Alice in Wonderland except you’re not in Wonderland you’re in the Seas of Hell with the Cheshire Wrasse.

Afterwards, I did exactly what you’re meant to do. I got back on the pony the next day, only to completely freak out about 5 minutes in and ruin everyone else’s dive by needing to surface immediately. So diving was henceforth OUT.

I realize this could be worse. It’s an ocean-going First World Problem. How hard can lolling about on a boat in the sun be? After all, it’s a Dive Boat but it’s not a dive – there’s a bar, for a kick-off. But anyone who’s spent a week in a ski-resort unable to ski, will be able to attest to the way it messes with your head, welcoming friends and family back from the slopes/reefs with tales of adventure and derring-do, while you’ve sat trying to maintain a stiff upper lip and sitting on your hands so you don’t drink all the neat liquor in the joint.

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It didn’t help that WiFi came back just in time for me to do a quick Google where I discovered that over 20% of deaths scuba diving are directly attributed to panic and another 23% list panic as a contributing factor. It’s a really big deal to have a panic attack while diving. And it’s not just obvious dipshits like me that have them: instructors get them randomly too. Turns out it’s undoubtedly lucky I had one in relatively shallow waters: hell, I’ve dived to 50 metres before (the Blue Hole in Belize) – thank Christ and all his little Wizards that I didn’t have one then (almost having a retrospective panic attack thinking about that particular panic attack that I didn’t actually have).

Sure – I missed the mantas at Manta Point, I missed the sharks at Very-Exciting-Dive-Site-That-You-Won’t-See-Ever-Again Reef, but I did take one constructive thing from this whole experience that I can share with you: if you’re ever eyeballed by the Scary Eel of Death while out for a relaxing scuba, whack it with a frozen cucumber and make your ascent SHARPISH, preferably being hugged by an Indonesian.”

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