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21 Panic


When I was in the scuba industry we undertook a special study of inquests into diving accidents.  We soon learnt that it is a mistake to ask: "What was the cause of the accident?"

The question assumes there was a single cause.  Experience shows that most accidents have multiple causes.  Something goes wrong but nothing untoward happens unless something else goes wrong.  One thing leads to another.  All too often, panic sets in.  Panic is the big killer because when you panic you lose control.

You can even panic when nothing goes wrong.  In diving that's most likely to occur when you don't feel at home in the water.  My advice is simple: "If you don't feel at home in the water ... don't dive." You are the best judge of how you feel.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Good dive schools allow you to have a familiarisation experience in the pool before you enrol for a full scuba course.  There is usually a small charge which is subtracted from the cost of the course if you decide to go ahead.  If you decide that diving is not for you then you have found out without putting yourself at risk.

I vividly recall one incident when a couple of my divers panicked when everyone else was having a carefree time.  We were diving on a small, pyramid-shaped reef near Townsville.  The reef is one of the many hundred that make up the Great Barrier Reef.

We left the dive boat and swam across to the reef, which sticks up abruptly from the sea floor.  Once there, we encountered an extraordinary congregation of batfish.  I'd previously seen them in ones and twos.  Now, I was seeing them in thousands.

Batfish are roughly the same size and shape as the business end of a tennis racket.  They have small round mouths and look anything but threatening.  But, on that particular day, some of them clearly resented our presence.  They milled around and bashed into us.  I found the whole thing amusing.  The fish were almost certainly congregating for a sex orgy.  The aggressors were probably males, overcharged with testosterone and programmed to attack anything that got in their way.

Then, I saw that two of my charges were showing signs of panic.  I should have been keeping a tight eye on them but there seemed no reason for concern.  I grabbed one as he was speeding for the surface but was unable to prevent the other from making an over-hurried ascent.  To my relief, he had remembered to breath out on the way up and seemed to have suffered no injury.  I signalled and a dingy came and took the two frightened divers back to the boat.

At that time my divemaster activities were taking place on a part-time basis.  My main income came from public relations and journalism.  Amongst other things, I organised scientific meetings.  One was a coral reef symposium.

That was back in the 1980s and a thorough scientific study of the Great Barrier Reef had only just begun.  One of the speakers commented that fishermen and others probably had valuable information and marine scientists could learn from them.

I was bold enough to speak up and describe the batfish incident.  There was immediate interest.  I had evidently stumbled on something which had not previously been observed.  My guess that the fish were congregating for mating was regarded as highly plausible.

If there is a moral to all of this, I guess it is twofold.  1 Don't panic.  2 If you see something unusual underwater, don't assume it is well known to science.  You may have been the first to observe it.