Chasing the Elusive Shark

Ok, here is my story. I have been diving for 6 years now and am a Certified Divemaster and qualified British Dive Leader with over 300 dives under my belt. I used to guide dives in the Red Sea.

Since the attack I must have done at least 100 more dives and yet I am still not confident in the water. I feel that at any time it might strike again.

It all started in the Philippines, in January 2007. We were doing early morning thresher shark dives on Monad Shoal. My boyfriend, who I had been diving with for most of the holiday, was ill that morning so I decided to go without him. I had done about 4 early morning dives and still hadn’t seen a thresher shark so a divemaster from the dive school I got on well with said that he would come out and we could dive together.

It was an early start, getting up at about 5am, and I didn’t have time for breakfast. We got to the dive site and kitted up as usual, hoping to see a shark this time. Monad Shoal is the top of an underwater volcano at about 22m with sloping sides going down into the deep. Thresher sharks come here to be cleaned and it’s one of the best places to see them.

We were both breathing nitrox 36% to give us a longer bottom time and less deco time. The plan was to stay down as long as possible, resting on the seabed by a cleaning station just waiting for the shark to come to be cleaned.

The temperature was about 23°C, a bit cold and the visibility was pretty bad. You wouldn’t have seen a thresher had it been about to bite your leg off! Just like England really! Anyway, as usual, nothing showed. We were about an hour into the dive now and I was 2 minutes from my no-deco limit and only had 60 bar of air left. I was cold and had been for some time and had had enough. I was also a bit concerned that if we stayed down here any longer (we were at about 22m), I’d have to do a decompression dive and I might not have enough air to do that. I signalled to the dive guide that I wanted to go up. He made a signal to swim over there somewhere and then swim up. He then swam off.

When I checked my computer I found that we were going deeper, not good, I started becoming obsessed with how much air I had, checking my gauge every few seconds. Suddenly a hot flush ran through me and I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. My mind seemed to split into two people - one completely rational and another part that I couldn’t control - and I was thinking all sorts of awful things. My breathing started to rise, as did the panic. I started to think about bolting for the surface, knowing that I couldn’t because it would probably kill me. Trying to get my body under control while my brain was thinking "You’re going to die! You’re never going to see your boyfriend, friends or family again".

I grabbed a big rock with both hands, picked it up and tried to focus on it, telling myself to calm down. All this happened in seconds but it seemed like hours. I looked up from the rock and saw the divemaster, completely oblivious, swimming away from me. I felt rooted to the spot but managed to swim after him as fast as I could manage. I think I made a noise or something that he heard as he turned round to see me. I could see the surprise in his face as I rushed at him trying to signal that I was panicking. I grabbed his hand, took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes. I finally controlled the panic. The dive guide showed me the shot line that he had been going towards so that we could ascend up it. By the time I got to the line my breathing was back to normal. At 5 metres depth I was completely back to my old self with no hint of panic. We hung on the line for an extra couple of minutes before going up.

When I got back to my room, I was in shock. I cried for a long time. My boyfriend was very kind and I told him all about what had happened. We’re both at about the same level as divers so he knew what I was talking about. I was determined to get back diving and did the afternoon dive with no problems. I dismissed the attack as a blip – a pretty big one at that – which resulted from me being cold, having not eaten, wanting to go up but feeling I shouldn’t ascend without the guide knowing, and not being in control of the dive. I was also worried that my birth control pill may have increased my proneness for anxiety and helped cause the attack. Bottom line was - I was fine, as if it had never happened.

Fast-forward a few months.

Going on another diving holiday, in April 2007. Diving Shark and Yolanda Reef, a nice easy dive. My boyfriend and I had been put at the back of the group, basically to do what we wanted. The guide asked us to stay relatively close to the rest of the group though. We found a huge giant moray and were busily taking pictures of it when we noticed we should really catch up with the group as they were now about 10 metres away. We swam pretty fast and a stupid thought popped through my mind as I got out of breath – “What if I couldn’t get enough air?” – “What a stupid thought”, I thought. Suddenly, out of nowhere the hot flush ran through my body – “Please God not again!” I grabbed my boyfriend’s hand and just held on, trying to control my breathing rate and relax. He didn’t realise what was happening but let me hold his hand anyway. The feeling went away and I carried on with the dive. During that dive I started thinking about what had just happened - and went on to have to two more sets of hot flushes. By the time the dive finished I was desperate to get out.

After that dive my confidence vanished. I was in tears from the fear of having another panic attack. It didn’t help that we were on a four week tour of Egypt with diving booked every week. We went on a deep-south live-aboard, dives down to 30 metres plus, strong currents and negative entries from a RIB. I did most of the dives, but didn’t feel happy and just used to hang there at 30m, waiting until we could go shallower again. No more panic attacks, but no more fun diving either.

It wasn’t just diving either, I thought about panic attacks while driving, travelling on a crowded tube, bus, tram… After a while, and after I came off the birth control pill, this anxiety went away. I do believe a lot of it was to do with the hormones I was taking, but still, the uncertainty nags me.

I have done more diving, both in the Red Sea and in England. Before every dive I am nervous, I don’t want to go deep, I have a fear of going to 30m and I lay awake at night thinking about it. I want to dive, but I have been seriously put off by this and don’t know what to do.

I never used to be nervous and would dive anything that existed. 30m+ wreck dives in the channel were no problem. I was thinking of doing some technical diving to extend my range. Needless to say, both of these things now seem out of my grasp.

A scared diver

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