How to Deal with a Panicking Diver

The opportunity to explore the beautiful, enigmatic and peaceful world beneath the waves is fun and exciting but there are things that may be within or beyond your control which can turn your diving adventure into a precarious situation. So whether it’s your first or nth time to go diving, it’s important to be ready in case something unexpected happens.

Panic has been associated with many recreational diving accidents that’s why it’s crucial that you learn how to deal with a panicking diver. There are different possible reasons why a diver experiences anxiety underwater and claustrophobia is one of them. For example, a diver may go through a panic attack when he ventures into tight spaces with overhanging features. In some cases, new divers who have little or no experience may find the unfamiliar environment a bit overwhelming or a close encounter with a creature of the deep like a shark can trigger fear and turn on the internal panic button.

Whatever the reason behind the sudden grip of panic, losing your ability to think straight due to intense fear can endanger your life and that of your dive buddy. Here are some simple tips that can help you deal with a diver in distress mode.

Recognize the telltale signs


A diver who is about to experience a panic attack may feel that something dangerous is about to take place and this fear can make the person’s heart accelerate and make breathing difficult. Other symptoms may include sweating, trembling, chest pain, and dizziness.

It’s hard to detect the things that are happening to a diver internally but you can stay alert for external manifestations like a wide-eyed stare, failure to communicate or understand hand signals, and being in a frozen state. Other possible active signs are arm thrashing, grabbing the regulator from another diver in an attempt to get air, and making a sudden bolt to the surface.

Approach with caution


When you observe any of the said signs, the best thing to do is to help the diver calm down so you could safely assist him to the surface to avoid a potential underwater emergency. Begin by approaching the individual carefully with your arm outstretched and your palm up to convey a “stop” signal while maintaining direct eye contact.

Never show fear or doubt and avoid making frantic and big hand movements that could increase the person’s uneasiness. What the other person needs is to feel reassured that you’re there to help him and not the other way around. Once the person responds to your signal and recognizes your intention to help, you can hold the person by the upper arm or BC strap while maintaining eye contact and coach him to take slow and deep breaths.

If the diver is struggling to breathe, check his gauges to know if he is in fact out of air. If that’s the case, you can give him your octopus (spare regulator) and purge it once it’s in his mouth. If there is no air supply problem, you can get his octopus and place it in his mouth, purging it of any water.

Assist the diver back to the surface

After dealing with the air situation, assist the diver back to the safety of the surface. Swim behind the person and keep your hand firmly on his tank valve while making sure that the regulator is properly in place as you make a slow ascent. If possible, lead the diver to the anchor line to give him more confidence as he ascends. Inflate his BC once you reach the surface and then head towards the boat. Signal for help so that the people on the vessel can help you get back on board.

Know your limits

The purpose of establishing proper rescue techniques is to help other divers in need and at the same time minimize your own risk. In extreme situations where a much larger diver is actively fighting you, sometimes the best option is to back away and seek the help of a more capable person like your divemaster.

Dive mantra

Keep this manta at heart whenever you go on a diving trip and pass it on: Stop – Breathe – Think – Act.

When you feel panic creeping in, stop swimming and concentrate on your breathing. Take slow and deep breaths to help yourself maintain control and then think of your next move. If you are not confident about continuing the dive, don’t be afraid to cut your dive short if it means saving you and your buddy from a potential underwater emergency.

If you want to be more confident in handling underwater emergencies, Nemo Diving Center’s Rescue Diver Course teaches vital concepts and skills to prevent diving accidents and deal with them as they occur.