Under- Ice Stress

by

Larry "Harris" Taylor, Ph.D.

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Cold is a potent stressor ( Not Being Cold )  and, as such, there are a variety of diving accessories to cope with the problem. They all have their appropriate uses. Sometimes, however, using something for which it was not intended can be a problem.

A number of years ago (early 80's), I had an opportunity to take a professional under-the-ice rescue course. The event was sponsored by a local shop as part of a marketing strategy to secure business with local professional emergency response teams. I was the only "recreational" diver on the scene. As part of the program, the shop owner had purchased 25 "no-nose' hoods for the course.  (unlike recreational diving, team operations are best done with everyone on the same page with respect to dive gear. The best way to insure this is with everyone diving the same equipment configuration. This makes professional teams extremely valuable potential clients.)   A "no-nose" hood was, at the time, a significant improvement in thermal protection as it offered complete facial protection from the cold by adding a layer of neoprene over the face. The open-circuit scuba regulator was inserted through a slit in the front of the hood. Once the regulator and mask were in-place,  no part of the head was directly exposed to the cold water. The hood was not totally dry (it was a typical wet suit hood with extra rubber around the face), but it offered a superb means of facial protection to the cold water recreational diver of the day.

It turned out that the professional trainers used a  single-diver down system using a secure harness, a tended line between diver and the surface, a full face mask and underwater communications. (This is still buddy diving, only the buddy is on the other end of a line under constant communication. A  fully suited emergency diver is standing by to assist, if needed.) This type of diving was new to me at the time.

Since I was the only "local" diver, I went under the ice first. This was NOT my first under-ice dive.

Immediately after submerging and moving under the ice, I realized there was a problem. The full-face mask I was using was a positive flow device and it turned out the spider bands (elastic bands that hold mask in place) covered the vent hole I had in the top of the hood, such that excess air inflated the hood a bit. This did two things: it released the tension on the bone conduction transceiver slightly above and behind my left ear. This terminated communication. Then, the no-nose hood (which was designed to be held in position by a scuba regulator in a diver's mouth)  slid up and totally covered my mouth and nose. I was unable to breathe! Finally, the positive pressure regulator in response to the situation went into free flow. It sounded to me like I was standing near an on-coming train. The straps on the mask, especially with the pressure generated from the hood expansion from the excess air now present,  were too tight (a good job of securing the mask in place)  for me to grab the lower portion of the no-nose hood that was covering my mouth and nose. I could not get a grip with mitten-covered hands .to pull the hood  down away from my nose.  I believe this to be the single most stressful situation I have ever encountered underwater.

So, I was under the ice, unable to communicate, unable to breathe, in a total regulator free-flow situation, surrounded by the thunderous roar of a  total free flow situation in an explosion of bubbles. The tenders on the surface, seeing the enormous airflow, sensed there was a problem, but without communication, they were unaware of the seriousness of my situation.

I thought I was going to die!

At some point in time I deduced the whole problem was too much air, so I inverted and planted my fins solidly on the ice.  With both hands on my head, I pushed against the hood with all my might. The excess air escaped. This terminated the free flow and lessened the pressure on the hood so that I could pull the no-nose hood away from my nose. The first few breaths were sweet beyond my ability to  communicate. As the air vented, the communication transceiver fell back into place. My first words were something like, "I am upside down with my feet on the ice. I do NOT think this is a good way to search!"  Then came one of the single most educational underwater experiences I have ever had (don't try this at home folks, "professional diver on a closed course warning! (g)) It was like the entire universe opened up before me as I watched my field of vision profoundly expand like a modern digital special effect. I then remembered to look at my spg.  I had dumped most of my air in the few moments I had been underwater. At no time during the free flow portion of the dive had I even considered looking at my spg.  I requested to surface and the incident was over.

When I emerged from hole cut in the ice, the dive supervisor asked what my problem had been. I stated that the hood had covered my mouth and nose and I could not breathe. The supervisor then directed that no one else would be allowed under the ice with the new hoods.

The dive shop owner was most upset! The message I received from his most public words and actions were that the sale of 25 hoods was more important to him than my life (or the life of any other diver on the site that day). In writing this particular war story, (hind sight SHOULD BE 20:20),  I remember other potential life threats that were a direct result of my interaction with this particular greed-driven man. It does not bother me that such incidents happened. (After all,  I survived and they have become part of who I am and how I teach), but it does begin to explain some of my personal distain for divers whose sole focus is money.

The following week, the professional rescue training agency issued a training bulletin advising that the no-nose hood and a full face mask were an unsafe combination.

The points of this story are:

1. It is unwise to test new equipment configurations in a hazardous (overhead)  environment. Now, in my personal diving, all new equipment (and my first dive after winter layover) is first tested in the safe, confined, well-known water of a local quarry.

2. When stressed, the narrowing of perception is typically not noticeable. It is only when the source of stress is removed (and the problem solved),  that perceptions expand and the world, in all its glory,  is discernable.

3. Sometimes, individually safe and fully functional dive gear may not be compatible. Again, all new equipment configurations should be tested in a known safe environment prior to using in a  more stressful environment.

3. There are some (not all) in this sport who value their money more than your life! 

4. As the desk sergeant of Hill Street Blues TV show  used to say, "Be careful out there!"

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Philosophical Addendum

The potential for life threatening scenarios is present on every dive. It is the nature of playing in an environment we cannot breathe.

I believe that everyone who dives will, at some point in time, find themselves in a potential  life threatening situation.

So, as divers, we need to train continually so, when (NOT if) a potential life threat emerges, the event becomes merely an inconvenience that later becomes a "war story." 

About The Author: 

Larry "Harris" Taylor, Ph.D. is a biochemist and Diving Safety Coordinator at the University of Michigan. He has authored more than 100 scuba related articles. His personal dive library (See Alert Diver, Mar/Apr, 1997, p. 54) is considered one of the best recreational sources of information In North America.

  Copyright 2001-2022 by Larry "Harris" Taylor

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Use of these articles for personal or organizational profit is specifically denied.

These articles may be used for not-for-profit diving education