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When a SCUBA diving mistake leaves you looking like a zombie

I wasn’t sure whether I should write this post as the subject matter is slightly… unpleasant. But maybe this will serve as a cautionary tale so that others won’t be as stupid as me!

Last year I got my PADI Open Water Diver certification in the Cayman Islands. If you’ve never dived before and don’t know a lot about diving you may not realise how much there is to learn and the number of things that could possibly go wrong when you’re underwater (I certainly didn’t!). Getting certified doesn’t just involve the lessons in the water, there’s also a knowledge development portion of the course which you can complete online or in a classroom. The volume of information you need to absorb is quite significant and clearly in the time that has passed since I completed my certification, a few of those lessons had slipped from my mind.

One of the key things you learn when becoming an Open Water Diver is equalisation. When a diver descends underwater, the pressure of the surrounding water increases with depth. This causes the pressure to increase in areas of your body where there are air spaces – most commonly, your ears. The goal of equalising is to create pressure inside the ear canal that matches that of increasing pressure from the outside. Equalising your ears is very easy to do – you just need to pinch your nose and breath out against your pinched nostrils and you should feel a “pop” sensation. You get the same sensation when flying too due to the changes in air pressure. It’s really important to equalise regularly when diving in order to prevent any discomfort or pain, or even more serious problems which we won’t go into right now.

I’ve always been very conscious about equalising my ears when diving, however what I have been neglecting to do up until this point is equalise my mask. There’s a big pocket of air trapped in your mask and it is just as important to equalise the pressure there, too. I’d been lucky to not have any problems with this up until a few weeks ago when I was SCUBA diving in Malta.

We had gone diving in the morning in Xlendi Bay and throughout the dive my mask kept filling with water. There are methods for clearing out your mask while underwater but I always get nervous doing this and worry that I will mess it up! Not wanting to have the same experience in our second dive later that day, I tightened the strap on my mask in between dives hoping to prevent the water from leaking in.

Our afternoon dive was at the Azure Window and was deeper than the dives we had previously done on this trip, with a maximum depth of 18m (60 ft). As we reached the deepest part of the dive, my mask began to feel uncomfortably tight, and felt kind of like my face was being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. Of course, stupid me did nothing to alleviate the pressure for fear of water entering the mask. After a couple of minutes the pressure subsided and I continued the dive without any other problems.

I felt fine after the dive and didn’t know anything was wrong until a few hours later. We’d left Gozo and travelled to St Julians to spend three nights there. We’d just checked in to our hotel and were riding in the lift up to our room when my boyfriend asks “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR EYE?”. I immediately started freaking out cause I couldn’t see what he was talking about. As soon as we were in the room I raced to a mirror and discover that THERE WAS BLOOD ALL AROUND THE TOP OF MY EYE. It’s wasn’t noticeable when I was looking straight on, only when I glanced down to the left. But when you did see it, it looked like something out of a horror film. The next few minutes were spent frantically googling to find out why there was blood in eye, me in a state of panic worrying about if I needed medical treatment and would that be easy to find in Malta.

I had described the pressure I felt during the dive to my boyfriend while we were on our way to the hotel, and he quickly figured out that what I had experienced was a mask squeeze. By adjusting my mask too tight and failing to equalise the pressure in my mask during the dive, I had caused a bunch of small blood vessels around my eye to burst. The information we read online suggested that my eye would heal itself in time and most likely wouldn’t require medical treatment. I didn’t dive for the remainder of the trip as I was worried I might exacerbate the situation although since I wasn’t experiencing any pain or loss of vision it probably would have been fine to dive again as long as I equalised the pressure in the mask.

I haven’t posted any photos of this because 1. I don’t want to gross people out and 2. I didn’t actually take any, although there are plenty of similar cases on google if you are curious. Apparently mask squeeze is not uncommon for nervous, newbie divers like me. And compared to some of the other cases online, mine wasn’t so bad as it only happened in one eye at least.

Unfortunately this is the type of injury that ends up looking worse before it gets better! Over the next few days the blood moved further down my eye and became clearly visible to everyone (thanks, gravity). I had to return to work with an eye full of blood with all my colleagues asking what had happened to me. It took about 3 weeks before my eye had fully cleared up – all this because I didn’t exhale through my nose when my mask got too tight!

So there are a few valuable lessons I can take away from this experience:

  • Equalising your mask as you descend is just as important as equalising your ears
  • Don’t over-tighten your mask. The positioning of the mask is more important than the tightness of the strap. A lot of people suggest a leaky mask is more often a case of the strap being too tight than too loose
  • When something doesn’t feel right don’t just ignore the problem because you’re nervous or scared. Doing nothing made things a lot worse than it would have been if I had simply exhaled through the nose and let a bit of water in
  • Investing in a mask with a purge valve might be worthwhile for me as it allows you to easily expel any water that gets in when equalising

Have you ever had any mishaps while diving?

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