Panic Master

By Shantha Bunyan

Edited by Debra Deri & Jumana Jaouni

The moment had arrived. I inhaled slowly, exhaling even more slowly, looking at my dive buddy. My heart was racing. The thudding in my ears was louder than the air bubbles I blew out. I had both dreaded and longed for this final exam in Borneo and I had worried about it incessantly for the entire year, since deciding to become a dive-master. My partner and I had to demonstrate that we could share one single air tank underwater, taking turns breathing through a single mouthpiece, while exchanging equipment with each other. We would have to take off and trade fins, masks and buoyancy control devices, or BCDs. 

I had been prone to panicking underwater long before deciding to be a dive-master. Actually, those occasional, overwhelming moments during dives were one reason I wanted to take the course. I had learned to master my panic underwater, and hoped that, as a guide, I could help others work through their own nerves so they too could enjoy the ocean’s treasures. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of freedom that comes from “flying” underwater next to a turtle nearly as large as you are, or the amazement you feel while watching an octopus change colours as it hunts for its prey. Working as a dive-master would also be a great way to help fund both my travel abroad and my burgeoning dive habit. 

I first learned to dive in my teens, when I went to California for the summer to study marine biology. My professor was a scuba instructor and we were given the opportunity to get our basic scuba diving certifications. Due to the chilly water temperatures there, we had to wear full length wetsuits and hoods, which were pretty torturous to get into.  The extreme buoyancy of the neoprene dive suit meant I needed more weights on a belt around my waist in order to descend. When I couldn’t descend immediately with the rest of my class, I started to panic. The more one panics, the more weights one needs to counter over-breathing and extra movements. After each dive, coming out of the ocean and going from basically weightless to suddenly carrying all the weight of a heavy tank and a belt around my waist was also not easy. So, while I enjoyed my first diving experiences, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about getting back out there when that summer was over. 

It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, with frequent international travels, that I began diving again. I loved it. I spent a week in the Maldives where I became more comfortable in the water. There, the water was warm, and the sea life fascinating! In Malta, just to the south of Italy, I took an advanced course so I could see some wrecks that were a little deeper than basic divers can go. I also dived in Australia, and took a trip to Vanuatu, where I stayed at a dive-specific resort. 

By then, I’d begun choosing my next travel spot based on diving attractions, not museums. In Vanuatu my dive instructor encouraged me to become a dive-master myself. So, I began taking the prerequisite advanced courses. I found myself brimming with determination to succeed. I quickly racked up over eighty dives, more than enough to start the month-long dive master course in Malaysian Borneo. 

But my progress wasn’t simple, even with all of my determination and love for the sport. As I started diving more frequently, I would sometimes find myself a hundred feet underwater, staring up at the surface, terrified. The panic would slam from my stomach into my throat and my breathing would speed up. Terrible scenarios would flash through my mind, and my imagination would begin to run down multiple dark paths. My lungs would feel like they could no longer function. I’d suck in giant breaths while worrying about how much air was left in my tank.

“Oh God,” I’d think. “I can’t reach the surface from here if my air runs out! Maybe I have less than my gauge says I do and it’ll just stop. What will I do? My buddy! Where’s my buddy? Or my guide? Where’s my backup oxygen hose? I’ve gotta get out of here!” 

But I was deep underwater. It’s not smart or safe to bolt to the surface. My sensible-self interrupted my panicky thoughts and lectured, “Calm down! You learned what to do! Your back up oxygen hose is here. Your buddy is right there. Breathe! If you can yoga breathe, you can scuba dive. Relax! Breathe in… two… three….!” It would take all the strength I could muster to talk myself down from the panic and continue the dive.  

“Sometimes, your divers will do something called ‘silent panic.’ ….. Make sure you look into your divers’ eyes!” 

Eventually I would calm down and focus on the many amazing things there were to see at each dive site. I’d lose myself in the beauty and the wonder of the ocean. If then panic tried to reappear, I would firmly redirect myself. The more frequently I dived, the less it happened. If I tried something new, or conditions were difficult, the panic would return, but I got better at managing it with experience.

In Borneo, during our first dive as a class, we descended to a sandy teaching area on the ocean floor to practice skills. My instructor had told us, “Sometimes, your divers will do something called ‘silent panic.’ They look like they’re fine. They can even signal that they’re okay. Inside they are freaking out and may be moments away from losing it. Make sure you look into your divers’ eyes!” 

I spent that hour-long dive in a silent panic. I wasn’t scared about the diving that time, so much as worried about the course’s extensive requirements. I didn’t think I’d make it through the challenges the course would bring. Some of my classmates were literally half my age! How could I possibly keep up? They all seemed more fit and comfortable in the ocean than I was. Underwater, I went through the motions, my mind frantic.  My instructor should have looked into my eyes! That day, I barely muddled through the skills we practiced, flailing my arms and bobbing around because my buoyancy was poor and forgetting some of the hand signals we had learned. Nonetheless, I decided to continue the course and my diving began to improve. I aced the classroom studies and even finished the physical and technical requirements without embarrassing myself horribly. 

The class remains one of the most challenging yet incredible experiences of my life. I had to push myself beyond my comfort zone to learn new skills, and in the process discovered different things each day. Situated in the Coral Triangle, Borneo has so much marine biodiversity that in one single dive, we might find 50 different amazing species—flamboyant cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipe fish, needle-nose barracuda, skeleton shrimp, pygmy seahorses, turtles…. I was in a marine biologist’s heaven! 

At the end of the month, I found myself underwater, holding my regulator in my right hand, staring at my buddy who was holding the same hose. I was petrified at the thought of starting the equipment exchange. Learning to share a single mouthpiece isn’t taught until this professional level of diving, since even if one tank breaks, it’s extremely rare for the buddy’s tank to malfunction, too. Still, as a dive guide, it’s vital to be able to function under extremely difficult circumstances. This test required us to demonstrate our complete comprehension and ability to perform the skills we’d been learning all month: good buoyancy control, knowledge of equipment and ease underwater. As an added challenge, we weren’t given the opportunity to practice beforehand. 

“You can do this. You’ve done everything else in this course so far. Relax ! My buddy’s steady eyes and composure gave me the strength i needed.”

Two breaths for me, two for her. We’d talked through the motions on the surface, but it was totally different underwater. My comfort in the ocean had increased immensely during the course, but being underwater without a regulator in my mouth was still a terrifying prospect. I could feel the panic rising. My buddy and I started sharing air. Two breaths for me, exhaled slowly while she breathed. I was sure I was running out of air!  I panicked and grabbed the mouthpiece out of her mouth after she’d only taken one breath. Her eyes widened, and she gave me a stern look, signaling for me to slow down. My buddy was, as always, admirably calm.  The voice inside me, already deafening as I tried to remain calm, kicked into high gear. “You can do this. You’ve done everything else in this course so far. Relax! Focus!” My buddy’s steady eyes and composure gave me the strength I needed, and we got into the breathing rhythm. We slowly removed our BCDs; and, one at a time, exchanged them, careful not to tangle the shared regulator hose while maneuvring the equipment around. We changed masks. Then fins. It was done. I had passed! I had faced my fears and had overcome the challenges of the dive-master course. 

At that moment, I became a dive master and could begin helping others see the wonders of the ocean. My experiences would be invaluable in the months and years ahead as I began guiding hundreds of people on dives, giving them the chance to “sea life differently.” 

About the author:
Shantha J. Bunyan is a native of Colorado, USA. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and worked as a surgical tech on a labour and delivery unit before indulging her wanderlust and leaving to travel the world.  She is also a writer. Links to her publications can be found at

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