So there I was, undercover spy in some unknown country, fighting off evil ninjas when I faintly heard, “Breathe, Erin, breathe.” I ignored it, engaged in my epic ninja battle, until the voice got louder and I felt someone blowing in my face and saying, “Wake up, Erin.”
Confused, I opened my eyes to see my dive buddies around me, looking at me with concern. I was floating on my back in the ocean off Key West. “Oh,” I thought, “guess I wasn’t fighting ninjas after all.” I’d just had my first blackout.
First off, yes that’s the dream I had during my blackout and yes, it was exactly as exciting as it sounds. But crazy dream or no, I’m eternally thankful that I had proper safeties around me to wake me back up after that blackout.
It all began on a humid summer morning on a dive boat off Key West, FL. A small crew of us were filming a video you may have seen, Defending the Vandenberg, using scooters and diving the now well-known wreck off Key West. We had a team of divers being filmed, a team of cameramen, a team for transport and a team for safety.
Kirk Krack and I were the divers, acting out a scene where I chase him around the wreck until he jumps off the bow to escape in the end. It was a blast to film and we ended up with some really great footage, but there was one particular dive at the end of the day that didn’t go so well for me.
We’d been using scooters as transportation to and from the wreck to avoid having to do extra work since Kirk and I weren’t using fins and were essentially running at depth, which burns oxygen much more quickly than a normal freedive would. Ashley Chapman and Ted Harty transported us to the wreck, dropped us off, then picked us back up after we’d gotten the particular shot we were going for. As the day progressed we eventually passed Ashley’s scooter off to another diver and were using only one scooter for transportation.
After about an hour and change of diving and filming we decided that we needed a long shot of the chase. The plan was to have the main cameraman back up to get a wide view of the wreck while I chased Kirk from mid-ship to bow. In order for the shot to work, Ted, our transport, would have to stay far enough away to remain out of the shot.
The dive began well and we made a good run to the bow, then Kirk turned around to signal to me that the shot was done. I returned the signal to acknowledge and admit that I was pretty done too. We looked around for Ted on his scooter, who was coming to pick us up…at an excruciatingly slow pace.
The battery to Ted’s scooter was dying, preventing the scooter from functioning in any of its higher gears. As a frustrated Ted scootered towards us at a snail’s pace Kirk and I, both feeling a pretty significant urge to breathe now, began swimming to the surface in the meantime.
Ted reached us and we grabbed hold of the scooter, which was now slowed further by the added weight and drag of two additional divers. As we ascended my urge to breathe became more and more intense. My lungs began to burn and my diaphragm constantly contracted, reminding me of what I already knew– it was time to breathe.
I looked at Kirk, who decided to let go of the scooter, push off of Ted’s shoulders and begin swimming to the surface once again, all without fins on. He was able to move faster than the scooter, even without fins, which tells you something about how slow the scooter was moving at that point. He reached the surface clean, greeted by our safety team.
Meanwhile, I started climbing from the back of the scooter, where the handle is, up towards Ted, knowing that I was very close to blackout and wanting to get as close to him as I could in case something happened. I looked him in the eye as if to say, “Get ready, because I’m about to go out.”
The next thing I remember was the ninja fight.
I’d blacked out a couple feet from the surface, where Ted was able to close my airway and bring me back around with the aid of surface safeties.
Now, this story may sound frightening to some of you, but it’s really a freediving safety success story. According to the safety team I was only blacked out for a matter of seconds before coming back around. I’d had proper safety at the surface as well as additional help underwater, so from the moment I blacked out to the time I came around a properly trained safety freediver was in charge of protecting my airway and enacting recovery techniques.
I’m telling you all this story for a couple of reasons. First off, it goes to show that a freediver blackout can happen to anyone and at any time. No dive is entirely predictable. No diver is ever good enough to be immune to hypoxia.
Second, it highlights the fact that blackouts don’t have to end in tragedy. With proper safety a blackout can instead be a learning experience. Now, I’m definitely not encouraging you to push to blackout, but I am encouraging you to seek out proper safety training. There are several great agencies out there, including PFI, the one I teach for, that can not only make you a better diver, but a safer one too.
Okay, time to get off the soap box, but I hope you enjoyed/learned from my experience. And if you haven’t seen it yet, check out Defending the Vandenberg: