By guest blogger C. David Conner
My heart beats faster as the boat slows near the large, red ball bobbing on the water. No matter how many times I’ve done this before, the few minutes before my first dive always excites me. The divemaster and captain work in tandem to get in position next to the anchor buoy. Divers make last-minute gear adjustments as I look over the side through crystal-clear Caribbean water to the ocean floor below. In less than 10 minutes we’ve finished preparations and line up to make our giant-stride entries into the water. After splashdown and giving the “OK” signal, I descend, but within a few moments my head feels like it’s caught in a vice. Each foot down sends more pain stabbing inward. I catch my dive buddy’s attention and give the hand signal that something is wrong and point to my ears. He nods, not surprised since this has happened before. I can’t equalize.
Anyone interested in scuba diving must learn, and master, basic skills to enjoy the sport — equalizing is one of those skills. Inability to equalize means a diver risks pain or serious injury, which results because water density increases with depth. At just 33 feet, water exerts twice the pressure on the body that it feels when at the surface. This extra pressure can create a problem for any air-filled space, such as sinuses. A person can feel a pressure increase in just 8 feet of water and can sustain ear injuries in as little as 10 feet of water. Proper equalization is meant to increase pressure on the ear canal to match the increase in external water pressure.
Several methods exist to help equalize and results can vary by individual. One technique may work on a particular dive, but not on the next, so it’s important to know a variety of methods. Remember that descending headfirst exerts more pressure on the sinuses so if you have difficulty equalizing, try descending feet first. Equalizing can be an issue for new divers, as nerves often affect physical responses. Stay calm and breathe, and if you can’t equalize at a particular depth, just go up a few feet until you can. Here are a few other helpful techniques:
- Chew gum before beginning your dive
- Try clearing your ears before before entering the water (this is my preferred method)
- Don’t drink milk and avoid dairy before diving. It can increase mucous production in your body, which can clog the sinuses and make equalization more difficult.
I frequently had issues equalizing, especially as a beginning diver. I’ve watched morosely from above as others enjoyed a long dive. If you’re in a situation where you can’t equalize, don’t panic. Stay calm and go no go deeper, and certainly don’t try the “no pain, no gain” philosophy and keep descending. By the time you feel pain it is often too late to do anything about it. Ascend until the pain subsides, then try to equalize. Also, remember not to overexert and force equalization, which can also cause injury. No sport is worth permanent damage. With a little practice, equalizing will become second nature.