Meeting The Panic

Scuba certification in River Rock Pond.

“On this dive, we’ll do regulator recovery and a full mask flood,” Jeff says, the cold water lapping around his face as we bob in the middle of River Rock Pond outside Belgrade. I nod, my buoyancy control device pumped full and squeezing my ribs. Jeff is a self-professed hillbilly. He owns a massive Chevy pickup that pumps out country music. He got into diving in the military, and now he not only dives for fun, but he’s also a member of the sheriff’s search-and-rescue team. He’s testing me on my final scuba certification. We take our last breath of real air and slowly sink to the bottom.

River Rock Belgrade Scuba Sports Cove Bozeman

Back in the swimming pool, I could do mask floods all day. We’d practiced swimming from one end to the other maskless. No problem.

Surrounded by the pond’s murky brown water, there’s no sound—short of the steady chorus of deep sucking breaths followed by the bubbling exhale out around my mask. Unlike on the surface, breathing takes thought.

Jeff points to me and mimes flooding his mask. He touches his thumb to his index finger, fans his other fingers up.

I nod.

Careful and slow, I crack the goggle’s seal and let the water pool in the bottom of the lenses, filling up, but I pull too hard and the water floods my nose. The icy shock robs the breath out of my lungs, punches me in the face. The constant suck-and-bubble chorus stops.

I choke, water rushing into my sinuses, into my face. I’m sightless and gasping, and it finally hits me: I’m at the bottom of a freakin’ lake. Covered in hundreds of dollars of man-made gear, thousands of pounds of water crushing down on me, and I’m going to drown. Blind claustrophobia sets off survival-instinct alarms, screaming at me to get out. Now.

I’ve never had a panic attack before, but this must be one.

I claw upward and push off the bottom hard, trying to escape, but Jeff grabs me by the lapels and holds me down. He waves an open hand toward me and waves it back to his chest, over and over again.

He signals: Breathe.

The hood is too tight, crushing my head. The tiny wetsuit, I can’t fill my lungs all the way. I jerk my thumb up, again and again.

I signal: Surface.

He signals: Breathe.

My breathing is jerky, too fast and then cuts off. I close my eyes and focus on the air filling my lungs. Focus on it bubbling out the bottom of my regulator. The sting of pond water fades from my eyes. I’m at the bottom of a lake, I can’t see, but I can breathe. I’m fine. After one more big breath, I jerk my thumb up, once.

Bobbing at the top, I say, “I don’t know what happened down there. The water’s so damn cold, I just sort of freaked out.”

Jeff nods. “He’ll try to get ya, but you can’t let him. The Panic, that is.”

He talks about “The Panic” like it’s a real person. He tells us about an argument they got into—him and The Panic, that is—once, deep in Canyon Ferry, and how if he’d listened to The Panic, it would’ve taken a search-and-rescue team to get him off the bottom of the lake.

We float on the surface for a few minutes as I fill my lungs with real air, trying to get rid of the squeeze in my throat.
We sink down to try again. Standing on the bottom, he points to me, and mimes flooding his mask. He touches his thumb to his index finger, fans his other fingers up.

I shake my head. I hold my hand flat, then rock it back and forth.

I signal: No. Not good.

Back on shore, he pulls me aside and says, “Don’t get down on yourself. You weren’t the first, and you sure won’t be the last person to get a little scared underwater.

“See, you just can’t listen to him. Always remember that no matter what’s going on, you can still breathe, and that’s all you need. You don’t need to see, really.”

I look at the ground. “What happens if I can’t do it?”

“Well, sorry, but we can’t pass you,” he says. “Handling yourself underwater without a mask is a pretty important skill. You can’t freak out like that 60 feet underwater. That’s how bad things happen.”

Later that night, I fill my bathtub with cold water and squeeze my scuba hood down over my ears. I suction the mask to my face and lean into the freezing water.

My girlfriend pokes her head into the bathroom once she hears my wet coughing and sputtering. “What the hell are you doing?”

“If I can’t do this here, I sure as hell can’t do it at the bottom of a pond.”

“Oh. Is that warm water?”


“Ugh. Can I help?”

“Sure,” I say, filling the tub more. “I need to practice taking my mask off. You can hold my snorkel up.”

She kneels next to me and dips her hand into the water. “God, that’s freezing. This must be awful.”

It’s the next day, back at the pond, and Jeff is going over what we’ll cover in dive three. “There’s the buddy tow, and underwater compass navigation. And we’ll do another full mask flood for those of us who didn’t quite get it last time.” He looks at me. My chest tightens. I can already feel the cold water fighting its way up my nose, into my sinuses, flooding my brain.

We wade out and sink back down to the bottom of the pond. Jeff points to me, mimes flooding his mask. He touches his thumb to his index finger, fans his other fingers up.

I put my hand to my chest and wave it back and forth. He nods.

I’m fine. I can breathe. I’m in my bathroom, my girlfriend is right behind me, holding my snorkel, I have air, and I’m not going to die.

After blowing out through my nose to loosen the mask’s squeeze on my face, I clamp my eyes closed and crack the seal, allowing water to pool around my cheeks. The suck-and-bubble of my regulator reverberates through the water. The water hits my nose and my breathing skips. And then goes back to normal.

I’m fine. The Panic is nowhere. With one hard pull, I suck the compressed air into the bottom of my lungs. I let it out, and the wetsuit helps empty my breath. My chest loosens. The water covers my whole face and I keep breathing. My smile lets water leak into my mouth.

Back on shore, I walk over and say, “Jeff, I want to thank you. I honestly didn’t think I could do that.”

I’d never had—and then stopped—a panic attack before, but I just did. I’d never grappled with The Panic before, but I just did—and I beat him. And now, thanks to Jeff at Sports Cove, I’m a certified scuba diver.

For more information on scuba diving, or to take a class, contact Sports Cove, 585-9926 or