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[Cautionary] Tales From The Deep: A Case Study

AFTER SPENDING THE BETTER PART OF HER ADULT LIFE IN-AND-AROUND THE OCEAN, INTREPID WATERWOMAN AND ONE OCEAN STUDENT, KYLIE MAGUIRE, THOUGHT SHE'D TEST HER SKILLS IN SOME DIFFERENT SETTINGS. SHE SOON LEARNED SOME VALUABLE LESSONS ABOUT HOW OUR BODIES WORK AT DEPTH… In the midst of my city-work life, I recently found a saving grace that has tapped into the fond feelings I have for freediving. About five weeks ago I tried underwater hockey at the indoor pool and immediately loved it. A pool cannot compare to the ocean, but the warmth of the heated environment combined with the feeling of being underwater was awesome. The game itself has parallel elements to some of the CO2 training I have done with One Ocean International in the past. I knew this combination of high activity, CO2 accumulation and breathhold would be great for freediving. A few weeks in, someone mentioned underwater rugby in a conversation, commenting on how hard it was because the pool was much deeper. Of course, my ears pricked up, and the next night I went along. Immediately, I noticed a fundamental difference: instead of the pool depth being 2m (underwater hockey), the depth is 5m for underwater rugby. To swim around in so much ‘space’ felt super cool. Initially I didn’t really care about the game itself, I was just blissing out at the volume of water. I started off slow, taking my time and equalising frequently, but throughout the game I started getting more into it, chasing the after ball and people without much inhibition. Before too long, we were into the last few minutes of the game and (I only fully realised this afterwards), there were more than a few times that I had forgotten to equalise. Often, I would dive right to the bottom of the pool and catch myself (or feel a stinging ear pain) before equalising. After the game, I found it very hard shake out the water from my ear (I do the side-shake frequently as the feeling of water in my ear really bugs me!). That night I was completely buzzing, bouyed by time in the water and the excitement of a wonderful new sport to master. Consequently, I couldn’t sleep for ages. I woke the next morning and noticed a slight dizziness. I just thought I was tired and went to work. Two days later my partner and I got up at 4:30 to drive up the coast to go surfing. This time when I went to stand, I fell over from complete lack of balance. Again, I shrugged it off but knew something really wasn’t right.

A note from Joe Knight, One Ocean International Founder: Most occurrences of Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) trauma are as a result of freediving in shallow water (-10m). Some factors that increase the risk of exposure to ENT trauma are: diving too deep too quick, with no warm up; incorrect, inadequate or forced equalisation; underlying sinus congestion; Otitis Externa / Media ear infections (this can be caused by not using appropriate drying / antibacterial agents (aqua ear) after diving [NOTE: freshwater is far worse than salt water as freshwater takes longer to evaporate from the external ear canal] Due to the rapid descents and ascents that are completed during games of underwater hockey / underwater rugby, the eustachian tubes, middle ears and surrounding structures are exposed to extreme pressure changes which aggravate the sensitive physiology of the vestibular system. As a result, the freediver can experience dizziness, nausea and fatigue post-game. In more severe trauma to the vestibular structures, athletes may experience vertigo, vomiting and minor symptoms of shock.”

We were in the water for about 5 hours that day, after lunch I noticed a ‘spaced out’ feeling but once again just thought it was a shock to the system as I haven’t surfed that long in ages. It wasn’t until that evening (and the next morning), when the dizziness was in full force that I started to really worry. Ironically, a friend up the coast had recently had vertigo and the doctor said it was from water in the ear. I wondered if that was the case with me? I called Joe (One Ocean) and another medico friend to see what they had to say. Little did I know that what I was experiencing is a somewhat common (if unpleasant) occurrence - especially when diving up and down so often in shallow water, where the greatest changes in pressure occur. As they explained it: during the first 10m of descent, the change in pressure on our ears is particularly drastic. When we get carried away chasing others, or fish or anything (really) in shallow-ish water and forget to equalise properly, our delicate ear drums and vestibular are disturbed to the point of transient damage. The way this manifests is with some pretty unpleasant balance issues. Some other key contributions are: diving in fresh water opposed to salt (takes longer to dry), not using aqua ear (again – not helping the drying process), going from zero to hero (it had been a long time since diving at a depth that I really needed to equalise), and waiting too late (and with maybe a bit too much force!) to equalise whilst diving. More than a week later, the vertigo remains- although it is only mild during the day, almost like I am walking around just a little bit tipsy. It is when I go from lying down to standing that it is the worst. Luckily, this should all clear up by staying out of the water and lots of rest. For me, the take home message is to take more care of my ears, not only diving but in any activity where they are subject to damage.

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