Hypoxia in the Community: Episode 1 – Blackout

Author: Chris Adair
Contributions by: Brad Johnson

Our first blackout of the accounts in this series to share is that of Brad Johnson’s. Brad’s contribution to this 3 part series and this episode will be addressed as an interview more so than a written story of the events. The reason for this is one that’s relatable to the scenario and the impact these events can play in people’s lives. “I have anxiety even talking about it,” Brad says. Even though Brad was enthusiastic and keen to be included in this series and to share his story with the community he found that as he tried to put words to paper he would get emotional and mentally lock up through the anxiety that reliving the scenario would create for him.  

Rock, Paper, Scissor, Blackout…: 

Brad is a Concrete Contractor in town. He works hard, long hours and enjoys freediving and spearfishing as a meditative and mental escape from the noise and stresses of life. “It’s like a weekend of hedonistic pleasures,” Brad boisterously jokes about the joy that freediving brings him. Brad is a PFI Intermediate Certified Freediver with 30m depths under his belt on the line. He has a son and a partner that are his world and since his hypoxic event (blackout) in Mexico in March of 2020 have become even more so. 

Blackout Management Practice with Bottom Dwellers Freediving

Brad was heading down to Mexico with his partner Shannon to celebrate the completion of her 2nd year of Carpentry schooling. There were no real plans for freediving on this trip except to snorkel with Shannon when they felt like getting wet. Otherwise the two were planning to enjoy a few too many pool side tequilas and umbrella drinks in a relaxing week to get away from life’s stresses. 

One morning, well into the week of celebrations, Brad received a message from a friend and dive buddy from back home whom they happened to bump into at the airport on the way down to Cabo. Kevin was organizing a boat charter and wanted to know if Brad was keen to join too. Did that fish look bigger underwater?… Game on! Brad pauses on the holiday celebrations for a day and connects with Kevin at the boat the following morning. The boys are comfortable diving together already. They already know the gear provided by the charter and with the guides finding this out the boys get thrown right at it. Starting shallow in the ten meter zone they warm up. Deeper drops to twenty meters feel great. The water is glass, the sun is shining and the vis is all-time for the Canadian green water duo. The guide then spots a forty pound pargo at twenty meters. “Let’s get after it!” Brad’s body vibrates as he tries to contain his excitement. 

The conditions are perfect. There’s fish on the reef and excitement is high. Kevin and Brad wind up for an epic siege of Rock, Paper, Scissor to decide who gets the glory of making the first drop to the holed up pargo below. Ten bouts later Brad finally prevails. His heart is pumping from the adrenaline fuelled by the desire to get the fish in the hole twenty meters below. Without skipping a beat, Brad lays flat, takes a peak inhale and drops to the reef to hunt. He pokes around a bit and is feeling great on bottom. He can’t see/find the fish and decides to ascend. Brad gives an okay signal on the way up, hits the surface, starts going through his recovery breaths, then “whoooomph!”… peripheral collapses. 

Video of Brad’s Blackout caught on film by his dive buddy Kevin…

Brad comes around and starts making sense of what’s gone on. The in-water charter guide is holding him vertical under the arm keeping his airway above water. Brad composes himself and gets out of the water and up onto the boat. Brad had blacked out. His dive day is done and his body needs time to recover. On the boat he’s offered a cold coca cola to get some sugars in him and they recount what happened with the crew.  

Brad kicked to the surface rather hastily but was still cognitive when he hit the surface. As he hit the surface and began going through his recovery breaths Brad blacked out which most likely was from a pulmonary dump due to low oxygen levels created by pressure change. The guide being right there caught Brad and the gun and quickly flipped Brad onto his back. He removed Brad’s mask to allow him to breathe as Brad appeared to have reverted back to nasal breathing. Nasal breathing is our most natural form of breathing and is our dominant form during a blackout and other hypoxic events. Once the mask was off, Brad began breathing. He came around and was taken aback. “I was surprised and in shock”.  

I remember when I first heard about the blackout from Brad’s lips what had happened to him. I was incredibly relieved that he was okay as he is my friend and a former Bottom Dwellers student. I also remember how it felt when he first told me what had happened and how he said he was embarrassed to tell me about it. I told Brad at the time that sharing these stories will only help a freediving community grow safer and stronger. I continue to stand by my comment to Brad and it is the goal of a safer and stronger community that has prompted this series. We can learn alot from each other’s experiences and these are the types of stories that help spread awareness of the risks in freediving.  

Nothing that happened to Brad that day was anything to be embarrassed about. Brad had done what he could to rest and recover the day before and on that particular dive he had a hypoxic event. The scenario was managed well enough by the guide that was at his side when he blacked out and ultimately Brad and Kevin came out of the scenario with a learning experience and a story to tell and share.  

The question to ask here is what factors contributed to Brad’s blackout as he did on that dive? He was feeling fine on the dives and warm ups. So why did things turn so fast? Let’s take it back to the beginning to break this down a little deeper. 

The Breakdown: 

Previously when Brad has prepared for courses or trips he has made sure to put his health first. He would dedicate to cutting out bad foods, stop drinking and focus on health to get his stamina up. This trip with the charter was unplanned and last minute. With Brad going all Ricky Martin and having lived the ‘la vida loca’ lifestyle for the week prior to the dive day the first contributing variable came into play. Brad was automatically starting at a deficit which with freediving can hugely play into one’s abilities to perform. How we fuel our bodies and manage our intake and hydration levels greatly affects our performance in freediving all the way down to our oxygen efficiency.  

Excess stress on the body can lead to Blackout

Leading up to the drop where Brad had his blackout that put him on the boat there were a huge amount of psychological factors and stresses that came into play in the form of excitement. Ten rounds of the most epic Rock, Paper, Scissor game you’ve ever seen, while you’re waiting to see who gets the chance at getting that trophy fish, in a setting that you only get to dream about and visit so often in your life is more than enough to get your heart rate up and have these peer pressures and psychological stresses ramping up against you. This was even more obvious once Brad won the game with the ever coveted and powerful rock where he then proceeded to lay flat, take a peak inhale and begin his drop… without even doing a proper breathe up. Excitement had gotten the best of him. Amidst his excitement on the drop, he trips up slightly on his float line detracting from the efficiency of his descent. He reaches bottom and is hyper-focused and distracted on finding the prized fish. As he turns and begins his ascent he is already in trouble but he just doesn’t know it yet. Adrenaline, psychology, peer pressures, physical ability and lack of preparation all culminated into this scenario occurring as it did. Until Brad was able to step back, remove himself from the scenario and look at it objectively, he was unaware of how things were stacking up against him. Brad actually was “feeling great”… until he wasn’t. Another potentially deadly factor that could have gravely worsened things in this scenario was that in all the excitement throughout the day the crew had completely forgotten to do a proper buoyancy check. “I was wearing too much weight for too little wetsuit.” Brad knows how to manage his weight and understands the repercussions even more so now but the excitement of the day got the best of him and if his guide and buddy hadn’t been right there this could have been a completely different outcome. Overweighting is a common mistake many spearos make and this shows that even certified freedivers can get caught up in the excitement of things and get complacent. Being over weight when a blackout occurs is a lethal combination.

Asides from Brad’s weighting in this scenario and to take the time to do a proper breathe up there were a few other things he could have done to better his performance and lessen the risk of a hypoxic event, however, it again comes back to the fact that he was “feeling great” until he blacked out.  

I asked Brad how he has managed dealing with this event and how it shifted his mindset with freediving since. Brad had this to say: 

“It was a very humbling experience and I put the brakes on hard with freediving,” he said. “Even with all the work I’ve done with you and the goals I set, I’m now stepping back and giving the sport even more respect where it’s owed.” Brad continued “It’s not that I wasn’t as strong a diver as I was, this experience showed me how serious the repercussions can be and how important having the safety in place is… Never dive alone… You start getting cocky and that’s when you get caught. I almost got caught.”  

Blackout Preparation requires planning

Brad found he began to push freediving further aside due to the anxiety and stress it caused for him and his partner.  He was pushing away dive buddies and using work as a scapegoat to avoid getting out. A big driving factor in his desire to temporarily disconnect from the sport after this blackout experience was his love for his son and his partner whom the experience had rattled fairly hard. 

“I haven’t really been diving since. I got busy with work and the times I did get out I was really in my head. My bottom time was cut drastically and every time I’d get that ‘kick’ in the gut it would throw my whole game off.” 

Brad’s not done just yet. He’s leaving the white noise behind and getting back out there.  

“I don’t want to give up on the sport… I love it… I’m missing it big time… I get out in the water and I relax… Work and life is busy. I’ve been resetting, putting family, the girlfriend and work first and easing back to it. Lately I’m just super tentative with getting back at it but I’ll get there again soon. I’m going to leave the line and the gun at home….leave all that bullshit behind and just get out there and dive… just enjoy it again.” 

Hypoxia in the Community: Episode 2: Preview 

“Other than luck, the only thing that saved my life from this blackout was making sure I was properly weighted at the beginning of the trip. Had I been overweight and sunk no one would have been close enough to help me and I’m certain given the tide and swell that were running I would have drowned.” 

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