Updated: Apr 25
Ants are truly fascinating creatures.
Living in the jungle I see them all the time, different species going about their ant business. Carpenters building huge, elaborate nests in trees. Leaf-cutters all marching along, having stolen precisely incised bits of Nelly’s garden in numbers so great that they wear a perfect path back and forth to wherever the hell it is they’re going.
Then there are the army ants. Columns of them, sometimes a foot wide, march in a straight line through the jungle in search of bugs and lizards and whatever else they can overwhelm by sheer force of numbers and little, bitey obstinacy.
Or, at least, they think it’s a straight line.
In truth every ant is simply following the ant in front of it, guided by pheromones. The ants at the very front, the vanguard, they’re just sort of stumbling around, in as straight a line as they have the capacity to imagine, hoping they happen upon something useful.
In the 20s biologist (and hero of my old organization, the WCS) William Beebe first described a phenomenon among these ants who, presumably, all thought they were going in a straight and productive line, but were, in fact, all trapped in a circle with a 1200 foot circumference.
Somehow, at some point, the ants had doubled back over their own path, each following the other, and the nose caught up with the tail. He observed that it took any individual ant more than 2 hours to complete a rotation.
An ant mill. Sometimes called a death spiral.
Because unless some random ant meanders out of the circle and breaks it, they will just keep going round and round and round until they all dehydrate or starve. The whole colony dying.
Ever heard the term “the incident pit?”
It’s the diving version of a psychological ant mill.
Something happens - your response is either inadequate or incorrect - problem escalates - your response is either inadequate or incorrect - problem escalates - etc. The effect is terrifyingly rapid.
A diver finds themselves in a situation that is beyond their control. I don’t mean like an asteroid strike or sharks with fricken lazers; I mean that something has happened on the dive where control has been lost.
Perhaps it was beyond scope of training and experience. Perhaps it that the diver is under-equipped. Perhaps the diver just wasn’t in the right head-space for the dive. Perhaps it was a trust-me dive with someone who didn’t deserve the trust. Perhaps it is some combination of these things.
Whatever the cause(s) - things have gone pear-shaped. And it’s all getting out of hand fast.
You know what the vast majority of people tend to do in emergency situations? One of two things:
1- Nothing. They freeze up. This is far and away the most common when (and this is important) there is a lack of training for the circumstance.
Picture this: you’re in a helicopter. The pilot has a heart attack. What do you do? Right? You gonna google “how to fly a helicopter?” No, you have literally no options before you. Chances are at least 90% you’re going to freeze up completely.
2- Normalize. This assumes you have some business to go about that you can focus on so you can ignore the problem. And focus you will... over and over and over and over in your mind so that the outside force that you are now only vaguely aware of as an issue can stay safely secondary.
Emotionally insulated from it, even if it’s killing you.
New situation to imagine: a diver with no overhead training nor the correct equipment gets talked into exploring inside a shipwreck. Their pressure gauge starts running low and they communicate this to their buddy who “really knows the wreck” but is, in fact, lost as hell.
How well do you think communication, team and situational awareness, or physical control are going to last? Or is it more likely to succumb tunnel vision on the pressure gauge and swimming in what is perceived to be a straight line. In essence, falling back on the only training for this now unmanageable situation our hypothetical divers are equipped with?
There’s one terrible accident here in Mexico where a cave diver swam back and forth under a perfectly usable exit several times before, tragically, dying. But lacking experience or broader awareness they were so focused on what they expected to see they never looked up.
This is not to victim-blame.
This behavior can and does manifest in absolutely all of us.
If you can honestly tell me you have never had a dive where things got a little out of hand and you didn’t have a fight-or-flight moment of “JUST BASH MY WAY THROUGH!” then you have not been diving nearly long enough.
For those of you who can be honest with yourselves, and know that you are one of the lucky ones whose psychological ants managed to, either accidentally or by virtue of some outside force, break the circle... then we learn from it. And try like hell to avoid it ever happening again.
Because, and this is another critically important point, I can just about guarantee that the reason you were lucky is that nothing ELSE happened.
If you’re already caught on the steep slopes of an incident pit, your attention is compromised. All your emotional energy is focused on telling yourself, “This is going to be OK.” And you are likely to start missing other critical information.
You swim right past the anchor line. You swim down the wrong passage of a cave. You start skipping decompression stops. You switch to the wrong breathing gas. You inadvertently make another mistake that otherwise would have been avoidable, obvious, or benign... but has now compounded and reinforced the problem. And, very possibly, proven fatal. To be dithered over on Scubaboard for the next week.
So how do we avoid our own ant mills?
Training. Practice. 8 Ps.
Proper preparation, planning, and practice prevents piss poor performance.
I could go on at great length about any one of those Ps. But for today let’s stick with ants.
Don’t be one. They’re fascinating animals, but I prefer to keep my distance. Be smarter than an ant.
Stay self-aware and honest. Both about any current situation and about your limitations.
Stupidity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result? Well, In our own ways (both personally and culturally) we all fall into that definition.
Best we can do is try to break those cycles and grow as people towards total enlightenment.
But as divers we must avoid them altogether. Otherwise we might never get the opportunity for the enlightenment thing.
Also: avoid army ants altogether. They bite. It hurts.
Picture by SJ of a room so big it makes you feel like an ant.