With so much emphasis placed on sleek equipment design and technology, it’s hardly surprising that divers tend to give greater priority to things like face masks and fins than they do to their more important biological bits and pieces. Take ears, for example. Most of us can go for days at a time without even thinking about ears; which is remarkably sad when you consider how much attention we pay to the latest rebreather unit or regulator design.
It’s not the sort of thing that divers will readily admit to, but most of them do take pride in having equipment that sparks envy in others. And because their safety and well-being depends on that piece of gear functioning perfectly at all times, they protect their investment with a proper care and maintenance programme.
Part of the reason for this is, of course, the fact that equipment items come with their own price tag attached, whereas ears tend to be free as part of an all-inclusive package deal. With no apparent economic worth, they go largely un-noticed when contrasted with a new and expensive piece of diving equipment.
“Cor! Is that one of those new Quantum Infinity regulators you’ve got there? That’s the one with the slide-mounted woofter valve and double-barrelled, spring-loaded giggling pin, isn’t it? It’s supposed to really improve gas delivery performance … by the way, I like your ears.”
For some reason, ears seldom receive the same sort of acknowledgement as do other parts of the body. People notice facial features and things like hairstyle and colour – and the shape of Pippa Middleton’s bum – but seldom pay any attention at all to the ears. (Unless they’re large and happen to stick out at right-angles to the head; in which case the owners usually get stuck with brutal nick-names like ‘Wing-nut’, or ‘Dumbo’.)
At a personal level, I’ve always appreciated the value of ears. They’ve proven to be remarkably useful things for preventing hats falling down over the eyes, holding sunglasses in place, or knowing when somebody has offered to buy me a beer.
But despite their prominent place in all diving 101 texts, ears rarely get the sort of respect due to such delicate and sensitive instruments. Which is hardly surprising given that all of the tiny fiddly bits have robust names like anvil, stirrup, hammer and drum; designations that make them sound as though they more properly belong on the shop floor of a busy iron foundry.
(Which is pprobably the reason why so many people carry out excavation surveys of their ear cavities using things like pens, pencils and even straightened out paper-clips while ignoring the advice to never poke anything into their ear that’s smaller than one’s elbow?)
Caring for their ears is something that most divers acknowledge, but few actually practice to the point where they’re prepared to have them checked periodically by a diving physician. Even using cotton buds, or a finger, to remove wax is fraught with problems. Forming a waterproof covering that protects the skin of the outer ear canal, there’s a danger that the wax will be pushed inwards to form a plug that prevents proper equalisation. And if the protective wax coating is removed, there’s a risk that organisms that thrive in warm, moist environments will set up home and create their own painful problems.
Although it’s a seemingly simple act to perform, equalisation isn’t always easy. Particularly when the diver is suffering from even minor ‘stuffiness’ as the result of, say, a mild head cold and when, because of limited vacation time, they are determined to dive at all costs. Often using more force than is wise – or necessary – in order to achieve equalisation, the diver can cause damage to the ear drum with long term consequences in terms of hearing loss. And that’s leaving to one side all of the other affects that a mix of differential air and water pressure, temperature, wax and mucous can have on the ear’s well-being – or the role that the mechanism also plays in balance and orientation.
All divers quickly learn that the easiest way to save face when they have doubts about a particular dive is to claim an inability to, ‘clear their ears’. While it’s a handy excuse, it is – regrettably – the only time that many of them pay any heed to the health of those overlooked appendages.
Not that it worries my mate, ‘Wing-nut’. He’s of the opinion that ears make great stabilisers. Krabbmann, on the other hand, is one of those evolutionary-theorist divers who believe that ears are the vestigial remains of gills: He takes great delight in telling people with opinions that differ from his own to, “Blow it out your ears.”
I’m the only sensible one among the three of us. I have this fear that if I subject my ears to too much abuse then I’ll never hear that offer to buy me a beer.