Dealing With Sea Sickness

Motion sickness, mal-de-mer, or seasickness will at one time or another affect nine out of ten people who venture onto the water. It is a temporary condition which appears to leave the body no worse off for the experience. If you’ve been very seasick before, though, you might have felt at the time that you’d give anything to not feel it.

In broad terms, seasickness results when the information from your eyes and your ears disagrees. Your inner ears detect movement and allow you to control your balance with small and unconscious movements, but you use your eyes to make conscious decisions about your stance and balance. On board a boat, the deck under your feet may be moving erratically but the entire cabin is a static and unmoving frame of reference.

The seasickness victim feels sweaty, nauseated, sick, and as though he (or the room) is spinning. Headache and general weakness are common. The urge to vomit is strong, usually compelling once you’ve noticed it. But vomiting rarely brings permanent relief. Seasickness can be triggered (or made worse) by other factors such as ear infections, sun exposure, alcoholic drinks, spicy foods, noxious fumes or odors, and being fatigued or dehydrated.

Susceptibility to seasickness varies widely. It become more prevalent, and more severe, as the sea state worsens (waves, surge, and wind all act on the boat’s hull or superstructure). Some boats are more stable than others. A catamaran is especially subject to being tossed about in complex and random ways. The larger the ship, the less the waves and wind will affect her, but most scuba diving is done from quite small vessels. Many people find that they become acclimated to boat motion over several days, and their occurrences of seasickness become rarer or less severe.

Avoiding Sea Sickness

First, keep yourself hydrated and rested. That can be a challenge on a tropical vacation, I know, but if you’re on a diving trip you are probably already minimizing your sun exposure, and late-night partying. Sipping on juice, water, or a sports drink, and snacking lightly on saltines or a similar bland food, can keep your stomach soothed. If you do vomit, be sure to re-hydrate.

Stay away from fumes, especially the diesel fumes at the stern of the boat (or from other boats at the pier). Place yourself as near the center of the boat, at the waterline, as possible. This is often the forward dressing area on a small open boat, or the saloon on a liveaboard charter. The boat’s motions (roll, pitch, and yaw) pivot her around her center of resistance (resistance to wind above, buoyancy below). The center of the boat near the waterline is generally not moving much at all.

Look out on the horizon and find an object to focus on–the shore, an island, a cloud, even another boat. Relax. Breathe. Don’t try to read. Reduce your stress and, as much as you can, your need to move around. Finally, you can get in the water. It sounds strange, but many divers who feel queasy on the deck are perfectly okay once they’ve dropped beneath the surface and are out of the wave and surge motion. This is of course not a good option if you’re already throwing up, but if you’re just starting to get queasy, and you and your buddy have gone through your usual pre-dive checks, it can be a good approach. While we’re on the subject, remember that if you need to throw up underwater, keep your regulator in your mouth. The particles will travel out the exhaust ports without impeding regulator breathing.

Medications for Sea Sickness

The following medications, if taken the day before you’re exposed to a pitching boat, can prevent sea sickness. If you wait until you’ve developed symptoms, they are less effective, but can still give you some relief. Remember that side effects can get worse once you’re underwater. Read the instructions and warnings, and ask your doctor if you have questions. Because of possible side effects, you may want to try a dose before your leave for your trip to check on your reaction to it.

Over-the-counter approaches include the antihistamines: Bonine (meclizine), Dramamine (dimenhydrinate), Marezine (cyclizine), and Benadryl (diphenhydramine). They
target the vomiting mechanism in the nervous system. They can also cause side effects, notably drowsiness.

Perhaps the most popular seasickness medicine is Transderm Scop (a skin patch, by prescription only). It releases scopolamine through the skin for one to several days, targeting your nervous system. While it’s effective, it can also have some serious side effects. Dry mouth and blurred vision are common. In rarer case the patch causes confusion, anxiety, and hallucinations. Not everyone can tolerate it. Scopolamine is also available as prescription tablets, under the name Scopace. This approach allows you to adjust the dosage.

Non-Medical Approaches

Ginger is a time-honored home remedy for stomach ills, and can reduce your chances of getting seasick or help reduce the symptoms. Candied (or crystallized) ginger root is convenient to carry, keeps well, and can be found in a range from mild to extremely tangy. It also has no common side effects. Ginger snap cookies and ginger ale may also work for you to help calm your stomach.

Some travelers swear by wristbands which stimulate a pressure point on the wrist. The “Sea-Band” (from a company of the same name) looks like a tennis wrist sweat band but includes a small button which presses on the pressure point. The “Relief Band” (from Woodside Biomedical) adds battery-powered stimulation. Take it off before entering the water, of course.

Finally, “Motion Eaze” (from Alta Labs) is a blend of herbal oils. It is applied behind the earlobe and claims to prevent or treat seasickness with no side effects. The above are of course just a few of the remedies available commercially. There are numerous herbal and homeopathic products. Remember that before you use a new product you should try it out to see whether you have any reactions to it.