Avoiding Panic After Regulator Failure

Divers are responsible for doing a proper buddy check, having a plan for handling emergencies and making the decision to abort a dive if necessary. Photograph by Stephen Frink

Editor’s Note: This article includes actions and recommendations that are contrary to training agency standards and may be dangerous. Divers should establish relationships with their buddies, perform thorough predive safety checks and stay close to their buddies while underwater. The advice to not trust your alternate second stage if you are unable to breathe from your primary is not supported by DAN® or dive training agencies; breathing from your octopus is the proper first step in this situation.

We started our afternoon dive in warm Fiji waters on a pleasant September day. The conditions were perfect. Our group of eight experienced divers was looking forward to a site full of swim-throughs, with a maximum depth of 60 feet to 75 feet and pinnacles rising about 20 feet from the bottom. I reached the bottom within minutes, performed my routine checks, turned on my GoPro camera and continued my dive.

Since people in the group had met for the first time on the boat, we had not yet developed buddy relationships. The conditions were so comfortable that we felt we could enjoy the scenery and stay close enough to occasionally check on each other.

About 10 minutes into the dive, my regulator completely cut out as I tried to inhale. I tried again and still couldn’t breathe. I was more than 60 feet down and had no air, having just exhaled. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind, and panic crept in. I had always advocated to not trust the octopus (spare regulator) in case of a regulator failure because I would not know if it was the first or the second stage that had failed, so I followed my own advice.

My training kicked in, and I started to hear instructions in my mind in what felt like slow motion. “Look for your buddy,” a voice said, and I realized I was far from my buddy. Next I heard, “Hold your breath, and do not inhale,” which was a crucial piece of advice at that precise moment. If I had tried to inhale again, I could have sucked water, and as I was nearing panic, I could have drowned. “Look for the nearest person,” the voice said. I noticed Brook, a senior instructor and underwater photographer, about 15 feet away.

I rushed to her while giving the out-of-air signal. She gave me her primary regulator because her octopus was integrated with her BC inflator. I could finally breathe. Once I was able to stabilize my breathing, Brook asked if I wanted to surface. I asked her to stay put while I checked my octopus — I wanted to avoid abandoning the dive for both of us if I could help it. I was thankful to discover that my octopus was working. By this time some of the other divers in the group had noticed the situation and had come over. The dive guide helped me reorganize my gear so I could stay on my octopus for the rest of the dive. I was finally able to get back to enjoying the scenery.

We started to debrief about the incident as soon as we surfaced. My regulator had completely failed. There was nothing I could have done about that, but I replayed the incident in my mind and remembered that my GoPro was recording. I watched the video and measured the total time of the incident. It was 115 seconds, but the crucial time from my regulator failing to buddy breathing was only 10 seconds. My training was driving my actions during this time.

After I returned home, I sent my regulator to the manufacturer. They found a fault in the primary second stage where the poppet valve had disengaged from the lever. They serviced both stages and replaced all the parts in question.

I believed my philosophy not to go for my octopus if my regulator failed was justified. If my first stage was not functioning, I could have had serious problems. My training allowed me to take control, avoid panic and survive an incident.

DAN Response

We are thrilled to hear that there were no injuries or fatalities during this event. As with every scenario like this, there are lessons to be learned and shared so others may benefit without having to personally experience it. Three major takeaways from this story are performing proper buddy checks, breathing from your octopus and aborting the dive.

Whether it’s with your regular dive buddy or someone you met 10 minutes ago, do a buddy check before entering the water for each dive. This includes but is not limited to checking gear configuration, confirming breathing-gas supply, discussing how to share air in an out-of-air situation, locating weight releases and knowing how to use them, and reviewing your dive plan, including emergency procedures.

The second issue is the rare instance of a primary regulator failure. The first course of action should be to grab the octopus and purge it to see if breathing gas is available. If breathing gas is present, take a cautious breath from the octopus (placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth so if water is still in the regulator you will not aspirate it), and then signal your buddy and abort the dive. If your octopus fails, then you know that either your first-stage regulator has a problem or you are out of breathing gas, in which case you should then seek to share air with your buddy according to your plan.

Whenever one of the buddy pair experiences a situation like the one this diver described, it is dangerous to do anything other than abort the dive. If there had been an additional failure of the octopus, it would have put not only the initial diver but also other buddies in further jeopardy. Once you establish an alternate breathing supply (by either using your octopus or sharing air with your buddy), the next step is to signal OK and make a slow, controlled ascent. Conduct a precautionary (safety) stop if there is adequate breathing gas supply to safely do so, and then exit the water as appropriate for your dive conditions. Do not do the safety stop if you will run out of breathing gas. Make the ascent to the surface, cease all diving for the remainder of the day, and watch for symptoms of decompression illness.

As the author mentioned, regulator failures of this nature are extremely rare. Sending the regulator for proper servicing by the manufacturer or an authorized service center is the appropriate action. Kudos to this diver for not panicking and for surviving the incident. That said, unless you are certain it is a first-stage failure or an out-of-air scenario, going for your octopus is the proper course of action. Most important, divers must ignore any thought of inconveniencing a buddy or ruining a dive. Either the diver with the problem or the buddy must take the responsibility of making the only safe decision, which is to abort the dive.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2020