Caught in a Current

It is necessary to ask questions of your divemaster, liveaboard crew or dive shop, especially when diving in an unfamiliar or new location. Be sure to also ask yourself questions about your dive plans — you know your skills and comfort level better than anyone. Photo by Stephen Frink

The most biodiverse marine environment on Earth, Raja Ampat, Indonesia, has a staggering variety of life supported by nutrient-rich tidal currents. Diving in these often-strong currents requires good judgment, a comfort level with the water’s power, the right equipment and knowledge of how to use it.

Before embarking on a recent 12-day trip to Raja Ampat on our first liveaboard dive boat, my wife, Yvonne, and I were relatively inexperienced divers with about 20 dives each on easy reefs in Hawaii, Fiji and Bora Bora, the most recent of which was six years ago. We didn’t take a refresher class because of the cost and assumed that we could get back up to speed after reviewing our open-water course manual and taking a dive or two.

The dive operator welcomed beginners but didn’t educate us about local conditions. The owner of our local dive shop was of limited help because he had never dived Raja Ampat. We later discovered on the boat that most of the other divers had muck sticks and reef hooks, which we didn’t know to bring. 

After our checkout dives, the liveaboard staff divided us into two groups of five based on experience level and assigned one divemaster to each group. Our dive briefings were thorough, and the director was knowledgeable.

Diving Raja Ampat was everything Yvonne and I had hoped for and more. At the end of one dive at least eight mantas danced around us. The reefs appeared to be unaffected by human activity or climate change. 

On the morning of the ninth day, we visited a site called Magic Mountain (Karang Bayangan). The director warned us about the possibility of strong tidal currents and found a couple of muck sticks for us to use. After about 40 minutes a powerful current slammed us as we came around a large bommie at about 30 feet. Our divemaster led us higher to do our safety stop and ascend. We tried to stay close to the reef, but it was difficult to make progress. I was scared, and my only focus was not getting pushed into open water.

I finally found something to grab, and the divemaster helped me find a crevice for my muck stick. I caught my breath and looked around for Yvonne, but she had vanished. She wasn’t in the tender when I surfaced, and no one on board had seen her. I sat in shock, but thankfully she surfaced a few minutes later.

Unable to fight the current, she had been blown far behind us and upward, almost to the surface. She was head down and tried to descend again by pressing her deflator button, but she forgot about her dump valves. Fortunately, a diver from the second group saw Yvonne and notified the other divemaster, who pulled her back down to the reef.

As we discussed the incident on the liveaboard, someone asked, “Where was your dive buddy?” Having no experience in strong currents, I had panicked and forgotten about my wife. I felt terrible and resolved to stay close to her no matter what. Fortunately, Yvonne was unhurt and unfazed. We both learned from the incident and enjoyed all the remaining dives.

When things go wrong, it’s often due to a combination of factors. The dive operator could have mitigated the risks by assigning an extra divemaster to our beginners group or requiring that divers have experience with currents. But ultimately we are responsible for our own safety. Had we taken a refresher course and refamiliarized ourselves with our equipment, the incident might have been frightening but not likely dangerous.

Now that we have a better sense of what we might not know, we’ll ask the following questions before our next dive trip:

  1. What conditions should we expect, and what equipment do we need to be fully prepared? If our local dive shop can’t help, we’ll find someone who can. 
  2. What is the ratio of guests to divemasters? Despite now having logged more than 50 dives, we still feel like near beginners. Five less-experienced divers are a lot for one divemaster to manage when conditions are challenging.
  3. Is this trip appropriate for our experience level? We’ll learn about potential conditions from divers who have been to the area and seek additional training if needed or choose a different location that better meets our skill level.

We have no regrets about going to Raja Ampat and look forward to returning someday. When we do, we’ll make sure we’re prepared. 

© Alert Diver — Q3-Q4 2020