Escape from the Bubble Cloud

When his regulator hose burst during a dive, Rob Waterfield not only lost his primary air source, he also was engulfed by a cloud of bubbles that made it nearly impossible to see or hear.

Janet, my dear buddy in life and underwater adventures, and I recently were on a 22-person dive boat off Pompano Beach, Fla. The weather was pleasant — 88°F with a light breeze and 1-foot waves — and our first dive was to be a drift dive over a 60-foot-deep reef. The water was warm (86°F at depth), and the current was mild. Jan and I have more than 700 dives each; she is a divemaster, and I am an instructor.

We descended onto the reef and immediately spotted a legal-size spiny lobster. I grabbed it, and Jan came over with our mesh catch bag to stash it. Moments after we secured the lobster, my regulator hose popped dramatically, splitting near the second-stage connector. The rubber hose was severed almost completely, and 150 psi of breathing gas rushed out in a maelstrom of loud and blinding bubbles.

I was stunned by the sudden flood of bubbles, and my first thought was I’m not going to die today. I started grasping for my octopus (alternate second stage regulator) but fumbled amid all the bubbles. I keep my octopus on the right side of my BCD with a quick-release clip, but it was a challenge to grab it while using my right hand to try to hold together the burst hose. Bringing both hands back to the flailing regulator hose, I held it together, which seemed to direct just enough air into the second stage to allow me to draw a decent breath.

Jan’s first thought upon seeing the flood of bubbles was that my regulator was free-flowing, but she soon realized the volume of air was too big for a free-flow. Though I couldn’t see her through the cloud of bubbles, I felt her pushing her octopus into my hand. After dragging another quick breath out of my failing regulator, I successfully grasped Jan’s spare regulator and put it in my mouth. The blizzard of bubbles still gushed violently from my burst hose.

Amid the chaos I reminded myself to keep breathing. I couldn’t see my wrist-mounted computer to monitor my depth or ascent rate, so I prepared for our ascent by making a point to exhale more than I inhaled. Jan and I began ascending, holding onto each other’s BCDs to stay together. I kept breathing from her octopus instead of securing my own, as my cylinder was rapidly losing air.

Maintain Your Gear

Examine your hoses by squeezing them along their length to check for any variations in resistance or flexibility, which may indicate a problem. Also check your second-stage regulators for cracks near the connector. Hoses and regulators have limited service lives and should be replaced before their function is compromised.

I don’t know for sure how much time passed, but Jan and I broke the surface about 30 or 40 seconds later. She shut off my tank, and from 150 feet away the captain motored the boat over and asked why we were up so soon.

I held up my regulator, which was barely still attached to the rubber hose. Only a thread of rubber held them together. “My reg hose burst,” I said.

While the captain swung the stern around to us, I took a quick inventory of my body. Thankfully nothing physical seemed out of the ordinary. I told the crew about the burst hose, Jan’s quick assist and how she guided me to the surface. One crew member opened my tank and announced that the previously full 100-cubic-foot cylinder was down to less than 500 psi — effectively empty. While I sat on the transom, she brought me a fresh tank and replaced my regulator assembly with a rental. In minutes we were ready to get back onto the reef.

After ensuring we were mentally ready, Jan and I headed down the line and spent 50 minutes at 60 feet. We caught another lobster, saw two nurse sharks and relished the abundant coral, sponge and fish off Pompano Beach.

Lessons Learned

The first thing I took away from this experience was the certainty that Jan is the best buddy I’ve ever had the privilege to dive with. She was experienced enough, close enough and quick enough to capably respond to the incident. And she even had the presence of mind to not lose the catch bag with that 1.5-pound lobster in it.

I was fortunate that the hose rupture took place only four minutes into the dive. I had a full tank to blow through, and my nitrogen exposure was very low, which was a good thing considering our faster-than-normal ascent.

Following this incident I exchanged my octopus’ plastic quick-release clip for a rubber ring that loosely holds the mouthpiece for easy one-handed release. I also considered the value of a totally redundant air source such as a pony bottle or a side-slung 20-cubic-foot tank and regulator. Having a bailout bottle mounted on the front of my BCD within easy reach could have allowed me to more quickly resume breathing.

Have your equipment serviced regularly (we had ours overhauled just three months before), and inspect your hoses often to be sure they’re not cracking, drying out or rotting around the metal connector. Don’t hesitate to replace degraded hoses.

Refresh your air-sharing skills from time to time while diving — it may not be as simple as you remember. My open-water training was 33 years ago, and that’s a long time to go without practicing sharing air.

Finally, I can’t overstate the value of a competent and well-trained buddy. Jan’s quick and calm offer of her octopus and guidance to the surface were lifesaving. Thank goodness she and I have many hundreds of dives together, good awareness of each other underwater and the inclination to stay close while exploring the depths.

© Alert Diver — Q3 2017