Experience Matters

After reading two recent Alert Diver articles — one by a woman who saved her husband in Cozumel and the other about how the simple act of saying some wise words may have saved another diver’s life — I was reminded of a story of my own. The incident occurred many years ago, so some details are lost, but the memory of what I did to save my husband is still clear.

I learned to dive in Seattle, Washington, in 1987, when drysuits were starting to become the norm rather than the exception in cold water. Over the next 20 years I did several hundred dives, with at least half of them in cold water in the Pacific Northwest. I learned a lot about challenging conditions such as deep depths, strong currents and long surface swims to and from the shore. I also earned my advanced and rescue certifications.

When I met my future husband, Mac Noyes, in 2004, he had been certified for about a decade but had only dived on vacations in the tropics. At the time of the incident he had made around 50 dives. Though he is very comfortable in the water and can snorkel for hours, the first dive of each annual trip was generally a refresher dive for him. The first time we dived together I knew none of this. I was diving weekly as a volunteer in the cold-water tank at the Seattle Aquarium. Mac had not been diving in a year or more.

In 2007 we were in Belize on a sailing charter with three other couples. We spent most of our time in the water snorkeling — it was so easy to just jump off the boat and enjoy the abundance of beautiful reef life in shallow water. We decided to go diving for a day with another couple after we found out they were very experienced divers, so we found a small local dive operator. I don’t recall what led us to choose that particular business, but it’s likely they were the closest or the only one where we were anchored at the time.

On the morning of the dive, two young dive guides came alongside our sailboat in a small boat stocked with the rental dive gear and not much else. The four of us got in their boat and took off to the reef. The guides helped us into our dive gear, and all seemed well. We back-rolled off the boat and started down. I had no trouble descending and went down faster than Mac. Confident that he was OK, I watched him while I neared the bottom at 50 feet. 

He approached me and settled on the bottom, and his eyes were wide with question and alarm as he showed me his air-pressure gauge. With each breath the needle wildly swung back and forth. I knew immediately what was wrong. I reached behind him and opened the tank valve, allowing full air flow into the regulator. I held him in front of me and watched his face for signs as he took several deep, full breaths. He calmed down, and I gave him the OK signal. He returned the sign, so we joined the other divers and completed the rest of the dive without further incident, though I remained close to him and watchful.

Man tests his regulator

Mac had no idea what had been wrong, only that he could not get a full breath from his regulator. He was getting just enough air to think it was OK to continue descending, but by the time he got to me he was feeling light-headed and panicked. He did not know until after the dive what the swinging needle in the air gauge meant. As we talked later, neither of us could remember being taught in our dive classes that the swinging needle means that the tank valve is not fully open. I had learned it at some point in my experience, though I don’t remember when. Mac said that he saw me put my arms around his neck and look in his eyes, and he suddenly felt better and could breathe normally. That’s a romantic thought, but it’s not even close to reality.

Back on the boat, we realized they had opened the valve enough to check the tank pressure but had not closed it fully or reopened it when we geared up. I had nearly lost my future husband and learned several valuable lessons about my role as a dive buddy — especially as the more experienced one.

Be accountable for your gear. Check its operation before you enter the water, whether it is your own or rental gear. I knew to do this but still assumed the dive operators had checked everything. Though they have a major interest in keeping clients safe, dive operators still make mistakes. Check all gear, yours and your buddy’s, before getting in the water. This was not the only time we have had rental dive gear that wasn’t fully functional. It’s your life, not theirs, at stake.

Always vet your dive operator. We hired relatively inexperienced dive operators and assumed they knew what they were doing. In the remote area where we were, we did not have a lot of choices, but being more aware would have kept us safer, even with the same dive guides.

Stay close to your buddy. It is important to stay close during the descent and throughout the dive because things can go wrong from the start. If I had stayed with Mac during the descent, we could have corrected the malfunction before it ever became a problem. Now we always descend together.

Know your buddy. If you are diving with a new buddy, make no assumptions about them, regardless of their diving experience. Mac’s natural snorkeling ability was apparent, so I assumed he was more comfortable and familiar with diving than he was at the time.

Be sure your tank valve is completely open. The practice of backing off an open tank valve a half turn is no longer recommended and, as this incident illustrates, can be potentially dangerous. Tank valves should always be fully open during dives. 

Dive with DAN® dive accident insurance. I have always been a member of DAN, and I know that standard travel insurance does not cover dive accidents. I have never had to use my dive accident insurance, and I hope I never have to, but I have never regretted having it.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2019