Separated Divers

The necessary safety gear when diving from a boat includes several types of signaling devices, which can help rescuers find you in the event of separation from your buddy or boat. Photo by Stephen Frink

With sunny skies and 1-foot seas, the day was perfect for a wreck dive in the Gulf of Mexico. By the time our 20-foot boat arrived at the site 2 miles offshore, however, dark storm clouds were forming in the distance. We visually monitored the weather and checked numerous online forecasts while slowly prepping our gear. There were no signs of an imminent threat, so we proceeded with our dive plan. One person stayed behind for topside support. He had the demanding role of supervising our safety, which included vigilant weather monitoring in case degrading conditions required us to abort the dive. 

We surfaced 30 minutes later to noticeably stronger winds, larger swells and darkening skies. We quickly stowed our gear and prepared for a turbulent return trip. Several other boats that had been at the site were now gone except for one smaller boat in the distance with a dive flag still flying. It was getting battered by waves and nearly capsized from several broadside hits. It appeared that the divers hadn’t surfaced yet and that no one was managing the boat.

An uneasy feeling came over us. Large raindrops began to fall as the storm was now nearly overhead. We knew that it would be a long ride back to shore, requiring thoughtful maneuvering and steady navigation to overcome the now 5-foot seas. As we nervously retreated, we scanned the waters for signs of divers. A diver soon surfaced about 20 feet away portside, which was nearly 500 feet from his boat. He was an older male holding a speargun and wearing a blue camouflage wetsuit. We called out to him, signaled for an OK sign and asked if he had a buddy. He was alert and kept fidgeting with his gear but did not respond to us. His disorientation and fatigue were apparent. 

With a black sky rapidly approaching, we knew that conditions were going to worsen but that we had to help. Without delay, our team jumped into action. Two people on board kept an eye on the boat in the distance and scanned the water for more divers. The others monitored and reassured the diver. Our captain positioned our boat so we could throw a rescue line to the diver. Once we towed him in, we assisted him with gear removal. He handed off his speargun initially without disengaging it and was slow to answer questions, reinforcing his distress. Shortly afterward, we noticed that his dive buddy had made it back to their boat. We called out and waved him down, and he quickly raced over to meet us and retrieve his buddy. His mood was surprisingly lighthearted, but ours was not. 

The storm was now upon us, and we had to expeditiously continue our departure, which prohibited us from learning what had happened with these two divers and what caused the vast buddy separation. The rescued diver was fatigued and would not have been able to make it back to his boat. This near-miss incident highlights numerous triggering events that could have escalated to cause an accident. 

Importance of Topside Support

The first identifiable trigger was the decision to dive off a boat without a topside attendant. A quick search through scuba diving forums reveals that this is a hotly debated topic. 

Topside support plays numerous roles. Support ensures that the anchor holds and that divers do not surface to find their boat floating out to sea. Support can also help divers with gear before and after the dive and with safe reentry into the boat, which is critical in the event of an emergency. It can also help to limit heavy postdive exertion, which can contribute to the development of decompression sickness. 

Topside support serves as a liaison, keeping watch of changing weather conditions and signaling to divers if a retreat is required. A dive plan should include a discussion of topside signals (for example, using continuous bangs with a wrench or tool on the side of the boat to tell divers to surface), along with dive times and contingency plans, which should be agreed upon and communicated between the divers and support. During the dive, support can be on “bubbles watch” and monitor that divers ascend according to plan and at the boat. If a diver ascends far from the boat, as was the case in this scenario, support can pull the anchor and navigate to the diver. 

In the case of a missing diver, topside support can promptly call for help. They need to know how to operate the vessel and should be familiar with the divers’ equipment, dive plan and emergency procedures. The vessel should have a first aid kit and an emergency oxygen unit, and support should have training on how to use them. Topside support should also note the boat’s starting position before moving to initiate a search. If search and rescue efforts are required, this information will be important for the rescuers.

Safety Gear

When diving from a boat, it is prudent for each diver to carry a surface marker buoy, whistle and flashlight. A separated diver can use these items to increase their visibility, which is crucial for successful rescue efforts. Consider high visibility when selecting gear for use. 

Take-Home Message

Diving and boating involve some level of risk. Good divers are skilled at risk mitigation and management. When we fail to do this, we often neglect the risk imposed on our buddies and rescuers. The fate of the diver in this story might have been much different had we not seen him or been in the vicinity — and much worse for us if we had not made it out of the worsened post-rescue weather conditions. 

© Alert Diver — Q1 2020