The divemaster had given his usual excellent and detailed briefing, emphasizing that we would pass a rock face with several caves, but nobody should enter the caves under any circumstances. “Stick with me throughout the dive because there may be some powerful currents,” he reminded us.
As we plunged into the water, I was on the divemaster’s heels. Seeing no sign of a current yet, I decided to risk a few peeks into the cave entrances. Those few minutes when I dropped below the rest of the group nearly sealed my fate.
When I emerged from my short diversion, the group was quite far ahead and moving swiftly. They were kicking hard to cross an underwater valley, resisting a powerful current that could blow everyone out to sea. The divemaster was waving for me to catch up, but my hard swim had dropped my tank pressure below where it should have been at this point in the dive. Experience had taught me that my air consumption would increase significantly if I continued to fight the current. I had to make a split-second decision: Surface and risk losing the group, or possibly run out of air while kicking harder to cross the current and catch up.
After I quickly glanced at my pressure gauge, I realized that I would not make it despite my rigorous daily exercise routine and good physical shape. I waved off the divemaster, signaled that I was low on air and attempted a slow ascent. But suddenly my bubbles were going downward, and my depth gauge indicated an uncontrolled descent. A current was carrying me down and out to sea at the same time.
With little air in my tank, I knew I had to keep calm. I began inflating my buoyancy compensator device (BCD) in small spurts to try to stop the descent while keeping an eye on my depth. I had been as deep as 170 feet (51.8 meters) in Cozumel years before, but that was with plenty of air and a team of divemasters and course instructors around me. This time I was all alone.
The downcurrent eventually weakened, and I began rising slowly after what seemed like a lifetime underwater. During my ascent I started spinning head over heels and around like a top. I clutched my regulator and mask to prevent the vortex from pulling them away from me. The currents finally released me, and I continued my slow ascent. At 15 feet (4.6 meters) my gauge read empty, but I stayed there until it became too hard to breathe. I knew that the dive’s varying depths could have caused decompression issues, so I tried my best to stretch the safety stop.
Upon reaching the surface, I removed my regulator and took a huge breath of fresh air, feeling relieved that I had survived. Then I looked around and saw no sign of the islets from the beginning of the dive, other divers and, worst of all, the dive chase boat or the large dive ship. I was lost at sea in the Indian Ocean.
Trying to stay calm, I figured the crew would be looking for me. The ocean was placid on this beautiful, sunny day in the Maldives, but I knew the crew would have difficulty spotting one bobbing diver in the vast ocean. Recalling the many times I had practiced releasing a surface marker buoy (SMB) during safety stops on dives in Mexico and Bonaire, I reached into my BCD pocket and pulled out the 9-foot orange dive sausage I bring with me on every dive. Many dive buddies over the years had made fun of me for carrying that monster plastic balloon, but now it was going to be crucial for saving my life. I slowly filled it, making myself a bit dizzy from the many breaths it took, and soon had it sticking high above my head.
After an hour I noticed a tiny dot moving along the horizon. I got out my signaling mirror and started wiggling it around in the sun, hoping to cast a flash of light in the dot’s direction. The dot began to take shape as a small boat moving in my direction. The dive chase boat was eventually close enough for me to discern three people on top, each staring right at me through binoculars and pointing, giving clear directions to the boat captain.
Now within visual range, the two divemasters quickly signaled “Are you OK?” with their fists atop their heads, and I give the OK signal back. The captain masterfully and gently brought the boat close to me, and I smiled and joked with them, saying, “Wow! Three sets of binoculars! What’s all the fuss about?” Despite my comments, I was greatly relieved, having survived three life-threatening challenges in one day. One divemaster replied, “If we hadn’t spotted you, your next stop would have been Africa!”
I climbed aboard, lowered my gear to the deck, removed my wetsuit and sat in silence with my head leaning back against the wooden wall. Now safe, I pondered my incredible stupidity for not following the divemaster’s warnings and my great luck for having survived three of the most dangerous dive challenges of my life. A retired French doctor and his wife, who had joined the chase to find me, snapped my photo and later sent it to me. I call it “Portrait of a Foolish Man Pondering His Great Luck and Happiness To Be Alive.”
We are pleased to hear a positive outcome of an event that could have turned tragic. This scenario has the following three takeaways:
- Always listen to the dive briefing, and follow all directions. The information is for a specific purpose — your safety.
- While we applaud having concern about possible decompression illness (DCI) and performing a precautionary stop to mitigate the risk, never run out of air. If your breathing-gas supply is critically low, get to the surface at a safe ascent rate, and then monitor for signs of DCI. It is better to deal with DCI on the surface than to run out of breathing gas at depth.
- Always carry an SMB and reel, which are essential pieces of lifesaving equipment, especially in situations like this one. While many divers carry a 4-foot (1.2-meter) SMB, it may not be large enough to be visible from a great distance or in rough waters. At a minimum, divers should carry a 6-foot (1.8-meter) SMB when diving in the ocean or large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes.
© Alert Diver — Q2 2021