My daughter, who in this article will be referred to as Claire, was a 25-year-old planning dives on the West Coast. The dives would be her first since she completed her open-water certification two months earlier. She contacted the shop that certified her; they told her about an upcoming charter and assured her the dives would be within her ability. When she asked about a dive buddy, she was told she would be paired up on the boat. She mentioned that all her training dives had been from shore and that this would be her first boat dive. She was told a dive professional would be onboard to assist her, and she decided to join the trip.
On the way to the dive site, Claire was introduced to her buddy, who will be called Jake. He had done 18 dives in his lifetime and had not been diving in more than a year. Almost all his previous dives were in the Caribbean.
As the boat approached the dive site, both divers expressed reservations when they learned the dive instructor onboard would be training a student rather than diving with them. They were told not to worry and that everything would be fine.
Jake had difficulty setting up his equipment and told the instructor his rental BCD was too tight, which made it hard for him to breathe. Once in the water, Claire was unable to descend, so the crew slipped additional weight into her BCD pockets. By the time these problems were resolved, the other divers had descended. Claire and Jake descended alone.
A plankton bloom, typical for the season and location, limited visibility near the surface. The divers overcame their anxiety by giving each other the OK sign repeatedly as they descended. At about 30 feet the visibility began to clear, but it was dark, and neither diver had a light.
About 10 minutes into the dive Jake turned to look at Claire, who had been swimming right behind him, and realized she was not there. After a moment he saw someone in the dimness and swam toward the person. As he approached, he saw it was Claire and realized she was unconscious. Grabbing her by her BCD, he attempted to ascend. He kicked hard but was unable to make progress toward the surface. He did not think to release her weights or inflate her BCD and was soon overcome with exhaustion. Jake struggled to get enough air through his regulator and began to panic. He released Claire and headed for the surface, spitting out his regulator on the way. He hit the surface gasping, choking and unable to call for help. The captain noticed him struggling and motored over to him. Unable to talk or breathe, Jake kept pointing down.
Once the captain realized there was a problem, he made a distress call and initiated a diver recall by tapping the boat’s ladder with a hammer. Not all divers responded to the call promptly, and some decided to do a safety stop before surfacing. Precious minutes were lost.
Claire was found in approximately 60 feet of water by the instructor and another diver. CPR was initiated once she was brought aboard, and a Coast Guard boat arrived to transfer her to an ambulance on shore. Claire’s heart was started in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, where she was placed on life support in the intensive care unit.
Claire never regained consciousness. Three days after the accident the doctors determined she would never have enough brain function to breathe on her own, and we made the decision to discontinue life support.
Neither Claire nor Jake was sufficiently experienced for this dive. Claire had never dived without a professional guide, and she had not dived from a boat before. She relied on someone else to guide her through the process. Jake had not dived for more than a year and did not take a skills refresher before the trip. He had never been taught what to do with an unconscious diver.
Jake had complained prior to the dive that his BCD was too tight and limited his ability to breathe. When Claire’s regulator was tested after the accident it was determined to be performing below the manufacturer’s specifications. An inability to breathe properly may have contributed to both Claire’s unconsciousness and Jake’s sense of panic as he attempted to assist her to the surface. Whenever rental equipment is used, its fit and function should be assessed by the diver who will use it before he or she leaves the dive shop.
Dive operations should consider greater oversight and supervision of inexperienced divers, particularly when visibility is low and the divers are unfamiliar with the site or conditions. Neither Claire nor Jake had sufficient knowledge to evaluate whether the dive fell within the scope of their competence. Both divers relied on someone else’s opinion that the dive was appropriate for them. Claire lacked the experience to know what questions to ask, so she trusted the dive shop employee who told her not to worry. Jake expressed misgivings about his equipment and the lack of supervision prior to the dive. Despite this, he trusted the instructor who told him it would get better once they were underwater. Both divers decided to go ahead with the dive despite their apprehensions.
There were many opportunities for either Claire or Jake to have decided not to dive. New divers may not have adequate background to anticipate the potential for an accident, but every diver needs to have ingrained in them the notion that if they are not feeling good about a dive they should not get in the water. Divers must be honest with themselves about their ability to do any dive safely.
Before giving advice or assurances, a dive professional or experienced diver must be careful to evaluate the conditions from the perspective of a less-experienced diver. Although it’s tempting to tell a new diver who is showing signs of anxiety “you’ll be OK,” reassurances, however well-intentioned, may be fatal for unprepared or inexperienced divers.
New divers must be skeptical of others’ assessments and reliant on their own. If it feels like something is wrong, it very well may be. Take responsibility for your dive. Problems on the surface are not likely to improve once you’re underwater. Whether it’s your fifth dive or your 5,000th, you have the right to call a dive.
© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2012