An infrequent diver is surprised when he surfaced, and there was no boat in sight
I am a 45-year-old male, Advanced Water Certified with added Nitrox, and Dry Suit certifications. I had 52 post certification dives with the majority in the ocean. However, I had been out of the water for approximately 8 years and did a skills and buoyancy refresher at this location the previous year. A year later, I did another refresher. Then I booked an ocean reef dive. I rented all the gear.
The wind forecast was about 5-8 mph in the morning increasing to 12-16 mph in the afternoon. When we met at the dive shop, the water looked like a swimming pool with only ripples present. Forecast and conditions were clear and sunny. Water temperature was around 80 degrees.
The diving group of four was comprised of myself, a woman looking to complete her advanced certification, the guide, and another woman with her advanced certification. Three of us were in full wet suits and the guide was in a shorty with a hoody. We set up the gear and got briefed in the shop before heading to the boat. The plan was to drop to approximately 120 feet on the reef and gradually swim up the reef. The ride to the location was maybe 10-15 minutes, approximately ½ mile offshore. When we reached the reef, I started the dive with 2800 psi.
Within a minute or two, we could not spot the reef and the guide called the dive. We ascended slowly, he deployed the sausage, and we surfaced. The boat was there to meet us. On the surface, we discussed going back down to 50-60 feet and swimming towards the reef. The belief seemed to be that the reef was pretty close and that we were just off it. We descended to said depth and swam towards the reef. We swam for a while. I signaled when I had 1500 psi as planned. We swam some more. I signaled when my air was 700 psi. It felt like a 15 minute or so swim in total. We all ascended and executed our 5 minute safety stop and a safety sausage was deployed by the guide.
I surfaced showing about 550 psi. No boat was in sight. We figured a few minutes and we’d be picked up. This was not the case. No one thought we were far off where we dropped in. In retrospect, it visually looked like we were more than a half mile out. We made sure our BCs were inflated and we relaxed. It was a bit breezy and the seas were kicking up a bit but not terrible at that point. After maybe 30-60 minutes, I recall seeing a 35′ or so flybridge sport fisherman boat with cabin close to shore moving north to south then south to north. I was hoping the dive shop would radio them on the VHF and ask them to take a couple laps for us. Given the flybridge and relatively calm seas, the hope was that we’d be easy to spot from the flybridge. The boat kept heading north. I lost sight of the boat.
More time passed and we saw a single engine passenger plane with multiple windows. We waved our arms and sausage to no avail. They never deviated from course. Maybe it was a sightseeing plane.
That was the last time we saw another boat or aircraft until we were rescued.
The wind driven waves were building, now to 2-3 feet with occasional 4s that would provide mouthfuls of saltwater. No one brought a snorkel. The guide noted we needed to swim into shore to at least offset some, or all, of the push out. We swam at a pace we could sustain for a long period of time, noting how much we’d be taken back if we just floated and did nothing. We were tiring with one of the three of us, less the guide, bringing up the rear at any given point. We ditched our weights.
My tank kept coming loose from the BCD so my tank was jettisoned too. I think all but the guide ditched their tanks as well. The guide was making the best progress swimming on his tank face forward.
We swam every which way we could. On the back was easiest against the building waves. However, swimming on the back seemed to be slowest with front facing the fastest but more difficult with the waves and wind in our face and no snorkel. We each kept switching it up. The goal was to keep moving at any pace. At one point our guide had us all join hands and get on our backs and just swim together pulling one another as needed with everyone’s energy varying at any given moment.
By about 3 p.m. and more than four hours in the water without a boat, the concern became nightfall. Sunset was scheduled for around 6:50 p.m. No one had a strobe and no one seemed to be looking for us. The only comfort was that the winds were supposed to go calm and just maybe we could swim in if the winds died but the question was could we maintain our position for another four hours and not get blown out any further.
I’m not sure of the exact time but I think at around 3:45 p.m. the guide spotted a small boat. We waived the sausage, screamed, and blew the whistle as hard as we could. They did not see or hear us on this pass and they headed back towards shore. The whistle was having no effect into the wind. We lost the boat for a bit. We were then pleased to see them on another leg of a likely grid search heading our way, whereupon they did see the sausage, pulled up and took us aboard.
Once on the boat, it still appeared that were 3-4 mile out. Only because conditions were relatively ideal and did not deteriorate, the divers fit enough and panic free enough to stick together and keep pace with a guide who kept his cool and kept our cool, and the absence of medical issues did this not develop into a tragedy. I guess in the future I’ll be asking operators about their SAR (search and recovery) resources before heading out in areas without much dive traffic. That should get some strange looks but after this event, it is a very real concern.
I will never again leave my snorkel at home. I will also carry a strobe and see what other travel friendly SAR gear I should have for any ocean dive, no matter the distance or conditions or time of day. This was a serious wake up call.
Around 80 percent of American recreational scuba divers make less than eight dives per year. This diver may be typical of the “holiday” diver; renting dive gear and trusting others to ensure his safety. As this incident shows, at the end of the day it is our own lives in the balance and the diver now intends to take more responsibility for his.
In the circumstances described here, a signal mirror could have alerted a passing boat much earlier. These range from the simple mini-CD type, to the more robust models available commercially. Each mirror has a hole in it. To signal a boat simply extend one arm, give a “thumbs-up” and line-up your thumb with the boat you want to signal. Hold the mirror up to your eye with the other hand and look through the hole at your thumb. Wiggle the mirror and when you see sunlight flash on your thumb, then you are flashing at the boat.
Modern, small hand-held dive lights are quite powerful, compared with even five or ten years ago. Every diver should carry a signal tube, or “sausage”. Never go into the sea without one. If you carry a bright dive light too then, at night, you can put the light inside the bottom of the tube and it will light up the whole tube like a lightsaber.
Many divers also carry a small reel of braided nylon line. Sometimes they might inflate the signal tube before ascending, then reel their way up to 15 ft depth for their safety stop, and hang under the tube. This way the lookout on the boat can see where divers are making safety stops, and also see if they are drifting. Reels can also prove useful if a diver is caught in a slight current and wants to remain in place. In an emergency such as this incident, tie the reel to the weight belt or integrated weights, and lower the weights down to the sea-floor like an anchor. Let out enough line for at least three times the depth and this will reduce the weights bouncing off the bottom.
DAN sells a diver safety pack that includes a tall signal tube, signaling mirror and strobe. Even if divers rent their dive gear on holidays, DAN recommends personally owning at least some emergency signaling equipment, in case divers find themselves adrift, waiting to be found before the sun sets.
Peter Buzzacott, MPH, Ph.D.