A diver encountered several incidents in one dive — including buddy separation, strong currents, faulty equipment, out-of-gas situation and lacerations — that resulted in him nearly drowning.
I began this dive around 3:30 p.m. The water condition started to get choppy. We were told at the dive briefing that we were headed into the current and that we were to go around the pinnacle of the reef to view giant mantas.
The dive started out fine with a descent to 109 fsw (33 msw). As the currents picked up — we had to hold onto the wall of the reef with one hand — we ascended to 53 fsw (16 msw). By this time I was holding on with two hands. I was maybe 40 fsw (12 msw) or so from the pinnacle when I suddenly looked around and saw that all the divers and the four divemasters were gone. I felt like I couldn’t move forward, and I couldn’t let go.
At this point I had 1000 psi (68 bar) of air remaining. I started to panic for a couple minutes; then I got my act together and decided to climb vertically. I knew from the briefing that there was a huge surge at 23 fsw (7 msw) at the face of the reef and we were supposed to stay away from there, but I was starting to panic and hyperventilate.
When I hit the face of the reef, I tried to wedge myself into a few cracks so I could get my composure. I was trying to release my safety tube to let someone know where I was surfacing. At that point, a couple things happened. I had already been cut up pretty badly between the climb and banging against the reef, then the surge caught me and flipped me. I broke my right ulna and sustained some significant lacerations to my arms and legs.
Then I took a breath and realized I had run out of air. I figured I had been at 20 fsw (6 msw) for long enough, so I surfaced. I was so panicked by then that I was overloaded with CO2. I could not inflate my vest or my safety buoy or use my whistle. I screamed a few times to get the attention of the boat about 75 yards away. I did not think to drop my weights or my vest. The swells were 4 to 5 feet by now, and I was exhausted and hyperventilating.
I don’t remember what happened next. I believe I went under, and one of the divemasters jumped off the ship and swam out to me. He pulled me up and held me until the zodiac came. When they stripped me to get me into the zodiac, I lost my camera and GoPro. They pulled me into the zodiac and put me face down onto the oxygen tanks, which forced water from my lungs. I was blue but hyperventilating. I don’t remember any of the zodiac ride, but my dive buddy said when I got to the ship I was still very blue; they moved me to the steps onboard, administered oxygen and stripped off my dive suit.
I had about six lacerations that needed suturing, all coral cuts. I am a doctor, so later I opted not to close them. I had plenty of Cipro on board, so I started taking antibiotics. I also had about 20 minutes of pure oxygen. I ended up with a headache, but I felt lucky to be alive.
My dive gear was stripped away, so I was not allowed to see my dive computer or my air tank. Later I noticed there was no dive valve on the vest I had been using. I had trouble most of the day with having to surface early; I wonder if I had been missing my valve all day, which would account for my running out of air on this dive, too. My vest was damaged in transport, so I had borrowed this one from the ship. I take full responsibility for not checking my gear properly.
I should have died at several times during this incident, but it just wasn’t my day to do so. The water was full of sharks. When I was at 20 fsw (6 msw), there were at least 10 reef sharks hanging in the current. Not one shark approached me even though I was bleeding. I continued to dive the next day at the strong advice of the captain. I ended up going on 17 out of 25 dives for the nine-day trip.
Follow-Up Comments from the Diver
- My buddies never said why they left me. They made it past the pinnacle but then abandoned the dive and were carried off by the current and surfaced quite a distance away. I think some others just let go and surfaced with air in their BCs for a controlled ascent but were still carried far away.
- The conditions on subsequent dives were mild to moderate. We didn’t encounter strong currents again. We dived for six days total, and the accident was on the first day. I really felt from the dive briefing that we should not have approached the dive on the side of the severe current and that it was too late in the day for such an aggressive dive. I also feel the diving company was rather cavalier in their thought of “let’s all just jump in the water and see you when you are done.” No buddy system was discussed. After the accident the captain dived with me the entire next day (which is almost unheard of), and then I requested and/or stayed with a dive instructor for the rest of the trip.
- The company that ran the liveaboard took the dive computer and filled the air tank immediately after the incident. I had rented both pieces of equipment from them. I was unable to see either item before they took them back; it took me quite a while before I could think clearly.
- That evening when I was able to think more clearly, I went to inspect my gear. That is when I found that they had refilled my tank with air to 3000 psi and replaced my dive watch. I was the one who found that there was no valve on the back of the vest. While I was inspecting the equipment, I also noticed that one set of weights was gone from the vest. I immediately went to show the captain, who said it must have been ripped off in the accident. I tried to explain how much trouble I had with the two previous dives in regards to air loss, buoyancy, etc., but he said he didn’t agree. He also indicated that I probably didn’t run out of air, that I just panicked and had a CO2 overload and maybe I was just using the wrong buttons to inflate my BC. I can’t prove it, but I remember at 53 feet looking at my gauge and seeing that I only had 1000 psi. I am not an air “sucker”; I always surface with at least 700 to 900 psi. If I had air, I should have been able to inflate my safety buoy and my vest.
- Regarding the ulna, I continued to dive with it. It was so swollen that I didn’t realize for two days that I had a big hematoma. The fracture was just a hairline, so I splinted it when I got home.
Diving in a current is always a hazardous activity and requires proper risk evaluation, adequate planning and safety measures. The predive check should be thorough and rigorous. In this case, I would prefer to hear comments from readers. Please write us with your comments, or just think about what you would have done in a similar situation.
Petar Denoble, M.D., D.Sc.