Untrained Diver Dies Entangled in Kelp

An untrained diver who was separated from his buddies became entangled in kelp and died.

Reported Story

The group consisted of three scuba divers and a freediver, who were all related as cousins and were out on the boat for the opening night of the lobster season. None of them were agency-certified divers. Divers Two and Three were experienced, self-taught divers; Diver One had some dive experience, but this was his first night dive. The freediver was on the boat during the incident and was using only mask, snorkel, and fins to assist.

The three divers decided to catch lobsters during the opening night of the lobster season, and this was their first dive that evening. All three divers entered the water and started their descent. Five minutes into the dive, Diver Two’s tank slipped out of its BCD strap and was floating free. Diver Three was able to get Diver Two’s attention and let him know that his gear had become loose and needed adjusting.

Diver Two signaled that he was going to the surface and return to the boat to get the gear adjusted. Diver Three also ascended without getting Diver One’s attention, leaving him alone on the bottom to continue hunting lobsters.

After reaching the boat, the two divers realized that Diver One did not return to the surface with them. After a short surface search, the freediver located Diver One in about 25 feet (8 meters) of water, entangled in kelp. He got the boat captain’s attention and indicated that the diver was still wearing his mask, and his regulator was still in his mouth. The freediver made several attempts to swim down and try to free the diver from the kelp but was unable to help. The freediver had to return to the boat and explained that the diver was conscious and was panicking and struggling to free himself.

A fourth diver on the boat was now equipped with scuba gear; he entered the water and found Diver One completely entangled in thick kelp. Unfortunately by this time, the diver was no longer wearing his mask, had lost his regulator, and apparently ceased breathing. He brought the unbreathing diver to the surface and pulled him onto a small boat piloted by a good Samaritan who heard the screams for help. CPR was started immediately; the diver was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.

The Evaluation

The three divers were related and were not certified divers. They had some experience diving together many times previously. However, Diver One was not as experienced as the other two divers and had not participated in a night dive before.

Though all three divers were diving together, there was no indication that they were paying much attention to each other. When the two divers returned to the surface with a gear malfunction, there was no indication that Diver One was considered missing until they reached the boat.

The entangled diver became separated from his cousins and did not know they had ended the dive and returned to the surface. The diver then became dangerously entangled in the kelp and drowned before the rescue diver was able to reach him. The trigger factor could have been either the separation or the kelp entanglement provoking a panic.

The victim’s gas tank was recovered and found to still contain 2,200 psi of air. If the diver had not panicked and had stayed calm until the rescue diver arrived, he may have survived this ordeal.

The Discussion

Diving in heavy kelp requires special training, particularly in managing entanglement. As early as open-water level, formal training provides knowledge about the risks of diving in kelp, proper gear configuration (“tighter” gear configuration, no dragging hoses or gauges), tools and the skills needed to free yourself or others from entanglement. It was not reported whether the divers had appropriate cutting devices that could have been used to cut away the kelp from the entangled diver.

Divers prepared through formal training should experience less stress and anxiety. Formal training also would have taught the divers to dive in buddy pairs and not as a trio. It has been found that many dive accidents are caused by the third person in the group losing contact with the other two, each thinking the other was paying attention to the third diver.

Retrospectively, it appears that if the rescue diver had entered the water immediately when the entangled diver was spotted, the entangled diver may have been saved, but this is just a speculation. Having a divemaster or rescue diver on the boat, ready to dive, is important when diving in areas with high risk.

Lessons learned:

  • Do not dive without formal training.
  • Take specialty training for diving in conditions and environments containing specific risks such as kelp, night diving, etc.
  • Have a contingency plan for known hazards, share it with your buddy, and comply with it.
  • When diving in kelp, streamline your equipment to reduce the risk of entanglement.
  • Carry proper cutting tools to liberate yourself from the entanglement.
  • If entangled, stop, think and then act.