Why Experience Matters

Incident Summary

When her buddy couldn’t get enough air underwater, an experienced diver knew what to do. This near-miss shows the importance of staying close to your buddy and other key lessons.

The more experienced diver — we’ll call her Dinah — dived regularly in the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest. Her dive buddy, Mac, was an infrequent diver. In the past 10 years Mac had logged about 50 dives, compared to Dinah’s several hundred. At the time of the incident Mac had not been diving in more than a year.

“Although he is very comfortable in the water and can snorkel for hours, the first dive of each annual trip is generally a refresher dive for him,” Dinah said.

While on a sailing trip in Belize, the couple hired a small local operator to take them on a diving excursion. “The guides helped us into our dive gear, and all seemed well. We back-rolled off the boat and started down. I had no trouble descending and went down faster than Mac. Confident he was okay, I watched him while I neared the bottom at 50 feet (15m),” Dinah said.

When both divers were on the bottom, Mac swam over to Dinah, his body language indicating distress. He showed Dinah his air pressure gauge; the needle swung wildly back and forth with each breath.

Luckily, Dinah knew what was wrong. “I reached behind him and opened the tank valve, allowing full air flow into the regulator. I held him in front of me and watched his face as he took several deep, full breaths. He calmed down, and when he returned the [okay] sign, we joined the other divers and completed the rest of the dive without further incident, though I remained close to him and watchful.”

Back on the boat, the dive buddies discussed what went wrong. It appeared someone from the dive operation left the tank valve partially closed, preventing Mac from getting a full breath from his regulator.

“[Mac] was getting just enough air to think it was okay to continue descending, but by the time he got to me he was feeling light-headed and panicked,” said Dinah. “He did not know until after the dive what the swinging needle in the air gauge meant. As we talked later, neither of us could remember being taught in our dive classes that the swinging needle means that the tank valve is not fully open. I had learned it at some point in my experience, though I don’t remember when. I nearly lost my future husband and learned several valuable lessons about my role as a dive buddy.”

Top Three Lessons Learned

Always confirm your tank valve is open. The practice of opening a tank valve then dialing it back a partial turn is not really necessary and can lead to confusion about whether the tank is nearly open or nearly closed.

Don’t skip the buddy check. Accidents can happen to new divers as well as those who have been certified for years. Always do a thorough a pre-dive safety check with your buddy.

Stay close to your buddy. You are your buddy’s life support system underwater, and vice versa. Even if your buddy is an experienced diver, they may have a problem they can’t solve on their own. Make frequent eye contact and stay close enough to provide assistance in a few seconds if needed.

DAN Dive Accident Insurance

This case study describes how an experienced diver helped out a less-experienced one, but research shows accidents happen to divers of all experience levels. Diving with an experienced buddy and doing a predive safety check can help you avoid preventable accidents, but you should always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. When the unthinkable happens, count on DAN to cover the cost of emergency evacuations and medical treatments that may not be covered by your primary health insurance.

Though Mac’s experience didn’t require a trip to the hospital or chamber, it was a close call. Dinah wrote, “I have always been a member of DAN, and I know that standard travel insurance does not cover dive accidents. I have never had to use my dive accident insurance, and I hope I never have to, but I have never regretted having it.”

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