Everything grew quiet and still. The other divers finally had moved down the wreck — that was when Claude liked it best. He could really focus on what he loved: macro photography. He needed to be still and quiet for the small animals to come out of their hiding spaces.
On this dive, he was waiting for the perfect shot of a clownfish in an anemone. The little guy wouldn’t cooperate, but Claude was patient. He lay down on the deck in front of the large anemone, breathing and waiting, his camera to his face and his finger on the shutter button. He took a few photos as the small fish moved around, but none was exactly what he wanted. Claude barely moved a muscle, forgetting everything — right up until he attempted to take a breath and there was nothing there.
Claude, 32, enjoyed diving, but it was not his passion. He had grown bored sightseeing underwater, even though he was a fairly new diver, with an advanced open-water certification. But when he discovered photography, everything changed. He had already won a couple of local contests through his dive club. He had dreams of making it big and traveling the world as an underwater photographer. Claude had also quickly come to realize that his dive buddies didn’t understand his focus on photography. They didn’t mind diving with him, but they wanted to explore the entire site, not sit still in one place to capture the perfect image. After a few frustrating dives, he and his friends agreed that they would begin the dive together, but when Claude found something he wanted to photograph, he would peel off. His buddies knew he would join them at the end of the dive.
The artificial reef had been in warm tropical waters for nearly 20 years and was covered with life. Small animals blanketed the structure while larger pelagics cruised outside. Claude loved this site for the diversity. He could find just about anything here as he built up his portfolio. Even though the wreck was in 100 feet of water, sun easily filtered to the bottom through clear water.
Claude entered the water from the dive boat with his friends. They dived together as a group. He stayed with them until they all made it to the mooring ball. Then the rest of his group — two divebuddy teams — began swimming down the side of the wreck as the divemaster had suggested, working against the current. Claude hung back. After searching for a while, he found what he was looking for tucked into a corner of the structure.
Claude was confused when he attempted to breathe from his regulator and got nothing. He looked around, wondering if someone had played a trick on him. With his second attempted breath, panic began to set in. He needed air and none was coming. He looked around wildly for any help and began swimming toward the surface. He finally saw another diver making a slow ascent up the anchor line and kicked toward him. In his panic Claude kicked off a fin and dropped his regulator out of his mouth. The second diver realized Claude was in trouble. He quickly freed the second-stage regulator from his pony bottle and swam toward Claude. They met at around 60 feet, and the second diver had to shove the regulator in Claude’s mouth.
After just a few breaths, Claude appeared to lose consciousness; he wasn’t breathing. The other diver dropped Claude’s weights and brought him to the surface. Claude died during transport to the local hospital.
Claude forgot one of the basic rules of diving, and it cost him his life. He failed to monitor his air supply, becoming so distracted by his photographic goals that he neglected everything else.
Many photographers essentially dive alone, just as Claude did. To dive alone safely, a diver needs additional training and equipment. Claude should have carried a fully independent air source in the form of a pony bottle. Further, he should have been trained in its use and practiced switching to it regularly.
It is possible Claude had an air embolism during his ascent, but since he lost consciousness at around 60 feet, it is more likely that he drowned. Drowning is defined as death by asphyxiation after submersion in a liquid. It doesn’t mean that he inhaled large quantities of water or that his lung filled with fluid. More often, when someone drowns, he inhales only a teaspoon or so of water. That fluid in the airway is enough to trigger a laryngospasm: The larynx spasms shut and closes off the airway. This is the body’s defense against inhaling large quantities of water. But it can also cause suffocation and death if the situation is not corrected quickly.
Lessons for Life
1 Monitor your air supply. There’s no excuse for running out of air underwater. No photograph is worth dying for; make it a point to glance at your pressure gauge every few minutes. You can also invest in a wrist gauge or one that displays your air pressure in your mask.
2 If you’re not prepared to dive solo, find a buddy with similar expectations.
3 If you want to learn to dive solo, invest in the time and gear to do it safely.
4 Practice emergency techniques so you’ll be ready in an actual emergency.
> Eric Douglas co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety, and has written a series of dive-adventure novels and short stories. Check out his website at www.booksbyeric.com.