After experiencing an equipment malfunction at depth, was it bravado that prevented this diver from asking for help?
The dive was going well. Randy and his buddy Tom had spent 20 minutes exploring the shipwreck. Though Tom had dived the wreck before, it was the first time Randy had dived it, and he was excited to get back to the surface. They were on the way back to the boat, about 40 feet from the surface, when Randy realized he was low on air. Randy remembered the discussions he and Tom had had about “idiots” running out of air and how irresponsible it was. Hoping he had enough air to make it back to the boat, he chose to keep quiet and not let Tom know he had a problem.
Randy was an experienced diver in his mid-30s. He made regular weekend trips to local dive sites and took a weeklong dive trip each year — more if he could work them in — and had logged more than 300 dives since he was certified five years before.
Randy originally got into diving because his friend Tom had told him how cool it was; Tom challenged him to find out for himself. After certification, Randy and Tom dived together regularly, and they often pushed each other to explore new locations. They also competed to see which diver would surface with the most air remaining in his tank. Whoever ended the dive with a lower tank pressure would have to buy lunch.
The dive was on an artificial reef sunk a couple of years before, but a dive Randy hadn’t yet made. He’d tried a couple of times, but weather or other circumstances had always gotten in the way. Tom had made the dive without him and told him the stories, so Randy wanted to see the sights for himself.
The day started out like most dive days. After dawn, they showed up at the dock with their gear in tow. After signing the release forms, they boarded the boat for the half-hour ride. The weather on the site was typical — a slight current and two- to three-foot seas, but nothing they couldn’t handle. The divemaster explained that the dive site was 130 feet to the sand and that most of the interesting features on the wreck were in the 100- to 120-foot range.
When they got in the water, Tom led since he’d been there before. He showed Randy the wreck’s features and guided him to the best spots to see. They peeked into the engine room, swam through cutouts and looked for marine life living inside dark passageways. After 20 minutes of exploring, they were back at the anchor line and began slowly ascending toward the surface.
Throughout the dive, Tom noticed that Randy was lagging behind, as if he was having trouble swimming. Whenever he turned around, though, everything looked normal. Randy never indicated to Tom that he was struggling or having equipment problems. Tom never slowed down his exploration of the wreck. It was a big dive site, and Tom wanted to make sure Randy saw the whole thing.
After a couple of quick hand signals at the anchor to agree it was time to head for the surface, both divers returned to their own thoughts. Tom led the way up the line, slowly ascending toward his safety-stop depth. At first, he looked down to watch the wreck disappear from sight, but when he got to midwater, he turned his attention toward the surface. He always liked to look for sharks or barracuda swimming out in the blue. The last time he saw Randy was around 40 feet deep. Tom surfaced alone; Randy never did.
Randy’s body was recovered six hours later after an extensive search of the dive site and surrounding area.
Even though Tom had been able to alert the captain almost immediately that Randy was missing, they weren’t able to launch a full search for more than an hour. The divemaster entered the water immediately to see if he could find Randy close to the anchor line or on the wreck, but he wasn’t equipped for a longer search. The other divers — all with significant nitrogen loads — needed long surface intervals to allow the accumulated nitrogen in their bodies to escape, and couldn’t return to the water. It took a while for rescuers to arrive on site with sufficient gas supplies and other equipment to handle the decompression dives.
When Randy’s body was brought to the surface, his scuba cylinder was empty, he had a broken fin strap, and his weights were still in place. The medical indings were consistent with drowning. It was later determined that Randy had made several mistakes on this dive, which together cost him his life.
There is no way of knowing when he broke his fin strap, but Tom reported that Randy was having trouble keeping up throughout the dive. Likely his fin kept slipping off, causing him to struggle and swim more slowly. It’s an easy leap to say that problem distracted him from checking his submersible pressure gauge and monitoring his air supply. The stress of the situation, along with the added work of struggling with his equipment and then swimming to catch up with Tom probably caused him to use his air more quickly. Had he indicated there was a problem during the dive, Tom could have finned more dive. Instead, Tom attempted to see the entire wreck on one dive.
Additionally, because Randy and Tom had placed so much emphasis on air supply in the past, Randy was likely embarrassed to tell his friend he was low on air when he finally did notice it during the ascent. Had he asked for help from his buddy, he probably could have made it to the surface. While a diver should never plan to use a buddy’s alternate air source on a dive, your buddy is there in case you do have a problem.
Finally, Randy kept his weights in place. When he lost consciousness, his body began to sink and float away from the anchor line in the current. Searching divers had to cover a large territory to find the body. If Randy had released his weights when he realized he was in trouble, his unconscious body would have floated to the surface. It’s possible he could have still been rescued.
LESSONS FOR LIFE
No. 1 Monitor your gas supply. Running out of air at depth is a common cause of fatal accidents, but it is also one of the easiest problems to avoid.
No. 2 Drop your weights in an emergency. Whether at depth or on the surface, if you find yourself in trouble, jettison your lead. Too often divers are found dead on the bottom with their weights still in place.
No. 3 Dive with a buddy who uses his air at the same rate or, if necessary, wear a larger tank. When one diver has the capacity to make significantly longer dives than another, the pair is mismatched. This causes personal stress between the divers and can lead to problems.
No. 4 Don’t be afraid to communicate to your buddy that you have a problem. Your buddy is there to help. Equipment problems happen from time to time; none of them is worth losing your life over.
No. 5 Keep an eye on your buddy and be aware of potential problems. Part of being a good dive buddy is helping out when there is a problem. A dive buddy can see potential problems before the other diver might become aware of them, like an air leak or an entanglement. By staying close and checking on your buddy from time to time, you negate potential problems.
Eric Douglas co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety. Check out his website at booksbyeric.com.