Setting the Stage
Ed.'s note: The incidents described here are real. Names of locations and people have been changed or deleted.
Ken, a career military officer, signed up for a civilian scuba diving course taught by two local underwater instructors. The course went well, and after completing all the classroom and pool activities, Ken was ready to take the open-water tests with the rest of the class.
To start off, the instructors planned to have the class go snorkeling to help make the transition from pool to open-water scuba. The snorkeling site was a shallow, protected cove opening into an estuary that joined the ocean beside a nearby breakwater. Tides affect this site, causing the current to flow either toward or away from the sea. Visibility is better and there is more interesting marine life on an incoming tide, so the plan was to assemble and adjust the snorkeling gear, enter the water and explore the area near the breakwater on the rising tide. The water was warm, and most of the students wore shorty wetsuits with no arm or leg protection.
One of the instructors took the eight students with an assistant into the water. The other instructor handled logistics on shore and played the role of divemaster, while preparing gear for the scuba dive, which was to follow.
The current was mild, with improving visibility. As is common with students, particularly in a current, the divers started to spread out along the breakwater.
Suddenly, screams pierced the calm of the day. Both the instructor and assistant immediately swam to a buddy pair of teenage girls who were screaming. On the incoming tide, a mass of jellyfish had been carried into the area, and the girls now had stings on their arms and legs. As the instructor brought the situation under control, he asked his assistant to gather the other students together, away from the breakwater, and away from the jellyfish. As the assistant was doing this, it was discovered that Ken had become separated from his buddy and was now missing.
As the students were being escorted out of the water by the assistant, the instructor made a short search and found Ken floating by the breakwater, unconscious and not breathing. In-water mouth-to-mouth was followed by cardiopulmonary resuscitation on shore and advanced life support by the responding emergency medical technicians--all to no avail, and Ken was pronounced dead at the local hospital.
An investigation revealed that both Ken and his buddy had been making surface dives at the same time when Ken disappeared. The autopsy listed the cause of death as drowning caused by a heart attack while performing strenuous physical activity. The ensuing legal actions blamed the instructors and the instructors' association for the accident and the failure to rescue Ken.
During the process of legal discovery, it was established that the instructor association's standards, educational materials, training and renewal systems, plus quality assurance programs were excellent, and that part of the legal action was dropped. But the loss of control by the instructors and their delayed response was enough of a concern that the rest of the case was settled out of court.
One of the most serious concerns that underwater instructors have is that while responding to one student's difficulty, another student will have a more serious problem. In cases like this, the instructor can't immediately respond to the new, more compelling problem.
Lessons for Life
- Maintain your best possible fitness through proper exercise, nutrition and rest.
- Have regular medical exams that are especially suited to scuba diving. To find a doctor familiar with the physical stress of diving, contact either the Divers Alert Network, (919) 684-2948, web: www.diversalertnetwork.org; or the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society at (301) 942-2980, web: www.uhms.org.
- Stay with your buddy.
- If snorkeling, use the one-up, one-down procedure for surface diving.
- If you are an underwater instructor or divemaster, do all you can to maintain group control and be ready to respond to difficulties without losing control of the rest of the group. This may mean taking smaller groups diving or using more assistants.