The open-water diver card has been equated by some instructors to a learner's permit. While this may be an oversimplification, it is clear that many forms of diving require special training and that a diver's initial training has limitations that are sometimes tragically enforced. Take the case of Bill and Rick.
The Dive Site
Rick was an advanced open-water diver in his early 20s who enjoyed a close relationship with his younger cousin, Bill. With Rick's encouragement, Bill went to the local dive shop and signed up for a class. Bill was assigned to a competent professional diving instructor who was also an active cave diver. Bill's class went well and his instructor noted several times that he was comfortable with Bill's performance on required water skills.
After pool and classroom training, Bill and Rick traveled to North Florida to complete Bill's checkout dives in one of the popular freshwater springs. These areas are unique because the clear-water spring basins are formed by the flow of water from extensive underwater cave systems, making the sites excellent for both new divers and cave or cavern divers who go beyond the open-water limits and into the overhead environment. Bill completed his open-water checkout dives with ease, and his instructor again complimented him and issued Bill's temporary C-card.
Upon completing training, Bill's instructor paired up with a buddy to make a cave dive. Bill and Rick looked on with envy as the instructor and his buddy strapped into their technical gear for an extended penetration dive. Just before submerging, the instructor once again cautioned Rick and Bill not to enter the overhead environment because they were not properly trained.
Bill decided that he had not had enough diving for the day and convinced Rick to buddy up with him for another dive into the spring. After filling their tanks, the two divers descended. After swimming around for a few minutes, the divers could not resist and poked their heads into the cavern area of the spring. What they saw in the natural sunlight was a large room of white limestone filled with crystal-clear water.
After this short excursion, the divers surfaced and discussed going into the cave "just a little ways." Rick got out of the water and got his dive light from his car. An experienced diver at the site overheard their conversation and also warned them not to go into the cavern without proper training. Apparently, the divers did not heed this warning and, with one light and no additional safety equipment, they swam into the maze of passages making up this cave system.
About an hour later, Bill's instructor returned from his dive. As he was disassembling his equipment, he noticed that Bill's car was still at the site and became alarmed because he also noticed that there were no divers in the open-water area of the spring basin.
After checking all surrounding areas, notifications were made and a recovery team was sent into the cave to locate Rick and Bill. The divers were found in a short, heavily silted side passage just a few yards from ambient light. Both divers were out of air and had drowned. The dive light was found still burning on the cavern floor, just a short distance from the divers.
Entering the cave system was deceptively easy for Rick and Bill. Swimming against the mild current, the water remained clear and the sights continued to inspire awe as the divers penetrated deeper into the system. At some point, they noticed that their air supply was low and turned to exit. Upon making that turn, they realized that due to improper finning technique and their lack of buoyancy control, the crystal-clear water behind them had turned to a muddy brown. With no visibility and no guideline, the divers swam frantically, searching for an exit until they each ran out of air. The fact that Rick's octopus was deployed and the dead divers were found in close proximity indicates that Bill's gas supply was depleted first and Rick shared his air with his buddy until they both drowned.
Cave divers adhere to a number of rules in order to dive safely; when ignored, these rules are often tragically enforced. The first of these cardinal rules is that divers must always be properly trained for the activities in which they plan to participate.
The family sued Bill's instructor, alleging that he acted irresponsibly by making a cave dive after discharging his duties to his open-water class. Other members of Bill's class and bystanders at the scene indicated that the instructor had warned Bill about the dangers of going into the cave on at least three occasions, including once just as he entered the water for his cave dive. It was determined that Bill's instructor had no further duty to the student, that his training included proper warning about the dangers of the overhead environment, and that he did not improperly influence Bill's decision to enter the cave. The case was dismissed.
Lessons For Life
- Proper training for overhead environments and other forms of advanced diving is critical to safety.
- Training may have prevented these divers from violating several safe cave-diving procedures including: proper finning technique and buoyancy control, proper gas management and maintaining a continuous guideline to the surface.
- Divers should never assume that an activity is as easy as it appears. The instructor's advice in this case was based on his knowledge that a cave dive is only easy until something goes wrong.