The dive boat was dead in the water with no radio and no signaling devices, and the group of four divers huddled together on the stern watching as the current swept them farther away from the only land in sight. The divers took one last look at the dive guide before assuring themselves they could make it, and they jumped from the boat. The group dropped below the surface and swam hard against the current for the nearby spit of land. Soon they were low on air. They surfaced amid raging seas and current and found themselves nowhere near the shore. The boat was nothing but a spot on the horizon, and the setting sun added darkness and cold to their rapidly worsening plight.
The group of four friends had a varying amount of diving experience and ranged in age from late 20s to 50. They arrived on a Friday afternoon at a popular tropical destination known for its calm waters and easy diving conditions, planning on a diving-filled weekend. Saturday morning, the group learned that small-craft advisories had docked all the major dive boats, but determined to go diving, they made their way from shop to shop until they found an operator willing to go out.
The four divers joined several snorkelers on a small boat with two dive guides and made their way to a popular offshore cay. The boat pulled into a shallow bay, dropping off the snorkelers and one dive guide near the shore. The divers and the remaining guide then motored out to deeper water for a planned one-hour dive. Before they reached the dive site, engine trouble stalled the boat, leaving it and all on board to drift at the mercy of the wind and sea. As the guide struggled to restart the boat, the dive group realized with surprise that their charter carried no radio, signaling equipment, fresh water or even an anchor to stop their drift, and they gathered on the back of the boat to discuss their options. Their assessment: The dive boat was drifting rapidly away from land, the sea conditions did not look "that bad" and the small uninhabited cay where they had dropped the snorkelers lay within what they thought was swimming distance. So, in spite of strong objections from the dive guide, the four divers decided to get in the water and swim for land. The guide remained with his boat.
At this point, the snorkeling leader at the cay had noticed something was desperately wrong. He tried to swim to the dive boat, abandoning his group of snorkelers on the beach. He didn't make it to the dive boat, but the current swept him to a small, inhabited island with phone service where he called the police and reported the problem. As night fell, park rangers picked up the guide and immediately began a search-and-rescue operation with assistance from local dive boats and military units. The rangers picked up the abandoned snorkelers and continued searching for the boat and the missing divers. Twenty-four hours later, after a full day without food or water, the second guide drifted close to another island and decided to abandon the boat and swim to the beach where he reported the rest of the details to the police.
The missing divers entered the water before noon on Saturday, and as Sunday night approached, the situation did not look good. Using information from the dive guide's reported drift direction and landing point, local officials continued the search until late Monday afternoon when the first missing diver was found--more than 50 hours and 23.5 miles from where they initially went missing. A short time later, the remaining three divers were found. Unfortunately, the female diver in the group--the only one not wearing a wetsuit--had died from exposure. The remaining divers were taken to a local hospital and received treatment for severe dehydration, hypothermia, ingested saltwater and second-degree sunburns.
Like many accidents, this dive went wrong before it even started. Upon learning that sea conditions were predicted to deteriorate, these divers should have called their dive plans and planned a topside activity instead. Their persistence blinded them to the fact that any boat willing to run when every other charter is tied to the dock probably has a questionable safety record, and had they checked the qualifications and reputation of the boat and crew, they would have found a history of safety violations leading to a suspension of the operator's charter license. The vessel had recently returned to service on probationary status and had been officially reprimanded for a lack of safety equipment.
Once they found themselves in a perilous situation offshore, this group made their third fatal error. Any vessel, even one with a broken engine that's being tossed by the seas and drifting at the mercy of the current, provides protection from the sun and hypothermia--and it makes a much larger, easier-to-find search-and-rescue target. As a general rule, unless a vessel is in immediate peril of sinking, it's far better to stay with the boat. Distances can also look deceptively short across the water's surface, but even relatively short distances can prove difficult to swim in adverse conditions.
Finally, even in tropical waters, the human body cools rapidly and hypothermia can be deadly. Wearing exposure protection on every dive--even a thin wetsuit--slows the body's cooling process and provides protection from the sun and marine life. The diver who died in this incident was in good health and younger than her fellow divers, but she went in without any exposure protection, and that decision--compounded by the group's myriad other bad decisions--cost her life.
Lessons For Life
signaling devices and a reliable means of communication.
They're called warnings for a reason.
When charters turn away your money, there's a reason for it.
unless it's in imminent danger of sinking. It provides protection and makes you easier to find.
You never know when a four-hour excursion will stretch to a considerably longer time.
--just in case.