Setting the Stage
Ed.'s note: The incidents described here are real. Names of locations and people have been changed or deleted.
As part of a major "Dive-In" event, Mary, a nurse and master diver with six years of diving experience, was making a shore dive with her local dive club. She planned a 30-minute, 100-foot dive to a near-shore underwater wall with one of the club's divemasters, Tom, and a friend of his named Susan. All three were using dive computers and knew that most of the dive would be spent on the swim out and back, following the slope of the bottom. The surf was up, but the three were ready to dive and standing at the water's edge when a middle-aged man and his young adult son bungled their entry, and the father was pulled out of the water with a medical emergency. Medical help was immediately available on the beach and the father was given first aid. The ailing father pleaded with Mary to let his son, Chuck, dive with them. Mary agreed and became Chuck's buddy.
The first problem occurred when Chuck refused to put on his fins to make the surf entry. Without fins, he struggled through the surf, wasting a good deal of air. The group met, as planned, at a buoy to check buoyancy. Chuck arrived at the buoy short of breath, but neither he nor any of the other divers checked his air.
The four divers then descended to 40 feet. Tom was not only buddying with Susan, but he had moved off separately with her and she was receiving all of his attention.
At the same time, Chuck was flapping his hands and arms while going nowhere. Mary checked her pressure gauge and found that she had 2,600 psi. She thought that Chuck probably had less air, but figured he was still OK, so she didn't check his pressure gauge.
Now it was just the two of them, and as they moved down the slope, they encountered a thermocline at 80 feet. At this point, they checked their gauges and Chuck was down to 300 psi, less than 15 minutes into the dive.
Mary and Chuck did not make physical contact and did not prepare to share air. Chuck appeared to have a panic attack and bolted for the surface. Mary raced after him, hoping to stop him and make a shared air ascent. But Chuck arrived at the surface first, so Mary slowed as she approached the surface and even included a pause in shallow water. On the surface, they both inflated their BCs and proceeded to swim in. As they were swimming in, Mary heard a popping sound in her chest, then she started wheezing, as it also became difficult and painful to breathe.
Medical personnel on the beach checked Mary and agreed with her that she needed to go to an emergency room, not a recompression chamber. Chuck disappeared, never to be seen again. Mary went by ambulance to the hospital and was diagnosed with a partial pneumothorax and other respiratory complications. After 12 months out of the water, and lots of medical tests, Mary finally received medical clearance to return to diving.
Lessons For Life
- Do not let yourself be talked into being someone's buddy, particularly as a last-minute change. If something has already gone wrong, more problems are likely.
- If your dive buddy makes bad dive decisions or uses incorrect dive procedures (like Chuck's surf entry in this case), terminate the dive before these errors become compounded.
- Checking air is a three-step process: Check your own, check your buddy's and show your buddy yours.
- Allow or request that the most qualified diver in the group, in this case the divemaster, handle or deal with the weakest diver.
- Part of dive planning is to agree on procedures to use in a low-air or out-of-air situation.
- Do not put yourself at risk of a rapid ascent because of someone else's errors.