Setting the Stage
With a cluttered dive deck, busy hands assembling gear, the hiss of air, and the anticipation of a night dive at a brand-new dive site, is it any wonder that divers miss details from the pre-dive briefing?
Take the case of Liz and David. College students on spring break, both had recently completed advanced certification, had safely logged more than 20 dives and were about to make their second night dive.
The Dive Site
The seas were glass, the moon nearly full and 30 feet below lay a patch reef in clear tropical water. The dive boat tied to the mooring just before dusk, and the captain asked everyone to stop their activities for the pre-dive briefing. During his briefing, the captain illustrated the structure of the patch reef and how the boat was anchored near its center. He also explained that although there was virtually no current over the reef itself, the tidal current beyond the western end of the reef could be quite brisk. Divers were cautioned to stay on the well-defined reef structure. In the event that they surfaced away from the boat, they were given specific instructions to signal with dive lights and whistles, both of which were required equipment. The enthusiasm of the group frequently caused distractions during the briefing, forcing the captain to ask for the divers' attention repeatedly. The divers entered the water just after sunset.
Once in the water, Liz and David swam on the surface to the group leader and asked for compass bearings on the reef. The group leader noted that this information had been detailed in the briefing and again cautioned the divers not to leave the reef. He explained that they should stop if they found themselves over clean sand, then either surface or return to the reef immediately. Liz and David acknowledged his advice and began their dive.
As the dive drew to a close, the group leader notified the captain that Liz and David were missing. An immediate underwater search was initiated. The group leader and two other instructors dived back down to the reef and circumnavigated the entire structure looking for lights or other signs of the divers. They were not located.
The dive boat and another vessel operating in the area initiated a surface search. Approximately 30 minutes into the search, a light was spotted on the bottom in the shallows around a nearby island. The light was stationary, so the boat mate immediately jumped into the water, swam to the light, and found the dive light attached to an abandoned weight belt in about 10 feet of water. Searchlights were focused down-current from that point, and the divers were spotted in deeper water on the far side of a shallow reef and sandbar structure. The group leader and mate swam through the shallows and reached the divers. Both divers were exhausted, and Liz was in a state of terrified panic. They had to be towed against the current approximately a mile to the safety of the boat. Aside from what was later termed emotional trauma, the divers were returned unharmed.
What went wrong? David and Liz missed most of the captain's pre-dive safety information because they didn't pay attention.
Upon entering the water, they swam around the reef and back to the west end. Liz wanted to practice her navigation skills and continued following her compass course beyond the reef structure. David later said that he realized that they had left the reef, but decided to continue following Liz anyway. Reaching 1,000 psi, they surfaced and quickly noticed that they were far from the boat and caught in a current leading through the shallow-water break between two islands. They tried to swim against the current until they were exhausted. At this point, with Liz near panic, David dumped both weight belts. Unfortunately, he also discarded both dive lights, which they had clipped to their belts. David attempted to assist Liz back to the boat until he was also exhausted and could swim no farther. They drifted at the mercy of the ocean until they were spotted with the searchlights.
Investigation and Legal Action
Liz sought damages from the group leader and the dive operator for the emotional trauma she experienced. In pretrial activities, it was established that Liz and David were solely responsible for ignoring the briefing information and creating the situation. It was further noted that quick action on the part of the captain and group leader averted what could have otherwise been a tragedy. The case was dismissed with no damages awarded.
Lessons for Life
- Regardless of a diver's experience level, local knowledge of a dive site is vitally important safety information.