The buddy system is effective for handling emergencies when used properly. But divers shouldn't use it as a crutch to make dives that they're not qualified or comfortable completing. Relying on a buddy when a diver's skills and confidence aren't sufficient for a particular dive can have tragic results. Take the case of Kim.
Kim was a relatively new diver making her first deep wreck dives off the North Carolina coast. She had completed both open-water and advanced open-water training and had logged about 12 dives, including two ocean dives. She had some anxiety about the moderately rough conditions and reports of sand tiger sharks at the dive site. The divemaster put her at ease by teaming her with a more experienced buddy who had rescue diver certification and who promised to "look out" for her.
The dive took place on a popular wreck in 80 feet of water. The seas were only two to three feet, but presented a brisk chop due to a stiffening wind out of the east. The current was moderate, and visibility initially was about 50 feet. The boat hooked an anchor into the wreck and began dispatching divers into the water around 9 a.m. The choppy conditions, coupled with the nearby shoals, reduced visibility near the bottom to less than 15 feet. Kim and her buddy began their dive without incident.
As the divers approached the bottom, the visibility dropped dramatically and several large sharks appeared. The presence of the sharks increased Kim's already elevated anxiety level. Distracted by the sharks while her buddy continued swimming along the wreck, Kim found herself alone at 80 feet in the company of two very large sharks in poor visibility.
The combination of circumstances put Kim into the classic panic cycle. She began to breathe more rapidly, causing her physiological stress to increase, which created more anxiety. Later, she remembered thinking that she needed to slow her breathing and calm herself, but she was unable to regain control. She bolted to the surface in the moderate current, panicky and in a heavy chop, hundreds of feet from the boat.
The boat crew saw Kim surface a few hundred yards down-current. She removed her mask and regulator and began screaming for help. She began sucking in water, making her predicament worse. She was now in a full-scale panic.
The boat crew reacted quickly, tying a float ball to the anchor line and cutting it away from the boat. The captain moved the boat just down-current of Kim, and the divemaster entered the water, grabbing her from behind. A line was thrown to the divemaster, and the captain pulled the divers to the boat, pulling Kim aboard.
On board, Kim was still in a state of heightened anxiety and exhibited signs and symptoms of disorientation. The captain was unsure if her symptoms were related to her rapid ascent and possible lung injuries, the salt water inhaled or just her panicked state. He placed her on oxygen and had her lie still on the deck. Once her breathing rate slowed, all physical symptoms disappeared; luckily, she suffered no pressure-related injuries.
Kim used her buddy as a crutch. She was anxious about both the conditions and the sharks and later said that she wanted to withdraw from the dive that morning before the boat left. Kim decided to make the dive only after being assured that a more experienced buddy would "take care" of her. As it turns out, she was wrong.
In her panic, Kim also neglected to search for her buddy under water for one minute as she was trained. If Kim had followed this rule, her buddy would have found her when he returned to the spot where the sharks had been sighted just seconds after he discovered her missing. Kim's final error was removing her mask and regulator after reaching the surface.
Lessons for Life
- Training that builds confidence and teaches necessary skills is more important than a buddy can ever be.
- On every dive, divers should assume that there is a possibility that conditions or distractions may cause them to become separated from their buddy. A diver's mental and physical preparations should equip him or her for this contingency.
- Remember that multiple unexpected stresses can be encountered on any dive. Divers should never begin a dive that starts outside their comfort zone because that leaves no cushion for dealing with these unexpected challenges.
- When on the surface, divers should get positively buoyant and keep the mask and regulator in place to avoid breathing water.