Sean was struck by how different his favorite dive site looked at night. He wished he had gotten one of his new diving buddies to go out with him, but when they all declined he decided to go anyway. He knew he shouldn’t dive alone, but he was so excited to get in the water he couldn’t contain himself. On the surface swimming back for the beach he was simply buzzing. He could see the fire at the lakeside campsite as he swam in, looking up from time to time to steer himself toward shore. And then he heard the boat motor.
New to diving, Sean just couldn’t get enough of it. He loved the feeling of weightlessness and the excitement and adventure of it all. Just 24 years old, he had never had much direction in his life, but suddenly his head was full of ideas of adventure. He wanted to travel the world, and he told all his friends he was going to be the next Jacques Cousteau.
His enthusiasm tended to cloud his judgment from time to time. He wanted to be able to do everything “now” rather than taking his time and gaining the experience he needed. Sean wanted to become a technical diver to explore caves and deep wrecks, but he barely had 20 dives under his belt. He tended to be a bit headstrong, but most of his friends simply wrote that off to youthful enthusiasm and felt sure he would learn from his mistakes and become a top-notch diver.
Sean had already made three dives earlier in the day on that same exact spot. He felt he knew it like the back of his hand. So, when none of his friends wanted to join him for a night dive, he decided he would go anyway. He told himself he would stay close to the beach just down from their campsite. They were diving at the local freshwater lake so there was nothing to be worried about, he reasoned. He would stay shallow so there was no way he could get in trouble.
He’d made only one night dive in his life, and he had been accompanied by his instructor. For this dive, he didn’t really take time to think about what he was going to need. He simply picked up his small light, donned his gear and walked into the water. Too late, he realized he hadn’t brought along a glow stick to attach to his tank valve. He secretly suspected his instructor required the students to use them for her own purposes, simply to keep track of everyone in the water. He also didn’t think to take a float or a dive flag with him.
A little spooked at the feeling of being totally alone in the water, in the dark, Sean quickly put that aside and enjoyed the dive. He found himself noticing details that he hadn’t seen before, even in places he recalled from earlier in the day. He realized that simply following his own dive light made him slow down and pay more attention, rather than trying to cover as much distance as possible on the dive.
Sean noticed he was running low on air and decided to surface. It was only then that he realized he had far exceeded his own dive plan, sketchy though it was. He had been so engrossed in his new discoveries that he had failed to stay shallow and dive close to the beach. He was in 60 feet of water, which meant he was a considerable distance from the shore. He stopped to consider his remaining air supply and decided to ascend directly to the surface rather than making his way back along the bottom and working his way into shallower depths.
He finally made it to the surface, but was a little rattled from a disorienting ascent with no reference. He was breathing hard and then his heart sank when he realized just how long of a surface swim he still had in front of him. Still, it gave him time to plan the stories he would tell. And he relived the dive in his mind while he took a compass reading and placed his face in the water to begin the swim. Low on air, he used his snorkel as he swam. The moon was out, but high clouds passed in front of it from time to time. Still he could see the campfire, so he turned off his light to save batteries and slowly kicked his way into the shore.
Sean’s dive took him well away from the beach, more than 200 yards out. There wasn’t a No Wake zone near this section of the lake, but since it was night, the few boaters still out on the water had slowed down significantly anyway. The one boat in Sean’s area had its running lights on and wasn’t moving fast, but the anglers on board were tired and looking forward to getting back to their own campsite. They were moving as fast as they could justify, keeping their own safety in mind. They had no idea that anyone else was even in the water. Sean’s all black dive gear, including his tank, blended in with the water’s surface. The intermittent clouds took away any chance of Sean being seen.
All the boaters’ heard was the sound of a thump. Sean barely had time to look up before the boat hit him. The force of the blow pushed him aside and back under the water. Breathing from his snorkel, he inhaled water almost immediately.
The boaters slowed down and looked around, even shining a light on the water to figure out what they had hit. Failing to see anything, and since the boat seemed to still be running fine without any strange vibrations coming from the propeller, they powered back up and made their way in to their campsite.
It wasn’t until an hour later that Sean’s friends realized he had not made it back to the campsite. They walked down to the water’s edge to look for him and found him floating in the shallows. He had several injuries from the collision with the boat, and he had drowned.
Sean made several mistakes on this dive, and he paid for them.
He went diving alone. While some highly trained, equipped and experienced divers do make solo dives, Sean was not in that category. He was new to diving and lacked even the basic safety equipment. For a night dive like this, he should have had a surface float with its own light to make it visible. He should have had someone on the beach serving as a beachmaster who could have watched for Sean and signaled to the boat that a diver was in the water. Ideally, the beachmaster would have also set up lights on the beach to help Sean navigate back to the shore. While that would not have changed the outcome of Sean’s dive, it is good practice.
Sean also violated his own dive plan. He planned to stay shallow and close to the beach, but he failed to monitor his own depth, time and air consumption. This forced him to ascend directly to the surface. Had he monitored his air supply better, he could have made a slow, safe ascent to the surface by following the bottom contours and swam right up to the beach. Instead, he found himself in a situation that required a long surface swim.
Finally, had Sean saved enough air to be able to swim back to the beach with his regulator in his mouth, he might have survived the incident. Swimming with a snorkel can save air in your tank, but when the blow from the boat shoved Sean under water he immediately inhaled water.
Lessons for life
- Always dive with a buddy. Even when everything goes right, diving with a buddy is more fun, but a buddy can also be there to help you out in the event you get in trouble.
- Conserve enough air in your tank to make it completely out of the water. Keep your regulator in your mouth until you are on the boat or the beach.
- Always be aware of boat traffic. Often boaters can’t see divers in the water. It is up to you to make yourself visible to them.
- Be prepared for the dives you plan to make. This includes the proper surface support such as dive flags, buoys and lights as appropriate.
Eric Douglas is the director of training for Divers Alert Network. He also co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety and has written a series of dive adventure novels and short stories. Check out his website, www.booksbyeric.com.