Setting the Stage
Ed.'s note: The incidents described here are real. Names of locations and people have been changed or deleted.
Joe and Hal dived together locally for years each May to October. Neither Joe nor Hal had taken any advanced courses since their entry-level course, after which they purchased budget dive equipment that they had never had serviced. Both owned dial-reading gauges, but not computers. And even though the springtime water temperatures were in the mid-40s, they still dived in their old wetsuits. Both were smokers, without a regular fitness program or recent medical exams.
Late one spring night, at a party where more alcohol than food was served, they decided to make their annual first dive of the year the next day. The next morning, they fumbled to get all their gear together and to check it out. Their tanks had been filled at the end of last season, and though the tanks no longer registered full, Joe and Hal thought they had plenty of air for a simple shore dive.
The weather was crisp, clear and calm. The dive site was easily accessible, and the entry was a simple walk into the water. On descent, they moved slowly and uneasily through the cold and turbid water, inadvertently moving into water deeper than planned. Joe began having difficulty breathing, but thought it was just the first-dive-of-the-year jitters.
Hal saw an anchor partly buried in the sand with the line still tangled in the weeds. He began tugging on the anchor, breathing harder all the time. Before he knew it, he was out of air. He quickly looked around, but apparently didn't see Joe. Hal tried to ascend, but something, weeds or lines, held him down and he fell back to the bottom.
Joe saw clouds of bubbles coming from Hal, and then nothing. Hal's regulator was out of his mouth and there was fluid in his mask. Joe was breathing hard. He grabbed Hal and started to swim up, but couldn't ascend. Joe let go of Hal and made a rapid ascent to the surface.
On the surface, some divers nearby found Joe floating, semi-conscious and breathing with difficulty. They towed him ashore and he was rushed to a hyperbaric chamber, where he was treated for an air embolism and later released, but with a number of neurological deficits. Hal's body was recovered later that same day.
Lessons For Life
An analysis of this accident reveals violations of safe diving practices in a number of areas:
- Scuba diving requires both long-term and short-term fitness. Regular medical exams are increasingly important with age.
- Not smoking is vital to proper respiratory fitness, while alcohol should be consumed in moderation, if at all.
- Barely adequate equipment purchased years ago and unserviced is insufficient for safe diving. It would be better to rent dive gear.
- Dry suits are vital for some diving conditions. It would be better not to dive at all than take the risk of diving without proper thermal protection.
- Whenever there is the possibility of an entanglement of any kind, carry a cutting tool.
- Begin dives with full tanks, including a reserve for contingencies, unless the situation clearly allows for less air.
- One of the best ways to improve your diving skills, safety and enjoyment is to take additional dive training. Dive planning includes setting limits for depth, time and air.
- Recovering objects under water, particularly heavy ones, is a specialty skill that requires additional equipment.
- If you need to rescue a buddy under water and you can't swim him to the surface, use his positive buoyancy by inflating his BC, ditching his weights or both.
- Slow, deep, relaxed breathing significantly improves your diving efficiency, comfort and safety. Rapid, shallow breathing can lead to overbreathing the regulator, when the regulator can't deliver the amount of air you demand.