With his heart pounding in his ears and his lungs screaming for air, John released the thrashing diver. His only focus now was saving his own life. He struggled for breath and fought to stay above the surface--wishing that he still had his BC and tank. Choking on seawater, he tried to discard his snorkel, ripping it violently from his mouth and dislodging his mask in the process. The sudden flow of water stung his eyes and drove his anxiety higher. Clinging to his last shreds of rational control, he managed to clear his mask. Then the other diver grabbed John from behind and pulled them both beneath the surface.
John was a scuba instructor in his mid-thirties. Although he had been certified as an instructor for more than a decade, teaching was really just a hobby. Once a year, he organized an open-water certification trip to the Florida Keys. John felt he was in good health, but after every class he realized that he needed to improve his physical stamina. However, his good intentions did not translate into action. When John and his students left for their trip to the Keys, John was still 40 pounds overweight and had participated in no cardiovascular exercise in well over a year.
The divers in John's group all successfully completed certification and were now enjoying the chance to explore the world-famous reefs. Conditions were good when they began their fourth day of diving, although there was a mild current running across the dive site. The new divers paired up in buddy teams and entered the water with John following along on his own. Following the captain's briefing, the group began their dive by swimming into the current. Thirty minutes into the dive, John was struggling to keep up. He was relieved when they reached the turn point and began drifting back toward the boat.
The divers followed the reef back toward the mooring, just as they had been instructed. However, they missed the mooring line as the current brought them back much faster than expected. John noticed the mistake, swam forward and pointed each diver back to the boat. Thinking he had reached everyone, John turned, swam back against the current and began his ascent.
John exited the water, secured his gear and did a quick head count, realizing that he was one diver short. As he was interviewing the missing diver's buddy, the lost diver surfaced well down current from the boat--by himself, scared, and completely out of air. The mate yelled at John, "Get your fins and go get the diver. We'll come and pick you up!" John quickly jumped into the water, but his strength was already sapped by the rigors of the dive, and the effort to reach his former student left him extremely winded. The diver was a younger man who had managed to ditch his weights, but with an empty tank he was unable to inflate his BC and was struggling to stay afloat. John attempted to inflate the diver's BC orally, but predictably, the panicked diver tried to grab him. John managed to push him away, but in his state of physical exhaustion, he found himself on the verge of panic, too.
The mate watched in horror as both divers went under. He kept his eyes locked on the position, and when the captain brought the boat just up current of the divers, he jumped into the water towing a float ring and line. Diving down, he reached the struggling, submerged divers. He pulled the new diver to the surface, assuming that John, a certified instructor, could fend for himself. The reassuring flotation of the ring soon calmed the diver, and the mate was able to get air into the man's BC.
"Where is the other diver?" yelled the captain. The mate turned to see John's inert form float to the surface. He quickly grabbed the instructor, turned him over, and was about to begin rescue breathing when John sputtered and drew a breath on his own. Although John had inhaled seawater, he did not suffer any significant injuries.
Diving is an easy and relaxing activity when conditions are good and every-thing goes right. Unfortunately, things don't always go according to plan and, as this accident shows, a series of small mistakes can quickly add up to big trouble. This accident began when the missing diver slipped down current from the boat--an easy mistake to make. Then, he became separated from his buddy and failed to surface in accordance with proper procedures. He also failed to watch his air supply, violating three of diving's most important rules. Finally, after surfacing in a near panic, he remembered to dump his weights, but failed to orally inflate his BC.
Divers, especially diving leaders, must have the endurance and fitness level necessary to deal with unexpected emergencies. John would later admit that he recognized this fact, but had failed to do anything about it, putting himself and his students at risk.
Lessons for Life
Make it a habit to check your position (and your buddy's) every minute or so throughout the dive, especially when diving in currents.
Even when the current seems mild, it can be difficult to fight, especially at the end of the dive.
People who desire to do adventurous activities like diving should maintain a regular regimen of cardiovascular activity.
Divers, and especially dive leaders, should refresh their skills with realistic emergency simulations as often as possible.