Ken was growing more uncomfortable by the minute. The current across the wreck was pushing him away from the rest of the divers. He was working hard to catch up to the group, but he couldn’t seem to get his breath, and his regulator didn’t seem to be working correctly. Ken paused for a moment to hold onto the wreck and get everything under control. When he looked up, he was alone.
Ken was a 37-year-old open-water diver with seven lifetime dives, including the four he made during his initial certification. He loved his new sport and was looking forward to spending as much time in the water as possible.
He just hadn’t yet found a regular buddy. He hoped spending a day on a boat with a group from his local dive shop would give him the opportunity to connect with other divers so he could gain experience and find a buddy.
When the group showed up at the dock, they were seven in total, the only divers on the small charter. A few had been diving for several years, but none was leadership level. They were trained for open water and advanced open water, and had several specialties among them.
Everyone but Ken had dived on this wreck before, and they chatted among themselves about what they would see.
Ken was excited, and listened to the other divers to learn as much as he could, trying to take it all in. Since their group had been on this charter boat before, and at this location, the divemaster briefed the dive quickly, and then told the divers to get in the water. The group decided to dive together as a large group rather than splitting into specific buddy teams.
Ken made his way to the swim step and entered the water without any problems. The group planned to make a 30-minute dive to the wreck and see what they could see. The maximum depth for the dive was 80 feet to the sand.
The divemaster mentioned a strong current on the bottom, but Ken didn’t know what that meant or how he should adjust his dive. He was simply following along. The dive group made it to the wreck and generally sheltered behind it as they swam the length of the boat. Ken stayed at the back of the group, slightly above the other divers, so he could keep an eye on everyone. He was working hard, dropping behind, and couldn’t catch up. His breathing became more and more rapid, yet he felt as though he wasn’t getting any air. Ken paused for a moment to hold onto the wreck so he could catch his breath, his mind racing.
When he looked around, Ken couldn’t see anyone from the group. He began to get worried. He ascended slightly above the wreck, to see if he could see the rest of the group, and immediately began to struggle again in the strong current. He kicked as hard as he could to get back to where he thought the other divers would be.
Not realizing Ken was missing, the rest of the divers made their way back to the anchor line and ascended to the surface. They chatted about the dive and began exiting the water when one diver saw Ken surface 40 yards from the boat. They heard him call for help, and then he disappeared.
Diving as a group isn’t a bad thing per se, but the first mistake this group made was not assigning dive buddies. A group of seven who all agree to “dive together” can’t work. It is too easy for someone to be overlooked in the process. This is especially true when one member of the group is significantly less experienced than the rest of the divers. They were used to diving without Ken, and no one remembered him until they got back to the surface.
Having worked with this group before, the divemaster did something that is natural and easy to do, but also wrong. He shortened his dive briefing, thinking that everyone had been on this dive before, not realizing that Ken was new. Even if that weren’t the case, the variable nature of any dive site means dive leaders need to give complete and detailed dive briefings every time, and they need to do their best to make sure everyone listens.
Ken did several things wrong on this dive. He should have talked to the other divers and reminded everyone that he was inexperienced. During the dive, he should have stayed behind the wreck to shield himself from the current, or aborted the dive when he realized he was in trouble. He should have signaled to any of the other divers that he was in trouble before it got serious — that diver could have helped him out or taken him back to the boat. Panic is a principal cause of dive accidents, but there is always some other triggering event that leads to panic. Ken was working so hard swimming against the current in an unfamiliar environment that he began to hyperventilate. At that point, he wasn’t thinking clearly. When he realized he was alone, and then got away from the wreck to look for the other divers, he was out of control, and panic set in. From there, it’s likely that the only option Ken’s mind could conceive was to get to the surface where he knew he could breathe.
Hitting the surface, Ken signaled for help but didn’t inflate his buoyancy compensator or drop his weight belt. Either of those actions could have saved his life. It took the boat crew 45 minutes to find him and bring his body back to the surface. They attempted to resuscitate him, but those efforts failed. The autopsy showed that Ken had pulmonary barotrauma and an arterial gas embolism (AGE), probably caused by rapid ascent.
Even though he still had air in his tank, Ken had held his breath when he bolted for the surface. The decreasing pressure and the expanding air in his lungs tore lung tissue and leaked air into his chest cavity and into his arterial-blood circulation, producing strokelike symptoms including loss of consciousness. AGE symptoms usually present within minutes of surfacing; Ken probably lost consciousness almost immediately. Since he wasn’t positively buoyant, he sank back below the surface and drowned.
Lessons for Life
- Dive with a buddy. If you plan to dive alone, seek the training, equipment and experience necessary to do so safely.
- Practice self-rescue skills. This includes mask recovery and replacement, regulator recovery and clearing, and gas management, along with ditching your weights and orally inflating your BCD.
- If you get separated from your buddy or a group, look for your buddy for not longer than one minute, and then make a controlled ascent to the surface.
- If you are breathless underwater, find a stable surface to hold onto and catch your breath. Always breathe slowly and deeply when underwater. Remember, depth increases your work of breathing. The air you are breathing is denser, and there is greater pressure on your lungs, so it is harder to get a full breath.
Eric Douglas co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety, and has written a series of dive-adventure novels and short stories. Check out his website at booksbyeric.com.
More Lessons for Life: