The wind shifted while Mary and Herb were underwater. It made surface conditions choppier than when they had entered and created a strong surface current. That strong current, combined with a meandering dive, took the pair off-course. They found themselves a long way from the boat when they surfaced, and it was going to be a long swim back. What’s more, they had to swim directly into the current to get back to the boat.
Mary and Herb were in their early 50s, and they loved to be outside and active. While neither was a “health nut,” they worked to stay fit. They both considered diving a great way to combine a love of the water, being outdoors and doing something together. They were occasional divers, making three or four dive outings a year with a couple of dives on each one. They both wanted to dive more, but life often got in the way of those plans.
Still, they kept their dive gear in good repair and did their best to stay fit enough to dive locally. Their local diving was a bit colder and a little more challenging than the typical warm-water destinations they would read about in magazines. They both felt the local diving was just as beautiful as the distant destinations, and more rewarding because it was in their backyard.
The boat was floating at anchor with 2- to 3-foot swells rolling through — nothing unusual for the location — with the water temperatures around 68 degrees F. They were both wearing adequate thermal protection: a 5 mm suit for Herb and a 7 mm suit for Mary. The divemaster briefed the dive, suggesting they head into the current that was flowing along the bottom, turning when they reached the midpoint of their dive to allow the current to bring them back to the boat.
Everything started out great as the buddy pair kitted up and began their dive. Mary descended first with Herb behind her. They reached the bottom at around 80 feet and began by swimming away from the boat. Neither diver paid much attention to the surroundings when they started out. The dive was uneventful and, after about 20 minutes, Herb reached the air pressure they agreed would signal the turning point of the dive. They began swimming back toward the boat as a team.
When Herb was down to approximately 500 psi in his tank, they began to surface together. They didn’t see the boat’s anchor line on the way up, but assumed they had to be close to the boat. After completing their safety stop, Herb and Mary surfaced for a total dive time of about 40 minutes. As soon as their heads broke the surface, they realized they were in trouble. They could barely see the dive boat off in the distance and only when they rode to the top of a swell. Worse still, the current was pulling them farther away.
Mary and Herb tried yelling and waving their arms to get the attention of the boat, but the waves and chop made it impossible for the crew to see them. They were both confident the crew would begin to look for them soon, but not yet. That’s because they weren’t late — the boat captain would probably wait another 10 minutes before he realized they were lost. It could be a while before the search began in earnest, and the speed at which the current was pulling them away made the couple think they might be long gone before anyone even realized where to look.
With that in mind, the divers ditched their weight belts and began swimming. They decided to swim with their masks in place and use their snorkels. They began by sighting the boat. Mary took a compass heading and then they started swimming, stopping every few minutes to find their bearings and to attempt to signal the boat. When Mary stopped to look for the boat and check her heading, she realized Herb wasn’t with her any longer. They had gotten separated by the waves while they swam. She looked for him for a half-hour before accepting that he was lost. She just hoped they would both be found soon.
Mary was picked up by another dive boat about an hour after she became separated from Herb. It wasn’t until three hours later that searchers found Herb. He had ditched his tank to make himself even more positively buoyant, and his BC was fully inflated. A combination of the cold water, stress and coronary-artery disease probably caused him to have a heart attack. He was dead when searchers located him.
Mary and Herb’s only major mistake during the dive was not paying closer attention to the underwater topography for navigation. They weren’t thinking about how to find the boat on the return; instead, they simply assumed the current would bring them straight back to where they started. But they didn’t swim in a straight line on their way out, so it stands to reason that when they turned and began riding the current back, they would return to another spot.
The surface current created by the turning wind took them farther off-course. The wind was blowing across their original path. And while they waited at their safety-stop depth with no visual reference and no anchor line to hold onto, they were dragged farther away from the boat. Upon surfacing, the biggest mistake the couple made was not staying together. Most survival specialists believe that when you are lost at sea, staying together is more important than trying to swim: Two divers together make a bigger target to spot than one. They also could have encouraged each other and, by holding onto each other, they would have lessened the cold water circulating around their bodies. They were both smart, however, by making themselves positively buoyant.
A typical diver can swim only about 1 knot per hour in full gear for a short period. A highly trained, fit rescue swimmer can make only about 2 knots for limited periods. Fighting a 2-knot current, as was present that day, is impossible and will serve only to put more stress on your body, and paradoxically might even chill your body faster — you are generating heat from the exercise, but you are also flushing more cold water over your body, even with a wetsuit, which will carry that heat away.
The last thing that would have helped Herb and Mary’s chances of survival was a surface-signaling device. Many commercially available devices are brightly colored, reflective and raise a diver’s in-water profile between 4 and 6 feet above the surface of the water. This simple device would have made it significantly easier for rescuers to locate the pair floating on the surface.
Have you or anyone you know ever been in a similar situation to Mary and Herb? If so, please brielfy explain what happened and how you made it out in the comments section below.
Lessons for Life
1. Be aware of your surroundings. Take a natural-navigation course to understand how to notice bottom features and navigate your way back to your starting point.
2. Practice self-rescue techniques. If you are ever separated from the boat, stay together and hold onto your buddy.
3. Carry a surface-signaling device. This will raise your profile above the wave heights. Ideally, this will include an inflatable surface-marker buoy and some sort of whistle or noisemaker to gain attention.
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.