Lessons for Life: Diving in Kelp Turns Deadly
Buoyancy problems and entanglement cause a diver to panic and forget his training.
Caught in the Kelp
Len’s buoyancy was driving him crazy. He constantly sank to the bottom or floated toward the surface out of control, and he felt like he was never going to get it right. While everyone said the kelp forest was beautiful, Len just couldn’t relax and enjoy the dive. Every few feet, his fins were tangled up and he had to stop and clear them. While he was doing that, he would sink to the bottom and get tangled up again. And now he couldn’t find his dive buddy. This dive was not going well.
Len was 37 years old and had made a total of 20 dives over two years. He was in moderate physical condition but hadn’t exercised recently.
Len wore a recently purchased 7 mm wetsuit, suitable for the cooler water near his home, and he was using a rented weight-integrated BC for the first time. He had divided his weights between the weight pockets and his weight belt to even himself out in the water.
The first dive of the day was in 60 feet of water and lasted 40 minutes, and Len struggled with the new and unfamiliar equipment.
Back on the boat during the surface interval, Len talked to his buddy, Steve, about better ways to adjust his weights and improve his control. Steve was a more experienced diver and gave some advice, but he was neither a divemaster nor an instructor.
When Len got in the water for the second dive, he couldn’t descend and realized that he had forgotten his weight belt back on the boat. The divemaster brought his belt to him, and Len had to work hard at the surface to get it in place. When he was finally ready to dive again, Len was agitated and a little out of breath, but he was able to descend.
The second dive was shallower than the first, with a maximum depth of 40 feet. Len and Steve were closer to the shore, so they could feel the wave surge. It pushed them from side to side as they swam, and caused the kelp to sway back and forth. The dive buddies skirted the kelp bed for most of the dive, but because Len was running low on air they decided it would be faster to return to the boat straight through the middle of the kelp.
As they swam through the kelp bed, Len and Steve became separated. When Steve made it back to the boat, he realized Len wasn’t there and immediately returned to look for him. When Steve finally found his dive buddy, Len was unconscious and tangled up in kelp. There was a large stalk wrapped around his leg and smaller limbs tangled in his gear. Steve cut Len free with his dive knife and brought his buddy to the surface. The boat crew retrieved Len from the water and initiated CPR, but Len never regained consciousness.
Len ran out of air on the bottom and drowned after being ensnared in kelp. That is what killed him, but the factors that led to Len’s death include his struggle with buoyancy and feelings of discomfort in the water.
When Len got in the water for the second dive, he forgot his weight belt and then grappled to get it in place. He was probably embarrassed for making his dive buddy wait for him, and he was somewhat out of breath from the effort. The wave action he felt underwater kept him from relaxing and controlling his breathing, and it is easy to imagine that Len felt agitated throughout the dive as he fought with his gear and his buoyancy.
Kelp can be one of the most beautiful diving environments, but it can also be frustrating and dangerous if a diver gets twisted in it, sometimes obscuring vision and making it difficult to stay with a buddy. Kelp can be broken or cut, but pulling against it makes it nearly impossible to break free.
Len was likely already distressed when he and Steve made the decision to head straight through the kelp bed, and that quickly escalated to fear as he became entangled and tried — unsuccessfully — to free himself. When panic sets in, it is very difficult for a person to calm down and focus on what needs to be done. Tunnel vision narrows the options, and the diver’s body tells him to flee. Training and experience are the only ways to avoid panic in a troublesome situation.
Len was overweighted on the first dive, causing him to bounce up and down in the water column. He added air to his BC to get himself off the bottom but likely added too much. That caused him to ascend, and then he dumped air, sending him right back to the seafloor. Before his next dive, Len should have spent time on the surface performing a buoyancy check to determine the amount of weight necessary for his new gear setup. After he completed the buoyancy check on the surface, Len should have spent a few minutes near the bottom simply working on his buoyancy control, running through the drills he learned in his diving class and getting his breathing under control.
The decision to return to the boat through the kelp bed was the next mistake. Even if Len had run low on air and had to ascend before returning to the boat, a long surface swim would have been preferable to drowning.
It’s not uncommon for new divers to be embarrassed by their own lack of comfort in the water, especially when they are with more experienced divers. Most of the time, it is the new diver’s imagination; most divers are happy to help out however they can. We’ve all been there. But if your dive buddy is judging you, then it is time to find a new buddy.
There is no dive worth dying for. Divers should practice the credo that any diver can call any dive for any reason at any time. Conditions weren’t right for Len, and he should have opted out of the second dive. Failing to do so cost him his life.
Lessons for Life
1 Call the Dive If you aren’t comfortable with a dive, for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to call it. Head back to the boat and figure out the problem, and live to dive another day.
2 Check Your Buoyancy Whenever you make a significant gear or environment change, perform a buoyancy check to make sure you’re wearing the right amount of weight. A new wetsuit might be more or less buoyant than your previous one. A new BC with different weight configurations can change your attitude in the water.
3 Get Additional Training Buoyancy control is what makes diving magical. Being able to float effortlessly in the water column is the best part of diving. Some divers pick it up quickly. For others, it takes a while. If you struggle with it, take a specialty course or work with an instructor to fine tune your techniques.
4 Orient Yourself To Local Conditions Even experienced divers have been known to struggle with kelp when they aren’t used to it. Get a local orientation to a dive site when you aren’t familiar with the situation.