Steve was bored. He remained thankful for the opportunity to teach people about scuba diving but couldn’t help but feel that making the same dives over and over was getting dull. He needed to do something to spice things up for his own entertainment. The two divers in his care were doing fine, but they kicked up some silt on the bottom. He decided to make an object lesson out of the situation and have them wait for the silt to clear. He would take a minute to go look at that cavern again.
Steve was a 40-year-old certified dive instructor. He had been teaching for the past two years. He’d progressed quickly up the leadership ranks, meeting the minimum number of dives then taking the next course. Even though he stayed physically active, diving nearly every weekend during the season, he ate poorly and was overweight.
Steve and his two students showed up at their local lake at 8 on a Saturday morning. The students were working on their advanced diver certifications, and Steve had three dives planned. They started with a dive to 110 feet for their deep-dive experience. The dive was generally uneventful, but dark and cold. Steve also led his students on a brief excursion into a cavern system during the dive. The opening to the cavern started at 90 feet.
During the surface interval, the two students changed their tanks, but Steve didn’t. After waiting 45 minutes and logging their dives, they began their second dive at about 11 a.m. They planned to descend to 60 feet but ended up settling on the bottom closer to 85 feet. The students kneeled on the bottom and stirred up silt. Steve signaled to the students to stay put, and then he swam away.
The students believed they were being tested, so they obediently remained in place. When Steve did not return after five minutes, one of the students swam around briefly to look for him. With no sign of Steve, the students ended the dive. They made a safety stop before exiting the water. When the students returned to the surface, they waited another 20 minutes, then called for help.
A search team immediately began looking for Steve, but it was the next day before recovery divers found his body. During the dive, he ventured inside the cavern area, continuing into what would be considered a cave passage. Rescue divers found his body on the bottom between some rocks. Steve made the dive with no lines; he was found out of air with a dead dive-light battery. The coroner ruled his death a drowning.
It is easy to grow careless when you do the same thing over and over again. It feels like you are on autopilot and don’t really have to pay attention to what you are doing. That is exactly the point when you get in trouble.
In this situation, Steve’s students were certified divers. They could technically take care of themselves, although we don’t know how much experience they had. But regardless of their experience level, as the instructor in this situation, Steve’s obligation was to stay with the students and see them safely through the dive and back to the surface.
Instructors are taught specific methods and techniques on how to teach diving classes. There are standards that are essentially set in stone. Violating those standards is a sure way to get in trouble. Accidents don't happen every time someone violates standards, but when they do, the instructor is liable. It is likely the instructor’s liability insurance would decline to cover the costs of an accident.
Steve violated standards on the first dive by taking untrained and unprepared students into a cavern system. An underwater cavern is no more than 130 linear feet from the surface, and you can always see the outside light. Even then, divers each carry a primary and a backup light when entering a cavern system, giving them three light sources.
Cavern divers also secure a line to the outside of the cavern system and take it with them so they can find their way out. Steve didn’t do any of that. Often caverns extend deeper, turning into cave systems when they go beyond the 130-linear-feet limit or out of a direct line of sight with the opening. Each of the divers, including Steve, had one light and no reel to secure a line to the cavern opening.
There’s no way to know why Steve didn’t change tanks between dives. He might have been distracted and forgotten to do it. One problem with being a dive instructor alone with students is that the instructor is effectively diving solo. There is no one dedicated to help the instructor perform a buddy check.
It’s also possible that Steve chose not to switch out tanks. Often instructors use significantly less air than their students, giving them the ability to do two dives on a single tank and save money on tank fills. Considering the depth of the first dive followed by the miscalculated depth of the second dive, this was a dangerous mistake.
Even though the students were certified divers, leaving them on the bottom in the silt while Steve swam away to revisit the cavern system was a mistake and a serious violation of dive standards—not to mention common sense. Entering the cavern system alone with a nearly empty tank, no cave reel and only one light spelled disaster for Steve.
Lessons For Life
- Do not enter a cavern or cave system—or any overhead environment—without the proper equipment and training.
- Perform a buddy check to make sure you are ready for the dive.
- Instructors: Don’t get lax with diving/teaching standards. Those rules are put in place for a reason.
- If you’re bored, do something to change up your routine. Make time for some pleasure dives to remind yourself why you love the sport. Just don’t get careless with students.
We're often asked if the Lessons for Life columns are based on real-life events. The answer is yes, they are. The names and locations have been removed or altered to protect identities, but these stories are meant to teach you who to handle a scuba diving emergency by learning from the mistakes other divers have made. Author Eric Douglas takes a creative license on occasion for the story, but the events and, often, the communication between divers before the accident are entirely based on incident reports.