Separation from a photographer buddy gets a scuba diver into real trouble.
Angie slowed her breathing while she hovered just above the reef. She attempted to make herself invisible in the water so the tiny blenny fish would reappear. She really wanted a close-up of it coming out of its hole.
Finally, Angie was rewarded with the perfect shot. She took three frames before the blenny disappeared back inside, startled by the flash from Angie’s underwater strobes. Moving away from the reef, Angie looked around for her dive buddy, Cliff.
Cliff and Angie had been scuba diving together for years. They had a routine. Angie was an avid underwater photographer, but Cliff liked to hang out in the water and enjoy the scenery. He had a sixth sense for finding small critters in the reef, so he often searched for Angie’s next subject while she worked with her camera. Cliff never moved too far from Angie; neither one of them liked to be a bad dive buddy. They made a good team, supporting each other in the water. They were both in their 40s and in good health.
On the morning of the dive, Cliff wasn’t feeling 100 percent, but he wasn’t about to let that get in the way of making the dives. They hadn’t had a chance to dive in a while, and he didn’t want to disappoint Angie. He skipped breakfast, hoping his stomach would settle down.
Conditions were nearly perfect for the planned dives from a small charter boat. The charter specialized in small groups — no more than six divers at a time — and that’s exactly the way Angie and Cliff liked it. It minimized the chances another scuba diver would disturb Angie’s photos or damage her camera.
The dives promised the rule of 80s: 80-degree air, 80-degree water and 80 feet of visibility. There was a strong current on the bottom, moving diagonally across the dive site, but Cliff and Angie agreed they would hide in between coral formations and stay near the boat. Angie was after small critter photos, setting up her camera for macro photography, so there was no need to swim away from the reef.
After watching Angie set up her shot and move into position to photograph the blenny, Cliff decided to explore the reef and look for Angie’s next subject. He knew she was hoping to get a photo of a clownfish on an anemone for her portfolio.
Finning from one coral formation to the next, Cliff moved out from behind the protection of the reef, exposing himself to the strong current. He swam against the current so he wouldn’t be carried away from the dive site, working hard to move to the next outcropping.
Cliff was nearly to the next coral formation when he got a cramp in his left leg. When he turned to stretch it out, the current caught him and pulled him away from the reef and out toward the sand. Realizing what was happening, he struggled to stretch his calf and swim at the same time. Neither worked well, and he floated farther away from Angie and the original dive site.
Angie finished taking her photos and looked up and around to find Cliff — just in time to see him struggling as he floated away. She clipped off her camera to her BC and swam toward him. Cliff was attempting to self-rescue and swim with his hands. Angie realized what he needed and grabbed his fin while supporting his ankle, stretching out his leg. She signaled to him that he needed to relax and just float. In a few moments, the cramp relaxed and Cliff could swim again.
Looking around, the scuba divers realized they had floated too far away from the dive site to make it back. They agreed to surface, swimming in the direction of the boat while they did. On the surface, Cliff deployed his surface marker buoy and signaled to the boat crew that they were both OK. The crew kept an eye on the dive buddies while they recovered the remaining divers, and then moved to pick up Angie and Cliff.
Often, underwater photographers get so absorbed in what they are doing, their dive buddies feel as if they are diving alone. In Cliff and Angie’s case, they had an understanding about their respective roles on the dive. Despite that, Cliff really didn’t have a buddy on the dive. No one was keeping an eye on him or ready to help him out in an emergency.
A small issue, such as a leg cramp, can quickly escalate into a larger problem. We have discussed many times in this column how a small trigger can lead to panic and a serious accident. When a diver is uncomfortable or unprepared for a dive, all it takes is a small incident for the perceptual narrowing that comes with panic to set off a chain reaction.
In Cliff’s case, he wasn’t feeling well and was mildly dehydrated on the morning of the dive. They hadn’t been scuba diving in a while, so he wasn’t used to wearing fins. Those factors likely led to his leg cramp. He began the process of a self-rescue and was under control, but he was floating away from Angie.
Cliff was smart and swam into the current when he moved away from Angie initially, ensuring that he would be able to make it back to her, but he hadn’t planned on the cramp. While trying to relieve the discomfort, he drifted away from the coral formations and directly into the flow.
This dive incident is relatively minor, and not uncommon. Slight complications, such as an accidental mask flood or cramp, happen every day in the water. It is always the diver’s response to the problem that determines whether it is a quickly forgotten minor inconvenience or a potential disaster.
In Cliff’s case, had Angie not seen him floating away and responded to give him aid, and had he not remained calm, he could have easily panicked and bolted to the surface. In a panic situation, it is easy to forget your training and neglect to exhale on ascent. It would not be the first time something as simple as a cramp led to a series of events that ended with an air embolism.
Lessons For Life
1) HAVE A PLAN TO SUPPORT YOUR BUDDY Even if you have a task on a dive, don’t forget about your buddy. Alternatively, your buddy should seek training in solo diving and be prepared to be completely self-sufficient.
2) PRACTICE SELF-RESCUE SKILLS Too often, divers learn skills in their open-water courses but never practice them again. During your next safety stop, remove and replace your mask, and practice relieving a cramp. It will serve you well.
3) PRACTICE BUDDY-RESCUE SKILLS See above, but the next time, practice air-sharing drills.
4) DON’T DIVE IF YOU AREN’T PREPARED No diver wants to disappoint a dive buddy by backing out of a dive, but don’t dive if you aren’t mentally and physically prepared for it. It is better to miss a dive than it is not to come back from one.
5) DON’T FORGET TO BREATHE Always maintain an open airway on an ascent.
Eric Douglas co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety, and has written a series of adventure novels, children’s books, and short stories — all with an ocean and scuba diving theme. Check out his website, and follow him on Facebook.