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Saturday, April 12, 2014 

Complacency Kills

Mid-way through their 10 day live aboard dive trip, the large, experienced group of underwater photographers seemed to have a good rhythm down of diving, eating, resting, editing photos and hitting the water again in search of new subjects. After many days of rain and mediocre conditions, the tropical Pacific paradise of Palau beaconed them that late-afternoon with calm seas and sunny skies.

Setting out from the mother ship, the skiff was crammed with divers and photo gear, and quickly made it’s way out in the lengthening day towards an easy dive site, sheltered from the strong currents and seas that mark much of the intense diving in Palau. They would dive a shallower area with small bommies and rocks sewn along a sloping sand bar, ending in a small island marked with a light.

Everyone eagerly geared up and jumped in. As it was about 4 pm, there was still plenty of light for another couple of hours, so no serious dive lights were required, although many divers had focus or video lights on their rigs. All of the divers had been given a serious safety briefing first thing on board, and had been issued surface markers and some sort of sound signaling device if they didn’t have one. Having done 15 or so dives together, the group split off comfortably into pairs and smaller groups. Led by two dive guides, they spread out to be able to capture the macro subject matter they were after without interference.

Early in the dive, one diver, having brought wide angle gear along, was bored, and decided to signal the dive guide and head up. The guide watched the diver reach the surface and resumed herding the others around to new subjects to shoot.

After close to an hour, the groups of divers ended their dives and surfaced in the warm golden rays of a tropical setting sun. They remarked at the complete lack of currents during the dive.

The skiff when along the line of divers picking everyone up, and many remarked once on board, “Gee, where’s Jim? He’s usually the first one up”.

Jim had surfaced ok an hour previously. He saw the dive boat off a short distance away and waited for them to pick him up, it was a sunny afternoon with just a light breeze and clear skies, he was sure they’d see him in a minute or two. And it just seemed like routine for him to surface earlier than the others. But the crew on the boat never expected a diver to come up after 20 mins, and were relaxed after a long day, chatting with another skiff, comfortable in their routine that the divers would be down for another 40 minutes or so. After all, usually if somebody had a problem it was in the first few minutes of the dive.

Jim sat on the surface, and then slowly drifted away in the light wind. He inflated his surface marker and blew on his whistle. But he was silhouetted in the bright sun, and the wind blew his whistle sound away. He had some difficulty holding the surface marker upright as well.

He saw the boat start up and move a couple of times, but nobody saw him by then. He watched them start to pick up the other divers, then start to do searches for him. The boat did “S” sweeps around and around upwind from him, but nobody could spot him in the gathering darkness. He continued to drift uncontrollably away, even trying to swim a bit.

After it became dark, Jim turned on a small strobe light that he had on his BC desperate to be seen. He tried to swim a bit, but realized that impossibility. Frustratingly, he could see the boats looking for him, but none ventured far enough in his direction to see him.

The mood on the boat was one of frantically searching back and forth in a directed manner. After radioing the ship, long S sweeps were made by the well-trained crew in a lengthening manner, never realizing the distance downwind Jim had traveled in an hour. Twenty pairs of eyes were looking for Jim in every direction. The boat sat and listened for his whistle at times, not hearing any sounds. There was also the sand bar to search, as Jim had remarked that as a strong swimmer, he would try to swim to shore if he had problems.

As night fell, there were the guests on board to think about and the boat was out of fuel. Reluctantly, it returned to the live aboard. The authorities were advised, and several other liveaboards launched boats to take their place in the search, keeping in touch by radio.

His dive buddies and the trip leader got cleaned up and discussed the events in a somber manner. Many speculated that he had suffered some sort of medical condition after reaching the surface and had slipped back below. The easy routine enjoyment of the dive trip had turned into a nightmare.

After refueling, the Captain took the helm and they returned to the dive site to search. Finally, they saw a very small light downwind in the distance.

The boat drove at 29 knots for 6 minutes before they caught up with Jim and plucked him from the dark waters. He was tired but unharmed, and very lucky to be alive, after drifting a long 5 miles away from the dive site into the open Philippine Sea at night.

The lesson learned? Complacency can kill you. If you don’t carry all the safety gear you need to attract attention, on every dive, whether it’s a “no-brainer” dive or not, you can be lost at sea. If the boat crew doesn’t watch for divers surfacing early, divers can be lost.

Even if you’ve done 15 aggressive dives together previously and had no problems, don’t relax on the last dive of the day. It really could be your “last” dive.

See and Be Heard - Use What You Have

Even on a simple, easy dive, don’t jump in without a good light, surface marker and strong sound device.

Jim was prepared with a strobe light and it saved his life. But a better surface sound signaling device like a Dive-Alert would of gotten him immediate attention. Inflating his surface marker completely and waving it for attention may of helped too. But in the event that nothing else worked, or in adverse conditions, a Nautilus Lifeline with it’s GPS-linked digital VHF radio and strobe light would of made finding him much more assured.

A large surface marker buoy (SMB) is now required on most offshore dive boats. Some even have lights. Be sure you are familiar with their deployment and practice using them in easy conditions. Holding the end of them down underwater makes them stand up rigidly. Many guides deploy them at the safety stop for the dive skiff to spot and keep divers from being hit by other boat traffic. Try letting out a big burst of air from your octo just before you surface, then surface in it’s wake. The large surface boil will signal traffic where you are.

But what if you don’t have those great devices? Grab an old CD and put it in your BC pocket - they make a great signaling mirror. Most divers now carry some sort of light, and photographers have powerful strobes on their camera. Put your camera into “automatic” mode and the strobe will fire. Firing them in a burst of 3 shots every minute towards a boat should attack attention. Don’t have a surface marker? Take off your fins and wave them above your head, the idea is to make yourself “large” in the water. Remember to stick together, a larger group is much easier to spot than a small one. Conserve your strength, ditch your weights and other cumbersome gear if you have to. Relax, breath in the troughs of the waves, not at the top, where it breaks over your head.

Remember good communication with the boat crew, your guides and dive buddies is probably the most important part of your safety. If you think you might come up early, tell the guides and driver to be on the lookout. Plan your dive and dive your plan; it’s a basic part of any underwater adventure.

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About Jack

  • Adventurer, diver, sailor, photographer, writer and sometimes graphic designer. Proprietor of Optical Ocean Sales, LLC. Enjoy the blog, check back and please leave comments!
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