Every Diver’s Nightmare
left behind to drift at sea
from the June, 2004 issue of Undercurrent
In April, Dan Carlock of Santa Monica, CA, was forgotten at sea while diving off the Sun Diver out of Long Beach. Carlock drifted alone for five hours in 60-degree water about seven miles offshore, praying for his life before being spotted by a Boy Scout aboard a century-old tall ship.
The Associated Press reported that the 45-year-old aerospace engineer entered the water off Huntington Beach on a foggy Sunday morning, but he had problems equalizing and fell behind. He tried following his buddy’s bubbles but lost them and decided to end the dive after 15 minutes. By that time he was already 400 feet down current from an oil platform where the boat was anchored. He blew his whistle, but the foghorn on the oil rig drowned it out. He inflated a safety sausage, but the fog was too heavy for it to be noticed. “I figured when the dive was over they would realize I was missing and come looking for me,” Carlock said. But no one did.
Assuming he’d be picked up when the other divers surfaced, Carlock told the San Diego Union- Tribune, “I was watching my watch, trying to ball park when people would be running out of air. At 60 minutes you go, ‘There’s no one diving — they’re all in the process of getting onboard.’ I told myself this isn’t undue cause for alarm. Maybe there are other people in trouble beyond me.”
What he didn’t know at the time was that no one onboard realized he was missing. As a divemaster from Ocean Adventures Dive Company (the Venice-based shop that organized the excursion) ran through a verbal roster check, an air compressor went down, distracting the divers and crew. Carlock’s name was missed. According to Steve Ladd, owner of OADC, “Dan’s dive buddy did not report that they had become separated and that Dan had not returned.” After the interrupted roll call, the three divemasters from the shop did not perform a visual verification.
“I’m not foolish. Before I dive again, I want to make sure changes are made and back-up systems are in place.”
Faced with murky water and a strong current, and not realizing anything was wrong, the rest of the group decided to move about nine miles north to explore a shipwreck.
Carlock took photographs of himself to document that he had made it to the surface. An hour and a half later he dropped his weight belt and periodically noted the time on a slate. “It was like the movie ‘Castaway,’” Carlock said later. “There was a need to mark my existence.” After about two hours in the water, Carlock started to shiver. But eventually the sun supplied some heat. “That’s why I feared that if I wasn’t picked up by nightfall it would be bad news,” he said.
It was only following the second dive of the day that Carlock’s absence was discovered, but the crew assumed incorrectly that he had disappeared at the second site. Sun Diver Captain Ray Arntz alerted the Coast Guard around noon, about two hours after leaving the original location, and a team of divers went down to survey the wreck. The divemaster slate had logged Carlock out of the water at the last site and back in the water at the next site! And he wasn’t even on the boat.
While the Coast Guard, recreational diving instructors, Long Beach lifeguards, and L.A. Fire Department personnel searched for the missing diver in the wrong part of the ocean, Carlock continued to drift. Later, he told his harrowing tale on Good Morning America. “I thought about all the things that I’ve left unfinished in my life, and all the people that would have to make up for my mess. And, you know, all the living that I haven’t lived yet,” he recalled. (It seems that lost divers, like shark attack victims, are now entitled to 15 minutes of fame.)
After five hours, Boy Scout crew trainee Zack Mayberry, 15, aboard the tall ship Argus, spotted Carlock’s head sticking out of the water about 150 yards away. Mayberry handed his binoculars to a friend. “I wanted to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me,” Mayberry said. Eventually Carlock, himself an ex-Boy Scout, was plucked from the sea. He was given warm clothes and hot liquids, and eventually taken back to the Sun Diver by the Coast Guard.
Lieutenant Commander John Fassero, Chief of Coast Guard’s Investigations Dept. in the Los Angeles area, is investigating the incident. He told Undercurrent that Captain Arntz has been charged with negligence, and the Coast Guard is negotiating a settlement with him that may mitigate the terms of his suspension. Fassero notes that Arntz has an “outstanding record in the dive community,” and has volunteered to contact other dive boat skippers to compare notes on roll calls and other procedures. “The captain is ultimately responsible for the passengers” under Coast Guard regulations, Fassero points out. And although the CG investigation shows that culpability in this incident is “widespread among the divemasters and the diver himself, with weather a contributing factor, Arntz was charged a because he holds Coast Guard credentials. Someone has to have accountability,” says Fassero. He added that PADI is reviewing the divemaster’s conduct.
Fassero is also meeting with PADI officials and several dive boat captains to discuss methods of improving onboard roll calls. Southern California’s dive boat fleet is not organized, and there are no standard procedures.
Eric Bowman, owner and operator of the popular liveaboard Peace, out of Ventura, points out that some boats charter strictly through dive shops and require the shops to provide divemasters. That means that different divemasters work each trip. Others, such as Bowman, employ their own crew, following their own procedures.
Glen Fritzler, captain of the Santa Barbara-based Truth, told Undercurrent that his fleet “stopped using the oral roll call system back in the early ’70s because it simply does not work.” Instead, he maintains, “We use a plastic board and ask each diver his name. If we are missing someone we continue our search onboard until we find him or her or start a full-blown search (U/W recall, diver search, etc.). We also perform a tank count in conjunction with the roll call so you can tell if someone is in the water.”
Sounds good, but in 1995 I was on a lobster dive when the Truth left a diver behind, and no one missed him until another boat pulled up with our missing shipmate aboard. This highly competitive lone wolf had been the first in and last out on virtually every dive. Not only didn’t he have a buddy, but he made no personal connections with any of the other divers aboard. So when he slipped through the Truth’s log-in system, none of the passengers missed him either. Later he told us that after the Truth left him off San Nicholas Island, he swam for three hours to catch up with the other dive boat. Not surprisingly, he kept hold of his bag of bugs the entire time.
Fritzler also offered the dive industry’s standard knee-jerk reaction to the Coast Guard’s involvement in dive boat procedures. “We should remain a self-governing group and keep government out of our business,” he told Undercurrent, adding that he was currently repairing another vessel, Vision, “after a government agency struck the boat while at anchor!”
LCDR Fassero points out that this is the first stranding he’s encountered in four years of service in Southern California. He’s not promulgating new regulations at this point. Rather, he’s trying “to get the industry to recognize the need for improvement and their voluntary cooperation to look for solutions.” He adds that diving is, after all, a recreational activity. “It’s not supposed to be laborious.”
Fassero is aware of Divers Alert Network’s Diver Identification System (DIDS), which DAN sells to boat operators. At the beginning of each dive trip, the divemaster assigns each diver an individually numbered DAN Tag, with the dive operation name and phone number. When the diver is on the boat, he or she places the DAN Tag on the DIDS board. Before diving, the diver removes the tag and clips it to his or her buoyancy compensator. The tag number will also cor- respond to the divemaster’s roster number. When returning to the boat, the diver unclips the tag and returns it to the board. Fassero believes that this system has had limited acceptance among dive boat operators because the tags can be lost. To him, “The conscientiousness of divemasters visually identifying the divers is the most important factor.”
Ironically, Carlock was diving with a shop and on a boat he’s used many times, yet still he was overlooked. “There’s definitely some anger on my part,” Carlock said, adding that he did not plan to seek legal action. “They’re kind of like family, and I don’t want to destroy that.” Ocean Adventures has suspended two staffers from divemaster responsibilities. “We are closely examining our existing procedures, the guidelines recommended by PADI, and those utilized by other dive shops,” says Steve Ladd, adding that he has stressed the need for visual as well as audio check-ins during roll call.
As for the “buddy” who didn’t stick with Carlock (he was assigned to him just before the dive) and who didn’t report their separation, Carlock came face-to-face with the man (who happens to be a scuba instructor) when the Coast Guard eventually returned him to the Sun Diver. “Some people asked me if I tore into him,” Carlock said. “It was too surreal — I was more avoiding him. The anger comes out later.”
Carlock maintains his experience wouldn’t stop him from diving. “To me, adventure and pressing forth is a natural part of who I am and who we are as a species — to shrink back is not an option,” Carlock said. “But I’m not foolish. Before I dive again I want to make sure changes are made and backup systems are in place.”
Although Fassero has been criticized by some divers for suspending the well-regarded captain, he says his aim is to send a message to all dive boat skippers. “The captain must be expected to be situationally aware of environmental risk conditions which call for greater due diligence, he told Undercurrent, and recommends that every skipper set standards (hopefully universal ones) for divemasters to follow when conducting roll calls.