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May 1998 Vol. 13, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

Part one — death from entrapment

from the May, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

From time to time we report on case studies of divers’ deaths. While general-circulation scuba magazines steer away from details of deaths and accidents (probably because they don’t want to create a negative image and frighten people away from spending money for certification and equipment), we cater to serious divers. We have always publicized these cases in hope that we will all learn from them. Most of the time divers who don’t return have made a fatal error. Let none of us repeat it.

In 1996, 85 American divers died, down from 104 the previous year. The highest totals were more than two decades ago: 144 in 1974, 131 in 1975, and 147 in 1976.

In this first installment, we will focus on cases where entrapment was the primary cause of death. While most cases cited in our series will come from the 1995 and 1996 cases studied by DAN, the Diver’s Alert Network, we will add cases from other nations as appropriate. All editing and commentary are solely ours.

Death from entrapment can mean getting caught where there is no way out, such as a cave or a wreck. Those who die frequently have gone beyond their skills. But it can also mean entanglement: the diver gets caught in a rope or line, can’t free himself, and drowns. Often air remains, but the diver panics and drops his regulator, or he has a heart attack during the struggle—or he just gives up.

West Coast divers know all about kelp, that beautiful brown algae that grows like Jack’s beanstalk, but too often they get caught in it. A 43-year-old diver made a night dive with a large group of divers. She became entangled in kelp when she surfaced to look for the boat, panicked, and then failed to drop her weight belt. She was out of air and her BC would not hold air. She drowned.

Kelp is tough to cut. But over the years many divers who became entangled and drowned didn’t even have a knife. While you may not expect to become a California kelp diver, I wouldn’t dive in Dominica without a knife: the reefs are wrapped in fishing line. Nor would I dive where it’s easy to separate from a buddy — a live-aboard or currents — without a knife. In fact, I always carry a small six-inch U.S. Diver knife in my BC pocket (along with a Safety Sausage), and I strap on a bigger one where encounters might get serious.

Here’s what can happen. A 43-year-old diver who’d made three dives since he was certified and was not carrying a knife went diving in a fresh water lake. He got separated from his buddy when he became entangled in fishing line. The buddy surfaced, but he was unable to see bubbles or locate his dive partner. After searching, he went for help. They found the body entangled in fishing line at 80 feet.

A 43-year-old diver certified for six months made four dives with her husband to 100 feet in extremely cold water to recover a snowmobile. She was markedly overweighted. During the fourth dive, both she and her husband became entangled in ropes. Her husband dropped his weight belt to free himself, but she was unable to. When they recovered her body, she had 1000 psi left in her tank. Neither diver carried a knife.

Family tragedies are often the result of one competent family member bringing along another less-competent member. For example, a 21-year-old inexperienced diver with no cave-diving experience entered a cave with his father without proper gear or lines. Silt destroyed the visibility. The father found his way out; his son didn’t.

While divers who die in caves shouldn’t be in them in the first place, even the experienced fail — especially when they make dumb decisions. A 30-year-old certified cave diver who took medication for epilepsy because he had occasional seizures made a night dive into a 260-foot cavern. He was alone. When he did not return home, a search of his favorite dive sites turned up his vehicle with a line attached to the bumper that led into the cavern entrance. It took eight months to find his skeletonized remains; he was wedged into a short branch off the main cavern.

A 26-year-old certified open-water diver who was enrolled in a cave-diving class joined his buddy for an extracurricular dive in a spring that contained a cavern leading to a cave. He entered the cave without a guide rope, made a wrong turn, and ended in a false chimney. To extricate himself, he ditched his equipment, but he still did not make it out of the cave.

Of course, many divers certified only in open water have never developed respect for caves. Two divers, open-water certified only, made a single dive in a freshwater cave system. Both ran out of air.

Too often, anyone who has any advanced training can get people to tag along on dives where none of them should be. A divemaster with no cave training took a group of nine into a complex underwater cave system. All the divers ran low on air, so the divemaster surfaced and returned with a different tank. But three divers had already lost consciousness, and all three died.

While most of these accidents occurred in the sink holes of Florida, open-water-certified divers are being enticed into the caves of the Yucatan, the Bahamas, and elsewhere. Go with a guide; stay out of the caves; enjoy the caverns.

Wreck diving is an entanglement hazard. A 45-year-old with extensive experience made two 130-foot dives on a wreck. The first was uneventful, but during the second dive he attempted to bring up a heavy souvenir using lift bags. He became entangled in several lines and struggled to free himself. His buddy cut the lines, but not before he became unconscious. He was brought to the surface, but resuscitation was unsuccessful. Although his tank was empty, there was air in his pony bottle.

Next issue, Part II

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