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October 2005 Vol. 20, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When Divers Die, Part II

what were they thinking?

from the October, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

With all due respect, some of the 2003 fatalities reported by Divers Alert Network involved incredibly poor judgment by divers, instructors, or divemasters. The following reports are presented not to embarrass the victims or their families, but to illustrate what happens when people override their natural common sense and dive training.

Ignoring the Obvious

Failing to heed clear warning signs proved lethal for a veteran 57- year-old diver who had experienced panic attacks on previous dive trips. Perhaps they were due to his medical problems, which included hypertension, obesity and a history of claustrophobia. On his last dive he was reluctant to let go of the ladder and enter the water, stating "This happens all the time." Why would someone pursue a sport that caused him to freeze in panic? In this instance we'll never know, because he forced himself off the ladder and descended to 27ft. After seven minutes he ascended rapidly to the surface and called for assistance. When another diver offered a regulator, he refused it, and soon lost consciousness. He couldn't be resuscitated. His toxicology report was positive for tranquilizers, which may have calmed him down so far that he overrode his reluctance.

A 51-year-old advanced open water diver had complained of back pain for a week before making a freshwater dive with a buddy to 68 feet. While descending, for some reason he switched from his primary regulator to his octopus, then signaled he wanted to abort the dive. He lost consciousness during his ascent, and he was found face down on the surface. The autopsy disclosed a ruptured spleen, the likely source of his back pain. Blood in his abdominal cavity no doubt contributed to both the difficult breathing and his loss of consciousness.

Despite complaining of shortness of breath after diving the previous day, a dive shop owner who had been taking several cardiac medications descended to 70 ft. After 10 minutes he signaled to his buddy that he didn't feel well, and then separated from him. The buddy ascended alone, and the 58-year-old dive shop owner never recovered.

After this 41-year-old diver finished a dive to 30 feet, he arrived at the ladder, removed his regulator and buoyancy compensator, then unexpectedly let go of the ladder. He was still wearing his weight belt, and sunk below the surface and drowned. The autopsy revealed marijuana in his body. If he were stoned, that could have contributed to his violating a major safety guideline: if you're taking your gear off in the water, remove your weight belt before taking off your BCD and regulator.

There were similar examples of bad judgment, such as a 51-year-old diver who attempted a solo boat entry dive in rough seas, though he had not dived in four years. He entered the water, became entangled in the mooring/safety lines and panicked. The diver spit out his regulator, which then became entangled. When others tried to help him, he became combative. "Most likely it was a simple drowning due to panic in an inexperienced diver," said DAN.

A 25-year-old woman with an advanced certification was a frequent diver despite hypertension, depression and Turner's Syndrome (a rare chromosomal disorder of females characterized by short stature and the lack of sexual development at puberty). She had a history of erratic behavior in the water, frequently running low on air and needing to buddy breathe. From a boat, she rapidly dropped to 80 ft., then panicked and separated from her buddy. The divemaster retrieved her, unconscious, from 143 ft., but she died of drowning.

And, then there is the unexplained error, though in this case alcohol might have contributed. Last year, Stephen Cardiff, an experienced British diver, started his dive not breathing from his primary tank, but mistakenly breathing from his pony tank, which had just 10 minutes' capacity for his planned 30-minute dive. At 75 feet, he exhausted that tank and shot to the surface. His fellow divers on the bottom found him, without his mask, hood or mouthpiece. Cardiff and his buddy had carried out pre-dive checks, however, the checks could not predict Cardiff would choose the wrong mouthpiece. An autopsy found he had enough alcohol in his system to be over the legal driving limit, though his friends said he had not been drinking the day of the dive. It's true, however, that if one parties long into the night, then dives early, he can still be drunk. Combined with the nitrogen one is inhaling, one might just forget that he still had a full tank on his back.

Rookie Mistakes

Ten percent of the deceased divers studied by DAN in 2003 had one year or less experience in the sport. Several were novices, with fewer than 20 dives. Some were students, such as the 23-year-old female taking a resort course with a newly certified instructor. At 30 ft. her mask flooded and she panicked, making a rapid ascent. On the surface, she indicated that she was fine, then lost consciousness and could not be resuscitated, a typical air embolism death.

Dive operators should provide newbies another way to get safe guided experience before they sign up for an advanced diving class. One advanced student, with only six previous dives, was making training dives in a river with three other students and an instructor. Despite being in a supervised class, he wore excessive weight and appeared to panic 75 feet down after silt was kicked up. When the instructor tried to help, the diver grabbed the instructor's regulator. After unsuccessful attempts to help, the instructor went to the surface for additional personnel. The diver was found on the bottom, unconscious and with his regulator out of his mouth. He could not be resuscitated.

Students require -- and deserve -- vigilant supervision during training. A momentary lapse proved fatal for Cynthia Kratter of Forest Hills, NY, who died before even submerging on a checkout dive in Pompano Beach, FL. The 61-year-old Kratter was obese and had significant medical problems. She and her instructor made a beach entry and she struggled to adjust her fins while breathing through a snorkel in rough water. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, "her instructor from the American Dive Center in Boca Raton was untying a buoy and lost sight of her . . . in a driving rainstorm." The instructor called for help when he couldn't find his student. She was found floating on the surface, drowned. Experienced divers find it's often easier to don fins while submerged a few feet beneath a choppy surface, but this student wasn't even using her scuba tank at the time.

Although we all sign waivers releasing divemasters and instructors from liability, even if they are negligent, such cases make it clear that training agencies should tighten their standards for admitting students. Somehow, a 67-year-old female with early onset dementia and aphasia (brain damage impairing the ability to speak or write) was accepted into an advanced open-water course. About 12 minutes into a training dive on a wreck, 30 feet down, she developed an unknown problem, perhaps due to overweighting. She ascended rapidly, and died of an apparent air embolism.

Mixing inexperience with health problems was also a deadly combination for a 51-year-old male who had an advanced open water certification but only 18 lifetime dives. On a dive to a wreck at 95 ft., he separated from his buddy early and made a rapid ascent. At the surface, the diver removed his mask, then lost consciousness. His death was apparently caused by embolism, though he may have had cardiac problems.

This syndrome is as old as diving itself. An inexperienced diver panics, bolts to the surface, and suffers an embolism. Like one 59-year-old male who had recently been certified and had completed 10 dives. He went to 68 ft. for 21 minutes. During the ascent, his buddy made a safety stop, but the victim continued to the surface. Once there, he called for assistance and lost consciousness, common signs of an embolism. When recovered, his tank was empty.

Next Issue: Part III

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