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May 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 25, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Death in the Galapagos

a fatal first dive that wasn’t fit for not-so-advanced divers

from the May, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The first real dive of a scuba trip for 14 divers aboard the Galapagos Aggressor II ended in the death of E.G., a 23-year-old kindergarten teacher from Galveston, Texas. But for a twist of fate, my wife and I could have unfortunately been with E.G. today. Here is my account of this fateful trip.

On February 11, my wife, Kimberly, and I met E.G., Denise Friou, divemasters Jamie and Patricio, and the other 10 divers at the San Cristóbal Island airport. Being the two unaccompanied women on the trip, E.G. and Denise immediately gravitated toward one another. We were bused to the Galapagos Aggressor II, boarded and given a short briefing and room assignments. At the dock, we made a 20-minute, 20-foot checkout dive. As many of us did, E.G. struggled to find the proper weight for neutral buoyancy.

The next morning, Jamie briefed us on the dive site, at the easternmost point of North Seymour Island, and the dive plan, using a map drawn on a whiteboard. Visibility was 60 feet and currents were running in different directions. He told us to stay above 90 feet and to surface within an hour. He also told us how to surface safely around the pangas and how to get back into them. I was surprised at the brevity of the briefing, especially as it was our first actual dive of the trip.

After gearing up, E.G., Denise, Kimberly, three other divers and I climbed into one of the two pangas, along with the driver and Patricio, our divemaster. Before we got into the pangas, however, there was no equipment or “air on” check by the divemasters, which had been my experience on two other Aggressor trips. I presumed at the site we would get more of a briefing and safety checks but after traveling only 100 yards to the dive spot, Patricio told us all to backroll into the water on his command, otherwise the panga would be unstable.

A Tough Current

Once underwater, Kimberly and I gave each other the OK sign. Patricio and others were 20 feet below us and moving away. I am slow to equalize on early dives, so we fell behind most of the group. We descended faster than usual to stay with the group, though Patricio was always lower and further out from the island than Kimberly and I. Following Patricio, my dive computer indicated we were at 98 feet at five minutes. At six minutes, we were at 104 feet. I thought about Jamie’s briefing: Stay above 90 feet.

Kimberly and I struggled against the current. I was near hyperventilating and had to consciously slow myself down. At the nine-minute mark, Patricio signaled us to grab hold of the sloping bottom and move up against the current, hand over hand. Kimberly and I continued struggling against the current but we finally got control by hanging onto the rocks and moderating our breathing (around the 10- to15-minute mark). I looked around to see where everyone else was. Kimberly and I were well under 2000 psi of air, a lot of air to have used so quickly. I saw what looked to be Patricio communicating to Denise to stay put and hang onto the rocks with the rest of us while he would go look for someone, and it appeared he did. I looked for E.G., but didn’t see her. This was around the 13- to 17-minute mark.

We moved up to watch sharks circling in 50 feet of water. At the 24-minute mark, I signaled to Jamie that I was at 700 psi, and he signaled for me to go up. I took Kimberly’s hand to ascend, concerned about being separated in the current. Later, she said I was holding her tightly, as if I was afraid she would drift away. I was.

We did a three-minute safety stop, then surfaced at the 30-minute mark. I didn’t see E.G. though I expected her to be on the surface, because there was no way for Patricio and her to fight the current to get back with the group. I thought I heard a diver’s whistle, and told the other panga driver, who took off in that direction. I assumed it was E.G but I suppose it was Patricio, because the next time I saw that panga, he was in it -- and he looked worried.

As divers surfaced, I kept looking for E.G. She was young, slightly built and didn’t look strong enough to fight the current. With her training (I’m told she had taken a divemaster course and a rescue course), I figured she would simply go with the current and slowly ascend to the pangas, standard protocol when separated from your dive buddy. She had a diver’s flag designed to activate on the surface. We searched the surface for that flag for hours, both from the Aggressor and the pangas.

At some point, I believe Patricio and Jamie dove from a panga to search for E.G. During that time, there was also an aerial search, along with many other boats and the Ecuadorian Coast Guard. I believe Jamie mentioned he was bent from his dive looking for E.G. He was clearly shaken. At some point, he mentioned that it was nearly time for our planned afternoon land excursion. He seemed to be looking for direction about what to do. But how could we go about our vacation not knowing where a missing diver is, not knowing if she is bobbing in the water waiting to be picked up? We told him no.

“It Didn’t Feel Right to Continue”

After four-plus hours of searching, we returned to the original dive location. Denise and Patricio went back into the water where E.G. was last seen, taking an extra Nitrox tank, then rode the current to wherever it took them. Denise saw E.G. lying on the bottom at 168 feet, in somewhat of a fetal position, eyes closed, looking restful and calm, without a mask and the regulator out of her mouth. Denise said that after getting E.G. to the surface, the tank registered 2,000 psi of air; she showed signs of drowning, although she didn’t seem to have water in her lungs. Denise was uncertain if E.G. had both her fins on when she was found, but knew at least one came off during the ascent. Ecuadorian officials came on board, questioned us and eventually took E.G. away.

Kimberly later said that around the five-minute mark was the last time she saw E.G., who had been just behind her, toward deeper water. Neither of us remembers seeing her or Denise grabbing onto the bottom. It is Kimberly’s recollection that Denise was in front of her, while E.G. was behind her. I don’t know if anything more could have been done to save E.G. Based on the time Kimberly last saw her and the amount of unused air in her tank, it’s my belief that she died in the six- to nine-minute timeframe.

Jamie informed us that Peter Orschel, owner of the Galapagos Aggressor I and II, would make accommodations and provide future credit for anyone who didn’t want to continue the trip. I talked to Peter via the ship’s cell phone. He was very accommodating but sounded shaken and seemed to have been crying. Only three of us - - Denise, Kimberly, and me -- left the ship and headed home. It didn’t feel right to continue. We didn’t feel like partying and having a good time. We didn’t feel safe with the divemasters. We didn’t feel they prepared us for what we were going to do and would encounter. This just may be our own inexperience, however.

Peter met us at the airport on Baltra Island. He seemed to do everything he could for E.G.’s family. Although we were bearing the extra expenses to get back home, Peter’s staff helped arrange our getting back to the mainland. Denise was devastated. She was questioning herself for not doing more and questioning her decision to follow Patricio’s instruction to stay with the group while he searched for E.G..

“The Truth is Bad for Business”

I wrote this account two days after E.G.’s death, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, while on standby for a flight home. We just could not continue on our vacation and enjoy ourselves after what had happened, knowing how E.G.’s family must feel and thinking about a young girl, the age of our children, who had tragically lost her life.

After I wrote this and posted it online, a diver who had been on the Galapagos Aggressor II the week before our trip emailed me this note:

“I’d like to share my thoughts based on my week on the Aggressor, and I don’t intend to judge anyone. I am a PADI Rescue diver and had 170 dives before entering the boat. My wife has 200+ dives. We both were unsure if we had sufficient experience for the Galapagos. However, we have been to many different places, using all kinds of equipment, in very cold water and with zero visibility. [But] we were challenged by the strong current, too. My wife, an instructor, even aborted one dive because it was too much for her. The big fishes are where the currents are strong, so we expected tough dives from the very beginning. Moreover, Patricio did a good job to find the best ways to get through.

“I would not recommend the trip to anyone with significantly fewer than 200 dives, and some of those [should be] in stronger currents. The problem is no one tells this to the divers for business reasons. We had professionals among the guests with 4,000-plus dives, and they confirmed that the usual minimum requirement in ads is “50- plus” for difficult dives anywhere. This is definitely not sufficient.

“And PADI et al. make it worse when they certify people as divemasters or even instructors with 60 or 120 dives, most of them in lakes or swimming pools. My wife’s instructor certification was worth nothing at Darwin’s Arch, where the current was so strong it twisted our reef hooks. The only thing that counts is experience, and this cannot be provided by the dive guides. However, only a few instructors I’ve seen tell their students bluntly about their capabilities and prevent them from overestimation. For the same reason - - the truth is bad for business.”

So what could have prevented this tragedy? Keep in mind I am not a very experienced diver (150 dives over 10 years; 100 of them in the last six), but the following are my suggestions:

1. The dive briefing and the dive plan could have been much more detailed.

2. The divemaster should do what he can to keep the group from getting as spread out as we did.

3. We should not have gone beyond the 90-foot limit given in the topside briefing; we may have avoided the heavy current, as the other group of divers apparently did.

4. The Aggressor fleet - - in fact, any liveaboard based there - - should make it abundantly clear that Galapagos dives are for advanced divers only.

5. A diver should be physically fit and free from any medication influence that may affect diving in such challenging waters.

6. Buddies must stay together, in physical and visual proximity, in order to keep good communication.

7. The liveaboard should find an easier spot for the first full dive, allowing divers to get more comfortable with the environment, their buddy and their equipment.

8. The boat should provide satellite-locating devices on all dives.

9. Divers should carry an easily activated noise maker that’s clearly heard underwater.

John Bisnar lives in Irvine, CA, and is senior partner of the law firm Bisnar Chase. At the time of this dive, he had logged a little more than 150 dives, all from boats in relatively calm, warm waters and high visibility. This dive trip was his third with the Aggressor Fleet.

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