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March 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dead Divers’ Bad Mistakes: Part I

like wearing a too-small BC -- or diving without one

from the March, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Most diving deaths are avoidable. They're caused by bad decisions, diving beyond one's experience, diving with known medical conditions, diving in bad conditions -- problems that might be avoided with just plain common sense.

For many years, we've discussed why divers die, relying in large part on cases presented by the Divers Alert Network (DAN). It has discontinued its reporting, so we are turning to other sources, in this case, DAN's Asia-Pacific division in Australia and its Asia-Pacific Dive Fatality Reporting Project. We hope by explaining these cases, divers will understand better how they might contribute to their own demise, and exercise proper judgment throughout their diving career.

Don't Dive Cold After a Long Break

If it has been a few years since your last dive, a refresher is essential for remembering how to manage your gear and avoid panicking. This 51-year-old man claimed to have made more than 1,000 dives over a 40-year period, but none in the past four years. Despite his claimed experience, he was anxious prior to the dive, and he panicked when his mask flooded underwater. Despite efforts from the divemaster to help him to the surface, he continued to panic and became unconscious before reaching the surface. He began breathing again after CPR was performed on the boat, but he never regained consciousness. He died several days later. Cause of death: Heart failure, likely induced by the stress underwater.

This 29-year-old diver was supposedly experienced, but making his first dive after a long break. He and his dive buddy got separated, but both continued to dive alone. He was found much later floating face-down and without a weight belt. His tank was nearly empty, and there were numerous problems with his gear. He may have panicked underwater and rushed his way to the surface; the cause of death was ruled as drowning due to an embolism.

If you're diving with a new or infrequent diver, make sure your partner is equipped properly before plunging in, and make sure the dive starts well. This 40-year-old diver, who was certified but dived infrequently, apparently had a buddy who left her without telling her. She was seen from the dive boat to descend far too rapidly, and was later found unresponsive at 35 feet. Her mouthpiece was out, her BCD uninflated, she was overweighted, and her fins had come off because they were too large for her.

Don't Try to Squeeze into a Smaller Size

A BCD or a snorkeling life jacket won't work if it's too large -- you may slip out of it -- or, for this overweight 39-year-old snorkeler, too small. On his first snorkeling trip with a group on the Great Barrier Reef, his rental gear included a life jacket that was too small. The guide helped him zip it up, but he had to exhale to do so. After a short swim in calm water, the group went into a patrolled area with deeper water. Five minutes later, the lifeguard noticed the snorkeler 100 feet from shore, floating face down, motionless, and being carried out with the current. Retrievers found him unconscious and not breathing. Back on the beach, a paramedic was unable to revive him, and he was pronounced dead on site.

The toxicology report showed a high blood alcohol level, which contributed to the snorkeler's drowning. However, that far-too-tight lifejacket, combined with his obesity, restricted his chest movement and breathing. If he couldn't take a deep breath, he probably couldn't clear his snorkel. An illfitting lifejacket (or BCD) may not keep an unconscious person's face out of the water.

For Want of a Knife

A 15-year-old boy was spearfishing for octopus with two friends. While 150 feet from shore, he fired his spear at one, but it became stuck under a rock and wouldn't come free. To get leverage, he wrapped the spear line around his right hand. His buddy saw him struggling and kicking, but neither he nor the boy had a knife (the other friend did, but had returned to shore). The buddy unsuccessfully tried to release the line and pull the spear free. While he went to get help, the boy, entangled in the line, was stuck six feet underwater for 15 minutes and drowned. (Editors' note: One can carry a small knife or shears in a BC pocket to prevent being tangled in wayward fishing line or kelp.)

What Were They Thinking?

On the big dive day, a diver wore
his old set of dentures. That was
a mistake . . .

This 62-year-old woman was so keen to learn how to dive with her new boyfriend, that she walked into a river to practice, wearing her tank and regulator but skipping the fins and a BC. She and her boyfriend waded in neck deep, then kneeled on the bottom and practiced skills. Visibility was just one foot. They were unaware that recent floods had scoured a channel 33 feet deep near the sandy bank. She inadvertently stepped into it and sank. Her boyfriend tried to unbuckle her tank harness, but only managed to release the strap securing the tank. Panicking, she knocked off his mask, making it impossible for him to release the other straps. He tried to support her, but because he couldn't see her in the murk, he exited to get help. Police divers found her the next day. A subsequent test dive showed that a person without fins couldn't swim back to the surface. The tank's weight made it difficult to maintain an upright position with no fins and BC, and would pull the wearer down backwards.

Dentures that Don't Fit

A 60-year-old man in southern Australia decided to do two test drift dives before setting out on a club dive. His buddy noticed that the man looked uncomfortable, and had trouble with buoyancy and orientation. He was wearing dentures and bit too hard on them during the second dive, causing them to fracture. On the big dive day, the man wore an old set of dentures. On the first dive, he was struggling at 60 feet with the same issues as the day before, and used his air supply quickly. Fifteen minutes after descent on the second dive, he surfaced 1,000 feet away, face up with a partially inflated BC, and wasn't moving. He was brought on board unconscious, with froth in his mask, but no dentures, and died after 30 minutes of life support. It was likely his old dentures were ill-fitting and loose, making it easy for them to fall out while diving. If so, he probably couldn't grip his regulator effectively, swallowed water, inflated his BCD and surfaced with inadequate exhalation, causing pulmonary barotrauma and an embolism.

- - Vanessa Richardson

Next month: Divers who drank and did drugs before dives, and one who sent someone else to a required medical exam in his place.

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