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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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A Lost–at-Sea Diver Tells His Tale

a 14-hour swim from Gordo Banks back to the mainland

from the March, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When you're diving in underdeveloped countries and somehow get into trouble during a dive, your first line of rescue is the dive boat. Many times, that's your only line of rescue. In remote places, such as eastern Indonesia or the Maldives, you must depend on your boat -- and perhaps other dive boats in the area, because you'll typically be far away from any government authority and its rescue vehicles -- if they have any at all.

Lost-at-sea dive stories also happen closer to home. On July 12, three divers on a trip with Baja California dive shop Cabo Eagle Divers, along with two dive guides, went missing near Gordo Banks, a popular site for hammerhead shark sightings four miles south of San Jose del Cabo. It was not until well after midnight that all of them turned up alive, having swum back to San Jose del Cabo. We asked Mick Kiernan, one of the divers lost at sea, what happened on that Gordo Banks dive. It took a while to get all his information, but he ultimately told us about what went wrong, and what divers should do to ensure they don't end up in a situation like he did.

"I've been diving for 12 years, with more than 300 dives logged, and I'm a rescue diver and chairman of my local scuba club in Kent, England. My 18-year-old son, Daniel, has been diving for seven years and is a PADI advanced openwater diver who has logged more than 100 dives. We've dived in various places, such as the Caribbean, Egypt, Greece, Malta and the Canary Islands. We decided to go to Mexico for our annual holiday, mainly for the diving and to see the hammerhead sharks that frequent these waters. This was our first trip to this country.

"The boat trip took two hours and 30 minutes from Cabo San Lucas to Gordo Banks. On board were six people -- myself, Daniel, Rene the divemaster, Neil, a rescue diver from Australia, Lucia, a divemaster student from Germany and the skipper, who was a friend of Cabo Eagle Divers' owner, Rodrigo Alcacer. I and the other divers concluded later that the skipper seemed totally inexperienced as a dive boat captain, and was unable to follow our air bubbles or our surface marker buoys, even when we reached the surface.

"At Gordo Banks, we entered into a strong current and waited at the anchor line until all five divers were together, then we descended down the line to the reef at 130 feet. The current was so strong it nearly pulled us from the line until about 60 feet down. By the time we reached the reef, I had used about 450 psi from an already poorly-filled tank of 2,775 psi. The visibility was poor on our descent and not much better on the reef. Needless to say, the hammerheads failed to make an appearance. We left the reef after 10 minutes to do a drift dive as planned. Rene and Lucia both sent their surface marker buoys to the surface from about 50 feet. But when we reached the surface after the safety stop, to our shock and horror, the boat was nowhere to be seen.

"The skipper failed to notice us,
despite our attempts to signal him
with whistles and three SMBs."

"We waited for approximately 15 minutes before we caught a distant sighting of our boat. The skipper failed to notice us, despite our attempts to signal him and catch his attention with high-pitched whistles and three SMBs. We assumed he would eventually come to our rescue, but after two hours, we had drifted 12 miles out to sea, according to Rene. It was about 2 p.m. when we decided to start swimming back towards land on a compass bearing we had taken earlier when we could still see the Baja coastline.

"My feelings at this stage oscillated between being very angry at the skipper and a little disappointed in Rene for putting us into this situation. As a father, I felt my only duty was to protect my son by offering whatever advice and support I could give. I remember saying to him, 'Don't worry, son. Mom will probably think we have gone for a beer or two as we normally do following a dive.' Dan said to me, 'Dad, do you remember that film Open Water?' I immediately said, 'Don't go there, son. That was only a film. It couldn't possibly happen.' Or could it, I thought to myself.

"As we started our mega-swim, I can remember Rene saying we needed to get as close to the shore as possible, with the hope of picking up a fishing boat or even a rescue boat with the daylight we had left. The sunset was due at 8:30 p.m., and at 3 p.m., we were still 10 miles offshore. The sun was beating down, and the sea conditions were moderate, with a swell and surface current that was carrying us farther down the coastline. We kept together as a group, using our SMBs as buoyancy floats to hold onto while we swam. As night descended, the thought of sharks did enter my mind and scenes from the film Dan mentioned did start to scare me.

"At 8 p.m., it was entirely dark and we were about six miles offshore, but we could see the twinkling lights from the hotels in the distance. Then at 1 a.m. -- Friday the 13th, ironically -- we finally hit the shore after a 14-hour swim. Of all the hotels we could have reached, the award went to the Hilton. There we were met by two security guards, who gave us some much-needed water and a friendly welcome, as most of the hotels had heard about the missing divers on the national TV newscasts.

"We could hardly walk, due to the burning pains in our legs. I crawled up the beach, totally exhausted and very sore from sunburn. We were advised to go to the hospital as a precautionary measure, due to the dehydration and cold we were now feeling, but all that Dan and I wanted to do was get back to our hotel and see Tina, my wife and Dan's mom. The doctors were waiting for us there. Once they were satisfied with our medical conditions, we were finally reunited as a family. It was one of the most emotional times I can remember, seeing Tina, and equally so for Dan.

"The next day, we could hardly move, due to the pain from our aching muscles and from the sunburn on our hands and faces, the only parts of our body that were exposed to the sun and elements.

"I never thought it would be necessary to check the boat skipper's level of qualifications and experience, or if the country you're visiting has search-and-rescue procedures in place. I discovered that no helicopter was available to aid in a rescue. I now know to never take for granted that the dive company you've been recommended has suitable procedures and safety arrangements in place. I would strongly recommend that the dive leader is equipped with a GPS/EPIRB tracking system, especially in remote waters such as Gordo Banks. And I will always dive with the essential safety equipment such as SMB, flashlight and whistle.

"This experience has definitely shaken up my son, leaving him with horrible memories, not those normally associated with the lovely dives we have done together. It is going to take me some time to get Dan back in the water. I don't want him to give up this fantastic sport because not only is he my son, he is the dive buddy who got me through this ordeal."

Rodrigo Alcacer of Cabo Eagles Divers told Undercurrent that the accident was due to "strong currents and waves, which left no good monitoring of the divers and the buoys." Obviously, he doesn't think the skipper was at fault. To prevent similar incidents, he bought new equipment, including a VHF radio for the boat and Nautilus Lifeline GPS systems for each pair of divers to use. "We changed the basic GPS on the boat to a more advanced one, which can receive the distress call of the divers and their location coordinates." He also has an agreement now with other dive shops for mutual support in search-andrescue efforts, and a contact list of other search boats and aircraft.

No matter where your dive destination, when you are diving with a small operation -- or any operation for that matter -- find out its search-and-rescue procedures, and learn whether the country itself has any capacity. One would sure think that Cabo San Lucas, home to thousands of pleasure craft, would have some public search-and-rescue capacity. These divers learned differently -- and have taught the rest of us a valuable lesson.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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