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February 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 29, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Divers Who Get Lost at Sea

some tales are “non-stories,” others are good warnings

from the February, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The couple most famous for disappearing on a dive is Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left behind on a Great Barrier Reef dive trip in 1998 when the crew failed to take an accurate headcount. They were never found, and their tale was memorialized in the box-office hit Open Water a decade ago, a film that was made because the writer/director, Chris Kentis, and his wife, producer Laura Lau, first read their story in Undercurrent. Since then, it's commonplace to see stories about divers left to drift at sea pop up in the media.

Take Jake and Lexa Mendenhall from Mesa, AZ, who celebrated their openwater certifications with a Thailand trip in November. The press was all over their story about how they surfaced from their second dive to find their boat gone (apparently, the captain had engine trouble and sped off to shore for a quick repair). Luckily, they were with two divemasters, who inflated a safety sausage that attracted a snorkeling boat. Back home, the Mendenhalls gave an interview to their local ABC news station. Lexa told how, exhausted and freezing, she climbed into the rescue boat and collapsed, splitting her chin open. "When we were bobbing, I knew there were sharks," she said. "I saw them all around this reef, and here I am just bait on the top." Total time the couple estimates they spent "lost at sea" -- 30 to 45 minutes.

Then there are St. John and Claire Neilson, a British couple who went to San Pedro, Belize last spring for a Blue Hole day trip with Aqua Scuba. During the lunch break on Halfmoon Caye, they wandered off to see the red-footed boobies and returned to the dock 16 minutes late, only to see the boat disappearing into the distance. A ranger on the island put them on another dive boat, and when the Neilsons returned to San Pedro, they reported the incident to the authorities as well as to the media. Belize's Channel 5 News filmed them talking about how they were scared to be on the island alone, and how the owner of Aqua Scuba refused to give them an apology. "Whether you are late or not -- 10 minutes late or half an hour late -- you do not leave people behind," Claire said. "If we were in the water, it could have been a much worse scenario."

Claire is right. It could have been worse. But why on earth did the Neilsons and the Mendhalls merit such media coverage for their experiences -- anxiety-causing for sure, but not much more? They weren't in much jeopardy, especially the Neilsons, who were on dry land with a ranger to rescue them. Folks, these are non-stories.

However, these non-stories provide allow us to share some stories from Undercurrent readers who answered our request for their own bobbing-at-sea stories, their explanations for why it happened, and their advice for other divers on how not to end up drifting away into the open.

Play It Smart

"Don't listen to the guy on the boat;
don't go in unless you are with your
buddy or your group. Sacrifice the dive,
not yourself.

Randall Rothenberg (New York City, NY) learned his lesson about getting separated from his group, but he came out fine because he stayed calm and trusted his instincts. During his final dive on a Cozumel trip, he made a giant stride entry, only to find his regulator freeflowing. "The group was waiting for me, but I waved them on and returned to the boat. One of the crew gave my regulator a good whack, and it stopped free-flowing. He motioned for me to go back in, but I couldn't see my team. 'They will be for you beneath the boat,' he said. Well, they weren't. Everyone was from another group." Since it was a drift dive, Rothenberg knew his boat would be gone if he surfaced. "I had no choice but to drift along the reef to the end, making sure to keep in proximity to other dive groups. After a 40-minute drift, I saw a group surfacing, and decided it would be smarter to surface rather than risk drifting to a place where there might not be any boats. So I ascended with this group, explained my predicament, and the divemaster said in a French accent, 'Ah, I see your boat there!' He radioed to them, and they picked me up. It wasn't my boat, but it was from my resort." Rothenberg said he learned some lessons for serious current diving. "First, don't listen to the guy on the boat; don't go in unless you are with your buddy or your group. Sacrifice the dive, not yourself. Second, when all else fails, keep others in sight, and prepare to depend on the kindness of strangers."

Years ago, Randy Shuman (Seattle, WA) took his family to the Galapagos for a land/dive trip and they all learned a lesson in staying calm. On that notable dive, they went with the boat owner to a rocky reef in open sea, with a few islands nearby. "We were taken there in an inflatable, driven by a young crew member. He was instructed to follow our bubbles and retrieve us at the end of the dive. Our goal was to find and photograph sharks in rock caves. After successfully doing so, we returned to the surface to find no inflatable in sight. We inflated an orange rescue sausage, blew whistles, and waited for 30 minutes. With still no boat in sight, we decided our best option was to swim to a nearby island, as we were slowly drifting away from it. After swimming for 30 minutes, we came ashore, and hauling our bulky camera gear, climbed to the top of the island. From the 65-foot height, we could spot the inflatable. He either saw us or heard our shouts and came to the island. My understanding is he was fired for not following our bubbles, but he was inexperienced, and the waves were significant. Having two crew members to follow the bubbles, a GPS on the inflatable and a loud signal horn for the divers might have helped. Also, the dive-capable VHF radios now available would have allowed us to contact the main vessel."

Consider Who You're Diving With

If you're diving in less-than-First-World locations, remember that some operations' approach to safety may be lax, at best, and your fellow divers may be ill-prepared. Timothy Corwin (Southampton, NY) learned about that last year during a reef dive at Belize's Ambergris Cay. "There were five divers and two divemasters, and the captain and first mate stayed on the boat. The dive ended too soon and we ascended, only to find the one- to two-foot chop was now three to five. The dive boat had lost sight of us in the rough conditions and was just a speck in the distance. The ill-prepared divemasters waved their arms and shot up streams of water with their regulators, trying to attract the boat, but the crew had no idea where we were. I was the only one in the group carrying a safety sausage (I never dive openwater without one). I calmly inflated it, held it up and waved it for maybe 30 seconds before the boat headed our way. The whole group applauded, and the divemasters promised to each invest in a sausage before their next trip out."

Also in those less-than-First-World countries, be wary when your dive shop changes the boat for you: It may not be a dive boat with a competent captain. This happened to Douglas Peterson (Elk Grove, IL) on his third day of diving at Costa Rica's Playa del Coco. "The shop had assigned my wife and me to a different boat than usual. The captain headed straight out into the Pacific for about 50 minutes, to an uninhabited island with no other dive boats to be seen. Drifting in large swells on the island's east side, Arnault, the divemaster, told the captain we would go either north or south, depending on the current once we got down. We dropped to 70 feet and the visibility was poor, but we saw Arnault and Mark, a new diver, turn north before we lost them in the haze. We kept the wall to our right and after 45 minutes, decided we should head up to find them. At the surface, we heard Arnault's screaming, "Over here!" There was no boat. Our diving had taken us around the north point to the island's west side, and the swells were crashing hard on the island's jagged walls. We deployed our large safety floats and kicked regularly in the three-foot swells to stay within swimming distance of the sharp rocks, figuring that in a worse-case scenario we could risk getting onto them if dark came. We continued to hear Arnault screaming for the boat, but he and Mark disappeared from view quickly because they had no safety floats. After 30 minutes of kicking, we saw the little skiff rounding the north point. The captain saw our floats, and 10 minutes later, we were aboard. I pointed him out to the ocean, and we found Arnault and Mark 20 minutes later. Arnault started cussing out the captain in French-laced Spanish, but I suggested that he calm down and get in the boat first, and then he could share his feelings. It turns out the dive shop had overbooked that day and just hired a fishing boat to take the four of us out. The 'captain' had no idea how to follow diver bubbles, and had also fallen asleep."

The Right Stuff

"I dive with an ACR personal locator
beacon and a Nautilus Lifeline radio.
I've never had to use either of them, but
I feel much better having them."

Many readers wrote in to say what safety gear they're never without on a dive. For Ken Walsh (San Diego, CA), it's his regulator-driven horn and giant safety sausage. On a trip aboard the Undersea Hunter to Cocos years ago, two groups and two pangas dived Bajo Alcyone in moderate seas. Unbeknownst to Walsh's group, which descended first, a diver in the second group was swept away by the current, and his group's panga went to retrieve him. "Thus we drifted from the site, and our panga was not there to follow our bubbles. When we surfaced from our drifting safety stop, it wasn't waiting for us. The Undersea Hunter provided all divers with safety sausages, but these were nowhere near the length of mine. I also had my horn. We saw the panga motoring past more than once but not spotting us. After 30 minutes, we were recovered, and the driver said it was because he could hear my horn, which kept his search area bounded. He never spotted the provided shorter sausages, and it was my giant one that he finally saw."

These days, you can go beyond just safety sausages, as does Rodney Wooten, who dives in his native North Carolina, where Atlantic waves and low visibility can get serious. "I dive with an ACR personal locator beacon in a depth-rated case. I carry a Nautilus Lifeline radio as well. I have never had to use either of them but I feel much better having them."

Carrying a mirror makes sense to signal planes if there is an air rescue, and Ben Dugger (Pell City, AL) notes that use your mask to signal a boat or aircraft. "While wearing the mask, put the reflection of the sun on the tip of one finger. Then using the finger like the front sight of a rifle and keeping the reflection on the finger point, aim it at the rescuer. Then you can signal the international signal of distress -- dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash, dot, dot, dot spells out SOS in Morse code. The reason this distress was chosen was that it was easy to remember -- three dots, three dashes and three dots."

Besides a safety sausage, David Haas (Stow, OH) carries "a sturdy lanyard with signal mirror, an indestructible storm whistle tucked into my pocket, a small LED flashlight that'll burn 10 hours on one set of batteries, a knife, and a plain-Jane 'J' snorkel tucked behind my back-mounted BC. In the Galapagos, I deduced air horns were worthless unless you're within 100 yards of the boat with no wind or waves. That's when I went to the whistle."

Haas also says that being healthy and fit is a key factor in staying alive in a lost-at-sea situation. "I'm not trying to sound cocky, but 99 percent of divers I see have way too much gear and would be better served gaining some fitness. Most couldn't likely swim 400 yards, much less a mile. Terrible physical condition is a stress on the body most don't acknowledge." And when that stress involves being alone miles from shore, a well-conditioned body will last longer.

Or you can just take an example from Ron Wilson (Noblesville, IN) and give the dive crew a financial incentive to keep an eye on you when you're out of the boat. "I always introduce myself to the skipper and tell him the only way I will leave a tip is if I hear him say, 'Where in the hell is Wilson?' If he doesn't hear me reply, then he should take another headcount. So far, so good . . . and for those reasons, I don't mind giving the tip.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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