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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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July 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part II

overweighted and overwhelmed, “same ocean” buddies

from the July, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While Undercurrent is written for traveling scuba divers (and those of you switching to rebreathers to enhance your photography), some of our readers have been doing more free diving, even taking classes to increase one's time and depth limits. Of course, free diving is neither snorkeling nor scuba diving; it comes with its own unique risks. Here are a couple of unique fatality cases to highlight those risks.

An experienced 31-year-old diver and underwater photographer was alone in a public swimming pool practicing free diving techniques to extend his breath-hold capability. He wore a mask and fins, and carried a four-pound, dumbbell-style weight. About four minutes after he was last seen swimming, a witness noticed him motionless, face-down on the bottom, a plume of bloody fluid coming from his mouth and nose. He was pulled onto the pool deck, unconscious, not breathing and with no pulse. When paramedics arrived five minutes later, they did CPR for 30 minutes, but he died shortly afterwards. One might surmise that shallow-water blackout, a buildup of carbon dioxide from breath holding, was the starting point of this death. Had a friend been watching him practice, he would most likely be alive.

Those who use the "same ocean"
buddy system must recognize that
they are on their own if something
goes wrong during a dive.

Another fit and healthy guy, just 20 years old, joined a five-day spearfishing trip on a Great Barrier Reef liveaboard. On the second day, one of his two buddies noticed he would lie on the seabed at 22 feet for up to two minutes, waiting for fish to swim by, spending little time on the surface between dives. On the third day, the man mentioned he had sore ears from equalization problems the day before, but joined the other two in their dinghy. In the water, the trio drifted in the current in depths between 30 and 45 feet; at times, they were up to 300 feet apart. After three hours, the two other divers boarded the dinghy and saw the man's float 200 feet away. One diver re-entered the water and saw him lying on the bottom at 45 feet, and 30 feet away from his spear, which was embedded in the reef. She surfaced and radioed for help before diving down to release his weight belt and bring him to the surface. A plume of blood came from his mouth. On the liveaboard, CPR and supplemental oxygen continued for at least an hour, until medical authorities reached by phone said efforts should be stopped, given the man's submersion for at least eight minutes. His dive computer showed he had done 68 breath-hold dives that day. The final dive was to 50 feet for more than eight minutes. He began to ascend but after reaching six feet, he sunk to the bottom at 45 feet and remained there for almost six minutes before being rescued. With all the breath-holding, coupled with exertion from trying to retrieve the spear, he succumbed to low oxygen levels before he could reach the surface.

Had many now-deceased divers stayed in visual contact and close together with their buddies during a dive, it's possible that their buddies could have witnessed the incident and might have been able to assist. In this case, visual contact may or may not have altered the outcome, but those who use the "same ocean" buddy system must recognize that they are on their own if something goes wrong during a dive.

In another case, this 31-year-old experienced spearfisherman dived in a buddy pair, with each diver about 150 feet from another, although sometimes as far as 300 feet. After two hours, the man's buddy exited, presuming he was fine -- he had last spoken to the man 30 minutes earlier, comparing their catches. But he became concerned when the diver's float, nearly a half-mile from shore, had not moved for some time. He alerted a jet skier, who could see the spear gun on the seabed but no sign of the diver. Later, the man's spear was found embedded in an eight-foot wobbegong shark. His body was found the next day, lying face-up on the seabed at 40 feet. One can only speculate that he fought the fish until he passed out and drowned.

Being Overweighted -- and Overwhelmed

While being substantially overweight can be a risk factor while diving -- it puts a great deal of stress on the heart -- experienced divers know that being overweighed is a concern for divers with little experience or diving in conditions they are unprepared for. Failing to ditch weights or inflate a BCD can be a fatal error.

This 17-year-old male had logged just four hours' diving since being certified two years earlier. Diving for abalone with a friend in a small bay, he wore full dive gear, including a weight belt with 17 pounds. There was a three-foot swell, some surge, and visibility was 32 feet. They descended to 26 feet when he noticed he had lost his knife. He signaled to his buddy to surface, but then they decided to descend again. Towing a flagged float, he swam closely behind his buddy, who was unable to see him a short time later. The buddy surfaced and found the float 160 feet away, but the diver wasn't there. After 15 minutes, the buddy located him under a rocky ledge at 20 feet, lying face-down. He was unconscious, his mask full of bloody water and his regulator out of his mouth. The buddy inflated his BCD and brought him to the surface. Two bystanders began CPR, but he did not survive. His dive computer showed that on his 15-foot ascent four minutes into the dive, the "fast ascent" warning was activated, indicating he had exceeded the recommended 30 feet-per-minute. He then descended slowly over 9 minutes to a maximum depth of 80 feet before ascending directly, possibly at a 50- to 65-feet rate. He remained on the surface for about a minute before descending rapidly to 20 feet, where he remained motionless for 75 minutes before being found by his buddy. It's evident that he surfaced for a short time before becoming unconscious, probably due to an embolism, and then sank. Presuming that he then became unconscious, the subsequent rate of descent indicates he was likely overweighted.

This 33-year-old jumped into conditions over his head, both figuratively and literally. Having been certified two months earlier, he had just three dives under his belt before going diving with three friends, two of whom were also inexperienced. The group dived from rocks in a calm bay, but although their entry point was sheltered from the wind and looked calm from their vantage point, there was a strong wind gusting up to 25 knots, a six-foot swell and strong current on the other side of the rocks, some 300 feet distant. After their dive, they surfaced on the seaward side of the rocks where, unable to access their pre-determined exit point, they swam 20 minutes toward the nearest rocks. Two divers managed to scramble onto the rocks, while the victim and a friend struggled against the breaking waves and strong current. The man managed to climb onto the rocks but while attempting to stand, was knocked over by a breaking wave and fell backwards into the water. Coughing and struggling, he called for help. One diver told him to put his regulator back in his mouth, which he did, before disappearing under the waves without his mask on. A diver tried to jump in to help but was smashed against the rocks by the waves and retreated. The deceased was eventually found lying face-up at 35 feet; his mask was missing and his regulator out of his mouth.

I feel confident that none our readers would make errors like those in the four cases cited here, but you may know divers who might. We have a responsibility to mentor others who may make serious mistakes. Keep an eye out for them.

-- Ben Davison

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