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July 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 31, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Tragically Glamorous Underwater Shoot

leaves super model dead

from the July, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The tragic death of Taiwanese super-model Olivia Ku while underwater modeling for a photographer back in May, has left the diving community with two big questions to consider.

The first, based on the allegation she suffered an asthma attack, is: Should someone who suffers with asthma be scuba diving in the first place?

While some U.S. training agencies totally disbar anyone from learning to scuba dive if they suffer from asthma, others differentiate between different forms of asthma, while others don't seem to care. In other countries, for example, UK divers can obtain a medical certification if they do not need a bronchodilator within 48 hours of diving and they do not have cold-, exercise- or emotion-induced asthma. In Australia, the most conservative country, all divers are expected to pass lung function test to exclude asthma before certification.

It is reported that Olivia Ku was the subject in an underwater mermaid photography session near Hengchun in Taiwan when she died, apparently of drowning. The diving community there was baffled -- she had been diving three years and had regularly volunteered for seabed cleaning projects, and, therefore, should have had no problem handling her breathing.

However, a second question arises when we consider an extra dimension of the accident. Ku might have removed her scuba equipment and become separated from it in order to look the part of a mermaid, after being instructed to do so by the underwater photographer for whom she was posing.

When regulated film companies shoot actors underwater, ostensibly without any breathing apparatus, they go to great lengths to achieve a high level of safety with at least one diver in the water alongside the subject (but outside of the shot), armed with a regulator at the end of a long hose and attached to a pole so that it can arrive at the actor's mouth almost the instant it is required.

Some people have expressed concern that a plethora of pictures of attractive young people wearing complex dresses or mermaid costumes, and without any form of breathing apparatus in sight, have been flooding the Internet during the past few years. In fact, in some quarters, it has become almost fashionable to take underwater photographs of people inappropriately dressed for diving and behaving as if they were on terra firma, not only in the benign conditions of swimming pools but also in the environs of submerged wrecks and even with scavenging sharks.

Undercurrent asked Mike Seares, an underwater technician with experience working with British moviemakers, what precautions would normally be taken in the simplest scenario where there is an artist underwater without her own air supply and in just a swimsuit.

He told us, "There should be a dedicated safety diver with a long hose close by at all times. The secondary air supply should also be self-contained, i.e., not from the safety diver's own air supply, but a second cylinder. This setup would be perfectly fine to look after that person in ideal conditions down to, say, five meters.

"Deeper, there should probably be a second safety diver with air source halfway up the water column to assist should the artist head for the surface and the safety diver on the bottom cannot get to them quickly enough. If the artist is tied down in any way, it should be with a quick release buckle, and there should be another safety diver whose sole purpose is to release that buckle if required."

Richard Bull, the veteran safety officer on so many BBC productions that have been seen worldwide, said, "The sort of shoot can be a real minefield. The regulator on a stick has always been a possible solution, but the problems of a person breathing compressed gas underwater are still there. At least one in-water standby dedicated to the model would be essential in addition to other in water assistants/standbys."

We wonder if the likely-to-be-amateur underwater photographers who take these pictures are building in sufficient safety precautions. They might have an assistant with them in the water, but how quickly can someone swim from out-of-shot to deliver a freely flowing regulator to the mouth of someone who urgently needs it?

Let's hope we don't see more of these tragedies.

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