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September 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Analysis of an Accident

from the September, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but, the tragic loss of life of divers at Malpelo in September 2016, reported in Undercurrent at the time, could and should have been avoided. It was only pure luck that meant three of the five divers involved did not perish along with their friends. What led up to things going so badly wrong?

Firstly, Malpelo is a remote site 350 miles from the mainland and off any main shipping route. Nowhere we dive is more remote. The island itself is no more than a massive rock with insurmountable cliffs so that it is almost impossible to get ashore. The Colombian garrison makes use of a rope ladder for access.

Furthermore, it provides no safe anchorage for any vessel and is exposed to normally violent seas.

The dive guide from MV Maria Patricia, the vessel involved, had been moving mooring blocks at a great depth that morning, and although he had not dived for the rest of the day, he was still cold and still carrying a significant nitrogen debt before returning to the water.

It was a late afternoon dive, and the light was beginning to fail. The chosen dive site was changed at the last moment. The divers were not equipped with any lights or surface signaling devices save for surface marker buoys that can be seen only over a short distance in good light.

The current was very strong, and the dive guide aborted the dive early, probably due to his mandated decompression requirement. The divers had surfaced before they were expected.

The crew of the Maria Patricia failed to keep a proper lookout. The change of dive site might have misled them into looking in the wrong area -- but surely the boatman driving the skiff knew where he put the divers in?

The most telling fact is that the vessel had insufficient fuel to instigate an immediate search. To travel with only enough fuel for the return journey and none for any unforeseen circumstances is bordering on criminal. Good seamanship dictates that a vessel carry at least 50 percent more fuel than it is expected to use for a planned journey.

Conjecture says that the crew of the Maria Patricia then hoped for the best, expecting the divers to somehow miraculously turn up, rather than calling for help and raising the alarm. As the dive guide from the vessel that stumbled across one of the divers, Sten Johansson, later said, "Sailing to a remote destination with insufficient fuel for unforeseen circumstances is beyond stupid."

Hopefully, we can all learn from these hard lessons.

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