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July 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Discover Scuba Diving Course Leads to Fatality

a single instructor is not enough

from the July, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

We've written before about the dangers in Discover Diving experiences, in which an instructor takes people with no dive experience underwater. Too often, only one instructor is in the water, so if the instructor must aid a participant and take him or her to the surface, the other participants are left alone. Adding another instructor would increase the cost substantially so the single-instructor business model prevails.

Accepted common practices of many dive companies may be at odds with what is prescribed by training manuals and regulations

In 2015, a British tourist, Bethany Farrell, 23, her friend, Melissa Clark, and a Chinese tourist, Can Xu, were undergoing a Discover Scuba Diving experience sponsored by Wings Diving Adventures in the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland, Australia. When they entered the water with PADI instructor Fiona McTavish, the visibility was less than two feet (0.5m).

Apparently, early in the dive, McTavish took Can Xu back to the surface, where she left her to wait for the group's boat, leaving the other two at depth before she rejoined them.

Then, with the two newbies, McTavish swam backward facing them, as is common practice with Discover Scuba Diving experiences. To get her bearing, she turned around for 10 seconds, then turned back, only to discover Bethany was missing. McTavish took her remaining charge, Clark, to the surface before searching for the missing student. After an hour, she located Bethany's body in 36 feet (11m) of water, beyond the planned route.

There were other training groups in the water, and an initial investigation into Bethany's death in 2017 suggested that Bethany Farrell had become separated from her instructor when they became entwined with another group underwater. A crewmember on Blue Horizon, another boat in the area, said he saw Bethany briefly at the surface, probably waving her arms in distress. Her dive computer later revealed that she could have been at the surface for as much as 40 seconds before losing buoyancy and drowning.

Wings Diving Adventures was fined AU$160,000 for general supervisory failings. Alexander Michael Keyte, director of Wings Diving Adventures, wept and apologized in court as he defended his company's safety procedures.

The inquest heard that the accepted common practices of many dive companies may be at odds with what is prescribed by training manuals and regulations. A nonmandatory code of practice recommends teaching introductory divers how to ascend in an emergency. A separate training manual recommends teaching divers how to operate a BCD. Neither of these had been touched on in the brief training session before Bethany's death.

And, of course, the real problem is that with only one instructor in the water, when a neophyte diver is in trouble, the others, most likely on their first underwater experience with no training, get left behind. As the Mail Online reported, "PADI said the instructor would have been allowed to take four students to a maximum depth of 40 feet (12m)." A spokesman added that discretion should be exercised, saying: "This is in ideal conditions with really good students."

To conclude the inquest, the coroner recommended:

• There should be a maximum introductory diverto-instructor ratio of 2:1, or 1:1 in poor conditions (such as current, visibility or surface chop).

• The term "resort dive" should be renamed "introductory dive."

• Instructors should always be within arm's length of introductory divers and link arms if conditions are poor.

• Elementary dive skills, including mask-clearing, regulator-clearing, regulator-recovery, buddybreathing, BC inflate/deflate, and emergency weight-belt dropping should be taught until competence is demonstrated, within a controlled environment such as a swimming pool.

• Dive-groups should be staggered and their routes determined to avoid interactions under water.

• Diving instructors have the final decision on whether a dive proceeds or is terminated -- not the tour operator or skipper, who could be influenced by commercial considerations.

• Fins must have "Fin Safe"-style retainer strap.

• If any diver becomes separated, all divers in a group must immediately surface and inflate their BCs, even though it is an emergency ascent.

• The relevant Code of Practice should be mandated as the minimum standard for operations, rather than being "guidelines" -- to be considered within six months.

Undercurrent Comments:

In 2013, we carried an article by Bret Gilliam, a 47-year veteran of the professional diving industry, who founded the TDI and SDI training agencies as well as serving as Chairman of the Board for NAUI in 1994-95. We asked him to comment on this death.

* * *

This 2015 fatality during a DSD (Discover Scuba Diving) program was a tragedy waiting to happen. The visibility was absurdly restricted at less than two feet, making it virtually impossible for the instructor to observe the participants continuously, under the requirements for "direct supervision." By definition, this requires the instructor to be within the range of visibility and within sufficient proximity to students to intervene immediately and stabilize them should a problem occur.

If one student were to panic and begin an uncontrolled ascent, how can a single instructor manage the student still on the bottom and attend to the one ascending? You can't.

It's tough enough for many students to manage initial stressors when scuba diving the first time. Typical issues include problems equalizing pressure in the ears during descent, mask clearing, buoyancy control, multi-tasking other skills, perceived threats from unfamiliar marine life encounters, etc. Then add visibility less than an arm's length, and you have a recipe for pending disaster. A student can disappear instantly and without warning. In this instance, the limited visibility made the dive site unsuitable for DSD activity, and when one student was separated, the instructor couldn't find her, and she drowned.

And that, my friends, is the heart of the issue: separation of the instructor and student. Once that takes place, supervision has ceased, and a myriad of stressors will escalate on the student with no one to make contact and stabilize the situation safely and immediately. My article in Undercurrent in March 2012, addressed these identical issues: "The Discover Scuba Diving Programs: Here's Where the Deaths Happen." (

Resort courses, as they were once called, were introduced around 1970 or so in the Caribbean. My company, V. I. Divers Ltd., located on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, ran thousands of these courses annually with an unblemished safety record, as did virtually all other dive operations of the era.

The biggest difference between then and today is that we always conducted such training with a minimum of two instructors supervising the participants. If a problem developed, one instructor handled the student who needed help, while the other supervised the remaining divers. It was a simple matter of common sense. Separation is very much a predictable problem, and so are the stressors that students experience that triggered the anxiety reactions. The key is constant visual supervision and prompt response and intervention.

Sadly, many training agencies today have not created standards that effectively meet and address the obvious dangers and how best to manage the risk. Even with only two students, common sense would dictate two instructors, because if one student were to panic and begin an uncontrolled ascent, how can a single instructor manage the student still on the bottom and attend to the one ascending? You can't.

I urge readers to review the original article that essentially predicts exactly the sort of accident suffered by Bethany Farrell. I'm not sure what happened to common sense and a sense of situational awareness within the training agencies... but it's hard to find today in many cases, and no proactive remedies have come forward despite the history of effective protocols that maximized safety and a long record of success going back nearly five decades.

It really isn't rocket science ... there are practical codes of conduct that are overwhelmingly obvious ... at least to some of us who embraced the resort course business models at the origin and implemented effective protocols.

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