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September 1998 Vol. 24, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Surviving Strong Downcurrents

from the September, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As warnings go, "have a healthy respect for the ocean" ranks up there with "drive carefully," but hearing about divers who got in over their heads should convince us all to take it seriously.

One such incident that occurred at Malpelo several months ago aboard The Inzan Tiger left hard feelings all around and a diver whose lingering injuries may well be permanent. Ironically, all parties agree that initial procedures were followed to the letter, with the captain stopping the boat at the site with engines in neutral before signaling divers to enter the water. Three Swiss divers jumped in to what appeared to be calm water-- until the downcurrent hit. One female diver was immediately pulled down to about 100 feet, had trouble getting back to the boat, but sustained no serious injuries. Another woman, a PADI divemaster with fifteen years' experience, was not so fortunate. She surfaced with a "two-inch cut above the breast bone, another on her right forearm, bruises everywhere, dive suit torn to her breast ... everything gone." Despite two surgeries on her left arm, her left hand is still too handicapped to allow her to bend her fingers, which means she cannot use the keyboard at the travel agency she runs.

Her Swiss companion, who states frankly that she "looked terrible," feels that "the only conclusion could be that she was hit by the prop." But the captain of The Inzan Tiger says that the engines had not been restarted and that if the propeller were responsible for her injuries they would have been much deeper and more extensive. Instead, he blames the currents and the boat's large subsurface rudders and trim tabs, against which she was buffeted.

Could divers have told from the surface that violent downcurrents were swirling underneath? Calculating downcurrents is harder than estimating surface currents where you can detect some movement (something taking one minute to drift past a 100 foot boat is close to a one-knot current, which is more than most divers can swim against). Absent roiling kelp or seafans bent in one direction, it's often hard to predict what's happening only a few feet away. The best assurance of safety is always avoiding areas where strong currents frequently occur--unless you're an expert diver who's very physically fit. If you should become trapped by a strong current and be unable to exit downcurrent, try to find a secure handhold and work with the current, holding on when the surge works against you and swimming with it when it relents or goes your way.

But sometimes currents can be too much for even the besttrained divers. A few months ago several divers near Malpelo were trapped inside a cave for days. It all started with a French snorkeler who strayed too close to a blow hole--about which he had been duly warned--and was sucked inside. Two crew members and several Colombian Navy divers with SEAL training who tried to free him were also sucked inside and trapped. It took five days to free everyone, and injuries included broken ribs and an eyeball torn from its socket that was reinserted. All it took was straying a few feet to turn a snorkeler's afternoon in the sun into a nightmare.

-- John Q.Trigger

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