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January 1998 Vol. 13, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

More reports from down under

from the January, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Australians have just released more case studies of recent diver deaths. We reprint some of them here; others will appear in the next issue. Several of these cases, as reported by Douglas Walker in the March 1997 issue of the South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal, involve situations most divers might find themselves in. Two, however, are quite unusual: one suicide and one shark attack.


Three friends were snorkeling in a popular diving area. One looked down and saw a scuba diver below. The diver was not moving, and no bubbles were coming from his regulator. Police divers found him chained and padlocked to a concrete block; they had to use bolt cutters to remove him. Suicide notes and the padlock’s key were later found in the diver’s car. He had attempted suicide before, but this time he had taken great care to eliminate all possibility of failure, waiting to drown when his tank became empty.

Shark Attack

Though shark attacks on divers are rare, this attack on a honeymoon couple, both experienced scuba divers, seems particularly unjust. Five divers were diving from a boat near some small rocky islets in Byron Bay (near New South Wales’s Gold Coast) — three divers in one group, and the couple. After an uneventful dive for 25 minutes at 60 feet in good visibility, the couple saw a large shark swim away when they were at 30 feet.

After surfacing some distance from the dive boat, they remembered that they should have made decompression stops, so they returned to 30 feet. After three minutes, they ascended to 10 feet. A large shark approached swiftly. The husband was a little behind and below his wife. The shark took him in its jaws and swam away, leaving not even blood in the water.

The wife quickly surfaced and cried for help. As the boat approached to pick her up, one diver risked his own life by jumping in to help her. The other divers were making a decompression stop; one made a courageous dive to see whether he could retrieve the victim. A large shark swam about 20 feet in front of him, so he surfaced. Fishermen later hooked a shark that vomited out the victim’s torso before making its escape.

The Disappearing Buddy

A live-aboard dive boat (Australian authorities refused to divulge its name to us) traveled to Cod Hole, off Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Among the 26 divers aboard, 4 didn’t speak English and required the assistance of the interpreter aboard. All held Advanced Diver certification, obtained after making a total of 9 dives, and they had subsequently made, respectively, 9, 22, 26, and (the victim) 20 dives. The instructor gave a talk about the dive conditions and the interpreter translated.

After entering the water, they swam in the wrong direction, to the stern rather than the bow. They held onto the mermaid line and adjusted the straps of their equipment, then descended.

The first two divers descended easily and watched the third slowly descend — without the fourth. He had waited for the fourth, who appeared to be experiencing buoyancy problems. Visibility was poor; the fourth did not arrive and, hearing the dinghy’s outboard motor overhead, the third assumed the fourth had returned to the surface and been retrieved. He continued his descent and joined the others, believing they intended a group dive.

It was not until a roll call after the divers returned that anyone was aware that a diver was missing. Although they made an immediate search, no trace of either the diver or his equipment was ever found.

Odd Man Out

A dive shop arranged a dive package, checking that those who signed up had certification, but didn’t check their experience level. The divemaster left it up to the seven divers to decide their dive groups, advising them not to exceed 100 feet. The victim, being a stranger to the others, joined a buddy pair, but entered the water before his buddies, then came rapidly back to the surface because his air was not turned on. He then started his descent without waiting for his buddies.

As they descended, they could see him at the bottom (115 feet), then saw him ascend rapidly, hand over hand up the anchor line. They were at 70 feet and signaled him to slow down, though they observed no signs of panic and his breathing appeared normal. They thought he would reach the surface safely so continued their descent. He had waved his octopus regulator at them as he passed, but what he meant is unknown.

The man in the boat was surprised to see someone back at the surface less than five minutes after the dive began. The diver floated face up and failed to answer his call, so he swam a line to him. The victim was unconscious and not breathing, so he started in-water CPR. Although alive when he reached a hospital, he never regained consciousness, and died.

He had been wearing a heavy weight belt when he encountered his buddies during his ascent but it was absent at the surface. The rescuer attempted to inflate his BC but failed, learning later that there was a leak where the inflator hose attached to the vest. He had a small left pneumothorax, air in the left ventricle, and mediastinal emphysema. Both eardrums were ruptured, and sinus barotrauma had occurred.

He probably descended uncontrollably rapidly, due to an inoperative buoyancy vest, suffering severe pain in his ears and sinuses. Failing to drop his weights, he had to pull himself up the anchor line to return to the surface. It would be easy in such a situation to forget to breath correctly during the ascent and consequently suffer pulmonary barotrauma and embolism.

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