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October 1998 Vol. 13, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

Part VI— pushing the limits

from the October, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

I've become a better diver over the years by testing myself a little bit whenever I have the opportunity. So I've learned how to handle currents, how to go a little deeper than usual, how to handle myself in an emergency, and so forth. I test my skills to improve them. But I don't push them.

Yet too many divers succumb to their desire to push their skills. That's why caves become graves and the depths breed disaster. Caves, particularly, are seductive. This 37-year-old certified diver in a lake with two buddies entered a cave. None had formal cave diving training, but that didn't stop them. Thanks to their inexperience, they kicked up silt and became separated. Two found their way out. Seven hours later, the body of the third was recovered, 200 yards into the cave, his tank drained -- not a pleasant way to go.

We divers like to joke about narcosis, but it's real and life threatening. The deeper you go, the less likely you are to recognize the danger and be sufficiently clear-headed to get yourself out of it. It's not much different from tossing down a couple of martinis or zoning out on nitrous oxide in your dentist's chair.

A 34-year-old diver and his buddy, with little experience in making deep dives, inadvertently found themselves at 200 feet. Narked -- and at 200 feet you can be very narked -- they tried to head to the surface, but became separated at 120 feet; one survived, the body of the other was found eight weeks later.

This 35-year-old newly certified diver made a shore entry into a rough surf zone. As he walked into the surf, a riptide knocked off his mask, dragged him under and pulled out his regulator. While lifeguards pulled him to shore, the power and shock of the current had drowned him quickly.

A 23-year-old instructor was headed to 300 feet with two other divers. Because of a very strong current, two divers turned back at 50 feet. Ignoring his buddies' wise decision, he continued alone and was never seen again.

. . . inadvertently
found themselves at
200 feet. Narked --
and at 200 feet you can
be very narked -- they
tried to head to the
surface . . .

While the rules of the road are never to dive alone, divers always have and always will head out solo. It's common practice on live-aboards, for example. And, anyone who buddies with a macro photographer might as well be alone -- you could be attacked by giant squid and never be noticed. Solo divers do die, often in odd circumstances.

Take this 13-year-old with a junior diving certification. After the last dive with three others, he was the only one with "significant" (400 psi) air remaining. He descended alone to retrieve their dive flag, but shot past the flag and disappeared. They recovered his body in 143 feet of water the next day.

A 53-year-old male certified diver was reacquainting himself with his gear in a swimming pool, using more weight than he should to stay down. No one else was present and for unknown reasons he drowned.

A 41-year-old inexperienced diver entered the water alone to retrieve a fishing pole in 10 feet of water. Two minutes after he descended, his regulator, tank, and buoyancy compensator surfaced. People on the surface were not divers, so they called rescue divers, who found him on the bottom. Apparently, he got entangled in an old structure on the bottom, pulled off his equipment to free himself, but still drowned.

A 28-year-old female opened a valve to allow a pond to drain. While three other people were on the surface, only she had gear. After opening the valve, she tried to retrieve her wrench, but the force of the water pulled her into the pipe. She drowned.

Certified divers often encourage their uncertified friends to go diving. Too often, it can lead to disaster. This 14-year-old girl, who had never dived before, joined her certified friend in a freshwater spring. They had planned to stay in shallow water, but she slipped down an embankment as they entered and headed into the river. She lost her regulator and would not accept the octopus from her dive buddy. They brought her to shore unconscious and she died in a hospital the next day.

Two nondivers tried a shore dive, but soon after descending one's mask flooded. Untrained in clearing a mask, he returned to the surface with his buddy to clear his mask. They then descended into silt they had stirred up and became separated. The buddy surfaced and called for help. A half hour later, in only twenty feet of water, another diver discovered the body.

Currents are killers if one is incapable of or unable to take care of oneself. A 21-year-old inexperienced diver and her buddy got caught in a strong current and swift tide. They became separated when a down welling pulled them from 80 to 150 feet. While the young woman was never seen again, her buddy made it to the surface. He survived the bends after being treated in a recompression chamber.

Diving is strenuous and a diver ought to be in good enough shape to swim a distance against a current without becoming unduly fatigued. But anyone who has joined a group of tourist divers knows that the primary exercise of too many of our fellow divers is lifting another French fry. The apparent ease of diving attracts people with conditions that, under diving stresses, lead to their death. If you're not in reasonable aerobic shape, when you're faced with a long surface swim or a struggle against a current, fatigue may be your worst enemy.

A 42-year-old inexperienced diver, diving with her husband and 13-year-old daughter, surfaced far from their charter boat. They struggled against a stiff current and moderately rough seas, so the divemaster swam to them, inflated their buoyancy compensators, and helped them back to the boat. But the woman became severely fatigued during the swim back. She became unconscious and drowned.

Taking his first dive since certification six years ago, this 38- year-old diver made a shore entry with his buddy and became easily fatigued during the surface swim. After 30 minutes at 30 feet, he ran low on air and the two surfaced. He removed his BC and swam along the surface with the BC as a float. His buddy, to reduce drag, swam below the surface, and the two got separated. The diver on the surface was never found.

While I find so many of these cases depressing because they are preventable, I hope they offer a cautionary note about the perils of our sport. Be cautious; use your head; stay in shape.

-- Ben Davison

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