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July 2000 Vol. 26, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die, Part III

getting caught in dead-end dives

from the July, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

We write regularly about dive deaths and the diver errors that often precede them. Our hope is that knowledge of others’ errors will help you avoid similar accidents — and a similar fate. These cases are based on the latest case reports from the Divers Alert Network, the South Pacific Underwater Medical Society, and other sources.

In the last issue, we wrote about heart disease and the dangers of failing to keep fit over the course of the years we spend pursuing our sport. This month, we discuss a fatality that strikes abruptly, usually in the wake of poor judgment: diver entrapment.

Perhaps nothing is as frightening to a diver as getting trapped underwater, being immobilized by his environment, and finding himself unable to do anything but breathe his tank down and die. Does one struggle until the end? Does one give up, relax, and make his peace?

No one should ever have to make such a decision, because entrapment or entanglement underwater is nearly always the sole fault of the diver himself. Typically, he makes a dive he has no business making at all.

The most common risk taken by divers is for the uncertified cave diver to simply say “screw it,” put false trust in his open water skills (and probably his companions) and enter a cave. For example, take this 42-year-old male who had only 40 lifetime dives and no formal cave diving training. He and his buddy entered a cave, entered a branch that itself branched, and promptly got lost. His buddy, low on air, noticed that the other diver had a freeflowing regulator; when they got separated, he found his way out of the cave and went to the surface for help. Rescue divers brought the stricken diver to the surface, but resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

This 25-year-old certified diver with no known cave diving training went 112 feet into a cave with other divers who were not certified in cave diving. He chased an eel into a side opening in the cave and became separated from his dive buddies. The decedent’s body was recovered two days later. His tank was empty.

Even certified cave divers make foolish judgments, and this 33-yearold diver, who had but 1.5 years of diving experience but was a certified cave diver, decided to tackle a cave system on his own. He made a cave dive to a maximum depth of 102 feet and apparently got lost in a side passage that had no exit. His body was discovered by other cave divers later in the day.

This 45-year-old certified cave diver had extensive technical diving experience. He entered a complex cave system with two other divers but went off on his own without a buddy. The other two divers became concerned when they lost sight of his light, but a search of the immediate vicinity failed to find him. He had entered a false exit, and he ran out of air. They recovered his body three hours later.

A 52-year-old diving instructor was gathering lobster with two other divers at 30 fsw. He removed his tank to fit into the entrance of a cave to get a lobster, but got stuck and was unable to exit, even with his two dive buddies doing everything they could to free him. The buddies ran low on air and surfaced to get help. Rescue divers removed the body from the cave an hour later.

A very experienced 45-year-old technical diver, making a mixedgas, wreck-penetration dive to 200 fsw, left his two companions and began to explore an area of the ship. There was no exit other than where he had entered, and he failed to make it back. They recovered his body the next day. He had depleted his bottom mix tanks but had failed to use the decompression mixes that he carried.

What is interesting about these cases is that all six of the deceased were at an age where they should be able to exercise mature judgment. Four of the six were trained for the dives they made but still erred in judgment. Diving deaths are not reserved for the young and stupid.

. . . This 48-year-old certified diver, without
a buddy, secured his dive flag, but became
entangled in the rope attached to his dive flag
and drowned.

Similar to entrapment is entanglement; you’re stuck and can’t surface. However, a simple knife or a pair of shears is usually an adequate tool to cut oneself free.

A 14-year-old adolescent was under instruction for advanced open water certification. Toward the end of a dive in a freshwater lake, he gave his dive buddy an “okay” signal and then ascended. They became separated, and, when the buddy reached the shore, his partner was nowhere to be seen. Several divers went back to search, and eventually the youth was found in 92 feet of water, entangled in nylon fishing line.

Fishing line trapped another diver, a 42-year-old female instructor who had joined in a group dive to collect trash off the bottom. After filling her bag with trash, she left her buddy and headed toward shore. She was found 45 minutes later, entangled in fishing line and unconscious. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

A 32-year-old diver with advanced certification made a wreck dive to 168 fsw. He descended without a buddy, became entangled in a net, and ran out of air. Other divers in the group came to his aid and cut him free, sending the decedent to the surface, but he could not be resuscitated.

Entanglement without a buddy present is a death warrant if you’re not equipped to deal with it. This 48-year-old certified diver, without a buddy, secured his dive flag, but became entangled in the rope attached to his dive flag and drowned.

Finally, for this month, we note that the dive boat itself can be a blunt instrument, its propellers a sharp sword. This 60-year-old male was an experienced diver who made an uneventful drift dive to 60 fsw. Diving from his own boat, he had he instructed the driver of the boat, a nondiver, to circle the divers as they ascended. Unfortunately, as he surfaced, the boat, with motor running, passed overhead; he struck the prop and was killed. The driver of the boat had been drinking but was not legally drunk at the time of the incident.

An ounce of planning, exercising sound judgment, and keeping a cool, level head could prevent many, if not most, deaths by entrapment or entanglement. Next month we address another risk that can also be alleviated by keeping a level head, one which ranks as the biggest single killer of divers: embolism.

- Ben Davison

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