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May 2001 Vol. 16, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

certified as advanced, they’re barely basic

from the May, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

I’m sure you dive safely. I like to think I do. Still, many people who think they dive safely make fatal errors. I have always found it important to report on the details of certain deaths, so that my fellow divers don’t make the same mistakes.

One common error is that divers think they are more skilled than they are and don’t give serious thought to the choices they make underwater until it is too late. Of course, newly certified divers are the most susceptible to bad judgment, as we see in this case that occurred in early February :

Two newly certified divers joined their instructor in Florida for some easy diving in Royal Springs. They asked the instructor if they could borrow his light. “I told them twice they didn’t need lights,” said Christopher Whitlock, an instructor at Diver’s Den, in Camden County, Georgia. “They said they wanted to see better in the deep end.”

The next day, workers recovered the bodies of 19-year-old Mark Granger and his buddy William Ridenour. The bodies were more than 500 feet inside the cave. Rescue workers had to battle poor visibility from silt and maze-like conditions. Guy Holler, Granger’s cousin, said Whitlock should have determined what the two men planned after they asked to borrow a flashlight and been assertive in telling them not to enter the cave. “He had a moral responsibility to tell them to stop,” Holler said. “He knew he had two very, very inexperienced divers with him.”

Nevertheless, Whitlock said he was diving with his family at the time of the accident and the two men, who had completed certification, gave no indication they were planning to enter the cave. “They were diving on their own,” Whitlock said. “I stress the importance of safety and caution to all my students not to go into caves or anywhere else they’re not certified to go.”

Despite liability issues, the case illustrates how divers, no matter at what level of experience, often believe they can do more than they can. Here, one can only speculate that the younger diver put his trust in the older diver, when neither had any business in the cave.

So-called “Advanced Divers” can easily believe they can handle difficult situations. After all, divers with little practical experience earn the title by simply taking another course after basic certification. Now that PADI calls their Advanced Diver an “Adventure Diver,” I can only imagine how the royal title will lull some divers into believing they can handle anything. Advanced Diver is a smart marketing title. Adventure Diver is even smarter. PA D I ’s website reads: “If you’re 15 or older, and a PA D I Open Water Diver or equivalent, then you’re ready for the Adventure Diver program.” I think someone who earns the title “Adventure Diver,” whose only dives ever have been with an instructor, just might think of himself as ready for Cocos Island. I don’t think so.

Here’s an Australian case that illustrates my point:

This certified “Advanced Diver, ” had only made nine dives in the two months since he first started diving. His friend, who was open-water trained and had made 13 dives, regarded him as the senior diver because of his additional qualification and his obvious confidence. They joined a shop-sponsored boat dive, where they accepted his “Advanced” rating, though he omitted telling them that he had run out of air on two of his nine dives. There were six divers, and an instructor, who remained in the boat after checking that every one had their air on. The Advanced diver was wearing his new BC and a rented weight belt with 24 lbs. After 15 minutes underwater, the two had about 700 psi and approached the anchor line at 40 feet. The victim suddenly grabbed his buddy’s BC and tried to suck air from it, then abruptly let go of it and headed to the surface. She followed. The instructor saw the divers surface about 60 feet from the boat. One was coughing and failed to answer calls so the instructor jumped into the water and swam with the Jesus line to them. They grasped the line and were pulled to the boat. The buddy was exhausted when pulled aboard and had lost one fin. The victim, who had been holding onto the boat waiting his turn to board, stopped breathing. They quickly pulled him aboard and commenced resuscitation efforts. Nevertheless, he failed to respond and died of an embolism. The mis-managed attempt to buddy breath was due to unfamiliarity with the equipment each diver was using.

Of course, these, as most accidents, were preventable.

A fellow taking a course to become an instructor had a free day, so he joined his wife on a wreck dive to a submarine. She was well trained, having taken deep dive, and rescue courses, but not wreck penetration. They gave them a general briefing, but no specific warning against entering the wreck through its broken hull. The two entered the hull and swam along inside, meeting another couple. As it became time to ascend, silt got stirred up and they became separated. The husband found an exit, but his wife unfortunately swam into the blind end of the submarine, 100 feet from their entry point. They recovered her body the next day.

There is always a risk of fine silt collecting in any enclosed space underwater. Until it is disturbed, visibility will be excellent. Then, it is completely lost and divers become immediately disoriented. Lack of a line or knowledge of the wreck can easily result in disoriented swimming until the diver runs out of air.

Two buddy teams anchored their boat and the first pair went diving. Once they returned, the second pair entered the water. The first two divers were tired and lay down in the boat. Unknown to them, the boat began drifting. An hour later they expected the other divers had surfaced, but they couldn’t see them. They searched, but because they had drifted they were looking in the wrong area. They called the Coast Guard who sent two boats, a spotter plane and a helicopter. They spotted the divers, who were signaling with their lights. They were clinging to a fishing buoy near their original entry point.

In this Australian case, these two divers on a charter boat were told to swim away from the reef after descending, as there was rough water around it. However, they failed to follow this advice, surfacing in the rough water where the water was too shallow for the dive boat. If they had their wits about them, they would have inflated their BC’s and allowed themselves to be washed over the reef into calmer water. Instead, they attempted to swim through the boiling water to reach the boat. One cleared the rough water, but the other grew fatigued and failed to make the swim. Some divers were able to get in the water, recover him and tow him to shore, however he died the next day from head wounds.

If they had their wits about them, they would have
inflated their BC’s and allowed themselves to be
washed over the reef into calmer water. Instead, they
attempted to swim through the boiling water to reach the boat.

It’s a mystery why Enrique Vasquez died in a kelp bed off the California coast in October. It’s true he got tangled in kelp and drowned only 50 feet from shore, but no one understands why he didn’t take off his tank and BC — he was only six feet from the surface — or cut the kelp away. He had no buddy, but a friend on the beach saw him thrashing around on the surface and tried to throw him a rope, but the effort failed. Ryan Hauber, from the Channel Islands Scuba in Ventura, the shop that rented Vasquez his tank and regulator, said the tank and BC are “like a backpack ... he could just take it off.” Apparently, he did the worst thing any diver could do: He panicked instead of catching his breath and working himself free. Vasquez had been certified for 10 years

Now, dive safely.

-Ben Davison

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