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September 2005 Vol. 31, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Left Behind in Florida

another boat heads home short

from the September, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

With the hullabaloo created in the dive industry over last year's film Open Water, which dramatized the true story of an American couple left behind by their Australian dive boat, one would think that all dive operators would have a foolproof way to count divers -- certainly American dive operators, whom we like to think of as not third-world operators. Not so.

In June, Don Janni and his wife Carol (Birmingham, AL), were aboard the Ibis, a 36-foot dive boat operated by Southeast Oceanic Services (Hollywood, FL). Surfacing after a long, leisurely dive at Barracuda Reef off Fort Lauderdale, they found themselves 400 yards from the boat. During their drift dive, they had deployed a surface marker buoy with a diver's flag, and assumed that the boat would keep track of them. To attract attention, they first waved their dive flag and then inflated safety sausages. As Janni reported to Undercurrent, "For 10 minutes we wave everything we have. Then the Ibis heads back to port. Can you imagine that feeling?"

Janni had already been dubious about the procedures on the Ibis. He told Undercurrent that no one checked their C-cards. He sought out a dive roster, which he signed to create a record that he was on board.Janni found the dive briefings perfunctory and was concerned that they took no roll calls after each dive. Instead, a contract instructor for Southeast Oceanic Services with students aboard, did a quick head count with the help of a divemaster trainee. When the Jannis returned to the boat after a dive the day before, the instructor had simply asked, "Are you the last ones in?" When Janni replied, "I guess so," she dove in and unfastened the mooring line so the boat could get underway.

On the day the Jannis were overlooked, instructors and students were dropped in shallow water and the rest of the group was taken to a wreck site. Henry del Campo, who owns H20 Scuba in North Miami Beach, was aboard the Ibis. He told Undercurrent that, he, too was concerned that the divemasters only performed head counts after each dive. He thinks a roll call should be backed up by a head count. "I once was on a big cattle boat and six guys named Robert all answered the roll call," he says.

For the second dive, all 24 divers went in at Barracuda Reef, with separate teams doing their own thing. The Jannis surfaced after one hour and four minutes, and everybody else was back on board. That's when the Ibis abandoned them.

Janni spotted a small boat 100 yards away. "It took at least 20 minutes, but we swam to it," Janni said. The skipper invited them aboard and radioed the Coast Guard, which radioed the Ibis to inform them of their missing divers. The errant dive boat arrived for the Jannis 15 minutes later.

Neal Watson (son of the diving pioneer who founded Neal Watson's Undersea Adventures in the Bahamas) was captain of the Ibis. Janni says Watson took full responsibility, "apologized profusely and seemed very sincere" but said that the instructor had miscounted "because of all the moving around. . . .The instructor claimed it wasn't just her responsibility, it was everybody's."

Although Coast Guard regulations require a vessel with more than six passengers to have an onboard divemaster, it's the captain who has the Coast Guard license, so the buck stops with him. Captain Watson called Janni the next day to apologize again.

Watson told Undercurrent that roll calls are standard practice and adds, "I don't know what happened that day." But the case underlines a key problem in the dive boat industry in Florida and elsewhere. Many skippers and divemasters resist adopting standardized procedures for checking divers in and out of the water.

In 2001, Undercurrent subscribers Michael and Lynda Evans were left behind by the dive boat Aqua Nuts Divers II off Key Largo. They spent 26 hours on a light tower before they were rescued. The boat's owners pleaded guilty to endangering human life by gross negligence. The court ordered them to set up "an effective safe diving program." Subject to Coast Guard approval, the program was to be made available to other Keys operators. They adopted a version of the DAN Tag system, where each diver places a numbered tag on his BCD; the tag number corresponds to the boat's manifest. Last year, the Coast Guard Marine Safety Attachment in the Keys told Undercurrent that fewer than a dozen of the commercial dive boats were using the DAN Tags.

The Coast Guard is investigating the Ibis incident, but it's a safe bet that the industry will continue to resist outside pressure to standardize procedures. Instead, boat operators prefer to rely on self regulation (meaning as few regulations as possible). So what happened to the Jannis will no doubt happen again, perhaps without the happy ending the Jannis had.

Janni tells Undercurrent that when booking a future dive trip, he will ask how the crew will ensure that all divers are back on board. Once aboard, he will request a roll call. And he'll also make connections with other divers and get a mutual promise "not to let the boat leave without each other."

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