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October 2007    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When Divers Become Hazards

buddies, trip leaders, even divemasters as potential risks

from the October, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

We all know about driving defensively, but one must dive defensively as well. You see, other divers in the water can sometimes be hazards. To learn what kind of dangers they can pose, we asked our subscribers via e-mail to describe any experiences they had when divers may have personally caused them risk.

Perhaps most surprising were the number of cases involving trip leaders, divemasters and instructors who didn’t do their jobs properly. They show we can’t always trust our leaders.

Dominic Sansone (Charlotte, NC) says his life was put in danger by a dive shop owner giving him training. “He decided that for my openwater drysuit dives, I didn’t need to wear the ‘rock boots’ that go over the footies in the poorly-fitted dry suit I rented.” At 60 feet, Sansone’s fin straps slipped off the back of his ankles. The air in his suit immediately went to his feet and he began an uncontrolled ascent. Due to poor visibility, the instructor had no idea where he had gone and searched the bottom for a few minutes before surfacing to find Sansone floating and luckily unharmed. “I later found out my drysuit had an emergency dump valve to vent air immediately. I wish I had known that beforehand.” The dive shop is no longer in business.

Michael Hofman (San Francisco, CA) didn’t feel appreciated on his dive trip in Cuba when the boat crew gave him and his dive buddy, a novice, too-challenging dives. “The divemaster wanted to take us through a chimney at 90 feet. My buddy kept following the divemaster down and down. When we got below 100 feet, I started trying to catch up to them.” Finally at 165 feet, Francisco got ahold of his buddy and pointed to his depth gauge. They then rose slowly and did the safety stops. “The divemaster didn’t say anything. We really had the feeling they were trying to get rid of two Americans.”

Robert Clarke (St. Albert, Alberta) also had a Cuban horror story while on board the Halcyon off the island’s west coast. “On one dive, I was at six feet, videotaping the sharks doing lazy circles around us. All of a sudden, they became excited.” One shark struck him in the back of the head, then another struck the right video light of his camera and carried off the reflector. A large shark clamped its jaws over his video camera and tried to pull it away but when Clarke held onto it and hit the shark’s nose with his other hand, the shark let go and swam away. More sharks were coming so he dropped to 20 feet. “When I looked up, I saw pieces of fish floating in the water near where I had been moments before. When I returned to the boat, I discovered the trip leader had thrown fish in the water just behind my head, hoping this would give better closeups of the sharks. It sure did -- the videocamera was still rolling when the shark bit it so I have some very scary footage of the inside of a shark’s mouth.”

Diane Gedymin (Brooklyn, NY) was diving at a popular Grand Cayman resort that had a policy of all divers descending and ascending simultaneously. “We all descended and I immediately saw a photo shot and patiently waited for a small critter to reemerge from the coral. We must have been down for 10 minutes when the divemaster, also the manager of the dive operation, yanked my regulator out of my mouth with no warning. I was doing nothing wrong and did not anticipate such an early ascent so of course I wasn’t looking at the group from the back of my head.” Gedymin swallowed some water but calmly used her octopus before she could retrieve her primary second stage from the out-of-control divemaster. “Apparently, he had acted similarly to other divers so when I surfaced, there was close to a riot on board. And for no reason because there was no emergency.”

Carl Schulz (St. Louis, MO) was in the Western Caribbean with a dive buddy who had new camera gear, and their divemaster was trying to find photo ops for him. “On one dive, we had some ripping current. Suddenly, I realized that I was alone. My buddy and the divemaster had stopped behind a coral head to take some pictures and by the time I realized they had stopped, I had traveled some distance.” Schulz tried to get back to them but the current was hard to fight and he started breathing heavily. He finally grabbed rocks on the bottom, made it over to them, then hung onto a rock and concentrated on getting his breathing and heart rate back to normal. “The most surprising thing was that neither of them had looked up the entire time it took me to get back to where they were, about 50 yards and almost 15 minutes. I was already at 500 dpi but when I gave them the up signal, they both looked at me like I was crazy.” The safety stop was also a challenge because of the current, but Schulz’s buddy and the divemaster aborted it and went straight up to the boat, once again leaving him in the water alone. “That’s when I decided that on my next dive I would make sure there was at least one other person diving who wasn’t a photographer.”

Of course, this last case is an example of a diver rightfully expecting that his group leader will be there for him when he needs it, but that’s often not the case. Schultz is right to recognize that photographers and divemasters working for them are the worst buddies. But if a diver gets buddied up in that situation, he’s got to take responsibility to hang close by since the photographer’s subject is obviously far more important than other divers in the water.

We also received word of several incidents where a diver tried to help another diver in distress, resulting in a serious increase in risk. One case came from Watt Hinson (Bay City, TX) during a dive at Cozumel’s Las Palmas reef. At 55 feet, he saw another diver’s tank slipping out of her BC bands. She removed her BC and in doing so dropped a small, cheap camera that floated down current. The diver then dumped her regulator and swam for the camera but because her BC was weight integrated, she immediately became positively buoyant. “I was able to grab her fin and pass her my primary second stage. Because she was so buoyant, I was unable to hold her on the bottom so we both made an uncontrolled ascent. Fortunately, we didn’t sustain injury.”

Finally, Paul Gmelch (Amelia Island, FL), though not at risk himself, told us of a dive buddy who was the proverbial accident waiting to happen. “On a recent dive trip, he stopped taking his blood pressure medication, and dove with a dead battery on his wireless transmitter, hence no pressure gauge. On the next dive, he hit his tank on the boat deck while entering and became an inattentive diver with a new camera in his hand. Lastly, while getting out of the water, he gave his fins and camera to the boathand, then fell back in. Enough?” So divers, if there’s one lesson to be learned here, it’s to dive defensively.

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