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March 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part II

problems on the surface

from the March, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In its annual report of dive-related fatalities, Divers Alert Network (DAN) noted that trouble often happened on the water’s surface, either on descent, at an early stage of the dive, or post-dive when the diver was exiting the water. Analyzing 89 cases in 2005 where it was obvious that divers were experiencing trouble in the water, DAN found that six divers had problems before the descent, eight had problems during the descent, and 31 had problems after the dive.

Problems often begin before divers even enter the water. They ignore external warnings signs like bad weather and rough currents. They also ignore internal red flags -- health issues like fatigue or nausea. They forget to check their gear out on the surface or after they enter the water. Same thing may happen when they’ve resurfaced – they failed to properly inflate their BCD or dump their weights while they’re choking on seawater slapping them in the face.

Here are descriptions of several preventable fatalities where errors like these played a significant role.

Check the Conditions

An experienced 43-year-old female diver was trying to make a shore-entry dive into too-rough seas. While still in shallow water with her head above the surface, she was knocked down by a large wave and lost consciousness, regulator still in her mouth. She was still conscious when taken to a nearby hospital but died four days later due to commotion cordis, an abnormal heart rhythm caused by the strong force of the wave’s blow to her chest wall.

Richard Hart, a 48-year-old who had not been diving for several years, made a shore-entry night dive from South Casa Beach in La Jolla, California, with three other divers to collect lobster. The beach is known for its powerful rip currents, and a strong one was present that night. While experienced divers use the current to their advantage by allowing it to drag them out into the ocean, Hart tried to swim against it and was alarmed when it was too rough for him. He got separated from his buddies, and decided to head back to shore. His buddies were pulled farther out but managed to get back to shore at nearby Wipeout Beach. Rescue workers found Hart floating a few hundred yards offshore. His regulator was not in his mouth, meaning he probably drowned while battling the rip current.

Jumping off for a dive buoy, one
diver took off everything but mask
and weight belt -- and drowned in
the strong current.

On the surface, an attentive buddy can mean the difference between life and death. Troy Bangs, a 53-year-old from Sacramento, California, was making a shore-entry dive at Maui’s Kaanapali beach as part of his openwater certification course when he told his instructor he couldn’t continue and headed toward shore. Instead of sending a buddy back with him, the instructor let Bangs go back alone. Bangs was seen struggling on the surface and several people went out to help but he was already unconscious by the time they reached him. His death was ruled a drowning due to a cardiac event.

Tyler Dutton, a 48-year-old male from Elk Grove, California was making a boat dive off of the Monterey coast before he realized he forgot some gear. He decided to head back to the boat without his buddy to retrieve it but during his swim through the waves, he began struggling on the surface. His buddy headed over to help but it was too late -- Dutton lost consciousness and drowned.

Be Aware of Your Gear

Experienced divers should know better than to go out in strong current and big waves without the right gear. Returning to the boat after lobster diving with a buddy, an experienced 49-year-old diver saw a floating dive buoy on the waves and decided to go back in for it. It would have been so easy to keep his BCD on, but he took off everything except his mask and weight belt before reentering the water. But he soon got caught up in the strong current and drifted away. His body was recovered two days later, and the autopsy findings were consistent with drowning.

This reminds us of a case a we reported a few years ago, where after removing all his gear, a diver sat on the gunwale of a dive boat, still wearing his weight belt. As the boat powered away, the diver fell backwards off the boat and was pulled downward by his weights. He was unable to release his belt and drowned.

Paying attention to your gear also applies to knowing when to take it off. Take climbing the ladder back into the dive boat, for example. Are you really strong enough to climb it with full gear on? It may be easier on your heart and lungs to take it all off before getting in. Of course, then you are more vulnerable if you lose your grip on the ladder and get sucked into waves or a current. Pay attention to the conditions and your surroundings and decide which would be the less-risky situation.

It seems obvious that you would check your air before a dive to make sure you have a full tank and that it’s flowing properly. Surprisingly, some divers fail to do this, with fatal results. A 54-year-old male with moderate diving experience made numerous dives to a shallow site at 10 feet depth to hunt lobster with a group of divers, although he didn’t have a dedicated buddy. He went back to the boat in between dives but did not change tanks before going back down. He abruptly surfaced in distress, lost consciousness and died from drowning.

One experienced diver entered the
water without turning her air on
and drowned due to insufficient air.

A 44-year-old female with ten years’ diving experience was making her second shore dive of the day with two buddies to collect lobsters near a ferry terminal in Yakima, Washington. They swam 175 yards to a buoy then descended but she got separated at 13 feet depth, and the water had poor visibility. When the two other divers resurfaced, they saw no sign of her. Her body was recovered 90 minutes later, in 10 feet of water less than 100 yards from shore. Investigators found that she was overweighted and had entered the water without turning her air on.

Monitor Your Vitals

Too many cases show that a diver proceeds with his dive even if he isn’t feeling well. If you’re experiencing fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea or any other condition short of the wellbeing you feel on a regular day, just don’t go. This is especially true if you’ve already made a dive and came back up feeling unwell. The stress of a dive can also trigger a fatal reaction.

A 64-year-old experienced rescue diver from Virginia was on a dive boat near Fort Lauderdale with four other divers and made a first dive to 52 feet for 40 minutes. Afterwards, he said he was fatigued and short of breath, but he still suited up for a second dive. Before he could descend, he lost consciousness. He was pulled into the boat but could not be revived, dead from a heart attack.

A 58-year-old female with moderate diving experience, who took multiple medications for diabetes, hypertension and depression, jumped off a dive boat with an instructor for the first dive. Fifteen minutes into the dive, she complained of difficulty with breathing and fatigue. She surfaced with the instructor and lost consciousness after returning to the boat. Crew took her to a hyperbaric chamber where she was pronounced dead from a heart attack.

A 53-year-old male diver made a boat dive with two buddies to 43 feet. After 13 minutes underwater, he surfaced early because he did not feel well. Once back in the boat, he complained of shortness of breath. Then he had a heavy coughing fit and collapsed, dead from a heart attack.

An experienced 44-year-old technical diver was completing his third boat dive of the day when he noticed a mass under the skin of his shoulder as he surfaced. Then he felt the mass move from his shoulder to his neck. He was sent to a hyperbaric chamber but was too unstable to complete recompression therapy and died the next day, apparently from an air embolism. It’s highly unlikely that the skin mass appeared all of a sudden on his third dive. Apparently, this diver either ignored symptoms or did a poor job of monitoring his physical condition after each dive.

- - Ben Davison

In the next issue, we’ll continue discussing why divers die, focusing on fatal errors divers made with their gear.

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