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January 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diver Drifts 12 Hours in Somosomo Strait

from the January, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Few divers have ever had as challenging a first day of openwater diving as Thomas Holz. In late October, after surfacing far from his boat from his second dive on Rainbow Reef at the Fijian island Vanua Levu, the 40-year-old German spent 12 hours battling currents in the Somosomo Strait overnight and swam nearly six miles before reaching land. Undercurrent got both sides of the story from Holz and the dive shop, Jewel Divers, and found that both contributed to a problem many new divers experience – lack of knowledge about dive rescue devices.

Before his first dive trip to Fiji, Holz completed his PADI openwater and advanced openwater courses within two months, but his experience consisted of only nine lake dives in Germany. Holz says he stressed his novice skills to Jewel Bubble. “In my e-mail requests, I told them that I’m a ‘fresh diver.’ During registration at the dive shop, I repeated that I was a beginner, and the manager said, ‘Don’t worry, no problem.’”

Holz enjoyed his first ocean dive but the divemaster sent him up early because he was running through his air quickly. The second dive started around 4:30 p.m. “Rainbow Reef was known for its currents so during the briefing, the divemaster said the group had to descend fast and keep together. Further instructions were not given.” Holz had no problem until 20 minutes into the dive when he again was low on air.

Jewel Divers owner Qiolele Morisio told Undercurrent that his staff knew Holz was a new diver and treated him as such. The divemaster ascended with him both times to the safety stops, assuring he reached the surface before joining the other three divers. The main problem was that Holz was unaware his rental gear had a safety sausage in his BC pocket, and a whistle attached to the BC, and Jewel Divers didn’t verbally tell him the rescue gear was included. “Because PADI instructors don’t teach the use of a safety sausage, most divers don’t know how to use one so when it’s mentioned during dive briefings, they then ask to be shown how it is used,” Morisio said. “Should they not ask, then we take it that the divers understand how it is used.”

Holz says his gear didn’t have a whistle or sausage, but that’s because he was unaware of it. He denies that the divemaster mentioned anything about a safety sausage during the Rainbow Reef briefing. “When I came up, the boat was 100 yards away. I could see it only at the horizon. It was in a northerly direction but unfortunately the currents came from the same direction. I tried to swim, but there was no chance to reduce the distance.” Because Holz didn’t know he had a safety sausage, he couldn’t signal the boat nor see where the other divers ascended. For the next hour, the boat moved back and forth along the horizon, obviously looking for him, and then headed for shore when it got dark.

Vanua Levu was a mile away but its coastline was dark, while Tavenui, five miles away, had more lights, so Holz decided to swim there. Luckily he was in good physical condition, and he switched swimming strokes while fighting the currents. (Anyone who has dived the Somosomo Strait knows just how tough the currents can be.) “When I hit land at 4:30 a.m., I cried for help, and the nice Fijian couple who owned the property helped me immediately.” Holz was in good condition and he immediately left for his already-planned land tour of Fiji, not waiting to be interviewed by police investigating the matter.

Morisio says he is now purchasing Dive Alert air horns to add to the rescue devices on his gear rentals. “We have also started the process of instructing all divers unaware of the safety sausages about how to use one.”

That’s information that should have been offered a long time ago. The simple question “Do you know how to use a safety sausage?” could have saved Holz from a six-mile swim. It’s also imperative that divers renting gear also ask the question: “What rescue devices do you offer, and can you show me how to use them?”

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