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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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October 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Jim Abernethy, Scuba Adventures, Florida

not what I bargained for

from the October, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

While I live in the neighborhood, I’ve never dived in Palm Beach County. Having heard glowing reviews of Jim Abernathy’s operation there while on a liveaboard halfway across the world in Indonesia, I had to give it a go. So, I headed to Riviera Beach on Saturday evening in August and stayed at a funky but accommodating Super 8 motel. After breakfast at 6:45am, I headed to the dive shop.

The friendly office staff signed me up and I headed to the 42-foot boat for two morning dives with a full load of divers and clearly a professional staff. The reefs were outstanding for Florida. Best I’ve seen in terms of health, density and diversity of corals, sponges and sea life. A goodsized Goliath Grouper posed graciously above an outcropping, there were numerous lobsters, a spotted eel, giant green morays, many trunkfish and cowfish, French and gray angels galore. There was current, pretty stiff at times, but nothing untenable.

Drift diving is the norm in South Florida. Usually each diver is required to hold onto or clip in a reel attached to a surface marker ball throughout the dive, while the divemaster remains on the boat, watching bubbles. The Abernathy boat sends two divemasters into the water, each with up to 10 divers, and only the dive master pulls a marker float. This is a boon for the photographer, of course, not being dragged along by the current. We were instructed during our boat briefing not to swim to the boat after a dive; the deeply tanned, blond, dreadlocked Captain Sean would “park the boat in our laps,” which he surely did.

The boat was comfortable with a big rear open space that made gearing up and plodding to the stern easy. The dive platform was wide and deep with the best exit ladder I’ve seen: maybe eight steps placed only inches apart, at a steep rake and wrapped tightly with rough hewn rope. Made exiting a breeze. Jim Abernethy, Scuba Adventures, FloridaThe dives were leisurely, with no pressure to exit other than the lack of it in your tank. My only issue was that my Air2 alternate had started free flowing and we couldn’t fix it on the boat, so I was relegated to orally inflating my BC, not much of an inconvenience except for not being able to fully inflate my back-inflate BC on the surface.

After our two dives, we returned to shore, had lunch and I got ready for the afternoon run. There were 8 of us on board, along with the captain and three crew members. Our first dive of the afternoon was excellent, on yet another lush reef, teeming with life. Viz was deteriorating and the current was coming up but there was lots of fun stuff to see.

We’d been running behind all day, what with a boatload of seasoned divers who could easily go an hour-plus at 60 feet or deeper. By the time we hit the water for the fourth dive, it was after 6:00pm. For our fourth “dive” we hovered a few feet below the surface as the crew released more than a score of baby sea turtles brought in by a conservation group. The sight of sunbeams streaming down through the gaps of floating seaweed while the little amphibians paddled up for gulps of air was breathtaking. Then, we zoomed down through very poor viz and were immediately swept away by a ripping current, maybe three knots. We were flying sideways in the murk at 80 feet. I didn’t want my last dive to be the deepest and didn’t want to use all my air and no deco time, so I hovered a bit above the group. After a minute or two, the dive master leading the group made a hard right, partially back into the current. I tried to follow, finning for all I was worth, but was going nowhere. In just seconds, the group disappeared into the gloom. After more struggling, I gave up and let myself drift with the current. I didn’t want to get too far away from the group so I decided to do the Boy Scout thing and surface. On my gently-paced ascent, I heard the boat motors a few times and felt secure that I’d be spotted.

After a probably unnecessary safety stop, I surfaced and did a 360, spotting the boat about a quarter a mile away. I inflated my fat, 8-foot yellow safety sausage and pointed skyward. I waved it around. The boat turned a bit but made no progress toward me. I then blipped my ear-piercing Dive Alert. No reaction. Again. Nothing. So I laid into the thing, letting it blast for a full 45 seconds. The boat turned, and then started moving away from me. I blasted the Dive Alert again, waving my sausage with some concern now. The boat continued moving away. Maybe they’re picking up someone else who surfaced? But the boat never turned back. After 15 minutes, it was just a tiny toy bobbing on the horizon. Fifteen minutes later, it was gone. And then I noticed that I’d somehow lost my mask.

A little bubble of panic welled up, but was quickly popped by my determination to consider my situation and plan accordingly. I was maybe a mile and a half from shore. The water was 85 degrees and I was wearing my 5 mil, merino wool-lined Pinnacle wetsuit with tropical hood, warm as toast. I had 2000 psi in my tank and a vest that I could fill enough to keep me somewhat buoyant. I thought about having to swim for it. After an hour afloat, the only vessels I’d seen were a Boston Whaler (close enough, I thought, to see my sausage) and a mini ocean liner party boat, neither of which spotted me. I ditched my weights. I don’t know why I didn’t just remove the lead shot pouches from the weight pouch liners, but I dumped the whole shebang, as if to prove to myself how determined I was to survive. I tried to swim, but the tank was too cumbersome and negative with its load of compressed air. So I removed my BC, carefully worked it around and unbuckled the tank, and let it slip away. Now I was able to swim more easily, which I did for maybe five minutes at a time before surveying my progress and again hoisting the safety sausage, after huffing and puffing to reinflate it fully. But I didn’t appear to be making any progress toward the shore and had traveled an alarming distance north, parallel to the beach. The waves, thankfully small, were pointing at a 60 degree angle away from the perpendicular to the shoreline, toward open water beyond the outcropping to the north of me.

A Coast Guard boat suddenly ripped by out of nowhere, its engines at full throttle. I waved my arms madly and yelled “HEYYY!” repeatedly. But, the boat sped out to sea for what I figured was a rendezvous with the dive boat. My camera rig was severely impeding my progress, tugging at my BC and weighing me down. The waves were higher now, occasionally lapping into my maw since I couldn’t fully inflate the BC. I decided to ditch the whole camera rig, strobe and all. I was in full survival mode now, so had no regrets as I let it drop from my hand.

By 7:30 or so, dusk was making its debut and I was contemplating a night of drifting in the black. The buildings on shore were almost past me now as I headed toward an unpopulated stretch south of Juno Beach. The BC still tugged at me as I tried swimming and I was getting fatigued fighting the current trying to take a tack toward shore. Of course, I wasn’t going to let go of that, since I might finally succumb to exhaustion and have to drift with the BC keeping me just barely afloat.

As the last washes of light faded from the sky, I swam, raised the sausage, swam, raised the sausage, swam. Then I heard a motor behind me and saw the delicious sight of the dive boat bearing down with the Coast Guard vessel close behind. I made some crack about “Well, that sure beats swimming all night!” and nonchalantly climbed aboard. It had been two hours and fifteen minutes since I surfaced. I apologized to the other divers for putting them through what must surely have been a terrifying experience. Captain Sean begged my forgiveness in the most earnest way. All were obviously relieved and some almost teary-eyed in their joy to see me OK. I sucked down about 4 bottles of water and ate a quarter of a pineapple and a banana and didn’t really feel too bad.

The crew explained that, after observing my obvious diving skills, they had not become concerned at my absence until an hour and 10 minutes after I had hit the water. Then they immediately called the Coast Guard and alerted all other boats in the vicinity, some of which were preparing to head out from their docks to join the search. Ultimately, after a few circuits around the area where the other divers had surfaced, they set afloat a weighted buoy and watched its progress in the current. That prescribed their search direction and that’s how they eventually found me, three miles downcurrent from the dive site.

I drove home that night and enjoyed the intense appreciation of the simplest activities, all the while contemplating how it would have felt to have been still bobbing in the blackness. I slept hard for 9 hours and called Jim Abernathy the next day. He had, of course, heard the crew’s version of events. I said that, while I thought the operation was generally professional, there was some negligence in not scanning the horizon for bubbles/divers as I felt any crew should. I also felt that the divemaster should have aborted the dive or at least surfaced himself when and if he noticed me missing from the group. I told Jim that I had no desire to pursue a lawsuit but wondered if he thought it was fair for me to ask for compensation for the loss of my camera rig. I said I’d look for the least expensive possible replacements on eBay, even downgrading to a D70 from my D100.

But he wasn’t buying. He was pleasant, not at all defensive, but stood his ground, telling me there’s no way in this economy he can afford to pay for my camera gear and claiming that I should have taken better measures to prevent the incident. Namely, to drop to the bottom to get out of the worst of the current and be able to stay with the group. He told me three others had surfaced early and been picked up, but, because they’d stayed close to the divemaster, were easy to spot. Then he told me what a number of the divers had said when I first got back on the boat after my rescue— a fact that stunned me in its simplicity and my stupidity in not having thought of it: namely that the camera strobe is the brightest, most easily spotted and hard-tomiss signal one could possibly use to attract attention. Sunday night after my rescue, one of the divemasters told me they headed to shore at one point during the search when they saw someone on the beach firing off a camera flash and thought I might have made it all the way in.

Abernathy told me he’d alert everyone in the area to be on the lookout for the camera, with a reward waiting for the finder. He felt confident someone would come across it. He also said he’d mount a search party when there are no paying customers.

Amazingly, my camera rig was found a few weeks ago. Captain Ray Davis, retired owner of the dive boat Narcosis in Palm Beach County, was poking around for lobsters and spotted my rig nestled in the sand in a grassy area. Ray had heard about my incident through the grapevine. He called the Abernathy office, having found my name inside the housing. They called me with Ray’s contact info. The good captain proceeded to thoroughly clean and restore my housing, since it had been on the sea floor for close to a month. “There were already things growin’ on it,” said Ray. He also reported “a bit of moisture on the inside, but probably just from condensation.” Remarkably, everything fired up perfectly, the batteries still carrying a substantial charge. I picked up the rig and offered a modest reward. He pointed out on his electronic charts that I’d drifted well over a mile by the time I dropped the housing. My ditched tank (actually belonging to the Abernathy operation) washed up in Daytona Beach, some 200 miles north. The dive op that found it was astounded to see the markings indicating its origin. I imagine I would have had a nice long float ahead of me, had I not been found, though how it got there I don’t know. I’m pretty certain I dropped a negatively buoyant tank. Maybe it was from another floater. And it happens.

I was told by both divers and crew that divers in Palm Beach County end up adrift every couple of years, thanks to the strong currents. They say they’re always found within two or three hours. Maybe so, but I was freaked out, afraid of the consequences. Yet, now I know better steps I could have taken to avoid the crisis. In speaking with dive professionals here in South Florida, I’ve heard repeatedly that the boat crew should always be alert to the fact that divers may surface at any time for a number of reasons: illness, cramps, equipment malfunctions, snags, etc. Thus, they should be actively scanning the surface. I should have been spotted, in my opinion, especially with my 8-ft-long sausage and Dive Alert, my camera strobe notwithstanding. Furthermore, I think it’s inexcusable that the divemaster chose not to surface when I was no longer with the group.

All in all, I’m happy to contemplate future dives, even in Palm Beach. Getting “back on the horse” is not a daunting thought. The extra safety precautions I’ve learned will add to my confidence. And, as for Palm Beach County diving, I would like to revisit some of the excellent sites I dived and discover new ones. I do believe, though, I’ll be diving on Capt. Ray’s old Narcosis, rather than Abernathy’s Deep Obsession. You can call it superstition…

–- P.V.

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