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January 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Revisiting a Dive Incident from 15 Years Ago

from the January, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Ben Davison was diving with Blue Waters in Speyside in 1998, and noticed that one of the tanks was autographed "Vivienne Slear." The "why" was an interesting story, and he wrote about his trip in the March 1998 issue of Undercurrent. I thought it was worth a follow-up. I located a 1997 interview with her in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Wanting to know more, I finally located her on Facebook, established an email correspondence and invited her to accompany me to Tobago, but alas, she declined.

In 1997, Slear, then in her mid-40s, went down to Tobago with a group of friends, and they found themselves diving in strong currents around Bookends, south of Little Tobago. Vivienne had logged 61 dives, but she and her friends had no experience drift diving, and she had no safety equipment. After struggling with the currents for 30 minutes at 75 feet, she decided to surface, and signaled her intention to the divemaster, who was trailing the group, towing a buoy. She made two safety stops, and when surfacing, found the boat was "quite far away." She did not know if they saw her. After two hours of waiting, she decided to "take control." And that she did for 27 hours, drifting around Bloody Bay Point to the Caribbean side of the island. Battling strong currents and high waves, she kept the island in sight and never stopped finning, both to keep warm and stay on course.

At Bloody Bay, Slear made an attempt to exit, but the waves crashing into the rocks made it too hazardous, and all she got were bruises and cuts. She saw a boat, which she signaled with a fin she removed and waved, but received no response. In the meantime, her friends gave up hope and started planning a memorial service. A wreath was ordered to be placed at the spot she was last seen. Eventually, she spotted a "beautiful sandy beach" and headed toward it, accompanied by several small fish which swam underneath her for her last couple of hours. Under her own power, she finally made it to Parlatuvier Beach. After 27 hours in the water, a fisherman who was on shore reunited her with her friends, who immediately changed the memorial to a thanksgiving. Dehydration and some bruises meant she didn't require medical attention, but Slear never again dived in Tobago waters.

Was a search launched? As it happens, Sean Robinson (Tobago Dive Experience) was diving nearby at Cathedral at the time, so he filled in the story for me. Around 10 a.m., he saw the Blue Waters boat going back and forth in the eight-foot waves, but no distress signal was given. At 3 p.m. Robinson was heading out of town when some local boys asked why he was going someplace when there was a lost diver. He confirmed it with Blue Waters, then immediately called the Coast Guard, located in Trinidad. They had a plane in the air searching by 5 p.m. In the meantime, Robinson plotted the course of the currents at the location where Slear was last seen, and headed to St. Giles at the tip of the island. The conditions severely hindered sighting anyone in the water. Slear said she had spotted a boat in the distance at the tip of the island. That time matches when Sean would have been there, but he saw no wave of a fin. The Blue Waters boats were searching along the coast line.

The response time for launching search-and-rescue missions has now been greatly reduced with the addition of the air branch to the Coast Guard. Sean says they now can be on site searching Tobago waters in 30 minutes.

I salute Vivienne for her resolve to survive, clear thinking in a worse-case scenario and never giving up. She must have been in an awesome state of fitness. She has continued diving since then and immediately purchased a safety sausage afterwards, but it took her years before venturing into current again. After 20 years of diving, she has decided to ease off, but not stop. She'd like to return to Tobago sometime -- but only to do bird watching.

-- J.D.

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