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September 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Fatal Attempt at a World Record

this diver and his support team were just too cocky

from the September, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There are always going to be bold, brash divers who will want to go farther, faster, deeper than other divers. Take the world record for deepest dive. There has been a spate of attempts in the past few years to break it. The current record is 1,090 feet, set last September by Egyptian diver Ahmed Gabr in the Red Sea. The latest attempt, on August 15, ended in tragedy, when the diver, an ear, nose and throat doctor from St. Croix named Guy Garman, failed to return from depth. Garman, in his mid-50s, attempted his dive at Long Reach, a reef outside Christiansted Harbor, and was supported by ScubaTec, a tech diving school also located in St. Croix. Garman had planned his 1,200-foot record attempt dive for the past two years, but many technical dive experts believe that an oversupply of confidence by Garman and his support staff combined with a lack of experience and training dives turned into a fatal combination.

Garman, who called himself "Dr. Deep," had the dive line installed himself, a 1,300-foot line sunk into the sea floor with a 250-pound anchor. ScubaTec owner Ed Buckley told the Virgin Island Daily News that Garman soon dived far deeper than his trainers, whose deepest depth was 215 feet. "His own research and planning and plotting put him well above the level of the deep instructors he got certified with." He also said Garman was a meticulous planner. "He'd tell [the support staff], 'If I have a seizure, this is what you do. If this happens, this is what you do.' He was treating the whole thing as being a scientist, not a recreational thing."

Garman's last deepest dive before the big one was in early April, when he made a solitary descent to 815 feet. For the August 15 dive, he wore three oversized "monster" tanks, four double tanks, three computers and a GoPro camera. He also had a clip-on marker on his dive line to measure his 1,200-foot descent and satisfy the Guinness people that it was a true world record. The weight of all this gear is estimated to be around 400 pounds.

Garman's goal was to descend with support staff to 200 feet, breathing off their tanks, go solo to the 1,200-foot mark, and then ascend to 350 feet, where support staff would stay with him for the 10 hours he'd need to decompress as he gradually made his way to the surface, stopping every 10 feet. In addition to Garman's seven tanks, 28 other tanks were also on hand. One of his support divers was his 20-year-old son, Kip, who, at 6 a.m., descended with him to 200 feet -- that's the last time father and son would see each other. Garman was supposed to meet his dive support team on ascent 38 minutes later at 350 feet, but he never appeared. "We kept deep divers in the water looking for anything, but they never saw the first bubble from him," said Buckley.

Garman's wife, Christi, was on hand for the record-breaking attempt. She was the one who announced that Garman's body and dive equipment were recovered three days later, the U.S. Coast Guard was inspecting his gear, and the medical examiner had ruled his death as drowning.

So What Went Wrong?

Plenty, say technical dive experts. Many of them had warned Garman and ScubaTec months ago that if their dive plan went forward as described, it would most likely end in certain death for Dr. Deep. Andy Davis, owner of Scuba Tech Philippines in Subic Bay, told the Virgin Island Daily News that when ScubaTec went on the ScubaBoard online forum in March with its plans for Garman's dive, tech dive experts didn't think anyone would seriously attempt such a suicidal mission. "It was first believed to be a hoax, but once it was known to be a real attempt, a tragic outcome was predicted," Davis said.

"It was first believed to be a hoax, but once it was known to be a real attempt, a tragic outcome was predicted."

No other dive professionals have come forward with public statements, but Undercurrent was privy to e-mail conversations where many discussed what happened in writing. None wanted their name used - no one wanted to officially pile on to Garman and his family in the aftermath of his death - but they wanted their comments used to give informed insight that might save some other divers thinking of doing something similar.

Way Too Cocky

Garman and his team put out a very polished video on YouTube a week before the dive (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKL1h4BIdC4). One dive veteran wrote in the email, "My immediate reaction while watching it was, 'He's a dead man.' What I was able to research on this guy and his 'team' left me with the impression of those with a zeal for celebrity, but a marked lack of professional experience and awareness of how to do this type of dive."

We've written many stories about divers who just didn't have the experience but had the chutzpah to think they could dive beyond their limits. Garman, unfortunately, is the latest, albeit an extreme example, with visions of "Guinness world record" in his head, the dive veteran continues. "The level of delusional 'hero' antics by 'weekend warriors' is sobering, and their fatality rate is equally astounding. This is what happens when well-intended amateurs think this is just another merit badge. Consider John Krakauer's book Into Thin Air about the amateurs who died on Mount Everest in 1996. Same mentality."

The video had red flags all over the place, the dive veterans agreed. "Wrong gear, overloaded divers who really can't swim with the equipment package, concentration only on 'up and down,' no real support divers at depth, and no contingency for deep problems. He ends the video sitting smugly and saying, 'All good!'"

Davis from Scuba Tech Philippines wrote a thorough and thoughtful essay about Garman's death and the causes for it (http://scubatechphilippines.com/scuba_blog/guy-garman-world-depth-record-fatal-dive). He says one of the biggest flaws was the cockiness of Garman's sponsor. "A quick glance down the Scuba TEC Facebook wall shows a distinct trend towards glamorizing and glorifying excessively deep dives. Virtually every wall post is boasting of a deeper, more extreme dive ... an 'elite' club that dives below 350 feet . . . 'limited t-shirts' available only to those who dive below 300 feet with the organization. Glorifying deep dives, making depth a 'goal' in itself, and rewarding deep dives through varied forms of status can easily become an insidious form of gung-ho peer pressure. Rather than supporting a conservative and progressive approach to developing technical diving limits with patience, humility, caution and self-awareness, the opposite has occurred."

And look at the 'culture' of technical diving in St. Croix, which has no deep-water wrecks or cave systems. "Technical dives are conducted on deep ocean walls, with no other specific target or goal . . . beyond depth itself," Davis says. " To 'sell' technical diving, they have to sell 'depth'. Depth should never be glorified. Setting personal records and encouraging deep bounce dives for that purpose is the antithesis of a proper technical diving mentality."

Too Few Dives

Another mouth-opener: Garman had less than a quarter of the dives of other technical divers, who don't go nearly as deep as he had intended. He had only been diving for four years, with less than 600 dives logged. "And he thinks he's ready to go to 1,200 feet, carrying seven high-volume cylinders strapped to him?" says another dive veteran. "The equipment package alone would have rendered him (at his size) unable to swim. Most guys I know who can work deep came from commercial, military, and scientific diving backgrounds, where you had 'work' to do on the dive."

Davis says Garman's 600 dives in four years works out, on average, as only 3 dives per week. He writes, "His progression from learner diver to advanced technical diver was extremely fast, leading to one-third of his dives (200 dives) being below 200 feet. Of these, a mere 35 dives were below 500 feet at the time of his record attempt. To many (most?) in the technical diving community (or recreational diving industry, for that matter), this experience would be considered woefully small; his progression was extremely fast and without pause for consolidation . . . I've been diving more than 25 years; 10 years in technical diving as a full-time professional instructor. Yet, I wouldn't currently consider myself ready to attempt breaking a world depth record."

Botched Procedures

Besides having little tech diving experience, Garman's dive planning was insufficient, say our commentators. "He was copying out-of-date methodology without fully understanding the real operational issues and need for multi-contingency planning. Things just don't always go right. But these guys seem to think they will. They don't understand the physics and physiology, and they are not 'working' divers who can multitask."

Garman was severely overweighted, says another dive professional. "It was ergonomically bulky, needlessly complicated for gas switching and virtually impossible to swim with. He was totally limited to ascent by his BC's inflated lift, and even that was not sufficient.

Where were the support divers? "Why no support divers deeper than 360 fsw?" one commentator wrote. "He was nearly 900 feet deeper. The nearest one would be totally incapable of assisting in a contingency. None of his supposedly qualified team have any idea what happened to him . . . because he wasn't within reach or even within visual range."

And why didn't he use a rebreather? "Using open circuit gear on such dives is ridiculous when you have rebreather technology that can allow virtually unlimited time at depth and controls the narcosis and oxygen toxicity hazards. But off they go in the wrong gear, full of absurd confidence."

"What's tragic is that heliox breathing gases remove the danger . . . if used correctly," says another. "Then it simply comes down to managing your breathing gas volumes, and that should be done with a rebreather. Commercial divers have been on tethered dives from deep bells at over 2,000 feet. Why do these nitwits think they are making a mark by running around in shallower depths without the right gear?"

It was sadly botched until the very end. No one understands how Garman got loose of his descent line. Furthermore, as one diver in our group's e-mail discussion wrote, "They couldn't even recover him in the immediate aftermath because they apparently couldn't lift him with all his gear on him. The Coast Guard finally stepped in and mandated that his body be winched up."

As these living dive veterans shake their heads at Garman's tragic botched dive, so, too, would the pioneers of deep diving. "They mostly came from original roles in military, commercial and scientific diving professional backgrounds. They brought a wealth of operational experience and planning to technical diving. Today's divers should learn from their professional experience based on thousands of dives and an overwhelming attitude of precise planning and sharing practical system analysis to manage risk and maximize performance."

Garman and DiveTec learned a hard lesson the hard way. The dive industry overall needs to view Garman's botched dive as a wake-up call for better training. The trend of de-emphasizing practical experience and giving insufficient training (remember, PADI says you're ready for its Instructor certification after just 40 dives) has to revised. As one commentator succinctly puts it, "Collecting a bunch of meaningless specialty ratings and merit badges is no substitute for comprehensive curricula and hands-on real training."

- - Vanessa Richardson

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