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March 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Life and Death on the Reef

the tale of an Indonesia dive gone wrong in so many ways

from the March, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

After his stay at the Komodo Resort Diving Club -- which he reviewed in the previous article -- our correspondent, S.D., moved on to the next part of his dive trip, Lombok Island, right next door. But his experience there was like night and day, with a fatal turn at the end, as he explains below.

* * * * *

I will confess that I did less than stellar research on the island of Lombok prior to my arrival. I knew the southern part held diving treasures, but I thought it was too far from the airport -- it wasn't. I was looking at the wrong airport, the one that isn't used anymore. I thought that because the Living Asia Resort on the northwest side of Lombok, just north of Senggigi, had a satellite office for DSM Dive on its property that this was a selling point -- it wasn't. That it took me four separate attempts over several weeks to get an email confirmation for the days I wanted to dive should have been an indicator. That said, the Living Asia Resort facilities were nice, and their staff very attentive. However, I didn't research closely where we would be diving, the Gili Islands. Had I done so, I would have seen the warnings and steered clear.

Locals say that the reefs were in good shape 25 years ago. Today, the Gilis are a disaster area, at least the spots we dived. The reefs are fished out, dynamited to near death. The bones of dead coral lay everywhere, with pockets of living coral fighting for life. A few reef fish were scattered about here and there.

While there is much more to my story than the diving, to come from Komodo Island to this . . . well, I was shell shocked. I had four dives scheduled with DSM and seriously considered cancelling the second day. But then I saw my first ever blue ribbon eel. I started finding slugs, then mantis shrimp. A small eagle ray hovered in the currents. If I turned to muck diving, it wouldn't be a total 11 waste of time. I would just have to be patient. Then again, if I was planning a muck diving trip in Indonesia, I wouldn't come here. There are better places.

DSM Dive's main base is on Gili Trawangan, but they pick up most divers by van at Lombok resorts and shuttle them to the Gilis in an old wooden dive boat they overpack; I counted more than 20 divers one day. No telling how qualified they were. Nobody asked to see my PADI card, I just had to write down the number. At least they kept the dive groups small, with four or five divemasters on board. But gearing up with 20 people on board was cumbersome and done in stages, with the first group gearing up and going in, then the next group, and so on. All the divemasters seemed to know the area and their stuff, though one did bark at me for using too much air to dry out my first stage cover.

Looking back, I should have cancelled the second day's dives. Not because of the location or because of my reservations regarding DSM's operation, but because of what happened.

My dive buddy came to the opposite
conclusion that the divemaster
wanted us to group up and go on,
so an underwater argument broke
out over what to do.

We were a group of six -- the divemaster, my dive buddy and me, another couple and a Frenchman who apparently had the equivalent of an advanced certification. While four of us got to the bottom at 30 feet, the couple had some issue during the descent and returned to the surface. Meanwhile the French diver just took off, pulling himself past me by grabbing on to coral and pulling so hard it broke off. Our divemaster signaled my buddy and me to stay put, and she went up to check on the couple. The French diver was almost beyond the limits of the 55-foot visibility, but he kicked back and passed us in the other direction, ping-ponging back and forth at a high speed across the reef.

The other couple started back down, so the divemaster returned and started looking for the French diver. He was 50 feet behind us and at least 10 feet deeper, oblivious to what we were doing. My buddy banged on my tank to get the divemaster's attention, and pointed her to the guy. The divemaster brought him back, literally holding on to him by his BC. When we started again as a group, the divemaster still had not let go of his BC.

About 20 minutes into our dive, the French diver apparently signaled the divemaster that he was out of air, so she got us together, made the out-of-air gesture in reference to him, made a big circle gesture and gave the thumbs up sign, as well as a few other signs I couldn't follow. It was confusing, but I took them to mean, "Dive's over. We're surfacing!" I focused on what the divemaster was trying to tell us, so I didn't know whether the guy was out of air, just low on air, or something else was wrong. Just before they surfaced I saw him fumbling with his BC controls and I did see some bubbles come out, but it was almost perpendicular to his body, which is a bad orientation to bleed air out of it if he were ascending.

The two of them started up from about 28 feet. I couldn't tell if he was using her backup regulator. My dive buddy, who saw the same gestures I did, came to the opposite conclusion that the divemaster wanted us to group up and go on. So an underwater argument broke out between my buddy and me over what to do. I had started my ascent, but she wanted to proceed with the other couple who had not seen the divemaster's gestures. Ten feet lower than I, my buddy got fed up with arguing and headed down. I was at eight feet, past my safety stop, so I got back down to 15 feet and started timing myself. But I was conflicted. It seemed obvious to me that the divemaster wanted us to go up, but then you don't leave your buddy. I started second-guessing -- maybe I misread the signals, or maybe I should go back down.

I looked up at the diver and the divemaster, whom I could clearly make out, but couldn't glean any more information about whether it was a surface call; she was engaged with the other diver. So I rejoined my buddy, pressing on for 20 minutes until someone got low on air. Back on the surface my buddy and I, who have done more than 100 dives together, got into an argument. She wanted to know why I went up instead of staying with the group. I said the divemaster wanted us to surface. She said the divemaster wanted us to group up while they surfaced. I disagreed. She disagreed with my disagreement. Stalemate.

The divemaster and the French diver were no longer in sight, and neither was the boat. I figured they got picked up and the boat went to pick up others who entered the water before us. We bobbed in the water for close to 10 minutes until the boat did show up, empty of divers. We picked up one other group and then headed back to the beach.

When we got in, one of the staff memebers started ripping on us. Why didn't we surface? Why did we not go up with the divemaster? Why did we decide to stay down? Why did we not end our dive when the divemaster called it? I glared at my buddy and said, "See? I told you."

Then we got the word. The French diver was dead. When he hit the surface, he rolled his eyes, vomited, and died in the divemaster's arms. She had had a difficult time getting his body back to shore. She tried to flag down a boat but they apparently thought she was doing a mock rescue diver exercise and were slow to respond. I apologized profusely for not going up with her, but she was just glad to see us back safe, and especially glad to see that we had safety sausages to display in case the boat had trouble finding us.

The deceased diver was around 60 years old, overweight and based upon what I saw, his diving skills and training were inadequate. He violated a handful of rules on that dive, including going off on his own, exerting himself and damaging the reef. One of the other divemasters later said that on the previous day, the guy needed help with his BC control. I wondered why they had let him back in the water after that.

I can't be sure of what happened. Did they attempt an emergency ascent from 28 feet? It kind of looked like it. Did the diver blow bubbles during the emergency ascent? Not doing so could be fatal. My dive buddy later told me that the divemaster had said she saw bubbles coming out of his mouth, but he was not on her backup regulator because it was "tangled."

And that was my last dive in Indonesia. DSM shut down operations for the rest of the day. Nobody really wanted to go back in the water.

* * * * *

Ben's comments: It must be a horrible experience to watch a diver on your excursion die in the water. Of course, there is nothing our correspondent could have done about it. Though he confessed great remorse for not surfacing, it had no effect on the outcome.

It's my view that if I'm on a group dive with a divemaster, who has rules such as "We'll all stick together," and she says to surface, I will. And I expect the other divers to do so as well. I believe a divemaster is in charge, and if the request is reasonable, I follow it. On the other hand, if I'm diving with other divers in an unorganized fashion -- go in when you want and do what you want to do -- I might think twice if I were asked to surface, though I'd keep in mind there is a boat above and the divemaster is part of the crew. She ought to know what she is doing and I don't want the boat to leave without me.

If I'm diving with a buddy and he signals his desire to surface, no matter what the cause, I believe I'm obligated to accompany him, unless he uses hand signals to free me of that responsibility. Still, when our writer's buddy refused to surface, I understand why our writer returned to her. He was not surfacing because he was in danger, and he wanted to give her the safety of a buddy pair.

Clearly, buddies must establish their own rules ahead of time and follow them. Plan Your Dive. Furthermore, while too many divemasters give casual and incomplete briefings, the divemaster should be clear about what she expects. If she says "When I give the sign to go up, we all go up," that should be the rule everyone follows. When you're back in the boat, you can hash out whether that was the right thing to do. But don't get into underwater or surface arguments; you're seriously upping your risk. If it turns out you think your divemaster made a spurious request, find another divemaster. But most likely, you'll conclude that if she told you to surface she had your safety in mind.

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