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October 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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No Diver Left Behind?

still no foolproof system to get divers get back on board

from the October, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It's still not uncommon for a dive boat to motor away from a site, then have the crew realize later they left a diver behind. The most recent occurrence (public, anyway) happened in March when Odyssey Charters in Pompano Beach, FL, left a diver floating off the coast, realized its mistake and sent out an emergency call. Another dive boat, the Sea Siren, arrived and luckily found him floating unharmed.

Moral of the story: Some dive boats, even in First World countries, still don't have foolproof systems to count divers before departing dive sites. Some boats do have good systems, either voluntarily or because the country they operate in requires it. But there are boats, from Key Largo to Komodo, that can be lax, even downright sloppy, in ensuring everyone is back aboard. That's why you must find out what their diver-counting system is before you jump off the boat.

We asked Undercurrent subscribers in our mid-month email if they or a fellow diver had ever been left behind, and if so, what system did the dive operator use to account for passengers? A few dive operators also told us their side of the story.

"Er, Where's My Husband?"

It was a fellow diver who saved reader David Cuoio (Las Vegas, NV) during a dive trip in the Turks and Caicos. "I would have been left behind if another diver had not asked the captain where I was. He had started the engines and would have left if she had not stopped him. Obviously, he did not have a wellplanned method for accounting for the divers on his boat."

If you can pick a place to be left behind, then Jeff Janak (Dallas, TX) is happy it was Cozumel, where if your dive boat forgets about you, another boat is often nearby to pick you up. "We were diving with the now-defunct TTC Diving, and my dive buddy and I watched as our dive boat, a mile from us, pulled away. I don't know how they could have missed two of us. But in Cozumel, there are so many boats in the popular areas, we just swam to the nearest boat, 50 yards away. They radioed our boat, which came back to pick us up, so we just stayed in the water. If things got really bad, we would have just swum to the beach and walked until we found help." That's maybe an easy option in some places, but less so in the vast Asia-Pacific.

"Instead of a head count, they counted fins on the dive deck to determine if everyone was back from a dive."

For Harry Rabin (Santa Barbara, CA), it was his wife who got him back on Peter Hughes' old liveaboard, the Sun Dancer, after a drift dive in Palau. "I saw the panga captain heading back to the main boat. I had my six-foot signal tube, but it kept deflating, so I tied it in a knot, cutting a foot off its height. Fifteen minutes later, I saw the boat heading my way, thanks to my wife. On the liveaboard, she asked the skipper, "Er, where's my husband?" They told her, 'Oh, we know where he is, we're heading straight back there to get him.' I never got the truth, but I suspect they goofed."

Counting Fins Instead of Divers

Yes, some dive operators take a cocky "we know what we're doing" attitude, even up to the point where they have to call Search and Rescue. At least most don't only count fins anymore, as they did on Peter Hughes' Star Dancer in Papua New Guinea liveaboard a decade ago. Joe Nicklo (Houston, TX) was the odd man out at the dive site Jurassic. "Instead of a head count, they counted fins on the dive deck to determine if everyone was back from a dive. In my case, someone, probably one of the crew, put a pair of fins where the counting took place, so the count was determined correct, and they left. Fortunately, the liveaboard captain realized I was not on board when the boat was three miles underway, and launched a boat to come back for me. I was in shallow water near an island, so I never felt threatened. The crew and captain acted like it was no big deal, and their apology lacked sincerity. I never filed a complaint -- I was concerned someone would get fired -- but it's my understanding that my incident prompted a different diver counting system on board."

That's why you should ask in advance: how do you account for divers -- counting fins? Tank? Pre-dive and post dive signatures? Roll calls? If you're on a boat and don't see anyone doing a head count, chances are they're not doing it. So what are they doing?

And don't assume you're safe just because you're on a U.S.-based dive boat. Besides the Pompano Beach accident from last spring, take the infamous case of Daniel Carlock, who went diving in April 2004 aboard the Sun Diver, based out of Venice, CA. He went with a group of 19 divers for a first dive to an oil platform. When he surfaced, Carlock was 400 feet from the Sun Diver, but downcurrent from the drifting vessel and unable to swim back. Carlock blew his whistle and waved a safety sausage, but the boat motored away. Somehow he was errantly logged back aboard during a roll call by the divemasters, and wasn't missed until after the second dive. Even then, Carlock was listed as having participated on the second dive, and a search was begun at that site, rather than where he was actually left. Carlock was found four hours later by a sailing vessel on a trip with Sea Scouts, one of whom saw a prone Carlock. He was hypothermic, in bad shape and maybe had another half-hour left to live. He sued the boat's crew and owners, and was awarded $1.68 million (read the story at www.undercurrent.org/members/UCnow/dive_magazine/2010/OpenWateCase201011.html)

Which Boats -- and Countries -- Are Better?

Problems, it seems, are generally reserved to boats carrying many divers, not the smaller six packs, nor when pangas have to account for their divers.

Peter Hughes, who ran his worldwide Dancer liveaboard fleet till 2008 and now runs the M/V Galapagos Sky, says smaller groups in small inflatables are easy to control by a simple headcount. "Our dives are done out of tenders, each carrying eight divers, one divemaster and one highly-trained driver. The buddy system is strictly enforced, as it's also required by the Galapagos National Park. If a buddy team is separated from the group or from each other after a two-minute search, the buddy team or individual must surface. If a diver is missing from headcount after the 60-minute dive time, then the second tender is notified and a headcount taken there, in the event the diver was picked up by the wrong tender. If the diver is not aboard that tender, the liveaboard is notified, and the three vessels immediately commence a search. In my 15-plus years' involvement with the Galapagos Sky, we have never left anyone behind or were not able to find a lost/ drifting diver because of using that multi-faceted system."

While Galapagos is one of the most regulated dive destinations, Hughes says that level of vigilance varies widely for liveaboards operating in other countries. "Some areas are operating by no more than the seat of their pants, some are tightly controlled by government regulation, and then there's everything in between."

Australia is another country with strict head-counting methods, created after the 1998 incident when two divers went missing divers at the Great Barrier Reef and were never found but were immortalized in the film Open Water. Queensland's government requires that before a boat departs for a dive site, a crew member counts everyone on board, writes it down and verifies the number with a signature. After a dive, two separate crew members must each conduct a headcount, compare that number to the original count and verify it with their signatures. The dive operator must keep those headcount records for at least one year.

Franklin Mah was impressed with the system aboard Mike Ball's Spoilsport while diving the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago. "As I got ready to go in, someone was there assisting me as needed, and there was also someone recording the time when each diver went into the water. During the dive, there was someone posted at the top deck to watch for any divers who might surface far from the boat and/or have problems. After I returned from the dive, they recorded the time I got to the boat. Later, someone approached me to get my bottom time and have me sign the log."

He was not as impressed while diving with the Komodo Dancer in March. "The diving was from tenders rather than the liveaboard. There were three groups but only two tenders. Even though we left as a group, as each diver surfaced, he was picked up by whatever boat was nearby, then taken back to the boat, so you really didn't have a group that comes back up on the same boat. Of course, not everyone went out on every dive, so we might be assigned to a different group at times. So if you went down with your group but came up early or later on another tender, you really did not know what happened to them, and they probably don't know what happened to you. Eventually, back on the boat, the cruise director would come up to divers and ask for bottom time and depth, but this is when we were already on the boat. Nothing is signed. So if you were still out in the water, there would be no way of asking you for that information."

Nelson Riollano, assistant manager of operations for the Aggressor and Dancer Fleet, says all the boats follow the same diver-check system, and the combination of systems used -- heads, fins and towels -- provides a safety net of redundancy. "First, there's a standard form on a clipboard on the dive deck that has all the names of guests and the dive crew. The form has columns for nitrox or air divers, name, station number (seat position) on the dive deck (time in, bottom time and max depth. The last three entries are repeated for subsequent dives on that day. When divers return, every person is checked in by a staff member. Guests provide their max depth and bottom time for that dive.

Aggressor and Dancer boats still count fins on the fin rack. "The layout of most of our boats allows all fins to be stored on a rack on the back deck, where it is easy to count the number of pairs," Riollano says. "This is convenient for divers, since they don't have to carry fins from their locker down to the dive platform, and this allows us to also make certain we have snorkelers back on board."

The third check is counting the numbered towels on the dive deck. "Divers receive warm towels to dry off. Each numbered towel is assigned to them individually based on their cabin number. Although not an official accountability system, an unused towel on the dive deck is a sign we should look further for the diver's location."

While he doesn't list it as an official count, Riollano says another safety measure used is a visual check of any open dive tank wells, used to prevent the cylinders from falling. "In the case that we are not at full capacity, it is our policy to keep a cylinder in the tank well, versus having an open spot. A quick visual check will tell the dive deck staff if there is anyone missing."

Next month: We ask dive operators what systems work best, which ones don't, and what divers can do on their own to endure they're not left behind.

--Vanessa Richardson

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