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March 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving Safer as We Age

learning from the deaths of diving friends

from the March, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last summer, the Pacific Northwest dive community lost two older, experienced underwater photographers within the span of one month. The first, a 61-year-old female, took place at Duncan Rock off Washington's northwest coast. The second, a 69-year-old male, disappeared off Mozino Point in Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island.

These deaths started me thinking about the safety of diving as we age, looking at how the aging process impacts divers; reviewing my dive protocols; and seeing if there are any lessons to be learned from the recent deaths of two well-known underwater photographers.

The good news is that, according to DAN, there is no theoretical age limit for diving. The bad news is that as we age, there are definite physiological changes taking place in our bodies. And, there is indeed a difference between chronological age and physical age.

Dr. Ernest Campbell (aka The SCUBA Doc) lists some conditions that impact many older divers:

Most older divers are out of condition because they do not exercise regularly or adequately. This may lead to exhaustion on dives, or an inability to self-rescue in an emergency. General health, agility, and strength decrease with age. Maximum heart rate, oxygen uptake, and lung compliance decrease with age. These, too can contribute to dive exhaustion. The older diver is more prone to getting cold and hypothermia and is more susceptible to decompression sickness, and when it strikes, it is more severe than in younger divers.

To counter these impacts, Dr. Campbell makes recommendations for older divers to continue safely their underwater pursuits. These include passing regular checkups with a physician checking for an absence of cardiovascular-pulmonary disease, good physical conditioning, mental alertness added to diving experience and dive profiles with shallower, shorter dives, longer and deeper safety stops, and longer surface intervals.

On aging, he says, "Chronological and physiological age can differ markedly, and each individual ticks to their own genetic clock. This said, most elderly divers are not capable of sustaining the workload required by all but the least physically demanding dives."

My training routine is not just for diving. I also like to ski, mountain bike, and hike. Since I put dive trips together, I try to be in shape to be able to rescue swim another individual, at least a half-mile to a boat or shore, and not be exhausted. In the past ten years, I have rescued seven individuals, all a lot younger than I.

All in all, my personal own dive protocols seem to mesh well with Dr. Campbell's recommendations. Regardless, I have consciously moved my dive habits to more conservative settings, as I have grown older.

If you have a chance, compare your current dive fitness with Dr. Campbell's criteria. If you are interested in a more thorough discussion, and one that you can share with your non-diving physician, you might check out SCUBA in Older Aged Divers by Drs. Michael Strauss, Jeremy Busch, and Stuart Miller. There is an excellent online discussion of chronological v physiological age, and how to determine your physical condition.

Regarding the death of the 69-year-old male diver I mentioned, there are sobering insights.

I started diving with him two years before his death. He participated on two dive trips I sponsored: one to Monterey and another to La Paz. On a dive in Whalers' Cove in Monterey on August 6, 2013, he noticed he was low on air, so we surfaced.

He was not fit enough to surface swim back to the launch area, so I stabilized him on the surface in a kelp forest, swam both our large camera rigs the 300 yards back to shore, dropped them off, swam back out to him, then rescue-swam him through the kelp to shore.

He was a consummate gentleman and excellent photographer, both above and below the water. His pictures were stunning, but I noticed at Whalers' Cove, and on a later trip to La Paz, that this concentration on photography came at a price, and led to what I call "lack of situational awareness."

In California, it was not watching his air closely. In La Paz, it was not fully connecting equipment that eventually had to be retrieved from the bottom. For photographers, it is all too tempting to try to take the perfect shot or video at the expense of being fully aware of our dive surroundings or dive computer readings.

From what I have been told, the dives at Mozino Point, Vancouver Island, violated Dr. Campbell's recommendations about shallower dives in the extreme. He was not a technical diver, but made a 150' dive on September 19, followed by the over 120' dive where he disappeared on September 20.

One aspect of the Mozino Point dive where he disappeared was the depths the party was diving for coral shots. In the DAN medical safety advice article, titled "How Deep is Too Deep?," one paragraph stood out:

"There is the "occasional" deep diver. These divers are generally less experienced than regular deep divers, are on a dive trip with a group, and are drawn into diving deeper than they normally do because of the more relaxed holiday atmosphere and because "everyone's doing it." Such divers are often not sufficiently trained, mentally prepared and appropriately equipped to deal with a problem should it occur on a deep dive.

Perhaps the possibility of photographing a unique gorgonian coral is another draw for the occasional deep diver.

The DAN article also references a microbubble issue associated with deep dives, a special concern for older divers making repetitive deep dives: studies suggest that microbubbles are often present after dives, particularly deep dives, especially if ascent has not been appropriately executed but even after what is considered a safe ascent.

There are many deep divers in the Pacific Northwest. Rebreathers and mixed gasses have done much to advance deep diving among technical divers. There are also experienced compressed air deep divers. Bret Gilliam, in his A Practical Discussion of Nitrogen Narcosis for Deep Diving article for TDI Divers' News, says if you are going to deep dive, he recommends, "Buddy teams need to be more aware of each other in deep dives. Just as frequent scanning of instruments is mandated, so is confirmation of your buddy's status. You should look for him/her about every three breaths and observe them for any overt signs of impairment. Quick containment of a problem situation in its development is vital to prevent a stressful rescue event that may be difficult to perform at depth.

So, after comparing our 69-year-old's Muzino Point fatal dive with Dr. Campbell's six tests, DAN's observations on deep diving, and Brett Gilliam's buddy team recommendations, what lessons can we learn from this tragedy for older divers and underwater photographers?

Dive within your ability and physical conditioning, and be honest with yourself and dive buddies. 2) Dive conservative profiles with more opportunities to off-gas during and after the dive. 3) If you are going to make a deep dive, or a dive in challenging conditions, be part of a buddy team that is in very close proximity to one another and is actively monitoring each other. And 4) on every dive make certain that safety is the number one item on the agenda, not getting the perfect shot.

If these rules are followed, many of us will still be diving and shooting underwater in our 70s, 80s, and possibly beyond. Should we decide to push the envelope for that special photo or video, the results may be tragic.

Author Dan Clements, who has been diving since the late 1960s, co-founded the Pacific Northwest Underwater Photographic Society, authored Critters, Creatures, & Kelp, and founded Pacific Northwest Diver magazine.

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