Diving instructors often think they know what
they're doing. When you learned to dive, you
probably put your complete faith in those who
taught you. But later, perhaps you realized that
being told such things as put extra lead on your
belt "because you can always add air to your BC,"
or screw down the breathing resistance knob on
your regulator "because you'll use less air" might
not be the best advice.
Even later, with many dives under our belts,
it's amazing how often and how easily some of us
abdicate responsibility for our own safety to others
because "they're the experts, so they'll know best."
But do they? Even seasoned veterans, like our senior
editor John Bantin, can get it wrong and trust the
Do You Know the Way to Sorong?
Bantin remembers a particular dive trip with
Tony Backhurst, owner of the British company
Scuba Travel, when they were returning from Kri
Island to Sorong on a boat driven by a local. "We
assumed he knew the route," he says. "Assumption
is the mother of all disasters.
"Having done this trip before, I remembered
the route involved passing a chain of islands to our
right. But we had started off in the poor visibility
of a torrential downpour, and once the weather
cleared, all we could see was open ocean.
"After three hours and low on fuel, the boat
driver finally asked if either of us had a compass.
Without knowing where we were, a compass heading
wasn't particularly useful. Luckily, we were close
enough to land for Tony to pick up a signal and chart their position on his iPhone. It was alarming to
find we had totally missed the Bird's Head Peninsula
and were heading out into the wide-open Pacific.
"Despite our protests, the boat driver would
not believe it, and continued to head in what he
believed to be the right direction. As luck would
have it, we came across a fishing boat, and the
occupants laughed when we asked which way to
Sorong. Against what he thought was his better
judgement, our boat driver reluctantly followed the
fishing boat, and finally ran out of fuel when we
entered Sorong Harbor. It had been a close call, and
our local driver was proved to not know best."
A Smart Instructor or Just a Self-Serving
As diving gets more complicated, with different
breathing gases involved, we divers need to do more
courses to fully understand what we're getting into.
Again, most of us will put ourselves in the hands of
someone who knows better. But they don't always.
As an example, let's use the case of an experienced
young diver named Rob, who wanted to
progress to ever-more-adventurous dives by using
trimix with a closed-circuit rebreather. All the main
dive training agencies offer courses on this, but still
Rob had to rely on his instructor, Peter, who was
certified by the International Association of Nitrox
and Technical Divers, but whose interpretation of
agency rules may not have been mainstream.
Even when you've completed the course, you
may still tend to bow to the knowledge of the one
who had taught you when you're out on a dive. Rob
may have done this. When he analyzed his gas, he
would have known the actual percentage of helium in it. If Peter told him to enter a different helium
percentage into his unit's computer, to the one he'd
actually be breathing, Rob may have done so, believing
Peter had a convincing argument.
If Peter told Rob to alter the computer's gradient
factors in order to remove the helium penalty (helium
on-gases quicker but takes longer to off-gas than
nitrogen), who was Rob to disagree with the expert?
If they did a dive together to 200 feet, and then
Peter suggested they do a second that day, Rob
would probably agree. After all, his guru was doing
the same, so where was the danger? Perhaps it was
Rob's idea, but if so, Peter didn't say no.
But as we know now, gurus can get it wrong.
The "Rob" in this story is Rob Stewart, the Canadian
filmmaker who made Sharkwater and died tragically
in a diving accident in the Florida Keys in 2017.
They were both probably suffering the onset of
decompression sickness when they surfaced from
the second dive, but when the anchor of their boat
got caught, it might have seemed logical to plunge
back to the seabed a third time, to retrieve it.
Stewart's family filed a lawsuit, claiming that his
rebreather instructor and dive buddy, Peter Sotis,
and the company that owned the dive boat were
responsible for his death. (We've written a few articles
about this, most recently in October 2018.)
Arguments still rage, and different theories
abound. Some say it could not have been DCS
because Sotis recovered later, after only brief
therapeutic oxygen treatment. They say he suffered
hypoxia, when the body is deprived of oxygen, but
could that be a symptom of explosive DCS?
According to media reports, Sotis convinced
Stewart to conduct a series of dives that were too
deep for his skill level, and on the final dive, he came up too fast, paying the ultimate price. Stewart
was not under instruction from Sotis at the time, but
he might well have been influenced by the fact that
Sotis had made many more complex and deeper
dives than he had. What we do know is that the
guru was recovered to the boat while the follower
was left to his own devices -- drowning after having
passed out in the water.
Remember, a lot of diving theory is just that. It
often forms a set of beliefs that, under some circumstances,
can prove to be untenable. Many diving
instructors are driven by beliefs, with all sincerity,
but they might not be right.
So don't put extra weight on your belt because
you can always put air in your BC to compensate.
There have been too many cases of new divers
drowning because they put their faith in what their
instructor told them. And, as stated above, even
pros like Rob Stewart do the same. Divers should
not be complicit in their own demise.
Don't rely on a solitary guru. Read as many
books as you can on the subject. Listen to the opinion
of more than one "expert," and ask questions
of them if you're uncertain or confused about their
instructions. Before or during a dive, it's imperative
that any decision you make is an informed one. It's
your safety at stake.
-- Ben Davison