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May 2020    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 35, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Have You Ever Surfaced and Been Lost?

sensible divers take steps to avoid it

from the May, 2020 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The hiatus in our diving activities gives us time to pause for thought and consider how we can make our activities safer once we pick up where we left off.

"I'm just glad I'm alive," explained Mike Ozburn, a Pensacola diver, after he drifted in the Gulf of Mexico for eight hours before being rescued by a Niuhi Dive Charters boat last June. "I never intended anything like this to ever happen in my life" (See the story in Undercurrent July 2019). It's an experience that would shake up any diver, and it's not so uncommon.

Like Ozburn, we divers spend time underwater happy in the assumption that our boat will be there as surface support when we need it. If we didn't, we couldn't enjoy the dive. However, things don't always go according to plans. Mechanical problems, sea conditions, and the needs of other divers might mean you are not picked up quickly, and surface currents may move you a long way from where you are expected to surface. In planning, preparation for a worst-case scenario is the answer.

Like Mike Ozburn, Wilt Nelson (Leesburg, FL) had a similar experience. He recently wrote to Undercurrent about drifting away with a group in the North Coral Sea before being found because one of the divers had a military-type signal mirror in his BC. "We were adrift two to three hours, which isn't an eon, but some in our group were getting panicked and worried about sharks, so it was one big ordeal too many."

The most frequent diving disaster we write about in Undercurrent seems to be divers lost at the surface. Imagine leading a group of divers around a remote reef in the Suarkin archipelago of the Sudan's Red Sea for an hour, only to surface to discover no pick-up boat and no liveaboard in sight -- only an empty horizon. It happened to Undercurrent's Senior Editor, John Bantin, when he was a dive guide.

He took his charges around to the leeside of the reef so that they were out of the wind and current and could float there without danger of drifting off into the wide blue yonder. They didn't know what had happened to their boat, and their only option was to wait.

Three hours later, the liveaboard returned. Bantin had just about run out of funny stories to distract the six drifting Italian businessmen who had embarked on this diving holiday of a lifetime. As it turned out, the liveaboard had developed a steering problem, and the diver's pick-up boat was needed to nudge it away from the dangerous reefs. The divers were abandoned to expediency. The boat crew knew where they were, and provided they stayed there, they crew knew they would find them. And they did.

Is Someone Keeping Watch?

Bantin's friend, Tom Burton, had been less lucky when he and his buddy surfaced on the wrong side of their boat with the crew inattentive and looking the wrong way. The divers were in the strong tidal flow of the English Channel, and their boat soon disappeared over the horizon as they drifted away. Without a surface marker buoy, their heads were as invisible as floating coconuts in the waves. After spending the night at sea, they were miraculously spotted by a lifeboat crew the next day.

Undercurrent wrote about Jacob Childs in August 2016, who, while diving off the Great Barrier Reef, surfaced soon after entering the water and was not spotted by his boat crew. The current pulled him away from the boat, so he inflated his buoy, but nobody thought to look for him because it was early in the dive and the crew simply presumed he was down with the other divers. He endured a six-hour drift before he was found.

Imagine no pick-up boat and no liveaboard in sight -- only an empty horizon.

In 2004, a whole boatload of divers was swept past their liveaboard at the Brother Islands in the Red Sea. They had covered 45 miles before they were picked up more than 13 hours later, found by their shining dive lights after an intensive search by a fleet of liveaboards.

Big Currents Equal Big Problems

A 12-foot DSMB is the largestBig seas and strong currents can disperse a group of divers over a wide area when they surface. Fulvio Cuccurullo from Cozumel wrote to Undercurrent in December about anexperience that shook him up. He was on a diving trip to the Galapagos on The Galapagos Master and diving at the remote Darwin Island. The currents are known to be strong there, but that's what attracts schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. He surfaced with the dive guide just as dusk was approaching, but he could see neither the pick-up vessel nor the liveaboard. His dive guide had only a puny four-foot safety sausage and no GPS locator (Nautilus Lifeline).

Cuccurullo had sensibly equipped himself with a 12-foot DSMB, the largest he could find, and after 30 minutes, they were picked up. When there are a lot of divers in the water, it may take a half an hour for a pickup vessel to reach you, however surfacing at different points in strong currents, a 30-minute wait at the surface to be picked up may not be unusual, but it would be anxiety-ridden if all your guide had was a 4-ft sausage for detection.

How Do You Make Yourself Visible?

Cuccurullo had the comfort of a very visible 12-foot surface marker buoy. John Bantin straps to his tank a pole that can be extended to unfurl a 2x3-foot square flag. While no longer commercially available, it's easy to make one with a few two-foot lengths of plastic conduit with strong bungee cord threaded through; when it unfolds, it snaps together to form a tall mast for the flag.

And even on day dives, carry a flashlight and reserve it for nightfall.

Can We Count on Hi-Tech Rescue Solutions?

Some dive operators in remote locations provide GPS locators to all their divers. A popular example is the Nautilus Lifeline Marine Rescue GPS, which sends out an emergency call with the GPS position of a diver the surface; it is broadcast on Channel 16, the radio-monitoring channel used by all vessels at sea, to all AIS-equipped (Automatic Identification System) vessels up to 34 miles distant and sends a message to the marine radio on the liveaboard. They cost around $200 individually, so a boat operator might need to spend $4,000 to equip all divers.

Another device is the Garmin inReach Mini. It communicates via its base in Texas via satellite, allowing lost divers (who must carry it in a separate watertight container) to confirm they are safely at the surface and to reveal their GPS position. They cost around $370.

Electronic devices should not be relied on as the sole rescue remedy.

There are other man-overboard devices, but they are not waterproof at depth and need to be carried in a suitable container.

A problem with all these devices is that you never know if they are going to work when you need them. Vessels leaving port routinely check with the harbormaster or Coast Guard to confirm that their radio is working properly. It's difficult to do this with an emergency personal locator beacon without instigating a response and "crying wolf."

The original Lifelines needed to be recharged, and we know of many instances where those who wanted to use them found they had forgotten to do so. The up-to-date Lifelines use a long-lasting battery that only needs to be changed every five years.

The original Lifeline had a personal VHF radio facility that allows you to talk directly with anyone using the radio on your boat, which allows you to confirm it was working. Unfortunately, it fell afoul of radiotelegraphy laws in many countries and that feature was dropped.

Mark Shandur, owner of Worldwide Dive & Sail, raises the specter of failing electronics, when he replied to Fulvio Cuccurullo about his 30-minute wait as sea. He explained that many of the Lifelines they had on board Galapagos Master had become faulty, saying that many other liveaboard fleet owners experienced the same problem so they had gone back to issuing passengers with extra-large safety sausages and BCD-connected horns due to these reliability issues.

"It was at this stage that we made a company decision that handing out Lifelines to our guests or guides could result in a false sense of security, which might result in unnecessary risk-taking in terms of staying with the group or not aborting a dive if taken away in a current," Shandur wrote.

John Bantin likes another device he has tested, the German-made Seareq ENOS system which, when the beacon is activated by the lost diver, sends out a signal to a unique search device aboard the liveaboard. It is independent of other technologies in that it does not require support from Search & Rescue or Coast Guard, so it's possible to routinely make sure it works. You could do a 'radio check' as soon as you leave your boat.

Designed to go to 330 feet deep, the earlier diver beacons tended to be bulky, with an unwieldy activation switch. Later units are about the size of a typical diver's flashlight. It needs to have a clear line of sight, but with a range of about 5.6 nautical miles (depending on the height of the receiver antennae), it should provide contact for the drifting diver long before they were discovered. The manufacturer tells us that since the ENOS system was launched in 2004, no rescue of a diver at the surface using ENOS has taken more than 17 minutes.

You need to make yourself more easily seen than a floating coconut might be.

The big drawback is that it requires a vessel operator to invest in the right number of diver units (beacons) together with the search unit -- something that might cost approaching $12,000 for 20 divers (not including any taxes that might be applicable). It's pointless for an individual diver to buy a personal ENOS beacon if there is no search unit. Those vessels so equipped are listed here:

Keep in mind, reliability is always a problem when electronics are in close association with seawater. While these devices are great when they work, they should not be relied as the sole rescue remedy.

What Do We Learn from This?

Of course, it is essential that someone aboard keep permanent watch while you are diving. That's from the moment you enter the water until you are safely back on board or ashore. They need to be aware that you might be missing. Searches cannot be instigated unless the alarm is raised.

Jacob Childs had a very visible safety sausage that he sensibly inflated -- but nobody thought to look for him until he was well out of sight. Tom Burton had no such safety device.

There are many reasons why you might not be seen when you surface. The boat may have moved from its predetermined spot so as to recover divers who broke the surface elsewhere. There may have been a mechanical problem that allowed the boat to drift off. (Outboard motors are never 100 percent reliable.)

Weather and sea conditions may have changed while you are oblivious underwater. Or divers can lose their way and surface a long way from where they were expected. Or, for any number of reasons, surface prematurely.

Dive defensively by staying close to the reef or wreck and avoid venturing out into the blue in strong currents.

And, if the crew does not make a roll call after every dive, ask them to. There have been unforgivable cases where divers have not been fully accounted for after a dive, but the vessel moved off to a new location. You don't want to be the one waving goodbye.

But if you are in the open ocean, even if someone is keeping watch, you might still be missed. If you are afloat alone in the ocean, you need to make yourself more easily seen than a floating coconut might be.

It's fashionable for divers to wear black -- not the best color to be easily spotted, so you need to substitute a visible method of recognition. A mirror can reflect the sun, if there is clear sun and you understand how to use it. A fully charged dive light reserved for emergency use only can be a life-saver once dusk falls.

The longest surface-marker-buoy, one that is sent to the surface as soon as you start your ascent, or at least once you are at your safety stop, will give a boat crew prior warning of your arrival at the surface.

Audible signaling devices such as whistle/air horn are not so useful. Searching boats are inevitably underway, with engines roaring noisily. Even if the boat stops for the crew to listen, it's difficult to know which direction the sound of such a horn is coming from.

There is no single solution. At Undercurrent we suggest you carry with you a raft of safety devices: A surface-marker buoy, a small plastic mirror (an old DVD does well), a fully charged diving flashlight held in reserve, and as a last resort, a radio beacon like a Lifeline. It sounds like a lot, but it makes getting found routine rather than a miracle.

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