Overweighted Diver Runs Out of Air While Spearfishing

Case Report

For my 10th dive ever, I went spearfishing with a group of more experienced divers on a boat dive in open water at a depth of 40 fsw (12 msw). I had new equipment: new wetsuit, new BCD, new speargun, but a borrowed old regulator and submersible pressure gauge (SPG). I was wearing a 7mm J-type suit and 30 pounds of lead with a 100-cubic-foot steel tank.

The water was cold and murky; although I had a very experienced dive partner, we were quickly separated in the dark water while chasing fish. We reconnected, and I noticed in the effort of reloading my gun that I had reduced my pressure to only 600 lbs. I alerted my buddy; he indicated that I should surface immediately and he would remain below because he had 2,000 lbs remaining.

I ascended to 20 feet and noticed that it was more difficult for me to breathe. It felt the same as when my instructor turned off my air supply in my initial training. I recalled from training that if I ascended further I might get one more breath. My BCD was almost uninflated and there was no air to fill it, so I had to swim to the surface. I quickly realized I was significantly overweighted.

The water was green with algae bloom, and I quickly became panicked. I could not accurately gauge my distance from the surface as visibility was only a matter of inches from 15 feet up. I was fortunate to break the surface and had intended (per training) to orally inflate. I had my inflator hose ready but very quickly found myself being dragged under by my weights and equipment. At this point, I dropped my new gun, realizing I might be in over my head.

I struggled back to the surface with the intention of dropping weights once I got a breath. Upon surfacing, with more difficulty than before, I found my vision narrowed by panic. I could not find the red handle of my new BCD in the green water and black equipment and mask. I went under again and struggled back to the surface. I unbuckled my chest and waist clips and tried to dump the entire BCD and tank, but the cummerbund would not come free. I had descended into narrow vision and fear, and dexterity had been lost to my hands. I could not find the end of the Velcro cummerbund to release it, all while struggling to get back to the surface and not get dragged to the 40-foot bottom.

Fortunately, two divers remained back from the group on the second dive. I thought it better to live than to look foolish, so I yelled to them for help. They responded that I should drop my weights, but I couldn't. One of them threw a life ring from the boat, but I did not see it, even though it almost hit me in the back of the head. The other diver lowered the dingy and rowed some 100 feet to me. I swore to myself I would stay above water, but as he approached I realized he would not reach me in time. I knew I was dead I was going to drown. I went under and could not get back up, so I raised my hand above the surface.

As I was about to black out, my fellow diver reached me and pulled me above the surface, tying me to the side of the dingy as he rowed back.

Once back, the two divers removed my upper wetsuit and applied oxygen, which was fortunately in the boat. I felt nauseous and threw up over the side of the boat, which I attribute to lactic acid and overexertion more than intake of salt water, but who knows.

I was nauseous for about a week afterward and went to my doctor. My blood pressure was well up, but otherwise I was fine. If I was more experienced I would have known to call DAN, but I feel very grateful to be alive. Since then I have gotten a new computer and regulator, a larger tank and a pony bottle. I never leave my dive buddy, and I constantly check my air pressure, bottom time and buoyancy. I'm still diving, but I'm more aware now!

Follow-Up Comments

DAN Research staff contacted the diver by email with additional questions. Instead of writing a comment from the staff, the following is an update comment from the diver. It is interesting to note how much divers can learn from their incidents and close calls.

Thank you for the response. It was a harrowing ordeal, and I thank God for still being here. I know I was within just seconds of blacking out and going under before my rescuer grabbed hold of me that day. I gasped to him, "I was dead … you saved my life, you saved my life." He only responded, "I know." He later told us that my eyes had rolled back underwater in my mask, and he could see I was almost gone. I was so upset and disappointed in myself for letting this happen. I could see my wife telling our son what had happened and my boss telling my coworkers. I could see the news story that "another diver dies in a spearfishing accident," except now that diver would've been me!

To answer your questions, at that time I was 41 years old. I'm 6' 2" tall and was 192 pounds. I was training for my very first marathon and was in terrific shape. Oddly, as my father died of a heart attack in his mid-50s I was determined to not let this happen to me, so I undertook a very rigid exercise program for two years prior to this accident, not knowing that the extra cardio strength would actually save my life in a diving mishap much earlier.

The tank pressure before the dive was approximately 3,000 psi. As a new diver in that environment (dark, cold, with active tasks involved in spearfishing and the opportunity to get separated, plus the distraction of an ill-fitting mask with leaks and an old borrowed SPG), it was a recipe for disaster.

When I recovered from this incident I invested in an air-integrated computer that was much easier to see and read, plus a much larger air source (119 cu ft tanks — yes, perhaps overkill), plus a 19 cu ft pony bottle. I also became much more familiar with my equipment and practiced emergency weight drops and have a checklist in my mind at all times.

If things ever go wrong again I would immediately signal my buddy, but if for some reason he was out of sight, I'd go really ugly! This means don't fuss with a problem; act decisively immediately! I'd potentially pull off my 5mm gloves for added dexterity in the water. I was amazed at how much focus and ability I lost as the seconds ticked off. In a survival scenario, it is critical to not lose your cool and start thinking "only about air." I needed to get that weight off ASAP and not try to swim to the surface or retain any of my "new, expensive gear." Had I shed this load early, I would have had a much greater chance of survival, but I left it on too long to have a clear head.

I love diving more than ever now, and I feel much more confident than that day, but the incident is never too far from my mind as I inspect my gear and prepare for another dive.

— Compiled by Jeanette Moore