Adaptability to conditions is a must-have skill for any diver. Evaluating the appropriate dive gear and competency with basic safety protocols allow you the presence of mind to handle capricious weather.
I recently had the privilege of diving at Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica. I am an experienced diver with approximately 300 dives in my logbook.

On my first day of the trip I was to dive from a Zodiac using a negative-buoyancy entry, which was new to me. The other two divers on the craft were very experienced and had previously been to Cocos. I was feeling slightly anxious accompanying them.

The Incident

I was wearing a large, winged buoyancy compensator (BC), which was suitable for diving in cold water but not ideal for tropical diving. The divemaster instructed us to fall backward into the water and descend immediately, because the sea was rough and the Zodiac was close to shore. I did as he directed; I deflated my BC, but I did not descend. The sea pushed me rapidly away from the Zodiac and toward the rocks of the island. I let my regulator drop out of my mouth, and my BC inflator hose disappeared out of reach behind me. I began swimming as hard as I could toward the Zodiac, against the waves that were pounding the island.

Without warning, I belatedly began to sink. I could not overcome the force of gravity and the dive gear I was wearing, which included my steel tank and weights; my body proceeded to slowly but steadily descend.

Even with my strong legs and powerful fins, I could not overcome the descent. The sea occasionally tossed me upward, and I gulped a mouthful of air and water but never a full breath. Panic had not set in, and I knew I needed my regulator and inflator hose, but my actions were becoming more frantic. I could feel myself approaching exhaustion at an alarming rate, yet the sea showed no mercy.

The divemaster appeared near me. I heard him telling me to inflate my BC, but I couldn't find the inflator hose, get a breath or find my regulator. I couldn't even reply. Desperately I tried to grab him. Part of my mind was reminding me not to be an out-of-control diver and drown the divemaster, while another part was screaming survival.

The Zodiac approached us, and the divemaster shouted at me to climb aboard. With my last remaining strength, I managed to grab the handle, but I was so physically depleted it was all I could do to hang onto the rope. The divemaster and the Zodiac captain pulled me on board. I collapsed, my heart racing, gasping for air. I could not catch my breath, move or talk. I was completely spent. The divemaster held an oxygen mask against my face. I lay there for a considerable time as the Zodiac raced back to the liveaboard. Fortunately, I was on an excellent liveaboard with a first-rate crew; otherwise this incident could have easily deteriorated into a tragic catastrophe.


That evening as I sat on the bow of the boat, I decided to view the incident as a valuable learning experience and critiqued my actions. Although I didn't drown, I believe I was approaching the point of no return.

What did I do wrong? First, I was wearing the wrong equipment. My large, winged BC did not allow for rapid deflation to facilitate a negative-buoyancy entry. Second, I relinquished my regulator and inflator hose and thus my control. Third, my retrospective critique of my actions revealed a glaring oversight: I did not drop my weights as the situation grew more dire. I don't know why I did not think to do that. In hindsight, I should have practiced negative-buoyancy diving before my trip to Cocos and made sure I was better prepared for the conditions.

The next morning the divemaster outfitted me with a BC appropriate for the conditions. He and I went into the water early to ensure no uncomfortable feelings lingered from the day before, to familiarize myself with the BC and to practice basic safety skills such as buddy breathing. He emphasized how important it is when diving in remote locations such as Cocos Island to practice basic safety skills until they become second nature. The isolation of pristine dive spots can exponentially complicate misadventures.

The remainder of my dive trip was excellent and without mishap. I thoroughly enjoyed the seductive beauty of Cocos Island. Pura vida!

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2018