AS A DIVER, MY FIRST GUT CHECK and use of an emergency action plan occurred during the first dive of an international trip. My wife and I were traveling together for a weeklong vacation and had prebooked our diving with an operation that had a good reputation from online forums and groups, featured fast boats and large nitrox tanks, and would split divers into groups according to experience and skill.
After arriving on the island on the first day of our trip, we dropped off our gear at the dive shop — the dive operator was responsible for bringing every diver’s equipment onto the boat each day. While at the shop I met a retired gentleman, who I’ll refer to as John, and we chatted like divers do. In our conversation I discovered he was a regular on the island with hundreds of dives there and was returning after an absence of several months.
After having my logbook checked, we said goodbye to him and headed back to the resort, excited for the week of diving and all-inclusive fun ahead of us. This was the only time I’d had my logbook checked while diving internationally, which reinforced my confidence in the dive operator and their reputation. What I didn’t know then was that less than 24 hours later we would witness a diver death and be left at sea.
On the boat ride out to the dive site the next morning, we were reunited with John. We shared we were from North Carolina, and we had a great chat with him about diving in our area. He was alone on the boat that day and buddying with the divemaster. My wife and I were dive partners, and two other divers were the third pair on our boat.
We listened to the routine dive briefing regarding currents at depth (this was drift diving after all) and learned there had been changing currents and unpredictable site conditions the past few days. The five of us plus our divemaster geared up and splashed on a deep site well known for large and beautiful coral swim-throughs.
On descent we found that the current was fast and changing directions throughout the water column. This wasn’t my first time drift diving, but it was my first time experiencing currents this intense. The only shelter we could find from the constantly shifting conditions was within the large swim-throughs. My big blade fins were barely able to push me up a sand hill between two swim-throughs, and the current blasting down the hill toward me felt akin to being sandblasted.
When I made it to the second swim-through, I knew I was overworking myself and felt a bit gassed at that point. John noticed that my wife’s fin strap had come loose and swam over to get her attention and help her with it. Our group then entered another swim-through and upon exiting started moving up to a shallower part of the reef, hoping to encounter less current.
As we ascended to this next area, I saw out of the corner of my eye that John was struggling and appeared to be in distress. He was about 15 feet below me and a bit down current and was clutching his chest while attempting to swim up toward the divemaster. The divemaster immediately released his surface marker buoy (SMB), motioned to all of us to ascend, and kicked hard while swimming toward the gentleman.
Collectively we were about 60 feet down, and the group was spread out. The current was difficult to fight against, but the divemaster eventually reached John, and together they began their ascent. I released my SMB and began to ascend as well.
The third dive pair had gotten separated as they tried to assist the divemaster. One diver reached the divemaster and helped John get to the surface, and the other stayed below with me and my wife. As the three of us hit the surface, the dive boat was pulling up to the divemaster, and the other diver was helping him get John onto the boat.
Despite the surface current, the boat was loaded quickly, taking only about two minutes to get all three divers on board. Before taking off, the captain yelled to us to stay put and that they would send another boat for us. We watched as our dive boat disappeared into the distance with John, now unconscious, receiving CPR.
Being adrift in the open ocean and seeing your dive boat disappear is initially terrifying. Other boats were in the vicinity, but would they see us if we were in distress? Or would we drift away and never be seen again? No boats were close enough to hear us yelling for help in an emergency. It would have been an impossibly long swim to the shore as well.
I discovered that out of the three of us left in the water, I was the only diver with any safety or signaling equipment. I always carry a DAN delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB), a mirror, and a whistle. While my wife owns this equipment as well, she had forgotten to bring hers to the dive shop when we dropped off our gear the day before.
The three of us had plenty of time to chat while we waited for 30 minutes at the surface for a boat to come get us. We were all anxious at being left adrift, but talking to each other helped keep us calm. Another boat from the same operator eventually returned to pick us up, locating us due to my DSMB. We were then transferred between two other boats before making it back to our original boat.
Despite the quick response and effort from the divemaster and crew, John unfortunately died. Upon cutting open his wetsuit, the crew discovered visible scars from a major heart surgery. Despite John’s many dives with this specific operator in the past, he had not disclosed this recent change in medical history to the dive operation — he had arrived at the boat that morning already wearing his wetsuit.
Hiding medical conditions puts not only you at risk, but also other divers in your group. A physician must clear you if there is any speculation regarding your fitness to dive. This incident changed my protocols on any ocean diving. I now carry a PLB personal locator beacon (PLB) on every dive and verify that my dive buddy has proper signaling and safety items. If they don’t have an SMB or any signaling devices, I lend them one of my extras or make them borrow one from the boat. My wife now never gets on a boat without her SMB as well.
As divers, we must take extra steps in our predive checks to ensure that our buddy has their safety and signaling equipment so we can be prepared in case of an emergency. AD
© Alert Diver — Q2 2023