Training Is Everything in a Rescue Attempt

While spearfishing on scuba is not inherently unsafe, any activity that might entice a diver to extend their personal limits, whether going after a fish at depth or staying just a little longer for an underwater photo, can push a dive over the line to tragedy. © TYLER MORRIS

Many divers are proud to be comfortable in the water and sometimes push their limits on air consumption, exceed their bottom time, or take one last shot of a big fish with a camera or spear before ascending. Some of them develop reputations in the dive community for being competent divers by looking cool and experienced while taking little risks. It may start small but snowball into making poor decisions for which the price you pay is not worth the reward. 

Excitement for the sport and a diminished sense of safety awareness from past dive experiences can lead to a false sense of security. Divers may unintentionally develop bad habits of running low on air, overburdening themselves, or pushing their limits and getting away with it — until one day they don’t. 

One time I was in an entirely preventable situation with some experienced divers. A couple was spearfishing as a buddy team from our boat, and it was their first deep dive of the season. Earlier that morning one of them had joked about how something would break or mess up. They thought it was bound to happen and treated the idea playfully. 

At the dive site, my buddy and I were already at depth when the couple excitedly splashed in together with their spears ready. We completed our dive and returned to the anchor line; as we ascended, I saw the couple continuing their dive at depth with their stringers full of fish. 

After my buddy and I returned to the boat and removed our gear, I met the captain by the bow, where he was diligently watching the surface for the couple’s exhalation bubbles. He checked his watch and commented that they were taking longer than they should. I didn’t automatically assume the worst — the couple was well-known in the local dive community as experienced divers. 

I watched their bubbles continue to appear right beside the bow, but then they abruptly stopped. I quickly scanned around the boat and tried to figure out if we had just missed them or if they had drifted away from the boat and were doing their safety stop somewhere else. 

As a precaution, I geared back up with the tank from my first dive and got back in the water. I looked under the boat to see if they were on the hang line and needed something, but they weren’t there. I descended along the anchor line and expected to find them doing a deep stop off the line. Instead, I found them lying on the bottom at 110 feet (34 meters), unresponsive and out of air. 

I saw her fin first, sticking straight up as fish schooled by. I started kicking toward her, saying to myself over and over, “Please let this be a joke. Please let this be a prank. God, please don’t let this be real.” The woman who had laughed that morning about something going wrong was now on her back, motionless in the sand with no regulator in her mouth and overweighted with extra gear. 

I rapidly tapped on her mask three times and watched a small bit of blood come from her mouth. I looked around for her husband and saw him lying in the sand to my right. I tried to inflate her BCD, but no air was left in her tank, so I pulled her limp body over to his. I tried his inflator and discovered he also had an empty tank. 

Manually inflating their BCDs with my exhalations to bring them to the surface would have taken too much time and used up my remaining air. Trying to ascend to the surface while controlling the positive buoyancy of two heavily overburdened and unresponsive divers in inflated gear was risky, and taking only one of them at a time while there was still hope to revive them was never an option for me. It was a no-brainer at that moment to ditch their gear. I quickly unclipped them from their BCDs and went straight up from the ocean floor with one diver in each arm, using the anchor line as a visual guide.

Neither the captain nor my dive buddy expected me to surface with two unresponsive divers, but they responded without hesitation. The captain was on the radio with the Coast Guard as I got into the boat. My buddy started CPR on one diver, and I began on the other. We performed CPR for more than 40 minutes without success. The Coast Guard called off CPR over the radio and asked us to retrieve the gear off the bottom and come to their station.

Training is everything. My dive training taught me to plan my dives according to breathing-gas consumption and to always end the dive with air to spare. When I returned to the water using my partially empty tank, I didn’t expect to find the couple unresponsive and out of air. For the recovery, I relied on knowledge I learned from a scuba rescue class taught by Larry Brown at North Carolina State University. Without thinking, I knew exactly what to do. Muscle memory took control so I could perform under pressure. If it wasn’t for my training, I might have hesitated or made the wrong decision, and there could have been three divers lost that day instead of two. 

Not wanting to be viewed as weak, I pushed myself to get back in the water soon after the incident. I was somewhat offended when the captain sent another diver with me on my first dive after the incident as if I needed a babysitter. Everything was fine — until it wasn’t. Zero to a hundred, my emotions flooded my mask, and I broke down crying 100 feet below the surface. As I tried to keep it together, we returned to the surface, where I had my first of many breakdowns over the years.

As divers we must accept that despite doing our best, the people we try to rescue still may not survive. But honing your rescue skills to be able to properly put them into action when needed will prevent you from also becoming a victim.

© Penyelam Siaga — Q1 2024