Author Archive

Experienced Cave Divers Die During Underwater Exploration

Thursday, March 24th, 2016
Illustration cave divers leave their safety line

Diving in caves can be dangerous — even if you’ve had the right training. Find out why this husband and wife died in an underwater cave system.

Experienced Cave Divers Die During Underwater Exploration

Thursday, March 24th, 2016
Illustration cave divers leave their safety line

Diving in caves can be dangerous — even if you’ve had the right training. Find out why this husband and wife died in an underwater cave system.

Heart Disease and Diving: The First Signs and Surgery

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Can you dive again after open-heart surgery? Author Eric Douglas tells the true story of his signs and symptoms of heart disease, and his road to recovery.

Lessons for Life: Diving in Kelp Turns Deadly

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016
Scuba Diver Caught in Kelp Illustrations Lessons for Life

Miko Maciaszek

Buoyancy problems and entanglement cause a diver to panic and forget his training.

Caught in the Kelp

Len’s buoyancy was driving him crazy. He constantly sank to the bottom or floated toward the surface out of control, and he felt like he was never going to get it right. While everyone said the kelp forest was beautiful, Len just couldn’t relax and enjoy the dive. Every few feet, his fins were tangled up and he had to stop and clear them. While he was doing that, he would sink to the bottom and get tangled up again.
And now he couldn’t find his dive buddy. This dive was not going well.

The Diver

Len was 37 years old and had made a total of 20 dives over two years. He was in moderate physical condition but hadn’t exercised recently.

Len wore a recently purchased 7 mm wetsuit, suitable for the cooler water near his home, and he was using a rented weight-integrated BC for the first time. He had divided his weights between the weight pockets and his weight belt to even himself out in the water.

The Dive

The first dive of the day was in 60 feet of water and lasted 40 minutes, and Len struggled with the new and unfamiliar equipment.

Back on the boat during the surface interval, Len talked to his buddy, Steve, about better ways to adjust his weights and improve his control. Steve was a more experienced diver and gave some advice, but he was neither a divemaster nor an instructor.

When Len got in the water for the second dive, he couldn’t descend and realized that he had forgotten his weight belt back on the boat. The divemaster brought his belt to him, and Len had to work hard at the surface to get it in place. When he was finally ready to dive again, Len was agitated and a little out of breath, but he was able to descend.

The second dive was shallower than the first, with a maximum depth of 40 feet. Len and Steve were closer to the shore, so they could feel the wave surge. It pushed them from side to side as they swam, and caused the kelp to sway back and forth. The dive buddies skirted the kelp bed for most of the dive, but because Len was running low on air they decided it would be faster to return to the boat straight through the middle of the kelp.

The Accident

As they swam through the kelp bed, Len and Steve became separated. When Steve made it back to the boat, he realized Len wasn’t there and immediately returned to look for him. When Steve finally found his dive buddy, Len was unconscious and tangled up in kelp. There was a large stalk wrapped around his leg and smaller limbs tangled in his gear. Steve cut Len free with his dive knife and brought his buddy to the surface. The boat crew retrieved Len from the water and initiated CPR, but Len never regained consciousness.

Analysis

Len ran out of air on the bottom and drowned after being ensnared in kelp. That is what killed him, but the factors that led to Len’s death include his struggle with buoyancy and feelings of discomfort in the water.

When Len got in the water for the second dive, he forgot his weight belt and then grappled to get it in place. He was probably embarrassed for making his dive buddy wait for him, and he was somewhat out of breath from the effort. The wave action he felt underwater kept him from relaxing and controlling his breathing, and it is easy to imagine that Len felt agitated throughout the dive as he fought with his gear and his buoyancy.

Kelp can be one of the most beautiful diving environments, but it can also be frustrating and dangerous if a diver gets twisted in it, sometimes obscuring vision and making it difficult to stay with a buddy. Kelp can be broken or cut, but pulling against it makes it nearly impossible to break free.

Len was likely already distressed when he and Steve made the decision to head straight through the kelp bed, and that quickly escalated to fear as he became entangled and tried — unsuccessfully — to free himself. When panic sets in, it is very difficult for a person to calm down and focus on what needs to be done. Tunnel vision narrows the options, and the diver’s body tells him to flee. Training and experience are the only ways to avoid panic in a troublesome situation.

Len was overweighted on the first dive, causing him to bounce up and down in the water column. He added air to his BC to get himself off the bottom but likely added too much. That caused him to ascend, and then he dumped air, sending him right back to the seafloor. Before his next dive, Len should have spent time on the surface performing a buoyancy check to determine the amount of weight necessary for his new gear setup. After he completed the buoyancy check on the surface, Len should have spent a few minutes near the bottom simply working on his buoyancy control, running through the drills he learned in his diving class and getting his breathing under control.

The decision to return to the boat through the kelp bed was the next mistake. Even if Len had run low on air and had to ascend before returning to the boat, a long surface swim would have been preferable to drowning.

It’s not uncommon for new divers to be embarrassed by their own lack of comfort in the water, especially when they are with more experienced divers. Most of the time, it is the new diver’s imagination; most divers are happy to help out however they can. We’ve all been there. But if your dive buddy is judging you, then it is time to find a new buddy.

There is no dive worth dying for. Divers should practice the credo that any diver can call any dive for any reason at any time. Conditions weren’t right for Len, and he should have opted out of the second dive.
Failing to do so cost him his life.

Lessons for Life

1 Call the Dive If you aren’t comfortable with a dive, for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to call it. Head back to the boat and figure out the problem, and live to dive another day.

2 Check Your Buoyancy Whenever you make a significant gear or environment change, perform a buoyancy check to make sure you’re wearing the right amount of weight. A new wetsuit might be more or less buoyant than your previous one. A new BC with different weight configurations can change your attitude in the water.

3 Get Additional Training Buoyancy control is what makes diving magical. Being able to float effortlessly in the water column is the best part of diving. Some divers pick it up quickly. For others, it takes a while. If you struggle with it, take a specialty course or work with an instructor to fine tune your techniques.

4 Orient Yourself To Local Conditions Even experienced divers have been known to struggle with kelp when they aren’t used to it. Get a local orientation to a dive site when you aren’t familiar with the situation.

Lessons for Life: The Fatal Consequences of Being Out of Shape

Sunday, December 13th, 2015
Overweight Scuba Diver at Doctor's Office

Physical fitness is crucial for scuba diving — so take care of yourself and live to dive another day.

Miko Maciaszek

Abe knew he needed to get in better shape. His doctor told him he was morbidly obese, and he was trying to do better. At least he could still dive. When he was neutrally buoyant, Abe didn’t notice his health problems.

While ascending from a deep wreck, Abe was struggling to swim upward. Something wasn’t right, and he knew he needed to get to the surface. He released his weight belt, but he still couldn’t ascend.

THE DIVER

Abe had been diving a long time and was very experienced. He was certified as a divemaster and really enjoyed being in the water. He loved to dive.

What he didn’t love was his constant struggle with his weight. It had been a problem most of his life, and now, at age 50, he was discussing options with his doctor to get things under control.

THE DIVE

Diving in a group of three, Abe was with his two regular dive buddies. They were making a boat dive to explore a wreck that each had dived before. Abe and his buddies were all trained in technical diving techniques, so they were making a decompression dive to 125 feet. Although it is possible to dive to that depth without planned decompression, they wanted to stay on the wreck longer than no-decompression limits would allow. They planned to make several stops on the ascent
to allow their bodies to off-gas the accumulated nitrogen.

Nearing the end of the dive, Abe signaled that he was ready to ascend. His buddies noticed he looked uncomfortable with something, but he didn’t indicate he was having any issues. They all agreed and moved to the anchor line to begin their ascent.

THE ACCIDENT

Moving from one decompression stop to the next, Abe’s buddies noticed he was adjusting his equipment, but he never signaled to them he was having a problem. One of the divers indicated it was time to move to the next stop depth, and they continued their ascent. When they arrived at the shallower depth, Abe’s buddies realized Abe was no longer with them. They looked around beneath them, but there was no sign of Abe anywhere. Because of the amount of time they already had spent in the water, and their decreasing air supply, they could not descend and attempt to look for Abe without jeopardizing their own lives.

Both divers had 20 more minutes in the water before they could reach the surface and let anyone know that Abe was missing. The boat crew looked for Abe, but their efforts were unsuccessful. They had limited resources to perform a complete search at that depth.

Another group of divers found Abe’s body on the wreck 10 months later. He had attempted to drop his weight belt, but it had become entangled in the collection bag he had clipped to a D-ring on his BC.

ANALYSIS

It is impossible to accurately determine the triggering event that got Abe in trouble, but his inability to perform a self-rescue on the dive, and subsequently deal with the entangled weight belt, led to Abe’s fatality.

Abe was morbidly obese. According to the medical community, someone who is morbidly obese is 100 pounds over his or her ideal body weight, has a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more, or has a BMI of 35 or more and experiences obesity-related health conditions. BMI is a statistical number and isn’t infallible. Some people with large amounts of muscle have high BMI numbers but are not unhealthy.

Obesity is not a contraindication to diving. In fact, some groups use diving as therapy to get sedentary individuals moving, precisely because being neutrally buoyant in the water relieves pressure from joints that can cause the obese to be even more sedentary. Obesity can, however, make a diver less flexible and less able to care for himself in the event of a problem. Obese divers often have specially trained buddies who are able to handle emergencies. In Abe’s case, he released his weight belt when he realized he was in trouble, but when the belt became entangled in his collection bag, he couldn’t see it or reach it. He was still negatively buoyant and couldn’t make an ascent.

There are many standards or guidelines for what is considered fit enough to dive. For more information, contact a diving medical physician or Divers Alert Network. One big concern, aside from having the exercise capacity to respond to problems, is the medical issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and respiratory diseases, that come with obesity.

When planning a decompression dive, it is important to plan for what happens should an emergency arise. In this case, Abe’s buddies were unable to descend to look for Abe without risking their own lives. They would have begun reabsorbing nitrogen and would have had to start their decompression all over again. They didn’t have the breathing-gas supply available for that, especially not if they had to descend to the wreck, perform a search and then ascend with their friend’s body.
The dive-boat surface support didn’t have additional breathing gas or enough divers on board prepared to perform a search-and-recovery operation at that depth. Although no one wants to plan for a failure or a problem, technical divers who are planning to make technical dives have to create contingency plans for when things go wrong. They should have had a system in place to signal the boat that there was a problem, and there should have been two divers on the surface who could have responded to the emergency, diving to the shipwreck to begin an immediate search for the missing diver.

In short, we don’t know the exact cause of this accident. There were many contributing factors, including Abe’s physical health and obesity, which interfered with his ability to rescue himself when a problem arose, and a lack of a contingency plan to initiate a rescue in the event of a problem.

LESSONS FOR LIFE

1. Stay Fit Scuba diving doesn’t require you to be an Olympic-class swimmer, but you do need to be generally fit and comfortable in the water. Talk to a physician who is familiar with diving to determine your fitness level for diving, and initiate an exercise protocol to keep fit.

2. Check Your Gear Take a close look at your gear configuration. Can you jettison your weights in an emergency, or is your weight belt, release or harness covered up by the other gear you are carrying? The ability to release your weights could save your life.

3. Make A Plan Develop an emergency plan for every dive site and diving situation. Make sure you have the ability to perform a search for a missing diver.


Eric Douglas co-authored the book Scuba Diving Safety, and has written a series of adventure novels, children’s books, and short stories — all with an ocean and scuba-diving theme. Check out his website at booksbyeric.com.