A SCUBA Dive Gone Wrong – Lessons on Self-Sufficiency, Unsafe Divers and the “Insta-Buddy”

I am a SCUBA diver with moderate experience. The following is an account of a dive gone wrong and how I responded in a near-emergency that prevented a true crisis.

Wanting to contribute to environmental conservation, I joined a group of local divers who regularly meet for marine cleanup dives (picking up discarded nets, fishing line wrapped around coral reefs, and other debris from the seafloor). My regular buddy (who is an excellent dive buddy), whom I had known since my high school time, and regularly dive with, was not available to dive with me, so I opted to join the group for the first time.

The groups main organizer and leader, apparently had very extensive experience (including previous underwater engineering jobs) and regularly logs an impressive number of dives, and acts as the local dealer for two foreign equipment manufacturers.

Thus, I assumed that the dives would be organized in a thorough, thoughtful manner and the group members would be team-minded dive buddies. Because, in an emergency, having one’s wingman (the buddy) close by can turn a true emergency into a mere mishap.

This is my mistake number 1. Overestimating the group’s “team-readiness”.

As a side note (I found out all this after the incident described here), the leader and organizer of the group is known as an “instructor”, though I had not witnessed any credentials backing up the title. Secondly, and perhaps more ominously, (how information spreads now, in the Facebook age), the “instructor” made public an incident during which he became so absorbed in the underwater objective of clearing away nets and fishing line that he ran out of no-decompression time and entered into decompression obligation, at a depth greater than 100 feet.

Other divers of the group, also made public, and jocularly, how their dive computers had “malfunctioned” by locking them out of diving for 48 hours, assuming for running out of no-decompression time and omitting required decompression stops.

So, on that one particular dive, it can be inferred that several divers in the group had entered decompression.

On with the dive incident which I am to describe. Before gearing up and entry, the “instructor” presented a briefing, noting the local hazards, the geography, and that the pairs must begin the return journey back to shore with no less than 700 PSI of gas remaining.

I am paired up with another diver in the large group and proceed to gear up and make the entry.

Everything pre-dive did not generally ring any alarm bells, but, troubles began almost immediately after entry.

First, there was a longer, more exhausting swim near the surface than anticipated, breathing from my regulator rapidly and consuming gas FAST.

After the swim and on with the descent, keeping the “buddy” in my view, never more than several feet ahead of me. The way down takes us to a depth around 100 feet (30 meters). My pressure gauge reading approximately 150 bar (likely due to the rapid gas consumption near the surface, and stress), on beginning the descent.

This is another big mistake on my part, descending to depth with only 150 bar in my aluminum 80 cylinder.

“Ok” I think to myself “I will alert my buddy of the need to cut our bottom time short, no need to abort yet”, so I continue the dive.

Swimming to and alerting my “buddy” by poking his upper arm (making fully sure that I had his attention), I signal that my gas supply was dwindling, assuming that it was understood that our bottom time would have to be cut short.

He shrugs off the issue, making no eye contact, continuing his objective of cleaning away balls of fishing line and nets snagged to the rocky reefs.

Checking my pressure gauge, I see my gas supply approaching, then dipping below 1,000 PSI (down to half of the pressure of a full cylinder) as I work at the planned objective for the dive, snipping away tangles of fishing line and nets attached to the rocky reefs and bits of coral.

Alarm bells ring.

I signal my buddy about ending the dive, at least one more time, and again, not surprisingly, I am completely blown off.

Down at a depth of 100+ feet (32 meters), with my gas supply dwindling, the “buddy” completely oblivious, I sensed an impending drowning at depth, or a dangerous, very fast ascent to the surface should I remain at depth and consume all of my remaining gas.

Major alarm bells sound off. I know I am only moments away from a true emergency.

This is another mistake I made, not having aborted the dive as soon as the first alarm bells rang.

Quickly thinking and abandoning the “buddy”, I decide for a controlled solo ascent and back to the point of entry with approximately 800 PSI (down from 2,000 PSI, the initial pressure) remaining as I begin the return journey.

As I begin my ascent, seeing my “buddy” several meters directly below me, I attempt at getting his attention by shaking my underwater signaling device (which is essentially a bell) to no avail. We had not discussed the use of my signaling device pre-dive, another mistake.

“This will be the first and last dive with you.” I think to myself.

I continue my ascent, carefully monitoring my ascent rate to be at the slowest visible “bar” on my computer.

Having sketched a map of the area and noting the directional bearings on my slate during the pre-dive briefing, I use my compass to note the direction back to the shoreline and swim for the bearing.

The ascent from 100 feet (30 meters) to 60 feet (20 meters) , to 30 feet (10 meters) is thankfully uneventful, the large group of divers’ ascending bubbles visible.

By reaching approximately 60 feet, my remaining pressure shows less than 600 PSI remaining.

Still breathing rapidly (probably from stress), and adjusting my NEW weight belt, momentarily neglecting to vent air from my BCD, and losing control of my buoyancy at less than 30 feet and with my pressure gauge showing less than 500 PSI remaining.

Gaining positive buoyancy, my computer’s depth gauge reading 4, 3, 2.2 … meters and alerting me to descend below the “CEILING”.

Quickly venting air from my BCD and descending back down to 15 feet, 5 meters for the now MANDATORY safety stop (due to exceeding the maximum ascent rate), as dictated by my computer, prevented me from popping up at the surface.

This another big mistake I made, momentarily losing control of buoyancy, contributed by not having familiarized with my weight belt BEFORE attempting the dive.

For some background information, local news stories have reported cases of divers ascending then dying from collisions with boat propellers. The injuries sustained are massive and blood loss is extremely rapid, insuring near-certain death.

I definitely wanted to avoid that possibility, so I made certain that I did not ascend to the surface, and scanned and listened 360 degrees for any sign of boats. Very fortunately, there were no sign of any boats or other watercraft in the viscidity.

At this point, I decide to first ascend to the surface, then to swim to the point of entry, as per my compass bearing, as my pressure gauge now showed less than 100 PSI remaining.

There were no boats and other watercraft near the area during the time at the surface and during the beginning surface swim, but I decided to take a step to warn possible passing boaters of my presence below the surface. I unclip my finger spool and remove my SMB from its bag, and clip it to the line. Noting not to remove my primary regulator from my mouth, I use my octopus to blast air into the end of my SMB.

As this is the first time deploying the SMB, I had not used enough air to fully inflate the entire length of my safety sausage, only about a 1 foot length stuck above the surface.

I thought, “Better than nothing, at least this is still visible to passing boats.”

Maintaining buoyancy while filling the SMB is tricky, to not be dragged up by the extra buoyancy.

This is another mistake, never having practiced deploying the SMB.

Slowly ascending, in full control, as I wind in the line back to my finger spool, and stopping for the safety stop at 5 meters, the ascent proceeds uneventfully until somehow, the finger spool had come undone with the metal clip that attaches to the line wound on the spool.

Next, I break through the surface and I am about 200 feet (70 meters) from the point of entry, marked by a small inflatable dive flag.

I unclip the SMB and roll up the line on the finger spool. Somehow, the line had not fully “clipped” back to the spool, and, peeking below the surface, I see my finger spool slowing descent to the depths, line still attached and attached to the metal clip in my hand.

I thought, I could wind the line in by hand and try to save my line and spool, risking entanglement in my own line, in my own gear at the surface, or, I could descend to to retrieve my spool.

I opted against both options, cutting the line, donating my finger spool and line to its next owner.

What stands between me now and the safety of shore is a surface swim, somehow hampered by stress and the drag on my inflated BCD, for which I considered ditching my weight belt, but did not.

In retrospect, several warning signs were present before the dive.

I was using a piece of NEW equipment (and a critical piece) which I was unfamiliar with: weight belts instead of the BCD integrated weights which I had been doing essentially all of my dives with.

Never having practiced deploying my SMB, I was depending on more luck than I should in having it function.

At the shore, even before wetting my toes, the “insta-buddy” who I was paired with appeared to see me as a unnecessary inconvenience to his dive. There was no discussion of the dive plan, our buddy plan, and any contingency plans. Clearly, he had fully intended on carrying out the dive essentially solo.

After surfacing, I opt to sit out the planned second dive, enduring some strange looks and not-so-kind glances by the other divers.

But, I knew that I wanted to live, and to live to dive another day, even though I enjoy diving.

Mentally reciting the mnemonic “A Good Diver’s Main Objective Is to Live” and that “Nothing underwater is worth dying for.” I know that I made the best decision for the situation.

On this particular second dive, my ex-insta-buddy was allowed to dive solo (assuming without any training and backup equipment), by the groups’ “instructor”. That eliminated all ideas of this group as a safe group to dive with.

This sort of unsafe practice seems common, and accepted in the local dive scene.

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