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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Wreck Diving Subic Bay, Philippines

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Photos – Metro Manila area, Philippines

Pace of life in the Metro Manila area.



Preparing local cuisine.

Sunset in the Metro Manila area.

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The People I Look Up To 我的人生榜樣

The following are people whom I admire and look up to for inspiration and positive examples for living my life.  Not in any particular order.

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple

Why I Admire Steve Jobs:

  • Steve’s strength and perseverance in overcoming the many setbacks and adversities to build Apple into the great company that it is today.  Without Steve, Apple may be gone and the world will not have the iconic iMac, iPod, and the iPhone and iPad.
  • His poise in public speaking and presentations and solid sense of fashion.

“You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

    Watch Steve speak to graduates at the 2005 Stanford University commencement.

    Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States

    Why I Admire Abraham Lincoln:

    • Born into poverty and with very little formal education, I admire his determination to self-educate and overcoming his humble beginnings.  He led the United States through the Civil War, probably the toughest time in the history of the nation.




    Siddhārtha Gautama, founder of Buddhism

    Why I Admire Siddhārtha Gautama:

    • Siddhārtha’s courage in giving up a life of comfortable luxury, indulgence, and royal power in search of spiritual truth: the answer to mankind’s suffering and a way to liberation and end that suffering.
    • Finding the ultimate answer and sharing it without reservation.





    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Composer

    Why I Admire Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:

    • An Austrian child prodigy, Mozart’s immortal musical compositions never fail to uplift and lighten a blue moment.





    Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens, Author

    Why I Admire Mark Twain:

    • The “father of American literature”, his characters, such as Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn embody the spirit of America.   I read the unforgettable The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school inspiring me not to take life too seriously.

    Finally, A Fictional Character:

    Image of Atticus Finch coming soon.

    Why I Admire Atticus Finch:

    The righteous lawyer appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman in the American South, the character from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is my moral example of the highest regard.

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    Heaven on Earth – Hangzhou 人間天堂-杭州

    “Above there is Heaven, on earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou.” 上有天堂,下有蘇杭。

    West Lake 西湖

    I lived in Hangzhou for 4 years while studying at Zhejiang University.  我曾經在於位於中國浙江省杭州市的浙江大學學習,在那裡總共渡過了四年的時光。


    Hangzhou's West Lake. 杭州的西湖。


    Tourist boat on West Lake. 西湖上的游船。

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    Home on the Island – Taipei (Part 1) 島上家園 - 台北市 (第一部)

    Food, fun, culture, and convenience… this is Taipei! Good Food!

    A video I made back in 2009 about delicious Taipei night market food.

    A kite and Taipei 101.

    Taipei's location on the island of Taiwan via Google Earth.

    At the park where I played as a child.

    The Cityscape

    Developed without much central-planning and lacking an organized, grid-like street structure typical of North American cities, Taipei grew out of early settlements with Japanese influence in the architecture (the Presidential Office building was built by the Japanese).  The layout and appearance of the city can seem very chaotic and disorganized, but there probably isn’t a more convenient city elsewhere on the globe with food, shopping, and entertainment never far.

    A street view of Taipei.

    Seemingly disorganized architecture of Taipei.

    A Taipei church.

    Fast-moving scooters, probably the dominant form of motorized transportation in Taipei.

    View of the city from the ground up.

    Under the Taipei Metro tracks above city streets.

    Dusk view of Taipei near National Taiwan University Hospital.

    Intersection near my home.

    Taipei’s Culture and Lifestyle

    The lifestyle of Taipei has been described as a heavily work and school oriented, fast-paced and incredibly efficient.  In the years of living here I still have not understood the true extent of the pressures to succeed academically the younger Taipei residents are under.  During a visit to a local “cram school/buxiban” (establishments offering cramming courses mainly to pass exams, offering classes outside normal school hours) I found out that the schedule for a course aimed at gaining entry to National Taiwan University is 12+ hours per day of class, lasting from early morning to 9-10 PM.  The pressures Taipei is under to succeed in any way is incredibly heavy.

    Culturally, Taipei has a rich mix from the period of Japanese occupation to American influences.  This is especially evident in the food where heavy Japanese influence is evident.


    Taiwan is known for the food, and Taipei is the foodie capital of the island.  Seafood is a major staple, an advantage of location on a sub-tropical island.

    The freshest, most natural way of enjoying fish, seen at a roadside banquet.

    Sashimi at a popular restaurant.

    Fresh fish on display, ready for selection by diners.

    A wide selection offering many seafood choices... and species.

    Mmm... lobster Taiwanese style, seen at a street-side banquet.

    A table-full of lobster dishes at the street-side banquet.

    My Hometown

    Taipei has been my home for practically my entire lifetime.  My early-life years were spent here and it is where I now call home.

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    What Time? It’s Dunhuang 趕時間嗎?這裡是敦煌

    A video of the trip.

    Ancient construction remains at Yangguan, near Dunhuang. 敦煌市郊陽關的古時遺跡。敦煌市郊阳关的古时遗迹。

    Remains of a earthen watch tower from ancient China, at the outskirts of Dunhuang. 敦煌市郊的古代更樓遺跡。敦煌市郊的古代更楼遗迹。

    Dunhuang's location via Google Earth. 透過 Google地球發現的敦煌地理位置。透过 Google地球发现的敦煌地理位置。

    A Timeless Quality 超越時空

    Dunhuang’s charm and importance seems to last through the ages.  The city has been an important strategic outpost of ancient China, located at the entrance of the narrow Gansu corridor leading to the heart of the Han Chinese dynasties and empires, and an important Silk Road stop, which introduced the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Islam along with trade merchandise.  Today it’s a major travel destination and a grape-producing region.

    At Dunhuang Airport on arrival. 敦煌機場。

    Dunhuang’s strategic importance for warfare is much less today but it’s former glory is still very much visible and enchanting to the visiting traveler.

    Volleyball courts next to the hostel.

    The hostel of choice for my first night in Dunhuang is right next to the sand dunes in the images below, an idyllic location.  The major drawback is the distance from downtown Dunhuang and therefore inconvenience and difficult access to the night market.

    Dunhuang's dunes, one step away from the hostel.

    Dunes, unfortunately fenced.

    The idyllic hostel viewed from the dunes.

    The hostel and relative locations via Google Earth.

    A friendly dog near the hostel.

    My friend Hannah from Germany and I.

    I first became acquainted with Hannah on Couchsurfing.org and met her in person for the first time in Hangzhou.  Then I met her again in Kashgar, another time purely by chance in Ürümqi, and this fourth time (also by chance) here in Dunhuang.

    China CCTV and the Third Grape Festival of China Dunhuang (International)

    The adventure in Dunhuang started immediately on arrival, being incredibly fortunate to be in town with the annual grape festival and potentially appearing on China’s TV.  Getting out of the Dunhuang airport with only one taxi in sight, the driver asking for 80 RMBs for a ride to the downtown, and no shuttle bus service; I forfeited the over-priced taxi ride and waited outside the airport for the good part of one hour before getting a ride.  Then, upon arriving at the hostel in Dunhuang, I met by chance a couple from Hong Kong which I had first met in Ürümqi.  They had been approached by CCTV journalists and asked if I would participate with them in a CCTV (China Central Television) news production about Dunhuang’s vineyards and grapes, taking place the following day.  Wow!  I will be on TV in China!  I happily participated.

    Miss Friendship International and the Grape Fest

    The organizers of the Grape Festival definitely offered a great show, with Miss Friendship International participating.  On the run to downtown Dunhuang for purchasing departing train ticket before heading off to the vineyards, we witnessed the grape festival parade in town.

    Miss USA of Miss Friendship International.

    Parade in downtown Dunhuang for the 3rd Dunhuang International Grape Festival.

    The car and driver to the shooting location were provided by CCTV; as can be seen in the video, the unpaved roads leading to the vineyards really calls for an off-road capable SUV.

    Vineyard outside Dunhuang.

    Harvesting grapes in Dunhuang.

    Ready to harvest grapes at Dunhuang.

    Dining area at a Dunhuang vineyard.

    We were provided nothing short of a rare, most non-touristy experience at the remote vineyard at which the CCTV crew recorded the needed footage and interviews.  Lunching with the town’s mayor and Communist Party Secretary, we dined on locally raised rainbow trout among the rest of a table-full of sumptuous western China cuisine.  The grapes, freshly cut from the vines were sweet, juicy with a distinctive tang.  According to the grape farmers, the grapes grown in Dunhuang are shipped to other provinces of China to produce wines along with fresh consumption.

    Gateway to the Sun – Yangguan

    After completing the CCTV assignment for the day, the journalists and the 3 travelers (including myself) toured the ancient fort of Yangguan 陽關/阳关, literally meaning “gateway to the sun”.


    Fortification at Yangguan.

    Replica siege weapons, as shown in the images below and a museum displaying genuine local period weapons are testify to the brutal, bloody fighting right here in ancient China.

    Reproduction siege weapons at Yangguan.

    Spikes at Yangguan.

    Travel documents and ancient forms of visas were already in use at Yangguan, an important pass on the Silk Road, functioned as a modern immigration authority would at international borders.  Traders, merchants and travelers had to present documents to continue their journeys.

    Singing, But Expensive Dunes

    Road to the Singing Dunes and Crescent Lake.

    A ticket to enter the Singing Dunes and Crescent Lake scenic area is 120 RMBs.  I hesitated to spend the money, but having come all the way to Dunhuang and with the finale of the Grape Festival happening behind the gates, I plunked down the cash for a ticket.

    Entrance to the Singing Dunes and Crescent Lake.

    Official recognition of the Singing Dunes and Crescent Lake as a major tourist attraction.

    Inside the gates of Singing Dunes and Crescent Lake.

    A fighter jet in the sand.

    Climbing the singing dunes.

    Protection from sand.

    Many tourists opted for the orange bright orange coverings to keep sand out of shoes and going up pant legs.  I had my Timberland boots that only let in a pinch of sand but really are waterproof and the most durable pair of footwear I own.

    The remains of the Grape Festival behind the gates of the Singing Dunes and Crescent Lake.

    Cleaning up, the end of the Grape Festival.

    On the way to Crescent Lake.

    Pagoda built next to Crescent Lake.

    Near Crescent Lake itself.

    The fence surrounding Crescent Lake.

    Unfortunately it was already too dark to see Crescent Lake.

    Sand in the air by the Crescent Lake.

    Shooting the above photograph reminded me of taking underwater photos without proper lighting equipment.  Suspended particles, instead of the intended subject are illuminated by the flash, creating the cloudy image.  The sandy, particle-filled air was very noticeable and somewhat difficult to breathe with dust filling up my nostrils.

    Entering the Dunhuang night market zone, the 敦煌風情城, or "Dunhuang Charm City".

    View of the Dunhuang night market from my downtown hostel window, I stayed there for my second night in Dunhuang.

    Another view of the night market in Dunhuang.

    Republic of China stamps for sale in Dunhuang.

    Dunhuang at night.

    Outside the hostel for my second night in Dunhuang.

    Trip Highlight, The Mogao Grottoes:

    A series of caves in a hillside in Dunhuang the Mogao Grottoes contain Tang Dynasty era (dating back at least 1,200 years) Buddhist wall painting art and sculptures statues.  All are priceless relics of Dunhuang, the Silk Road, and Buddhism’s past.  According to Wikipedia, a Buddhist mantra known as the Great Compassion Mantra (Nīlakantha dhāranī) was discovered at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang.  I am listening to a recording of the Great Compassion Mantra as I work on this post; it helps me focus and direct my mental energy to the task at hand.

    At the Mogao Grottoes area.

    The Mogao Grottoes with each individual cave-room numbered.

    The Mogao Grottoes and I.

    UNESCO recognition of the Mogao Grottoes.

    A dream world-touring bike, parked at the Mogao Grottoes.

    The bike.

    I spotted another BMW bike of the same model in Kashgar, with Kyrgyzstan plates.

    "Sister caves" to the actual Mogao Grottoes.

    Photography was not allowed inside the individually numbered caves which numbered from 1 to about 400.  Still wanting images of the stunning artwork in the caves, I bought postcards of the Mogao Caves even after having decided at the beginning of the trip to bring home nothing but photographs along the journey.

    There is an incredible sense of peace and tranquility that is simply, ineffable and invulnerable to disturbance in the presence of the Mogao artwork that has stood through more than one millennia.  Even with the large crowd of tourists visiting the Grottoes, all in the caves at any one moment, there is a soothing quietude beyond the sound inside the caves.  I experienced a very soothing calm in the Mogao caves.  The only time a similar quietude was experienced was while SCUBA diving in some of nature’s wonders.

    Dunhuang is the highlight of my entire trip; the Mogao Grottoes are the highlight of my visit to Dunhuang, and lastly the ultimate highlight are 2 statues of the Buddha and a secret room where ancient Buddhist texts were hidden.

    The largest statue at the Mogao Grottoes is 30-meters (about 90 feet) tall, but had been repainted during the Qing Dynasty and is housed in a pagoda built into the side of the caves.  A second statue of the Buddha, smaller than the 30-meter work but retains its original colors, took a single artisan’s solo effort 30 years to complete.  The artist’s sheer dedication is incredible and standing at the toe-level height of the great Buddha is simply indescribably inspiring.

    My words do not do justice to the wonder of the relics of humankind’s past at Dunhuang!

    Gift shop at the Mogao Caves.

    Leaving the Mogao Grottoes, photograph taken from a bus.

    The courtyard of the hostel just before departing Dunhuang.

    2 nights was all I could stay in Dunhuang, but the days and nights there were so adventure filled, enough to last until the next.

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