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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Never Never Land

I am constantly working to become a more skilled scuba diver. I consider diving dangerous, so I focus on taking courses, reading about diving and dive accidents and doing drills with my buddy (Todd). Since I am always reading about diving accidents, near misses, etc, I thought I'd talk about a dive that we did in Kona that I consider to be a "Lessons Learned" kind of dive.

Many divers, for whatever reason have a "same ocean" mentality about their buddies. This means that they don't particularly follow any kind of buddy procedures and consider themselves self sufficient. Other divers care for their buddy's welfare, but don't have a lost buddy procedure. Talking to other divers, we've learned that often the lost buddy procedure is "continue the dive alone." Todd and I have a maximum distance that we will separate from each other during a dive, and also have a specific lost buddy procedure that we are both aware of (which is still a bit less conservative than the official SSI lost buddy procedure). Our procedure is to search for the lost buddy for 2-3 minutes. After this time has passed, begin a safe ascent to the surface (including any required safety stop). Theoretically, on the surface or even while surfacing, the diver will come across their lost buddy.

In Kona, we had an excellent and normal first day of diving. Light current, easy dives, etc. So, when we were gearing up for our first dive of our second day of diving, we expected more of the same. We both listened to the dive master give the dive briefing, as we always do (statistics show that a huge number of dive accidents occur because divers fail to listen to the dive briefing). The dive site was called Never Never Land. During the briefing, the dive master explained that we were going to be diving out to a pinnacle that was coming out of the water (see the photo above). There was a wall (at about 30-40 feet), which the boat was not directly over. The wall cut in just in front of the boat, making like a canyon into the wall that went down pretty deep. We were told that there might be "a little current" and if that was the case, we'd stay in the canyon, otherwise, we would swim over to the pinnacle and back to the boat.

So, we jumped in. Things were pretty normal on the surface. We waited on the surface for other divers to enter the water, and during that time I drifted away from the boat some (but not too far, and I was still with the group). When we descended, we were in blue. The boat was above, but the reef was too far away to see, so there was no bottom, and nothing around, just blue. I descend slowly because of my sensitive ears, and everyone was descending around me. Because I had drifted a bit on the surface, I was the farthest in the back. Everyone immediately started swimming toward the canyon. I did as well.

Then, I saw a shark. "HEY! SHARK!" I thought. Awesome. I stopped kicking, and started digging through my BC pocket for my noise maker. I looked at the shark again. HAMMERHEAD SHARK! My very first hammerhead. I found my noise maker, and shook it. SHARK! I signaled. Nobody looked, and they were all swimming away. Everyone, including Todd. I shook the noisemaker again. SHARK! Nobody looked, they continued swimming. Weird. I looked at my depth gauge. 103 feet. Oops. I was not supposed to be that deep. I was breathing Nitrox, which meant that deeper than 110 or so feet I was starting to be in danger of going into convulsions. I added air to my BC. This was only the second day of diving, it was possible I was weighted somewhat heavy. Ahead of me, I could no longer see the other divers. Still no reef. Just blue. Just me. And the shark, who then swam away.

What I didn't know, was that I had been swept into a swift current that was pulling me away from the canyon, away from the group, and DOWN (hence, the 103 feet). Because I couldn't see the reef, I didn't know how swift the current was. The reason no one was paying attention to my shark alert was because they were all too busy fighting against the current to get to the canyon, and didn't realize there was a shark there to look at. Todd had assumed I was with the group, and he himself had been swept downward to 100 feet, so he was busy correcting his own problems.

I realized that I needed to catch up with the group, and I realized there was a current. I started swimming. I actually swam in a diagonal, towards the reef, so that I could finally see it and I was just above it. I was also swimming UP, in order to correct my depth problem (but when scuba diving, you can't go up too fast, remember). It was then that my fin strap came loose. I noticed it just as I noticed two of my fellow divers, Garlyn and her dad, swimming back from the canyon toward me. Garlyn's dad had gotten low on air because of the current and they were aborting the dive. Garlyn signaled OK to me and I returned an OK and began trying to fix my fin strap. I signaled to her that I didn't know where Todd was, and she waved me towards the canyon. I reached down to fix my strap, but I was out of breath from swimming (I HATE being out of breath when breathing in a regulator) and a little nervous that I'd lost Todd. I knew I needed to start lost buddy procedures, but I had to address my fin issue first. One thing I learned in our Stress & Rescue course was that bad things tend to pile up, and you need to address and resolve a problem before continuing with the dive.

I couldn't get my strap back on. My buoyancy was weird, I was trying not to float away in the current, and I just couldn't manage to get it to go right. I must have sucked in my breath, and that combined with the air I'd put in my BC earlier made me too buoyant and I was suddenly at 40 feet. Ok. Easy. Don't go to the surface. No time to take air out of the BC, I was popping up at a fast rate. I could see Garlyn below me, wondering what I was doing. I kicked down, deciding that if I lost my fin, I'd just have to deal with it.

Once back at a reasonable depth, I signaled to Garlyn to help me with my strap, which she did, then signaled me to follow her to the canyon. I hesitated. I needed to find Todd. We were supposed to look for each other for 2 minutes, and certainly that 2 minutes had passed by now. I decided to check the canyon to see if he was there, and if he wasn't, I would surface. I approached the canyon, stuck my head over the edge, and there was Todd. He was still on the reef, but was on his way to the surface to look for me. He had been very, very worried. The current was STRONG. I signaled to him with my noise maker, and we met up on the edge of the canyon. I signaled that we were going to abort the dive. He said OK.

We sat on the edge of the canyon for a minute or two while we waited to calm down, then made a swim for the chain hanging under the boat. We held onto the chain for our safety stop. Our computers forced us to do a 5 minute safety stop rather than a 3 minute safety stop because we'd both "bounced" during the dive. I think we held on for an extra minute just to be safe.

Back on the boat, total time: 22 minutes.

Now, many divers would consider this scenario not a big deal. Nothing happened. No one got bent, no equipment was lost or damage, no people died. However, Todd and I used this as a learning experience. We don't separate from each other. It was the first time we'd had to use lost buddy procedures since we started diving together, and we took it seriously.

I learned that I need to do a better job of figuring out what the conditions are, even if we've gotten a dive briefing. I learned to pay more attention to where Todd is, and he learned to pay more attention to where I am at the beginning of the dive. I was happy that Garlyn was there to help me with my fin. I am certainly grateful for the training that we both had, so that this dive was indeed so much of a non-issue.

And God bless the hammerhead, who no one else saw but me...

Photo courtesy of the Aggressor Fleet

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