As I approached the white light above me, I calmly faced the possibility that I might be dying. Fortunately it was not my time and it was not THAT white light, just the water's surface approaching as I slowly swam up to meet it. My lungs cried out for a breath of air and I gasped when I finally broke the surface, and floated there for several minutes regaining my breath.
I usually dive solo, something many divers frown on but a growing number practice, especially those who photograph or take video underwater. Some dive agencies are beginning to offer solo diver certifications. Solo diving, like buddy diving on SCUBA and even free diving, has its risks. One should be well versed in what those risks are, and how to address them. I'm estimating that I've done some 800 solo dives without incident... until recently. I've done hundreds of dives with buddies as well... with many more incidents, almost all related to the skills, practices or equipment of my buddies. Given my history, solo diving is safer than diving with a buddy unless they are well-skilled (like my regular ones).
On this particular Saturday I planned to do one dive to 70 ft and 2-3 dives at depths above 40 ft. My deeper dive was to check visibility around the wrecks in hopes I might see the courting black sea bass hanging out there. I have my equipment serviced regularly since my life depends on it. I dive one of the most reliable regulators on the market (ScubaPro Mk10/G250) and it is equipped with an octopus (secondary regulator) AND an Air-2 backup system. This equipment received its annual servicing recently and was functioning flawlessly. My steel tank with its much safer DIN valve (vs the yoke valves used by most divers) had also passed its annual inspection a few weeks earlier.
At 70 ft. and three minutes into the first dive, I took a breath from the regulator... and it didn't deliver any air, nada, zip. On the previous breath it had functioned smoothly, but I had already exhaled that lungful. Instinctively I started heading towards the surface as I reached for my octopus. I was already ascending slowly when I tried to draw a breath from it... but no air came through. I checked my air pressure gauge and it read zero. There was either no air in my recently filled tank or no air getting to the regulator. I didn't have time to analyze which.
Although I only had a little air left in my lungs, I couldn't bolt to the surface without risking a possible embolism or the bends, either of which could be fatal. Of course the slower I ascended, the greater the possibility of drowning. I did not drop my weight belt so my ascent would remain slow. It took 60 seconds from the moment my air first stopped before I reached the surface. That is a long time to think about the equipment failure and the possibility of my life ending on this dive. Fortunately my training, my long history of diving... and perhaps a touch of disbelief or denial... allowed me to remain calm. Had I panicked, my oxygen consumption would have increased significantly and my chances or drowning, or risking death by bolting to the surface would also increase.
Once back in touch with the atmosphere I had time to think further about what equipment might have failed. Although the tank had been filled, had something failed and it was really empty? Had the rebuilt regulator been the cause- perhaps a faulty parts kit from the manufacturer? The fact that none of the hoses connected to its first stage received air suggested this critical part may have failed. However, first stages are designed to fail in the open position... as had a rental regulator while I was on a 100 ft dive at Chumphon Pinnacle in Thailand. I later considered the possibility that a rust flake or piece of debris had entered the valve from inside the tank. Apparently this is more common than I ever imagined.
However, from the moment my regulator failed, I knew what "equipment" was really responsible. It was my brain. Admittedly an older model than that of many current divers, standard tests have shown it is a pretty capable piece of equipment. Why had it failed on that dive? Because I had grown complacent and lazy. As a solo diver, without a buddy's air supply to rely on for backup, I usually took a pony bottle with me on all dives below 60 ft. The pony is a small backup tank with its own regulator... providing a totally redundant air supply to replace the human buddy's tank.
On this day I planned only one "deep" dive, so I decided to skip the installation of the pony on my regular tank even though I knew I might go slightly deeper than 60 ft. I nearly died because I was lazy and complacent. Even if my regulator and/or tank was responsible, it was my decision not to dive with a backup that led to this serious incident. I have known other biologists and friends with thousands of lifetime dives who have likewise grown complacent... and died because of it.
Why do I share this story with you? Because we all grow complacent and ignore our mortality at times. Those of us who dive may decide to go solo without a backup, or dive with a buddy who dives "in the same ocean" but not close enough to be a real safety factor or dive after a night of partying. We may rely on the best equipment, but it can fail. When on the mainland, do you buckle up? I would never consider driving, even on surface streets, without doing so. Do you drive down the 405 at 75 mph with a cell phone in one hand, a cup of hot McDonald's coffee in the other, and your Big Mac in your lap? I hope not. I wouldn't (don't believe in cell phones although I do like Big Macs... eaten inside).
The tank had indeed been filled properly. When I calmed down, I remembered routinely checking the pressure gauge before I dove. The regulator was inspected and no problems were revealed. The techs at ScubaPro said it would be impossible for it to fail in the closed position. It has functioned flawlessly since that dive. My tank was reinspected and there were no small particles discovered inside it. To this date I still don't know what happened, which is slightly unnerving. However I intend to ensure that the one piece of "equipment" I know failed, my brain, never repeats this. My pony bottle will be attached whenever I dive past 40 ft! Next week I'll return with a sense of humor. Today I'll leave you with a message... don't get complacent in your daily life... you may face a similar situation despite the statistical odds in your favor. Remember, some people even win the lottery.
So now I'm looking for a permanent buddy as backup. Qualifications: active diver for whom SCUBA is a passion; able to do 3-6 cold water dives each dive day; strong interest in marine ecology and underwater video or still photography a plus; highly intelligent; good sense of humor; skilled in Adobe Premiere editing helpful; financially secure to ensure support of starving marine biologist's research and international dive needs during long, hard California winters; (he contributes permanent land base with a view on Catalina Island as well as his scintillating personality); preferably long dark hair (no blonde roots please); slender and fit; and of the female persuasion.
© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.
Image caption: Dr. Bill by the Jacques Cousteau memorial
on a less problematic dive.
This document maintained by
Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia