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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#361: Dive Accidents and Speculation

Many "landlubbers" seem to feel that SCUBA diving is a dangerous activity in which those who dive frequently like myself risk serious injury or death from equipment failure or poor decisions, and may get eaten by a great white shark or giant squid. After nearly 50 years of using SCUBA to explore the Water Planet and thousands of dives, I can count only three incidents which could have been considered as life threatening.

The first two involved out-of-air (OOA) situations at depths of 95 and 80 feet. They were caused by a dive master who did not follow proper tank filling procedures in the first case many decades ago, and an equipment malfunction and a bad decision on my part in the second case a few years ago. I survived both thanks to the great training I received from legendary Los Angeles County instructor Ron Merker in the 60s. The third "incident" was when a fourteen foot great white shark swam past renowned marine artist Wyland and myself near the East End quarry as we filmed giant sea bass. The shark was apparently not very interested in either of us as hors d'ourves because we lacked sufficient body fat for flavor (at least I did... back then).

Two weekends ago we lost a diver at Casino Point. She was diving for her advanced open water (AOW) certification under the supervision of an instructor friend of mine. Based on my observation of her classes over the past few years, the instructor is an especially gifted one. Her classes are rigorous and she requires actual mastery of the basic skills (as ALL instructors should). She also takes a sincere personal interest in her students and their training. I consider her one of the better instructors who come to the island with their students, and she has the respect of those dive professionals who know her.

The day prior to this incident, I spent time with the instructor and her class and met the diver involved. I went down Sunday morning to meet up with them, but discovered what happened just before I got there. The specifics were not known since both the instructor and student were taken to the chamber at Two Harbors. It took some time for us to learn the diver had not survived. My instructor friend, who did everything she could to save the diver, was physically okay but obviously very distraught after losing a student. I spent some time in her hotel room with her and the deceased diver's boyfriend talking about the incident and comforting them.

As happens in this era of rapid telecommunications, the news was out on ScubaBoard very quickly. Because my computer was still not functioning, I had to wait til Tuesday to log on from the library. I was very disturbed by some of the comments posted by some members. These individuals apparently did not read the prior posts that contained factual information about the incident, and went on to speculate about "possibilities" totally unrelated to what actually happened. This reminds me of today's "news" broadcasts which too often seem to speculate with ninsufficient facts. Having personal knowledge of the incident and the individuals involved, I had to reply to the unfounded speculation.

One individual asked why the instructor had taken a student past the maximum permitted depth for an open water student, and thereby violated agency standards. This individual had not absorbed the fact that the student was in the AOW class where a deep dive (often to 100 ft) is part of the certification. Another asked why the instructor had not "donated" their regulator when the student signaled they were OOA. The instructor had no chance to because prior to that she had been holding onto the diver to slow her too rapid ascent, and once the signal was given, the student immediately bolted to the surface and the instructor couldn't ascend at that rate without further risking her own life. Such uninformed speculation (or WAGs as I referred to some of it) can be very hurtful to the instructor involved or to the family and friends of the deceased. I think back to some of the wildly unfounded speculation about why I left the Conservancy, and how some of it was very hurtful to me.

Of course speculation can be useful in discussing an incident, if based on what is actually known, since it can help explain what might have happened to cause it. On ScubaBoard I refered to this as "informed speculation" since it considered possibilities that were consistent with what actually occurred. Fortunately the moderators on ScubaBoard acted wisely in separating out much that was speculation into separate threads so the posts didn't cloud the discussion of the specific incident.

This is the second time this year a diver who I met at the dive park passed away within 24 hours. The first was an instructor with several thousand dives who made one unwise but probably common decision. No, I don't feel I'm a jinx or that it's unsafe for other divers to meet me. Diving is a safe sport if one receives good training and employs the computer within their skull as well as their dive computer in making decisions. I know I feel MUCH safer underwater than I do in my tiny Toyota Tercel on the 405 or 101 Freeways. However, people do make bad decisions or panic in some cases, and the results can be disastrous.

A ScubaBoard friend from the East Coast out here to dive our kelp forests last weekend said they have a death about every two months in the deep, dark quarry where she dives most frequently. Our conditions here are usually so much better in terms of visibility, and we have great access to trained emergency personnel like the harbor patrol members and Los Angeles County paramedics who responded to the latest incident almost immediately, and the chamber staff at Two Harbors. I have dived in some remote parts of the world where such professional assistance was impossible. Still one can't become complacent even after thousands of dives, and should always strive to get the best training possible and build their experience level. And others shouldn't speculate about incidents that do occur unless they base their guesses on knowledge of the facts. There is no legitimate reason to add further to the pain of those involved.

© 2009 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 and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Dr. Bill making a safety stop on a safe ascent, onlookers watching a diving incident unfold;
Avalon harbor patrol and Los Angeles County fire and paramedics personnel
who respond to incidents in the dive park. .

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2009 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia