S.O.S. Diver in Distress
According to my dive computer, I was at 71 feet and 10 minutes into the dive when I took emergency action to help a diver in distress.
We were swimming along the edge of a drop off into blackness. The wall starts at about 60 feet underwater and continues down to 3,000 feet. I remember swimming near the rear of the group taking pictures as I
swam along. This was my first dive of the trip, and I was seriously enjoying myself. I was keeping an eye on a diver diving much deeper than I was. Minutes before, I was down at 104 feet with the diver, taking pictures of a small moray eel. After I got the shots I wanted, I slowly acceded to the 80 foot range and continued the dive. Five minutes later, that very same diver was still in the 100+ foot deep range. I was looming about 20 feet above him with curiosity. This guy can’t stay that deep for much longer, I remember thinking to myself. He must have been going through air very rapidly and had to be approaching the no-decompression limit for that depth.
Something in me knew there was something wrong. Maybe it was intuition I developed during my 10 years in EMS, or maybe it was experience from diving, or my training. I knew there was a problem - and knew I needed to act. Worse yet - the instructor who was our rear guide was busy helping another diver and did not even see what was going on.
I started my descent down to the diver. I knew he was “eating through his air fast.” My plan was to descend to him, check to see if he was okay, then motion for him to ascend and follow me to a depth of 60 feet where we would continue the dive. As long as he was mentally coherent it was a sound plan. I say this because nitrogen narcosis is very common at depths below 100 feet. Without getting into a long science lecture... nitrogen narcosis is a common problem where a diver at depth experiences euphoria. Yes, they get high, and it can be a very serious problem affecting judgement.
So I started by decent from 71 feet down to the diver. When I was at 83 feet (the diver was at 100+ feet) the diver I was going down to assist started a rapid ascent to the surface. In less than a minute, he went from a depth of 100+ feet to the surface. For those of you who don’t know... this is bad. Potentially very bad.
Upon seeing what was happening I immediately removed the carabiner I carry from my vest and started to rap it against my tank. This banging sound was audible to every diver within site... but none of them turned around to see what was happening. Not one person other than myself saw the diver’s sudden ascent. Worse yet, we were nowhere near the boat. In a split second I made the decision to take action.
Knowing the danger to myself, I started a controlled ascent to the surface. My dive computer tells me I went from 83.1 feet to the surface in about two to three minutes. This ascent should have taken around 7-8 minutes if performed under normal circumstances.
The entire way up I was thinking of what to expect. Questions were buzzing around my head: Is he conscious? Is he breathing? What if he is not breathing? What if he is fine. I must have cycled through 7 or 8 different scenarios during my ascent, all with a common theme: “I don’t want to ditch my camera.” If the diver was having a serious medical emergency, I most likely would have had to drop my camera to help him. After all, I can’t effectively rescue someone AND keep a firm grip on my camera. If I dropped my camera, it would have been irretrievable. But, it may have been necessary to save this diver’s life.
I broke the surface a few feet away from the distressed diver. Within a micro second I knew he was conscious and breathing. “What are you doing?” I yelled.
The diver looked back at me with a semi-glazed look and replied with slightly slurred speech, “I can’t stay down.”
Was this the remnants of euphoria brought about by nitrogen narcosis? Was the diver having a stroke? Was the diver just out of his mind? I had only a few seconds to figure it out and make a decision of how I was going to act.... and if I was going to drop my camera.
The diver quickly became more responsive and realized the gravity of what was occurring. No one on the boat could see us... we were on our own. I used my 10 years of EMS experience and 100+ safely logged dives to make a decision about what to do next. “We’re going back down to 15 feet,” I ordered. I emptied all the air out of both of our BCs and dragged him below the surface.
He was too positively buoyant. Even with all my strength (without letting go of my camera) I could not keep him below the surface. It took us about 2 minutes to get back to the boat. The boat Captain saw us swimming back and knew something was wrong. He met us at the end of the boat. “What’s going on - are you okay?”
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“No!” I yelled. “Take my camera now!” I handed my camera up to the boat Captain who secured it. “This diver is having a buoyancy problem. I need to get him down to 15 feet to perform a safety stop. Let me have 3 or 4 pounds of lead.” The boat captain handed me a 3 pound lead weight. I put the weight into the divers vest, informed him what we were doing and dragged him down to a depth of 15 feet where I held him on the descent line for a total of six minutes in order to vent the nitrogen out of his blood stream. This safety stop was 3 minutes longer than normal, but I figured it could not hurt.
The diver and I were the first divers back on the boat. I helped him out of his equipment and took him to the front of the dive boat for a “conversation on dive safety.”
“Are you angry at me?” the diver said after the talk.
“No, Dad. You’re just lucky I did not have to drop my camera.”
After much “conversation” with the dive crew I was surprised they let either one of us on the next dive, although they picked a site with a maximum depth of 25 feet. (I wonder why.)