Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Aussies Adrift off Florida
Aussies Adrift off Florida|
© Mark Stewart
Just reading your account of the three divers adrift of Sydney and it reminded me of a recent incident which I was involved in. I have been to the states for work recently and while in Florida I decided to head out for a dive. My dive group was made up with work friends although they had originated from all parts of the world. In total there were five of us: 2 Aussies, 1 American, 1 German & 1 Dutchman. None of us had ever dived together before.
We hooked up with a local tour operator in Boca Raton who organised the hire of the residual items of gear (several of us had had the foresight to bring the basics) and put us on their boats.
Our group was one of four on the boat. As we were the most inexperienced group (the two Europeans had never dived in the open ocean before) the dive master decided to come with us - which was fine with me.
The weather was poor the day we went out (in fact the following days were near cyclonic) with a strong wind causing a very uncomfortable chop on the water. The German guy became sea sick the moment we got out into the open ocean. As we headed out we were urged by the operators to get into our gear so that moment they reached our drop off point we could go in. By the time we arrived at our dive site 3 out of the 6 in my dive group were very sea sick and so we were delayed in our preparation. This delay caused angst with the captain of the boat and he and his crew were hurrying/rushing us to get in the water.
I should explain what the plan for the dive was going to be. Firstly all the diving that is done off Boca Raton is drift diving due to local prevailing currents. Secondly, we decided on buddies within the group although we were intending for the group to stay together anyway. In the end my German colleague never got in the water having lost his battle with sea sickness. In his place an older diver who was by himself was added to our group. Finally there was no marked drop off point for each group, basically the boat would pullup to a likely bit of reef and let one group enter the water before moving on for the next group etc.
Anyway back to our drop off point. We geared up as quickly as possible before doing a buddy check and jumping in. We had talked with the dive master about the plan for the dive and he had insisted on us all descending as soon as possible and not to mill about on the surface and descend together (which is what we were expecting.) I was the third diver into the water and the other two guys hadn't started their descent yet by the time I had stabilised on the surface after my giant stride entry. The crew and Dive Master were telling all three of us to start our descent and that the others would meet us on the bottom directly under the boat. SO down we went.
The three of us (2 Aussies and the American) had an incident free descent and we sat on the bottom in about 20m of water. The current was quite strong on the bottom but as we had descended onto sand we just dug our hands in to maintain our location. After another minute or so the older external diver joined us and he also dug in to await the last two (being the dive master with the flag and the Dutchman.)
While we were waiting we we looking around to get a feel for the surroundings and also starting to notice some of the small tropical fish inspecting us. After about 5 mins we all started looking at each other realising that the other two hadn't joined us. We looked up and could see the surface and there was no sign of the boat or the two other divers.
Three of the four of us realised quickly that it would be almost impossible for the boat to find us again given the choppy surface conditions and also the fact that the Dive Master who had the flag for our group had never reached the bottom with us. Through a combination of hand signals and writing in the sand we were able to communicate quite well. The old guy that had joined our group urged us to wait where we were. As we were not really sure of who this guy was (he could have been from the dive store for all we knew) the other three of us ignored our better judgement and stayed on the bottom like anchors.
After we had been on the bottom for about 15mins my American work mate indicated that he was going to surface to look for the others or the boat. I agreed that this was a good idea for all of us to do and turned to let the old guy know that all four of us should surface. After a bit of explaining he finally agreed but when I turned back to my workmate he had disappeared. He had started his ascent by himself and had quickly been caught in the current and was out of sight.
So that left the three of us sitting on the bottom, we stayed where we were for another 5 minutes on the off chance that the American work mate who had disappeared was able to reappear but as he didn't we finally were all able to agree that our only option was to surface.
The ascent was incident free with all three of us staying very close together. When we got to the surface the conditions had deteriorated slightly and the wind chop made things quite uncomfortable for us. We could see our boat off in the distance but the sound of our voices did not cover the distance nor did they see our waving to them. The current was also on the surface and we could feel ourselves being taken further away from the boat and our entry point. I think all three of us had visions of us being picked up by the coast guard in a few hours time several miles down the coast.
After a short period longer (I think we were only on the surface for five minutes but that's a long time when you are being washed away from your boat) the old guy remembered he had one of those inflatable (condom like) beacons for just this situation. He removed it from his BCD and inflated it and waved it. The
spotters on the boat did see this and soon they roared over and picked us up.
We found out what had happened was:
After the boat picked us up they quickly took us to our dive masters flag for us to reenter the water and spend the rest of our air actually seeing something.
- Our Dutch work colleague and dive master had started descending after us but the Dutch guy had a small panic attack and resurfaced. The dive master followed him and after a few minutes on the boat again they had redescended but by this time the boat had drifted with the current so they didn't find us. They just went on with their dive as if nothing was wrong.
- My American colleague who had disappeared had been found by the boat almost as soon as he surfaced. He mentioned that he had intended just to go up for a few metres to look around and then wait for the other three of us to join him. However he had not realised how strong the current was off the bottom and not being sure whether he was able to find us again he had just surfaced instead.
The second of our double dives passed without incident.
I can tell you what I learnt from this experience, given that the situation could
have been so easily avoided:
I hope this has been of interest.
- Make sure everyone is clear on the plans for the dive before commencing the dive - the people on the boat had expected us to resurface as soon as we realised that everyone hadn't made it to the bottom.
- Don't rush the preparation. The Dutch guy attributed his panic attack to the fact that the crew had badgered him to get into the water and not let him take his own time to mentally prepare.
- Either descend together or keep your eye on the others while descending. If any of the four of us had of looked up we might have seen the two others go back to the boat.
- Those blow up safety indicators are worth every dollar that they cost. I think I will invest in one.
- When drift diving whoever has the flag descends first - seems obvious in hindsight.
- Choose a dive operator appropriate for your level of experience. Only two of us had any reasonable experience levels with ocean diving and I was the only one who had been drift diving. The others were all inexperienced but the dive crew didn't treat them this way.
Note:Many thanks to Mark for providing this report to go on my Web Site.