Lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with his dry­suit costs a diver his life

Scuba Diving - - Lesson for Life - BY ERIC DOU­GLAS

The wa­ter was too cold to dive in his wet­suit, but Eli wasn’t about to miss the chance to make this dive. He had heard sto­ries and seen pho­to­graphs of the nearly pris­tine wreck for years — when his chance came, he jumped at it. He just couldn’t seem to get his buoy­ancy un­der con­trol in this rented dry­suit.

Eli kept adding air to his suit and his BC, and then de­flat­ing both, but he con­tin­ued to strug­gle. He kept feel­ing the air in­side the suit move to­ward his feet, and then strug­gled to get trimmed out again.


At 39, Eli had been diving for about 10 years. He had made nearly 200 dives in his ca­reer, but most were in the Caribbean. Be­fore this dive, he had made only two dives in a dry­suit, each in a con­trolled sit­u­a­tion in a lo­cal quarry.


Eli and his buddy made a shore en­try and swam on the sur­face to get to the dive site. The wa­ter was cold and each diver was wear­ing a dry­suit, although nei­ther had for­mal train­ing in its use. Their only pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence wear­ing a dry­suit was us­ing them un­der su­per­vi­sion dur­ing a “try a dry­suit” event at the lo­cal quarry. For this dive, they both rented suits from their lo­cal dive shop.

The lo­ca­tion was a deep fresh­wa­ter river, and there was cur­rent on the site. There was also some sur­face chop stirred up by the wind. The wa­ter tem­per­a­ture

for this dive was much lower than on their pre­vi­ous dives in the quarry, so both divers were wear­ing thicker un­der­gar­ments for in­su­la­tion than they had used pre­vi­ously. Not be­ing fa­mil­iar with their suits, they guessed at the proper amount of weight they should wear for the dive.

The two divers swam 50 yards on the sur­face un­til they reached a de­scent line at­tached to the ship­wreck. Once they were ready, both divers be­gan the dive. The wreck rested in ap­prox­i­mately 90 feet of wa­ter.


While on the wreck, the two divers be­came sep­a­rated be­cause of the cur­rent and poor vis­i­bil­ity. Wit­nesses on the sur­face said Eli made an un­con­trolled as­cent to the sur­face, com­ing out of the wa­ter to his waist. He wasn’t on the sur­face for long, and didn’t seem to be con­scious, be­fore he de­scended again. No one on the sur­face was able to get to him in time.

When his body was found later that morn­ing by two other divers, 40 feet un­der­wa­ter with his reg­u­la­tor out of his mouth, they were un­able to in­flate his BC be­cause his tank was empty. They even­tu­ally dragged his body to shore and at­tempted to re­sus­ci­tate him, but those ef­forts were un­suc­cess­ful.

Not long af­ter Eli dis­ap­peared, his buddy re­turned to the sur­face alone.


A check of Eli’s dive com­puter showed that he made a dive with a max­i­mum depth of 88 feet with a to­tal dive time of 35 min­utes. The stored dive in­for­ma­tion showed a saw­tooth pro­file where Eli bounced up and down, at­tempt­ing to gain con­trol of his buoy­ancy.

The of­fi­cial cause of death in this case was drown­ing due to in­suf­fi­cient air. Ul­ti­mately, that is ac­cu­rate. He ran out of air while un­der­wa­ter and drowned. But like most dive ac­ci­dents, there are many steps lead­ing to the ac­ci­dent that are trig­gers to the fi­nal cause of death.

Eli was un­fa­mil­iar with his dry­suit. It is cer­tainly pos­si­ble to rent an ap­pro­pri­ately sized and fit­ted suit, but we do not know the con­di­tion of this suit. We do know, from his buddy, that Eli strug­gled with the suit un­der­wa­ter. In­ves­ti­ga­tors af­ter­ward de­ter­mined he was wear­ing more weight than nec­es­sary based on the con­di­tions and his equip­ment.

He had made a cou­ple of prac­tice dives

in a quarry but then changed his gear con­fig­u­ra­tion by adding heav­ier un­der­gar­ments to the suit. He guessed at the amount of weight he should be wear­ing and did not per­form a buoy­ancy check be­fore he be­gan the dive.

We know from his dive buddy that the two divers be­came sep­a­rated un­der­wa­ter and from wit­nesses on the sur­face that Eli made a rapid, un­con­trolled as­cent. If Eli lost con­trol of his buoy­ancy and failed to ex­hale ad­e­quately while he as­cended, it is pos­si­ble he suf­fered an air em­bolism and lost con­scious­ness.

An air em­bolism hap­pens when air in the lungs ex­pands rapidly dur­ing as­cent, tear­ing a hole in the alve­oli of the lungs and send­ing an air bub­ble into the ar­te­rial blood sup­ply. The air bub­ble moves to the brain, caus­ing stroke­like symp­toms. This is why divers learn to ex­hale con­tin­u­ously and never hold their breath.

If this sce­nario is ac­cu­rate, the fact that Eli’s tank was empty when his body was re­cov­ered in­di­cates that he kept his reg­u­la­tor in his mouth while un­con­scious and breathed his tank empty, only then drown­ing.

An al­ter­na­tive is that Eli ran out of air at depth. Dis­tracted by his buoy­ancy strug­gles, he wasn’t aware he was run­ning low. When he couldn’t take a breath, he bolted for the sur­face in a panic. An em­bolism is still likely in this sce­nario, caus­ing him to lose con­scious­ness and sink back un­der­wa­ter. In this sce­nario, un­con­scious, he lost his reg­u­la­tor and drowned.

This sce­nario is pos­si­ble based on the length of his dive and his strug­gles with his buoy­ancy. Dur­ing the dive, he con­tin­u­ally added air to his dry­suit and his BC, and re­peat­edly vented them both. He was also breath­ing heav­ily from a long sur­face swim in cur­rent while car­ry­ing too much weight. These fac­tors could eas­ily ex­plain Eli’s us­ing his air sup­ply more quickly than an­tic­i­pated. In this sce­nario, fail­ure to mon­i­tor his air sup­ply, brought

on by his strug­gles with the dry­suit, could be the trig­ger that led to the drown­ing.

It is rare that dive equip­ment fails and causes an ac­ci­dent. More of­ten, it is the fail­ure to use the equip­ment prop­erly that is the prob­lem. A dry­suit, like any­thing else, is a tremen­dous tool, open­ing a world of diving in cold-wa­ter en­vi­ron­ments. In fact, many dry­suit divers pre­fer them, wear­ing them in warmer wa­ter where most divers switch to wet­suits. The key is learn­ing to use them prop­erly.

Dry­suits take prac­tice and in­struc­tion to learn how to fit and use prop­erly. You should also learn how to deal with an emer­gency un­der­wa­ter if you do lose con­trol of your buoy­ancy.

On an­other note, Eli had made a cou­ple hun­dred dives, but very few of them were in cold-wa­ter en­vi­ron­ments. Ex­pe­ri­ence in one sit­u­a­tion doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily carry over to an­other. He was used to diving in warm salt wa­ter with lit­tle or no ex­po­sure pro­tec­tion.

An ex­pe­ri­enced diver, he was a rel­a­tive novice in this sit­u­a­tion. Some­times, as divers, we al­low our com­fort and fa­mil­iar­ity to get the bet­ter of us, rather than ask­ing for help or seek­ing train­ing when things change.

It is rare that dive equip­ment fails and causes an ac­ci­dent. More of­ten, it is the fail­ure to use the equip­ment prop­erly that is the prob­lem.

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