A Personal Account: Out of Air Incident
I have been an active diver for 35 years and a NOAA diver for the last nine. During my diving career I have witnessed and responded to multiple diving accidents from near drowning to hypothermia to DCS to stingray stings. Through all of this, I have learned that the number of dives you’ve made or years of experience you have has nothing to do with safe diving. Getting behind, being rushed, but thinking, “it will be ok, I’m a safe diver” doesn’t make you a safe diver. I was reminded to follow all safety protocols every time and be aware that diving by itself is stressful enough and only gets more stressful with extra task loading. When we allow other stressors to distract us, valuable attention goes to things that will not save our lives in an emergency or better yet, help us to avoid emergencies altogether.
I was participating in a multi-day mission that was focused on a coral spawning event. My job within that mission was to capture the coral spawning event on video, as well as interview the researchers and divers who were there to observe the event. The events described below occurred on the second day of the multiple day mission.
Dive ops began at 12:30pm on an artificial reef that was an ideal subject for filming the coral spawning event. While busy interviewing divers, I found myself far behind the other divers in my group in my diving preparations. I had not yet analyzed my nitrox or checked the pressure of my tank and still had a lot of gear to prep. After being notified the dive window was closing and that I was very much behind, I was re-teamed with the last dive team as they prepared to enter the water. Knowing I was hurried, I became more preoccupied with a potential camera gear failure than my SCUBA gear. I quickly threw everything together and hastily joined my new team to enter the water.
The beginning of the dive was nominal and seeing the platform from underwater was truly an experience. Most divers were busy shooting video as was I. While I had already made some serious mistakes that would affect the outcome of the dive, I remembered that despite my interest in gathering video, I made a point to stay close to my dive buddy. Approximately twenty minutes into the dive, I noticed an odd sound while taking a breath. I checked my pressure gauge to see I was below 100 PSI. I realized I was using the remaining gas in my tank from my previous dive and it had not been filled by the boat crew as it had been on all the previous dives of the trip. I reached over to my nearby non-NOAA dive buddy and signaled, “out of air / buddy breathe.” My buddy responded immediately with their octopus, we gave each other an “ok” and motioned to head back to the boat. We began a steady, slow, and uneventful egress from the artificial reef and proceeded to our safety stop along the line provided by the boat. The non-NOAA Divemaster joined us to confirm we were all ok, remained with us during the safety stop, and subsequent ascent. After the safety stop, we surfaced and exited the water without further incident.
While we are trained not to make a safety stop for such an incident, I was with two other non-NOAA divers and as one of them was providing my air, I decided to complete the stop in order to not confuse or alarm my fellow non-NOAA divers.
As the videographer for this mission I often found myself short on time as I shoot topside and underwater using the same camera. The rig must constantly be refitted for each kind of use. This requires a good amount of time and often creates a ‘time crunch’ when trying to conduct both topside and underwater shooting in very close proximity to each other.
I happened to be filming during the introduction of the cruise, which covered the mission and boat pre-dive briefing. Unfortunately, my attention was dedicated elsewhere (sound levels, focus, light, composition, etc.). I missed relevant information regarding the handling of used tanks after each dive. Additionally, I was the first diver/tank position on the boat and was serviced immediately after each dive. As a courtesy my tank was often refilled while I was still doffing gear. Missing the used-tank procedure (diver removes regulator from tank valve for refill) I somehow, for the first six dives, did not follow this procedure. I had a false expectation that my tank was always taken care of. As it turned out, a tank with regulator attached, meant the tank was analyzed and ready for diving.
In this one instance my tank was not serviced immediately and I did not remove my regulator. The crew who began filling tanks later on must have understood this to be a full analyzed tank, and left it alone. I however, in my rush made the critical mistake to trust it was refilled. I was told I would miss the dive if I did not hurry and hastily assembled my camera and dive gear not taking the extra time to make sure I followed all safety protocols.
I was informed minutes before the dive that the subject of my video was leaving immediately after this dive. I had anticipated access to the interviewee for several days to come. We hastily completed our only interview just before the dive (making me very late for the dive) and subsequently, I was focused entirely on capturing b-roll of the subject during the dive, which would be my only opportunity. With my focus elsewhere, I was solely focused on getting needed footage and did not follow standard safety protocols.
- Never fail to do all safety checks, every time.
- Never trust someone else has taken care of your dive safety gear/ checks.
- Never be so rushed that safety protocols are skipped.
- Create more realistic workloads that do not draw focus away from pre-dive safety checks and safe diving.
- Understand that a dive may have to be missed, and use that time to get caught up if behind.