The Perils of Staying Silent

We surfaced after our dive to find our captain and boat gone.

There was nothing but flat seas, steady current and open water in every direction: 25 miles this way, 20 miles that way, nothing in between.

I knew immediately that we were in serious danger.

When I was invited out for a dive the night before, I didn't think much about the dive plan. Our dive leader was a longtime director of our local marine park and an authority figure in our island community of divers, captains and fishermen. He was responsible for installing dive moorings, supervising patrols to prevent poaching and managing marine infrastructure for one of the world's most prominent coral reef ecosystems. When the marine park director said we were good to go, I thought: Let's go. Everything felt OK.

We met the next morning at a local dive shop, where the owner, a friend of the marine park director, contributed gear and helped us get sorted before the dive. We took a boat that docked regularly at the dive shop. The captain had captained there previously and was the father of the boat's full-time captain. Everything still felt OK.

We were four divers equipped with GPS coordinates and a sense of adventure on our way to a pair of offshore seamounts about 25 miles off the coast of our Caribbean island home. There are no moorings at the seamounts or boat traffic to provide assistance should problems arise.

After we descended, the captain left our location, presumably to fish. He did not know how to use a GPS. He did not keep his eyes on our surface marker, and he never returned. He failed to execute a thoughtful search pattern, and he failed to alert authorities that he had lost four divers. He did alert the dive shop where our trip originated.

Instead of requesting assistance, the dive shop tried to solve the problem alone. They searched incorrect coordinates and never got closer than five miles. The few people who now knew that we were alone and in danger said nothing. They said nothing for three hours.

Before our dive, my dive buddy, the marine park director, asked me if I wanted to help him hunt lionfish by holding the kill container. I declined, and by the time I was geared up he had already disappeared in search of lionfish. Despite having no buddy, not having done a buddy check and being the only diver still on the surface, I chose to descend. Underwater, I remember thinking: This is dangerous. Never again.

I finally found my buddy 19 minutes into our dive. When I did, I felt like I had dodged a bullet.

I was the first diver on the surface. Within minutes I had prepared myself mentally to be lost at sea overnight. The clock was ticking; dehydration, hypothermia and darkness were already working against us.

We had five surface markers between four divers. One marker was already attached to the seamount, and we attached a second marker as backup. The first marker kept us at our original location, while the backup gave us confidence and kept us calm.

Despite the optimism of some of the others, I pressed a discussion of worst-case scenarios. Call it fear, but positive attitudes are helpful only insofar as they don't prevent proper planning. It's critical to make life-and-death decisions before mental sharpness erodes. I wasn't going to let pride get in the way of keeping us alive.

One diver suggested swimming overnight more than 20 miles to land. That choice would likely have been fatal. We made our decision together before dehydration, exposure and exhaustion compromised us physically and mentally: We decided to stay put.

We knew with confidence but not certainty that at least one other captain had our GPS coordinates, but until the alarm was sounded more widely and that second captain alerted, his having our location was useless. We could have helped ourselves if we had shared our dive plan more widely. Instead we braced against the cold, waited for rescue and hoped that soon somebody would notice we were missing.

After more than seven hours alone in open water, we were rescued three minutes before sunset, with curious silky sharks circling and jellyfish welts rising.

Our captain was unqualified and had been hired by the marine park director to save money. The marine park director had made this decision alone; nobody questioned it, and nobody asked him if he had briefed the captain on how to use a GPS.

We trusted our friend and community leader. We failed to recognize that with qualifications sometimes comes complacency. We accepted the marine park director's reputation as a substitute for proper planning and dialogue.

Four divers almost died because our captain accepted responsibility that he could not handle, because the initial search and rescue attempt was conducted quietly and because we planned poorly and didn't talk enough beforehand.

I know better now than to go along with an unfamiliar captain, leaving from an unfamiliar dive shop, to dive risky profiles in faraway places, without asking questions. Demand dialogue if planning is absent, weak or unclear. Demand dialogue even if things seem OK.

Dialogue is no less important after an emergency than it is during one or beforehand. Share details of your experience, and be transparent with decisions, mistakes and outcomes so that others can learn from your experience.

After an emergency, rumors are sometimes accepted as fact, especially in the absence of a formal debriefing, which unfortunately our marine park staff declined to conduct. They also refused a written request to release publicly our captain's GPS data. Some people would prefer that situations like this die quietly. Those involved may smother mistakes with silence.

Staying silent almost got us killed.

Be strong mentally, and reject silence. You owe it to yourself and the global dive community to be transparent about incidents that occur. Request a debriefing that includes everyone involved. Work together toward safer diving. Don't just pay it lip service — put your experience into action.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2015