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San Juan - Not Just Another Downwelling

Discussion in 'Near Misses and Lessons Learned' started by JenLoves2Dive, Mar 22, 2010.

  1. JenLoves2Dive

    JenLoves2Dive Barracuda

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Cozumel, Mexico
    I would like to preface this story with a couple of things before I begin. I have been diving in Cozumel for about 15 years. I have logged about 700 dives with at least 500 of them in Cozumel. (Actually this really means nothing, as all of them could have been just at Paradise reef! ha) I have been diving there in all kinds of weather and during every season. I have also dove many advanced sites including Columbia Deep, all the Palancar sites, Santa Rosa Wall, Punta Sur, Maracaibo, San Juan, and Barracuda. STILL...s**t happens.

    On Thursday, March 11, a small group of friends decided to do a little birthday dive. This was not a scheduled dive trip with the dive operation, Scuba Mau, but just a private family trip to go and celebrate a birthday by checking out the eagle rays up north accompanied by our good friend and dive master Gabrielle, (aka Gabi Loco). I personally have been diving with Gabi since about 2004. I apologize for the initials but I have not been in contact with them since they left the island, so am doing so out of respect for their privacy. On board was boat captain Victor. The divers included a friend of ours RH and her son, RH1 and daughter-in-law, RH2 (the birthday girl). Also on board was another advanced diver TM and another diver Matt. Matt has done several hundred dives in Cozumel and brought along his video camera to shoot some footage. All divers had advanced certifications and were qualified to do the dive. We were all diving air. I was also toting my camera which was a Canon G10 w/Ikelite housing and strobe. I dive with 8 pounds in a weight-integrated BC and was wearing a 3/2mm wetsuit. (2 pounds in each ditchable weight pocket and then 2 pounds in each trim pocket next to the outside of my shoulder blades.) My camera is about one pound slightly negative.

    We headed out about 8:00 am and headed north up to San Juan for our first dive. After Gabi went over the dive plan with us it was discussed that Matt and I would enter the water first and Gabi would follow with the other 4 divers since RH1 sometimes took a little longer to clear when descending. Everything on the surface seemed normal and the water appeared fairly calm. Matt and I did a backwards roll and entered the water. The boat captain, Victor handed us our cameras and off we went. I usually do a headfirst descent. As I descended, I paused to fiddle with my camera and turned on the camera and the strobe. I have done this dive many times and I usually try to get to a depth of about 65-70 and then kick horizontally over to the wall. Within seconds I noticed that it appeared darker than normal and my bubbles were getting sucked down. I honestly did not notice any significant pressure change. I grabbed my gauge and was shocked to see that I had already been pulled down to 146 feet! I started to kick to head back up and it was not easy. I immediately noticed that my heart rate had increased and I could feel it pounding in my chest.

    I have thought about this numerous times since this happened.
    In those few seconds these thoughts entered my mind:

    First and foremost my mind yelled at me, "STOP! SLOW YOUR BREATHING! THINK!"

    In an instant I thought:
    What kind of demand can I put on my reg at this depth?
    Can I make it over to the wall?
    How can I get out of this downswell. Do I go parallel or up?
    Should I inflate my BC?
    Do I drop my weights?
    Do I ditch my camera?

    I realized that at 147 feet I was not going to be able to kick over to the wall. I would rip through my air and I was pretty sure my regulator would not be able to keep up with the demand I would be putting on it at that depth and also exerting myself. I clipped my camera onto my lanyard to get my hands free. I thought to myself, "Damn, I don't want to drop my weights." I inflated my BC and decided to wait before dropping my weights, since I might not have any way to slow my ascent should I start to go up too quickly. I started kicking hard and inflated my BC again at 125 feet. I kept kicking and in the mean time I looked to see where Matt was. All I could see were his bubbles getting sucked down and I felt absolutely sick to my stomach knowing that there was nothing I could do to help him and I knew I couldn't go get him. I couldn't even tell how deep he was. I literally had tears in my eyes. (I would later hear from him that he hit about 185 feet.) When I reached 100 feet, I started heading toward the wall. I could still feel the strong downward pull and knew it was my best bet since the wall was so close. I looked and I could no longer see Matt. When I reached the wall, I just grabbed a big hunk of whatever I could grab. (Did I mention how I did not have gloves on and yes, this is outside of the marine park, but at this point who gives a s**t?) Now, I could see Gabi and three other divers in the deep blue all holding on to each other in a circle ascending in what looked like a washing machine. They were all turning around and at the same time ascending. I remember thinking to myself, "Am I narced??" It looked so strange. I am pretty sure Gabi can see me (or at least my bright neon yellow split fins) but there is no way I can get to them either.

    I am estimating that this whole event, so far, took about 5-6 minutes to get to the wall. From this point on, the only thing I could do was literally pull myself, hand-over-hand up the wall. I also remember thinking, "Wouldn't that be hilarious if a whole squadron of eagle rays came zooming by? That sure would be just your luck, Jen!" Where ever I could get a hand hold, I did. Many times it felt like I was being pulled off or to the side and I banged into a lot of stuff. I wouldn't realize until later that you can indeed get cut and scratched up even with a wetsuit on!! I was thinking that if I could make it to the top of the wall I could work my way East over to the shallow area and then make a safer ascent.

    By the time I reached the top of the wall and started pulling myself horizontally across trying to head East, I realized fairly quickly that this was NOT going to happen. The current was heading straight West and was pushing hard against me. (Note: It is hard to estimate the speed of the current when you are laying on the sand and grabbing finger holds where ever you can find them.) I was literally dragging my poor camera across the sand! (I am amazed that it didn't leak.) I grabbed my gauge and saw that I had about 1600 psi left. It had taken me about 8 minutes just to get to the top of the wall. I figured I had two options. I could continue to fight like crazy to crawl East, but I was still at a depth of about 78 feet. Also, I was too deep to deploy my sausage and let the guys know I was okay. At that depth, and still fighting against the current, I could go through my air pretty quickly and then I would still need enough air to safely ascend. If I let go, there was the possibility that I might still get sucked down once I was in the open ocean again. I said a quick prayer and thought my best option was to let go and hope that I didn't hit another down current. If I did, at least I had a good amount of air in reserve to fight it and I could still drop my weights, if I had to and get to the surface. As much as I hated to, I let go and woosh, off I went back out into the blue.

    Once I got out there, I found I could kick hard and I was able to make a slow ascent but I had to literally keep my gauge right in front of me to constantly monitor my depth. When I got to 40 feet, I grabbed my sausage and finger spool and inflated my SMB and let it go. In the time it took to do that I was pulled back down 20 feet and was spinning around a little. I remembered to flare out my fins and that seemed to stop the spinning. I also had to make sure I didn't get all tangled up in my line. Forget the safety stop, it was all I could do to keep a close eye on my depth and get back up to the surface. By the time I surfaced, I had been in the water a total of 17 LONG minutes. I fully inflated my BC and my SMB and held it high at the surface. In just a minute another boat came by to see if I needed assistance and I told them my boat's name and the marine channel. He radioed them and Victor was over to get me in a matter of minutes. I looked up to see six worried faces peering over the edge and was elated to see Matt's face among them!!

    As I climbed up the ladder, I noticed how badly my hands were shaking. That and how red and swollen they were from the hydroids!! Poor Gabi looked so worried and I was just so very thankful to be standing there on that boat. I looked over to see face number seven, RH sitting on the floor of the boat on oxygen. Apparently when they all got caught in the down current, Gabi quickly had them pull together in a circle and had them all holding on to each other as they aborted the dive and kicked to ascend. RH got a severe case of vertigo and broke free and went up to the surface by herself. (I am not sure what their max depth was). Matt later told me that he could see my neon yellow fins and could see that I had made it to the wall. Gabi said the same. Matt also told me that as he hit the 180s he had to completely fill his BC and kick like a son-of-a-b--- to get back up. He just kept dumping air as he got more shallow and was able to finally break free but he also got caught up in the washing machine (cross current).

    We headed back to the pier in record time with Gabi and the rest closely monitoring RH who was complaining of nausea and ear pain. By the time we got back it was determined that although she had some vertigo, she had also been having some nausea over the last several days left over from a small stomach bug and that she had been having the nausea over a period of days. She felt fine and there was no need to take her to the chamber as they had only been at depth about 7 minutes total.

    I can tell you that there was a lot of hugging and back slapping on that pier and that we were all very, very happy to be back in one piece, minus a few scrapes, stings and bruises on my part! Diving was scrapped for the day and by noon we cracked open a few cervesas and compared our individual experiences.

    I can tell you that everyone did everything right and that it was just a freak thing. As a matter fact, I spoke with a DM with Dive Paradise, Giovanni, who dove San Juan about 30 minutes after we did, and there was no current and no issues with the dive!! I was incredulous. After talking with several other DMs and reading some of the posts here, it just so happens that there are unpredictable things that take place in the ocean and you need to be prepared. Gabi did a great job of keeping the group together and getting them back to the surface!! Victor did a great job as the boat captain and had everyone in the boat a.s.a.p. Way to go Gabi and Victor!

    I am thankful that I had the opportunity to tell my story and I am sorry for the long winded detail. However, I hope you will take something with you as a lesson. Be prepared. Don't push to do a dive you are not prepared to do and don't dive outside of your experience. Be prepared and have a SMB AND a reel when you are diving in current, but most importantly you'd better know how to use it. And no matter what takes place, the best thing you can do is STOP, BREATHE and THINK. It only takes a few seconds to make a decision so make sure it's the RIGHT decision..and panic is NOT an option.

    Thanks for listening guys. I am truly thankful to be here!!
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2010
  2. DiverG

    DiverG Reached My 2nd Goal!

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Houston, Texas, United States
    Sounds similiar to the dive I mentioned from my group trip in 2000. Not sure how deep they ended up though, and fortunately no one from your group had to go to the chamber. Thanks for sharing.
  3. greylion

    greylion Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Chi-Town
    You're a trooper Jen. Thanks for sharing the tale. After seeing you all scratched up at the airport I can sure see why. I'd settle for scratches over the alternative any day.

    Now get back in the water. :)

  4. D_B

    D_B Biilápache, Dii Shodah? ScubaBoard Sponsor

    # of Dives: 50 - 99
    Location: San Diego, Ca.
    Wow .. thank you very much for the "long winded detail" ..it allows us to experience your dive in a way that is imposable to do with "just the facts" approach (not to mention that my heart was in my throat while reading it)
  5. princessaprilia

    princessaprilia Manta Ray

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: snowbound Canadian fortress, AKA Regina, SK
    Wow. I can only hope that I would have kept as level a head.
  6. scubafanatic

    scubafanatic Great White

    lucky this event happened at the start of the dive when everyone's nitrogen loading was relatively small and while everyone had full tanks...and that everyone happened to be on 'air' instead of Nitrox....and that it was not a night dive.
  7. Puffer Fish

    Puffer Fish Captain Happy ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives:
    Location: Knoxville, TN
    Glad you made it thru that... scary stuff.

    One suggestion if you ever find yourself in that sort of situation again (and I hope you don't)... get away from the wall...but you did everything else very well.

    I carry different reels, depending on how deep I am diving or could be diving. Most are more than 100 ft, so sending one up from 80 would not be an issue.

    Using the "inflate the vest" trick is scary stuff, as sometimes you get suddenly let go of...

    Thanks for the post.
  8. Geckotek

    Geckotek Nassau Grouper

    # of Dives: I just don't log dives
    Location: New York, NY
    Wow, and my roommate (currently getting his cert) kept asking why he needed lessons. He seemed to think that all he needed to know about diving was what they taught him in 30 mins on a boat before taking him diving in Hawaii.

    Thanks for the very enthralling and informative story!
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2010
  9. ggunn

    ggunn ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Austin, TX, USA
    Agreed, but it wouldn't have been a night dive in any case unless it had been with Death Wish Divers.... :D
  10. jfcl01

    jfcl01 Barracuda

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Wow...thanks for taking the time to give us the details. Will you all excuse me for a minute while I go throw up! I'm not sure I would have done as well.
    Glad you are all okay.

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