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Drowning on the surface

Discussion in 'Accidents and Incidents' started by Storker, Aug 19, 2013.

  1. Storker

    Storker ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: close to a Hell which occasionally freezes over
    In my "Four fatalities in Norway" thread, one of the stories I linked to was about a woman who seems to have drowned on the surface, after an apparent successful ascent. I'm scratching my head and wondering how such a thing can happen, and how to avoid it.

    The facts about the accident are a little bit fuzzy, but it seems as if it happened thus:

    • The woman did not dive solo. It was a shore dive with a friend/buddy
    • She did a successful, uneventful ascent and surfaced apparently without problems.
    • She started swallowing water while at the surface. According to some the media, she "took off her gear", something I have a slight problem believing. According to another media, she took off her mask, a wave broke over her and she panicked. According to rumor, she didn't get air from her regulator.
    • The buddy got her to the shore and started CPR. According to some records, he made a call for ambulance before starting CPR on land, but this is also unconfirmed.
    • There was some wind and waves there, at least after the rescue personnel came to the site. From the newspaper picture taken of the rescue personnel, I'd estimate the wind to around moderate breeze (5.5-8 m/s), possibly up to fresh breeze (8-11 m/s). That's a wave height somewhere between 1m and 3m, most probably 1-2m.

    Now, I know that it's useless to speculate further on the exact events leading to the fatality since we don't have access to first-hand reports, but I've been thinking about how other divers - like myself, who frequently does shore dives with just a buddy and someone on the shore - can avoid a similar accident.

    The first point is of course a no-brainer: Panic kills. Being comfortable enough in the water to not panic if you get your face splashed and take an inadvertent breath of water will help a lot.
    The second point is also obvious: Shore diving with wind and waves isn't for everyone. We don't know if the wind increased while the divers were underwater, or after the accident, but I'd be inclined to thumb the dive before it had started if the sea looked the way it does in the newspaper article I linked to.
    Thirdly, I'm wondering of the woman used a snorkel, and - if not - would it have helped her? With good buoyancy on the surface, is a standard snorkel enough to provide air in, say 2m/7ft waves?

    Posted in Mishap analysis in the hope of getting some opinions on how to avoid something similar
  2. graham_s

    graham_s ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: I'm a Fish!
    Location: Al Khobar, Ash Sharqiyah, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arab
    I have done shore dives where there has been a fairly rough breakwater, and a decent snorkel does prevent water inspiration.
    However, without knowing the full facts of what happened, it's all speculation over what exactly happened.
  3. sphyrnidus

    sphyrnidus Photographer

    # of Dives: 2,500 - 4,999
    Location: Netherlands
    It is always just speculation as to what has happened. She may even had a heart attack and subsequently drowned. Who knows?
  4. TSandM

    TSandM Missed and loved by many. Rest in Peace ScubaBoard Supporter

    It can be unnerving to be on the surface in heavy chop. I don't think a snorkel makes things much better, since the water will break over the snorkel, too, if the chop is rough. If you are calm, it's not too difficult to time your breathing so that you don't inhale when you have your face in the water, but if you are frightened by the conditions, you may not be able to do this. And if you are trying to do a shore exit in rough water and get rolled, it's a VERY unpleasant experience.
    Selchie in LB likes this.
  5. Gren

    Gren Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Naples, Italy
    Panic can kill. Also, I've seen several divers take off their gear to make it, "easier" to get onto the boat or out of the surf but starting with the BC. If you're still wearing a weight belt in 1-3m chop panic will set it quickly.
  6. Griffo

    Griffo DIR Practitioner

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Sydney, Australia
    I'm only a novice diver really, but have already been witness to three situations where a diver completed a dive, made it to the surface, removed their reg, then started inhaling water and panicked. All of them did the same thing - basically dog paddled to try to keep on the surface. None of them ditched weight, none of them inflated their BC, none of them put their reg back in. In the first case, when I had all of 20 dives to my name, I swam over and inflated the persons BC, at which point I had no training really and thought it was a random event. Then literally the day after I did rescue training, a similar event happened, I yelled at them to inflate their BC, and after 3 or 4 instructions they did it themselves, and all was OK. People really do ignore instructions when they start to panic. The third time I saw the same thing but yelled at their dive guide who swam over and inflated it for them.
    It sounds stupid, but if I've seen it three times in my 150 or so dives, it must happen all the time. If nobody is around smart enough to help them....
  7. FinnMom

    FinnMom ScubaBoard Supporter Staff Member ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Finland
    Without a reg or snorkel it can be incredibly hard to breath while on the surface with even slight chop. Someone experiencing this for the first time can get flustered and scared pretty easily. And panic kills.

    Many divers have an unfortunate tendency to always remove their reg once they reach the surface, automatically without any consideration of the situation or the conditions. Worse yet, many do this without first inflating their BCD enough to provide good, solid flotation. Watch and you will notice that folks often rise just enough to get their chin above the water then toss the reg and try to start talking. If they get a wave in the face or otherwise inhale a little water they get real unhappy real fast, esp if they can't find their reg anymore.
    lamarpaulski likes this.
  8. Eric Sedletzky

    Eric Sedletzky Great White

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Santa Rosa, CA
    Not to say that the following is in any way what happened but the few times I have seen divers panic on the surface was when I used to dive master for classes. Usually it was due to the diver being grossly overweighted to the point that their BC's had to be almost fully inflated for them to stay on the surface. I did not have any control over how they were weighted and set up, that was the shops and instructors deal, I was just there to help.
    When I would go to inflate their BC's the divers would panic worse because the jackets would squeeze them to the point they couldn't breathe. So this was a real problem I saw, overweighting and a piece of gear that was like a boa constricter when used to try and offset the first problem.
    The instructors would purposely overweight them so they didn't have to deal with them doddling on the surface trying to figure out how to get down.
    It's a miracle that we didn't have more incidents.
    That was also about the time I realized divemastering for incopetent intructors was not for me.

    In the case of this particular incident there's no way to know exactly what happened so any speculation is useless.
  9. boulderjohn

    boulderjohn Technical Instructor ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Boulder, CO
    A friend of mine witnessed a near death that was nearly identical to this. Her group had completed a dive on a wreck called the Spiegel Grove in Florida. While they were taking off their gear, the DM on their boat started shouting at another boat moored nearby. He had seen one of their divers struggling at the surface--exactly as you described. He had not inflated his BCD properly, and he was swimming inefficiently, with his head dropping beneath the surface from time to time. When the other boat did not react, the DM started yelling at the diver to inflate his BCD, to no avail. When the head went under again, the DM dived in, swam toward him, dived, and caught the sinking body at about 20 feet. He was unconscious. Luckily, CPR revived him.

    People can do stunningly stupid things. I once led a dive trip, and one of the people on the trip asked me for advice. She was not enjoying the dives because somehow during the early part of a dive she as getting some sea water in her mouth, and it was uncomfortable for her to go through the entire dive with that sea water in the mouth. Did I have any suggestions? I told her to spit it out, and she was incredulous. "Can you really do that?"
    John C. Ratliff likes this.
  10. flots am

    flots am Solo Diver

    # of Dives: I just don't log dives
    Location: Wherever you go in life, that's where you are.
    The surface, when the dive is over, is actually the most dangerous part of the dive.

    An inability to become positively buoyant and not using a regulator or snorkel, and sucking up water can very easily cause panic and drowning. Rejecting gear (spitting out reg, ripping stuff off, etc.) is very common in panic and drowning is usually very quiet and doesn't look at all like what you see on television.

    Also, while not apparently related to this fatality, there are certain types of blood pressure (and other?) medications and medical conditions that can cause loss of consciousness when transitioning from under water to above water.

    It's always good to surface with your buddy and keep an eye on them (and them on you) to make sure everybody is OK and stays that way. While I know this is annoying especially when your buddy might be low on air and you have half a tank left, the surface is exactly where they're most likely to need assistance.


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