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Diver Down: Choking on It

Diver Down: Scuba Accidents and How to Survive Them

By Mike Ange


Each Diver Down case presented on is written by the author of “Lessons for Life” the #1 column at SCUBA Diving Magazine from 2001-2009.  Each case is based on a real incident that has been thoroughly investigated through official sources and the accounts of participants and witnesses. Names and some minor details have been changed to protect victims and their families. 


Choking on It

One small mistake leaves Jake in a world of hurt.

Jake breathed in and got nothing. Actually, it was worse. He got a mouth full of water. He was 50 feet below the surface and had just begun his dive. He thought back – his regulator had just been serviced and it had worked fine on the surface. He tried to take another breath and once again all he got was water. On the verge of panic, he looked around for his instructor, but could find him nowhere. He could no longer resist the urge to breathe, tired again and once more gagged on water. Then he began clawing his way to the surface.


The Diver

Jake was a healthy, active, local diver with a few dozen post-certification dives. He was in his mid 30s and although relatively inexperienced, he had above average water skills. He was seeking to continue his diving education by completing a deep diver certification course in a local rock quarry not far from his home.


The Dive

Visibility in the quarry averaged around 20 feet/6 meters and the water was relatively warm to a depth of 30 feet/9 meters, but beneath the thermocline temperatures dropped to the low 50s F / 10s C. The target depth for the dive was 80 feet/24 meters just beyond the minimum requirements for a deep diver certification. Visibility was slightly better than average and as always, the surface conditions were flat calm. Due to the bottom depth temperatures, the divers were in heavy wetsuits with hoods. The divers made a surface swim to the deepest part of the quarry and began a direct descent to the bottom. Jake was diving with two other divers and an instructor.


The Accident

Somewhere between 20 and 40 feet, Jake breathed in water. He did not realize what had happened at the time, but his regulator had separated from his mouthpiece, leaving the mouthpiece firmly gripped in Jake’s teeth. As soon as the cool quarry water hit his tongue, Jake began the panic circle. Instead of thinking about the problem, he tried once again to breathe. Even though it had only been a few seconds, his body was telling him that he urgently had to have air. As soon as he succumbed to the urge, his body’s reflexes took over, and he gagged in water, launching him into a full-scale panic attack. He began a rapid ascent to the surface, where he coughed up fluids before finally getting a much-needed breath of air. One of the other divers in his group saw Jake’s dilemma and followed him to the surface where he assisted Jake in getting positively buoyant and making it back to the shore. Jake’s instructor was notably absent during this entire process as he continued the dive with the remaining student. It was not until after he completed the dive that he finally surfaced to check on Jake’s status. Jake had all the symptoms of a near drowning and possibly decompression illness (DCI) but he received no care.



When regulator mouthpieces are removed for servicing or for replacement, they become a potential failure point if not properly reattached. In addition, the plastic zip ties that hold the mouthpiece to the regulator can age and break, especially with exposure to the sun. As a part of your pre-dive checks, you should always tug on both the primary and secondary stage mouthpieces to be sure that they are securely attached. Had Jake completed this test prior to his dive, the entire incident would have been avoided. Later inspection by a divemaster would show that the zip tie on Jake’s mouthpiece had actually been over tightened to the point that it had cut into the rubber and compromised the mouthpiece’s grip on the plastic body of the second stage before it failed and broke.


Cases of mouthpiece separation are not terribly uncommon and a diver’s reaction to the event can make a world of difference. Had Jake’s instructor been attentive to the divers on descent, as he should have been, he could have simply offered Jake his octopus while they sorted out the problem. Jake’s buddy was also nearby and he also had an octopus that was available. But perhaps the simplest solution would have been for Jake to simply switch to his own octopus which was affixed where it should have been and in perfect working order. Given the circumstances of Jake’s rapid ascent and the fact that he had obviously inhaled water, he would have been prudent to at least get checked by medical personnel. Confined bodies of water frequently contain many forms of bacteria and other organisms which can cause significant lung infections when water is inhaled. Additionally, Jake made an uncontrolled ascent from a depth that was certainly deep enough to cause an air embolism if air had been trapped in his lungs during the ascent. Fortunately, he survived the ordeal without significant problems, although the incident left him badly shaken, and he has not yet resumed diving.


Lessons for Life


  • Problems with equipment are mostly likely to occur at the beginning of the dive, so you should be especially attentive during your initial descent. Stay close and check your buddy as you descend.
  • Know your gear and know how to respond. Part of your pre-dive planning should be to think about the things that can and do go wrong on a dive and how you can respond to those things. We don’t train for it, but an octopus works as well for the diver carrying it as it does for his buddy. Practice using your own octopus in an emergency.
  • Consider using a completely redundant air source. This is the ultimate in self rescue and it works even with a first-stage failure or in an out-of-air situation.
  • Stay in control. As soon as the dive begins to control you, your responses become erratic and irrational, and that is what kills divers. Analyze your problem quickly and respond effectively.


Lessons for Dive Pros


  • Pay attention to your students throughout the dive and especially during ascents and descents. These are the times when problems are most likely to occur.
  • If a diver in your group has a problem and terminates the dive, you must terminate the dive and bring the rest of the students to the surface.
  • Use a certified assistant. In this case, the use of a certified dive con or divemaster would have helped an attentive instructor deal with the situation as the assistant could have been left behind to make a safe ascent with the remaining students while the instructor assisted the distressed diver.
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