Follow us on: facebook Facebook twitter Twitter

Diver Down – Blind Faith

Lessons for Life – Dive Accidents, Close Calls & How You Can Avoid 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.

Blind Faith

As Don struggled against the current he glanced at his gauges and was surprised to see how fast his air supply was dwindling. Tapping his instructor on the shoulder, he pointed to his SPG, and was surprised when the man continued to swim away from the anchor line. Thinking back to the briefing, he knew he was at the recommended turn point and that he needed to reach the line before ascending. With his air pressure continuing to drop rapidly, Don nervously followed his instructor, expecting him to turn the dive at any moment. When he did not, Don grabbed the other diver and shoved the gauge in his face before turning away and heading for the anchor line on his own.

The Diver

Don was a relatively new diver with just a few post-certification dives under his belt. He was accompanying a friend and diving instructor on an excursion around South Florida that included one afternoon in Key West. Don was in his mid-30s, in good health and possessed reasonably good water skills for a new diver.

The Dive

Don’s friend had agreed to sign off on one of his deep dives for the deep diver certification course, if they could find a dive charter that could accommodate them during the few hours they had available in Key West. They hooked up with a commercial charter for a run to the wreck of the USNS Vandenberg. Seas were a bit rough — 2 to 4 feet — but visibility was good, water temperatures were in the low 80s and the current was running about a half-knot. The boat operator tied up on the bow buoy of the ship, which placed his divers far down-current from the ship’s superstructure. Don and his instructor did very little planning for the dive beyond agreeing to descend 100 feet to the main weather deck and work their way into the current. As best as can be determined, neither diver made any effort to estimate gas consumption, plan a route or consider no-decompression limits before entering the water.

The Accident

The divers had some difficulty descending the anchor line in the current and even after reaching the relative shelter of the ship’s superstructure, Don was surprised at the difficulty he had swimming in the current. By the time they reached wreck, a third of his air was already gone. His anxiety level grew when his buddy shrugged off Don’s first air warning and continued to swim aft along the ship. The divers had barely reached the bridge when Don was down to 1,000 psi. He knew from the Captain’s briefing that they should be ascending, so he tried again to notify his instructor/buddy. Certain that the man did not fully understand the situation; Don grabbed him, showed him the gauge, then turned and led the instructor back to the ascent line.

The divers ascended rapidly and Don literally ran out of gas as they reached the hang tank rigged at 20 feet. On the verge of panic, he grabbed the safety regulator and started breathing from it. He completed his safety stop (and a little extra), then took a final breath and ascended to the surface, exhaling as he went, only to be greeted by rough seas at the back of the boat. The instructor also ascended and immediately boarded the boat, leaving Don to his predicament. The choppy seas caused Don to inhale water and the captain began yelling at him to put his regulator in his mouth. He finally managed to sputter that he was out of air, and one of the crewmembers assisted him onto the ladder and out of the water. Fortunately, Don escaped without significant injury although he prudently chose to skip the second dive.


The instructor in this case was clearly complacent if not outright incompetent. A deep diving course is all about careful dive planning and following that plan to maximize safety. Don apparently received none of that instruction, or if he did, both he and the instructor completely ignored it prior to this dive. Furthermore, the instructor ignored all the rules for safe gas management. With Don’s gas supply so perilously low, the instructor should have commenced sharing gas with Don until they reached the hang tank, saving what was left in Don’s tank so that he could make a safe ascent from the safety stop to the surface. The instructor apparently lacked the foresight or the experience to make that judgment call. Most shocking in this case: Knowing that Don was out of air, he basically abandoned his student on the surface so that he could get out of the rough seas quickly. When confronted by the boat captain, the instructor initially pretended he had no idea Don was in peril and then tried to explain it as his student’s error.

For his part, Don tried to follow the proper procedures. His mistakes were choosing a questionable instructor and then following him instead of relying on his own good judgment. He knew from the Captain’s briefing that he should be heading back to the anchor line at 2,000 psi, and should have turned the dive earlier. Instead, he trusted his instructor. It is easy to see how he made that call; but, it was the wrong one. Gas management rules are for everyone and they should supersede the ill-informed decisions made by either a buddy or even a diving “professional”.

Lessons for Life

    • Deep dives require extra planning to include estimating gas consumption. Take the time to plan your dive and then dive your plan.


    • Always use the rule of thirds for gas management; one-third away from the exit point, one-third back to the exit point, and one-third for any delays and your ascent.


    • Never replace your common sense with faith in a buddy, even if the buddy calls himself a diving professional. It is always best to go with what you know is safe.


    • Shortcuts always compromise safety. Avoid instructors who shortcut standards or other procedures, if they take little shortcuts they will take big ones and they are dangerous.


    • Replace your buddy if he is complacent about safety or proper diving procedures. Encourage him to get remedial training and refuse to dive with him until he is squared away.


About Mike