Be Prepared and be Careful: One Diver's Final Legacy

(Reprinted from DAN's "Alert Diver") by Edmond Kay, MD


Jamie was a diver from the Pacific Northwest who died doing what she loved most -diving. This article is not intended to frighten divers, but rather it is my hope that someone may learn from her story and avoid the same tragic end she had. This article is dedicated to Jamie, 1965-1992.

It is a surreal feeling, writing about someone I never knew, but shared much with. We enjoyed diving the same waters in the Pacific Northwest. But, one day Jamie didn't returned from her dive off Spieden Island, Washington. She started her ascent as she had done many times before, but she never reached the surface. Now, just as her loved ones, I wonder what happened to her.

Experienced mountaineers know that the descent - the end of the climb - is the most dangerous part of mountain climbing. Cold, hunger, fatigue, or injury, constantly nag and challenge climbers during the descent. Diving physicians have long known that for scuba divers, the ascent - the end of the dive - is the most dangerous part of scuba diving. Not only is it a technically challenging time, but also where judgment may be less than optimal. Some of the factors influencing judgment near the end of the dive are fatigue, cold stress, and possibly panic. If an out-of-air emergency occurs, critical decisions and split-second timing are often required. Let's look at the problem in a more focused way.

Upon ascent the worst thing that can happen to a diver is an arterial gas embolism (AGE). This was probably the cause of death in Jamie's case. She was wearing a rented suit, with unfamiliar buoyancy characteristics, and she was found on the bottom in 60 feet of water. She was properly weighted with her weight belt still on, and she had virtually no air in her tank.

This accident could also be viewed as a failure of the buddy system. Buddy breathing from 80 feet is no easy task. My first attempt at buddy breathing during training was a near disaster. I found myself in an unrecognized and uncontrolled ascent from 30 feet and actually broke the surface of the water before I realized I was ascending. We will never know what might have happened if she had stayed with her buddy. One can always speculate that the buddy system might have been a lifesaving advantage in this case though.

The proper rate of ascent has been redefined over the years. First, the United States Navy provided us with the time honored standard of 60 feet of seawater per minute. One dive computer allows 20 feet of seawater per minute ascent rate throughout the entire depth range. Some allow variable ascents based on depth. For those of you who have never used a computer to gauge your ascent, I can tell you that 20 feet per minute is very slow. Having learned the old-fashioned watch your bubbles way, I had to be thoroughly retrained to ascend properly.

I believe the training agencies take buoyancy training very seriously, yet despite their training, I believe too many divers take surfacing much too casually. It is fine to teach reef preservation as a vehicle for reminding recreational divers to keep their buoyancy skills sharply tuned, but I also think that the other side of the issue is necessary for all divers to hear. It is a bitter pill, knowing that one mistake on ascent can cause a fatal air embolism. This dose of reality will not scare off many (if any), but it should serve to underscore the vital nature of the technique. Despite the excellent work that training agencies have done, there is plenty of room for fresh ideas and new approaches.

I practice a type of ascent which is not generally taught in basic scuba courses. The concept is called neutrally buoyant ascent. Most divers vent their BCs periodically as they ascent, and also give a certain amount of physical propulsion upward with their fins. Using the neutrally buoyant ascent a diver can control his or her rate of ascent with very little effort simply by keeping the mouth piece of the BC inflater tube open and pointed down at chest level. Raising or lowering the mouth piece will allow air to bubble out of the buoyancy compensator. If the valve is raised, more air escapes and the ascent rate slows. If the valve is lowered, air is retained and the ascent rate increases. It is an effortless technique but does require that you constantly look at your gauges or computer on the way up. It is simply a trick for controlling your buoyancy, enabling you to relax on the way up and focus on your depth and rate of ascent.

This has been a brief attempt at addressing some of the issues brought to mind by the passing of Jamie. A human life is so incredibly precious. If Jamie could be here now to pass on the last and perhaps most valuable lesson of her life, I am certain she would say to practice your skills and plan your ascents very carefully. Your life may depend on it some day as Jamie's did.

A special "THANK YOU" is offered to Jamie's family. They trusted me enough to let me write about their tragic loss. I only hope the effort saves one life. That will truly be Jamies Gift to us all.

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Copyright 2017 Edmond Kay, M.D.