Rescue1CMy gut said, “Don’t do it” and all of the alarms in my head were going off. That’s why I chose to participate in the dive that may have helped two people avoid injury or worse.

One of my freediving friends invited me to go out on a dusk-to-night dive with her and a scuba diver off of a precarious dive spot. I was immediately alarmed because that meant that there would be a solo freediver and a solo scuba diver; a combination that just didn’t sit well with me. Through text messages, I learned that the scuba diver was new to diving and it sounded like the two of them were going to be making the dive with or without me. Something disastrous was brewing and my gut instincts told me that I needed to be there.

I arrived at the dive site and started gearing up for freediving. The entry spot was a bit stirred up with some waves packing a bit of a punch but as freedivers, I knew my friend and I could easily enter. However, I was questioning the ability for a scuba diver to safely enter and exit the steep, rocky slope with dive gear. I also knew that right upon entry there were slippery rocks covered in sharp barnacles and that the surge here was extra strong. The sand is akin to quicksand and can easily trip a person up as their feet and lower legs quickly and easily get devoured with each outgoing wave. My plan was to evaluate the scuba diver and persuade her to call the dive or I would suggest an easier dive site around the corner where scuba divers generally make their water entries. I went back to my truck to meet up with my friend (F) and the scuba diver (S) and soon found that the alarms going off in my head were closer to validation.

After introductions, we walked back to the entry spot to evaluate the conditions; I hoped to persuade someone to call the dive. I learned that S had just completed about 16 dives since Open Water certification (dives 15 and 16 logged only hours earlier). She had never been to this location for a dive, had never done a night dive and of course, never dove solo before. I knew that with her overconfident but equally enthusiastic personality, she was going to be hard to convince to call it. She looked down the steep, rocky slope and assured me that she could climb down with her gear. I pointed out the sketchy conditions and the likely difficult exit then suggested the easier area around the corner. I reminded her of what she learned in her Open Water class: to never dive solo and to be familiar with a dive location in the day before diving it at night. I reminded her that her training specified that she was certified to dive in conditions similar to what she was trained in. S wouldn’t be persuaded to call the dive and F was eager to get in, reminding us that another scuba diver clambered up and down these rocks not too long ago. S seemed determined and confident she would do it too. All of the dive related rescue stories I’d read began to tickle the back of my brain.

Reluctantly, I finished gearing up and we met back at the top of the rocky slope a few minutes later. Though I was freediving, I did a buddy check on S and noted how ill prepared she was. I decided that my best bet was to be completely candid with her. I told her, “You’re wearing a shortie wetsuit. Our waters are too cold for anyone to wear a shortie out for a night dive and there are sharp rocks so even if you’re warm in a full suit, you still need the full suit protection. You don’t have gloves on. Where are your gloves? You’re doing a night dive and you have only one light. You need a backup light when you do night dives. Where is your second light?” She replied that the battery rolled away in the car and she couldn’t find it. I scowled and continued. “How much do you weigh and how much lead are you carrying?” When she replied, I noted that she was over weighted by ten or more pounds and in total, her dive weight was about twice as much as I weighed. I made sure I knew where her weights were and how to pull them. I checked her releases, her regulators and her inflator. I still wasn’t happy.

We began our decent down the rocks and once at the shoreline I double checked S’s gear. I asked her if she inflated her BCD in order to be buoyant upon entry and she said she did. It is that question and moment that stand out for me because I remember that I didn’t personally check her BCD for having air in it, but took her word for it as she depressed the inflator button.

F and I got in the water and immediately took a rip current out to a safe spot just past the breaking waves. We were not very far from the shore as we watched S attempt to get in the water. The waves were coming up fast and strong and several times S got knocked down. We asked if she was okay and she yelled back that she was okay. We had our lights positioned on her as the sun was already setting and another wave came, knocking her face down in the sand, her feet positioned toward us. She wasn’t moving.

F and I began yelling at her if she was okay as we started toward shore, but no response. Then after several long seconds she finally got up, turned around and started heading toward the water again. I don’t know if I was saying it out loud but I remember repeating over and over, “Call it, call it.” S told us she was okay and that she “can do this” and was now about waist deep in the water, holding her fins in one hand and attempting to put them on with the other. I saw her head dip below the surface after a few moments and I thought she must have put the fins on and decided against surface swimming to us. But it quickly became clear that she didn’t have both fins on and was bobbing in the water, struggling to stay afloat. In a matter of seconds, the rip brought her to us. She had her regulator out of her mouth and I yelled to her to put it back in and inflate her BCD. She did as I asked but continued to remain negatively buoyant. F and I assisted as best we could with keeping S above the surface but she was too heavy even for the two of us and continued to sink, each time threatening to bring us with her. If she panicked and held on to us, someone was going to drown. The rescue scenarios that were tickling the back of my head earlier were now banging at the door.

As S bobbed back to the surface, I confirmed with her that her regulator was working, then she sank below us once again; at least I knew she had air.  I told F that S’s BCD isn’t inflating properly and to pull the weight out on her side. F pulled and the weight successfully released but the weight on my side of the BCD wasn’t releasing. I could feel F and I being pulled under the water again as I braced myself against S’s body and pulled the weight as hard as I could. It still wouldn’t release. I yelled, “Her weight isn’t releasing! S, you may be losing some gear tonight! We need to get you back to shore now!” A large set swept through and before I could even think of manually inflating the BCD or removing it all together, we were forced closer to shore over jagged and slippery rocks. My new concern was that if S stood up, she may get a foot lodged and the situation would take on a disastrous turn.

S still held one fin in her hand which I took and threw to shore. We were only feet from the safety of the sand but the waves were pounding and tumbling all of us. S continued toward shore, like a trooper, moving horizontally over the rocks as F and I assisted as best we could. Removing her gear in the surf and strong surge could have put us all at risk of injury or drowning; we had to keep going. Finally S moved past the rocks and onto the steep slope of quicksand. I yelled to her to crawl in with her regulator in her mouth while waves crashed over her back. F assisted with taking some weight off of S by holding the tank valve while I quickly undid the BCD releases and we dropped the tank into the sand once everyone was clear of the water. S was bleeding a little along the front of her leg, was a bit shaken and wondering what went wrong with the gear she successfully used just hours prior.

After lugging the gear up the rocky slope and safely back at our vehicles, we looked for the cause of the malfunctioning BCD. The BCD inflated and then quickly deflated and the inflator valve was stuck open. We guessed that sand was lodged inside and that it probably happened when S was thrown face down into the sand by the waves. I suggested that she get all of her gear serviced before diving again. At least everyone was alive and no gear was donated to Neptune that night.

It dawned on me later that evening and remained with me for the rest of the next day that I had just performed a rescue. F wrote me to thank me and said that if I hadn’t been there, she may not have known what to do and they could have been hurt, or worse. It took me a while to process that. I was angry that the diver made the choice to dive, going against all training and my warnings. I spent a lot of time wondering what I could have done differently to prevent them from diving at all (probably nothing) or if I could have made different (better) decisions and I criticized myself for just about every action and decision I made. I looked for things that I missed, like not physically squeezing S’s BCD to see if it was holding air (though I never do this with my dive buddies). I still don’t know if it was holding air before she got pushed down into the sand (the shop did confirm sand in the power inflator). But what bothers me is what that uncertainty would do to me if this story didn’t have a happy ending. In the end, I did the best I could with the knowledge I had and I’m thankful for that.

As I look back on the incident, I am still unsure what I could have done differently to prevent the dive altogether. But what I did learn is that all of the training I had and all of the local water knowledge I gained through the years paid off. I was familiar with the area and understood the risks, enabling me to foresee what could happen and what we were faced with. Being rescue certified and having paid attention to real life rescue scenarios gave me the ability to think quickly and through to the next steps. Learning from others, doing my own research and being aware of what to do in rough shore conditions allowed me to make the safest choices under the conditions presented. And above all, freedivers and scuba divers don’t make for a good buddy team especially if neither knows anything about the other’s sport.

After meeting S, I knew that she had the dive-bug and that she was going to be spending a lot of time in the water. In less than a year, she’s accumulated nearly 200 dives and is working toward becoming a Dive Master. I asked her what she learned from that night and she said that it’s a bad idea to climb down rocks in scuba gear [I sensed a bit of sarcasm there]. But in all seriousness, S emphasized that you shouldn’t push your buddy to dive above their limits and she has learned that it’s okay to call a dive at any time and has encouraged people she dives with to call a dive if they just aren’t feeling it.

There are a lot of takeaways from our experience that night and from that, I’ve realized that no matter if it’s a small, easily managed incident or a devastating recovery, it’s important to share the story with other divers for an educational opportunity. And as divers, we need to seek out and listen to those stories in order to learn from them. The rescue scenarios that were tickling the back of my brain weren’t there because I was consciously trying to remember what to do. They were there as a sort of warning system, like “Hey, didn’t we read about something like this somewhere and it didn’t go so well? What do we do to make this right?” Without that knowledge, what warning system would you have in place and how would you know to recognize a bad situation? So read up, share your stories and listen to fellow divers’ stories. It doesn’t matter if you’re a vacation diver or avid weekly diver – get comfortable with the uncomfortable fact that you may be a rescuer or may be in need rescuing one day. Meanwhile, dive safe, dive smart and have fun!

Note: Keep in mind when reading this that without the understanding of freediving vs scuba, I can see where this can be confusing to some people. This was not a scuba diving team going out with the same training and mindset (i.e. one person calls the dive and the rest of the divers follow suit) . This was a solo scuba diver and two freedivers and this dive was going to happen with or without me. Freedivers are in a completely different mind set than scuba divers and the two do not ever, ever make a buddy team. Ever!

My concern during the beginning of this dive was strangely not the diver being over weighted, which seems to be a focus for critics. I planned on doing a buoyancy check with her to show her that she could dive with less weight. When I’m on scuba and you come out to meet me to dive and your gear is trash and you’re overweighted, I’m not diving with you. Period. If we’re freediving, the first question I ask is how much weight you’re carrying. Generally, I dive with freedivers who have taken a course and are weighted properly so this is usually not a concern.

This was a shallow 35 foot night dive with less than 20 feet of visibility and a thick kelp canopy. Though her weight was a big concern, it didn’t mean she would sink to hundreds of feet and perish. My concern was that the diver had one light and should her light go out, we would lose her from the surface. She could become entangled in kelp on the way up and we would never find her. Imagine if that were the story I wrote about. I’m pretty sure there would be a different ending. Perhaps fate had a way of  turning the tables on me. I’m glad it was just a stuck power inflator.

Be safe, my friends! ~TD