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Lessons learned in the Bahamas - An intimate account of our most dangerous enemy.

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tropical wuss
Sep 16, 2002
…After spending the morning plucking a few conch off a grassy bottom for dinner, Connor (cdavis), Frank (Connor’s son - 18), and I decided to do a bit of deep diving. Connor drove us to an area that was 100-150 feet deep, adjacent to a wall that dropped into the 1000’s. We let out a 100-foot training line, weighted with an anchor and a chunk of lead. The problem was that the current continually kept pushing us into shallow water, with only enough time for a dive or two. After a few tries, we got a good angle on the wall/drift and away we went. While Connor warmed up with a few negatives, I opted for long-lasting 50-foot dives (I hate negatives). Once we were good to go, we started the rotation. One person dives, one is safety diver (meeting them at 30 feet on ascent), and one breathes up. After you’ve completed your dive, you are now safety diver for the next guy. The following turn, you do your breathe-up.

This was working well. I dive – Frank spots me – Connor breathes up. Connor dives – I spot him – Frank breathes up. Frank dives – Connor spots him – I breathe up. We all slowly add a bit of depth with each dive. By the third or forth, I have reached the 100-foot anchor, and enjoy hanging on it for a few seconds, viewing the wall, before ascending. But Frank is now having equalizing problems (that would plague him for the rest of the trip). Frustrated, his dives are only lasting 30 seconds or so. Wanting the keep up the momentum, I stupidly start rushing my breathe-ups. My last few dives have been lasting just under two minutes. Connor’s submerged times are around 1:20-1:30 (he descends more quickly). And with Frank’s complications, I am now on less than a 1/1 surface to submerged ratio (when you factor in the safety dive).

Still, I feel a sense of urgency as we begin to once again drift more and more shallow. And now that my reflex has kicked in, I want to get the most out of our drift before the anchor starts scraping. My Suunto reads that I have only been on the surface for 1:30, but, feeling energized, I dive anyway. As I reach the anchor, I feel like a million bucks and decide to let go of the line and drift to the bottom. I’m surprised to see how similar the bottom is to the shallows. With such good light penetration, it seems as if I’m only in 20 feet of water. I spot a small, colorful fish I have never seen before and try to get a closer look. He darts under a small piece of coral, and I lift it to expose him. Panicked he darts off to another piece of coral…….

……what have I been doing? I am not in the shallows. I am in… 121 feet of water, and I have been under for - 1:50 - not good – too long. I harness my mind to fight off the panic, but just can’t seem to keep myself relaxed. Heading for the surface, it seems to take forever to reach the knot in the rope at 50 feet. I should be using this rope to pull myself up, but rationality has given way to automatic pilot and I am kicking like I’m in a race. Contractions kick in, but are not uncomfortable. This is not normal, and I get the sense that I have pushed myself way too far. At 30 feet, I see Connor and make eye contact with him. I then look to the surface. There it is…almost there. I’m so hungry to reach the safety that I forget to exhale. Still - I’m going to reach it. Got it! I see the brightness of the cloudless sky and feel relief……..

…….I’m one of about 5 people having a light-hearted conversation. I don’t recognize that these people have any form, and the conversation is not taking place in any room or tangible area – there is simply a soft ‘whiteness’. I don’t even know what we are talking about. It’s as if I simply have the ‘feeling’ of being in a conversation. The chat is easy, like the way you would talk around the water cooler at work on Monday morning. Did your team lose or win? – I took the kids to the beach – etc - easy chit-chat. Yet there were no words…just the feeling.

Then there were words….[Ted. C’mon, Ted. C’mon, Ted. Ted…]. Can’t mistake that southern draw – it’s Connor. But where is he? He’s somewhere else. Not part of this. I feel the ‘whiteness’ disappearing – replaced by the greatest sense of relaxation I have ever felt. I have never had the level of comfort. I do not consider my surroundings. I don’t care where I am. There is only the comfort. Still…. [Ted. C’mon, Ted…]. My eyes flicker open. The relaxation disappears, but the comfort remains. I feel so good that I chuckle. After a few more moments on my back, I turn to see Connor’s smiling face. “Very interesting”, he says, and now I finally start to put together what had happened.

Slowly, with Frank and Connor’s help, I climb to the boat platform and sit down. Smiling, I shake Connor’s hand and thank him. Yet it is a bit disconcerting to me that the first person to ever save my life is someone whom I’ve met in person, for the first time, only 18 hours ago. Connor continues to beam a smile that shows relief and curiosity at once. “Very interesting”, he continues. We spend another half hour drifting and recalling the incident from each of our perspectives. Diving, for today, is done.

In the coming hours, my euphoria is replaced with severe nausea. I feel as if I had taken on the flu in a matter of moments. I don’t even have the energy to keep my head up. The feeling came on so swiftly and painfully that I explain to Connor that it feels as if an ogre had plucked me by my ankles, used me as a club, and set me back down. My appetite is gone. My sense of adventure dissolved. And I wonder if I have managed to destroy my trip before it got a chance to get started.

I did not. By the evening, my hunger has returned, and I eagerly chow down a bowl of conch salad and a plate of spaghetti.

That next morning, the water beckons me to return.


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* The following day, I would recall more of this experience. While ascending from a 50-foot deep coral head, upon reaching the surface, I had a 10-15 second memory launch itself into my consciousness. I remembered – a samba. The memory fit into the moment after I had reached the surface, but before I blacked out. I saw light-dark-light-dark, and my lungs were contracting at a rate of 3+ times per second. But I can not breathe in. Worse yet, I can not expel the air I’ve now been holding for over 2.5 min. I remember the panic, but no pain. I wonder how long it will take this to pass….
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DB has no limnologists to spare -- and we definitely can't afford to lose one to the ocean. Goes for all non-limnological DBers as well, in equal measure.

This is a weird sport in that you can actually go out and trust your life to someone that you barely know. Your story reminds me of diving in So Cal w/ Roan. Somehow, needing to trust someone that much right off the bat strips away a lot of the bs that goes with normal socializing. Either that, or the sport just attracts the best sort of people ;).

Great photo, great cautionary tale. I'd lob karma but the system claims I've sent too much your way.

Hope your wife isn't reading these posts, or she'll be laying down the law! :D :girlie :vangry :rcard :martial :blackeye :crutch
Eventually we are all our own worst enemies. While on the PDF clinic in Miami, and talking to the people who had sambas and BO's, one thing that struck me was how comfortable along with a feeling of "it's not happening to me" people felt - in other words it was very difficult fr the mind to have a clear grasp of what really was happening. I guess that's the effect of hypoxia. When you said you couldn't expell that air do you think it was due to laryngospasm (sp?)?

I guess you have just proven to yourself the value of having an experienced buddy! Chasing pretty fish can also happen in the shallows in fact you might have even more confidence, stay too long and blackout regardless of the depth.

Nice story and very expressivley written. Should be published. :) It would be interesting to hear Connor's side of the story, what his impressions were. And most importantly, thanks for hanging around a little more on Mother Earth, err.. Mother Ocean! :)

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Excellent Description

Epic detailed description, Ted. Well done, a true cautionary tale. Thanks for posting this.
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"Interesting" is Davis family code for OH S___!!! This is way too crazy for words.

My heartfelt thanks to Performance Freediving for teaching me how to dive safe and convincing me that I really needed to actually do it. At this point I am truly convinced.

The experiance humbled us both, I was spotting Ted, but not really doing my job. He stays down so long I lost track of seconds and had no idea he had been down longer than normal. I met him at 30 feet and looked at his eyes, but wasn't really thinking about what I was seeing. He looked pretty good, just a little wide-eyed, and didn't exhale as he got to the surface, which should have set off alarm bells. Anyway, he slumped over as he cleared the surface. I thought he was having a relatively minor samba and supported him, waiting for it to pass, but he was out, full laryngospasm (sp), trying to breath but can't, face slowly turning blue. I'm not holding him right and need some help from Frank (he is in the boat and we are right next to it) to get his mask off. At this point, Frank says Ted looked like the creature from the black lagoon, eyes open but slits, face contorted, mouth pulled back in a wierd tight grin, jerking around, face blue/gray. As soon as the mask came off and I blew on his cheeks, he came around. Frank said it was like turning a switch and his face went back to normal "Oh, Ted's back." This all seemed like 3 hours, but really took something like 30 seconds, way too long.

I learned three things, (1) stay alert and think about what I am looking at, (2) everybody on the boat needs to practice rescue procedures, every trip and (3) It really can happen to us.

What I haven't done is figure out the best way to apply the PF safety procedures to spearfishing and scouting. When line diving, its a very easy system to use. Spearing creates all kinds of complications. Anybody who has adapted their system to spearing, I would like to hear from.

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The most important lesson here, I think, is the re-affirmation of the age-old rule that a too short surface interval is a pact with the devil.

I only ever had one samba outside of competitive/deep line diving, and it was due to a too short surface interval (about 1'30"), with an aggressive breathe-up during that interval. No amount of aggressive breathing will speed your recovery from a dive. Time is the only important factor.

Now, a 1'30" interval may fine (or even excessive), from a 20 second dive to 20 feet, but after a harder, deeper dive, a 1'30" interval is way too short. Generally it takes around 4 minutes to recover from a deeper dive, and starting the next dive earlier than that means you're starting 'on empty.'

Eric Fattah
BC, Canada
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The story from Frank's perspective

I remember the day started out well enough. I was warming up to go for a personal depth record and I hitting 50 feet with no real effort. On our last trip I made 70 feet and I was certain I could hit 80 at least this trip. Unfortunantly my ears started acting up and it got to the point where I couldn't even act as safety diver because meeting Ted at 30 feet was becomming too difficult. I decided to pull out, take some sudafed, give my ears a rest and hope things got better. I told dad(connor) that I was getting out and he needed to take over safey diving for Ted. I had gotten into the boat and taken most of my gear off. I noticed that Ted had been down an unusually long time. I wasn't terribly bothered by that because I had seen some of the footage of Ted diving in Cozumel and I knew that he had a lot more bottom time than I do. Even so I watched him come up with dad. When ted broke the surface he seemed fine, for all of about half a second then he suddenly slumped sideways in the water. Ted began making the most amazing noises I'm not really sure I can give a good description but it was a bit like hearing someone forcing air through closed lips while Darth Vader gargles in the background. I feel my mind divide into three parts as time seems to slow. On the surface my mind is in lifeguard mode (I've had some training).."ok guy's in trouble get him to the boat...clear the airways...etc." the second part of my mind is quietly panicing in the corner "omg dead guy on the first day of the trip!" The third part of my mind is observing the situation and really wishing there was time to grab a camera because THIS is REALLY worth recording. While all this is going on in my head dad's holding Ted up and moving him toward the boat. At one point dad thought he was comming around "come on ted wake up..your coming round..come on ted" And as he's saying this I'm looking at ted thinking "uh...i don't think he is"...THEN dad gets over to the boat and I get my first view of ted's face and at that point I decided "no he REALLY isn't coming around" Ted's face was something to remember and as dad already said the best comparison is a greyish-tanish version of the creature from the black lagoon (which by the way ted does not normally resemble) I also realized that Ted still has his mask on. My lifeguard training has me reaching for it even before dad tells me to get it off him. Very shortly after I manage to get it off (I'm leaning over the side of the boat at this point) Teds face completely changes and suddenly "oh...Ted's back" it happened in less than a second...one minute it was the creature the next it was Ted. I still wish I'd had time to grab a camera

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On a different and less exciting note, It was a great trip. Four days of diving, perfect weather, acceptable if not great vis, plenty of fish, lobster and conch, nothing on boat broke until we got home, outstanding dive buddies, thanks to db. I am a superstitious man and it looks like Ted brought us good luck. He has an open invite to come back any time, if his lady will let him.

Great story guys, I always appreciate this type of post. Thanks for taking the time to put it down. Yet another reminder for me to keep those surface intervals long and relaxed.

As for "a too short surface interval is a pact with the devil" - I love it....that's just so well put Eric.:)

Wow... Great lesson learned.
I have witnessed a few sambas and backouts during pool sessions, but none in open water yet... touch wood.
Your recounts of the events are vivid and educational. Thanks for sharing them with us.
The last B.O. I witnessed was at the PFD clinic in Cayman. My buddy really pushed himself on the static and did a text book B.O. with a laryngospasm and did the 'breathing through a straw' thing. Mask came off and a few puffs across the face brought him around. Of course, he had to watch the video of himself because he swore he was fine and that we were making it up... an even more dangerous situation. He didn't even realize he was past his limit. All this to say that Kirk has the right idea by focussing his clinics on safety first. Helps with the repeat business!

Matt Charlton
Very good story Unirdna!Do you think you would have the same problem if you were doing 50 foot dives?
All Three Gentlemen, Ted, Connor and Frank: thank you for posting this story.
This appropriately encourages us to look at our diving practice and take the safety courses.
I think it might benefit many if this morphed into a feature story with all three versions, much as it appears here, if Ted doesn't mind.
Eric, the follow up commentary is much appreciated.
Thanks, all.
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Thank you so much for this story guys it is such a good warning for me. The way you guys were diving ie drifting and doing dives one at a time is the exact same method that my buddy and myself do back home most of the time. We have never had a blackout but I know it can happen any time.

Connor I have a question for you, were you able to see Ted at 120ft from the surface ?. This is my main concern for where I dive because when I or my buddy goes down they/I usually disappear after 15-20m and whilst the boats drifting they are gone, and you don't see them until they come up because you have normally drifted to far, or the vis doesnt allow.

Another important factor is the use of a depth line. When my buddy and I go for a pb we dont use a depth line its just a go for the bottom mission. I think from now on it is important to use a depth line and try and stick to it, this should at least allow us to know where each other are when surfacing.

Thank you again for the wake up call.

Naw, I don't mind if we make this into a story - might need to clean my account up a bit though - my tenses jump around a little ;). I'd think there must be dozens of such accounts already published.....maybe not.

Thanks for all the thanks and 'welcome-backs' folks. I've been doing a lot of reading as to the cause of my incident since posting this story, and I keep bumping into the same thing I suspected and Eric confirmed - Surface interval was way too short. Especially, since we were NOT shallow-diving.

Dive safely, everyone.

(and lob Connor some karma - he's earned it ;) )

I'm stoked on the picture posted with the story, my new wallpaper for a couple days.

Vis must of been about 130 ft. I could see Ted's fins and hands. If he had been over sand, he would have been easy to see. In a funny sort of way, being able to see him induces a false sense of complacency which I definately fell victim to.

Diving down a line is new to me, only started last year after discovering on DB how other people used one. When going for depth or sightseeing deep, I like it a lot, makes it easier to orient and streamline going down and provides some safety coming up. If something goes wrong pulling up the line is a lot easier (but not faster) than swimming. Also helps your buddy keep up with you.

Thanks for the good words and karma

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