It was the owner's second dive of the day and the dive instructor/deckhand on board M/Y Machismo could see he was tired. He wasn't the fittest of fellows. But when she checked if he still wanted to go, he snapped at her that he was fine and of course he was going. He likely doesn't want to lose face around his friends, she thought. They had made the long passage from Caho to Mexico's remote Revillagigedo Islands solely for the diving and so far, it hadn't disappointed. It was all about the big fish action out here, and this afternoon they were to dive a known cleaning station for giant manta rays. No, the boss would not want to miss that.
Well, she figured, it was to be a pretty straightforward dive — not too deep and the current was light. The group of six descended and were immediately enthralled with the rays, so much so that the instructor had trouble corralling them; they were focused more on their camera lenses than their buddies. The owner gave the OK signal, and the instructor turned her attention to a wayward diver. When she returned to the group, she saw the owner signaling that he was having difficulties. Before she or his buddy could get to him, he made an emergency ascent. On reaching the surface he appeared to be in distress and panicking, the tender driver later reported. A second crewmember dived in and assisted him back to the boat, where he collapsed. They immediately attempted CPR but were not able to revive him.
"Unfortunately, lots of people are certified divers on board with zero experience. They think because they are a PAD! Instructor that they are a professional."
Diving fatalities are thankfully rare, but when they do happen, one-third are associated with an acute cardiac event, says Divers Alert Network (DAN). The dive safety organization tracks injuries and fatalities of all divers in North American waters and of American and Canadian divers worldwide. When an autopsy result is available, it often shows cardiovascular disease, with the victim typically male and over 50 years old. While diving is generally considered a leisurely activity, it can turn strenuous at times. "Immersion alone is a stressor on the body, especially the heart and circulatory system. People who have limited exercise capacity may be pushed to their limit by diving - to the point of serious injury and even death," says DAN's The Heart and Diving reference book.
In these types of situations, the dive guide's experience level can make a huge difference in the outcome, says Rodolphe Holler, founder of Tahiti Private Expeditions, which provides dive guides for superyachts in French Polynesia.
"Unfortunately, lots of people are certified divers on board with zero experience," he says. "They think because they are a PADI Instructor that they are a professional. To do a PADI Instructor is a piece of cake. Basically, if you start from zero and you have the time and money, it is possible to do this in a couple of months, maybe three months maximum. The problem is, yes, you have the certification, but you don't have the experience and you don't have the knowledge to react in a crisis situation."
Holler has been in the same crisis situation as our hypothetical worst-case scenario when a diver's heart stopped underwater, but he was able to recognize immediately that the diver was uncomfortable; he got him safely to the surface and to a hospital, and he survived.
"That's where all the experience counts," Holler says. With many thousands of dives under his belt, he can tell by the way people are swimming and using their fins how they are feeling underwater, but what's most revealing is their eyes, he says. "You can read people through the mask." When someone slightly hesitates in responding that they are fine, he can tell from their eyes when they're really not.
This kind of intuition can only be honed by working at a dive shop, diving with a hundred people a day for months or even years, Holler says. "What I've seen on superyachts is the deckhand does Open Water and they like it; there is some dive equipment on board and the captain or manager says, 'Oh, we need someone to take care of the gear, why don't you do your diploma?' They do the diploma, and after a few months they are in charge of the guests."
When a superyacht has the gear, compressor, and an instructor on board, the captain or owner may question why they would need a local guide. "That's where the problem starts," says Holler. "Local knowledge can dramatically decrease the chance to have a problem." An experienced instructor knows this and will always push the guests to use a local guide, he explains, while a freshly certified one may think he or she can handle it alone. "I've seen situations with some instructors with lack of experience actually increasing the problems because they're not reacting the right way."
This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Dockwalk.