Close Calls: Never Underestimate the Power of the Ocean.
Jonathan Dekhtiar, an experienced recreational diver, who recently went tech, recounts a close call on what ended up being a solo night dive at an unfamiliar surgy cove, when his dive buddy decided to pass on the dive. What could go wrong?
By Jonathan Dekhtiar. Header image courtesy of Valerie Saidman.
This “close-call” happened recently—around April 2022—and I believe it conveys a perspective not discussed enough in dive training in general. I’m talking about environmental dangers. Most of us know they are a risk and, for many of us, that reality dwells in the back of our minds. But, we don’t always pay attention to them unless they become a clear and present danger.
Environmental risks pose a unique challenge to divers, and indeed, most of these dangers easily fall into the category of “unknown unknowns.” And, it’s difficult to know about the risk of a specific environment if you’ve not experienced diving in that environment before. Let’s take a simple example. Just because you have significant experience shore diving in Northern California, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your knowledge and experience will translate to shore diving in Bonaire. Will it be helpful? Most likely. And one could argue that these situations are still fairly close, but what about the diver who attempts shore diving for the first time after thousands of boat dives? I hope it’s common sense that adventuring yourself in a new dive site without local knowledge might lead you into some unforeseen and unexpected perils. In this report, we will explore what might happen if the data you collected prior to the dive is insufficient.
In a way, this misadventure can be defined as an “environmental danger”—unlike technical problems, many of which can be mitigated by proper equipment care, proper training, an effective equipment configuration, staying sharp on your skills, discussing some potential friction points on the surface like gas switch procedure or cave navigation procedures, and making sure the whole team aligns before the dive. On the other hand, environmental dangers are “fuzzier” and are prone to misevaluation because either you have misread the environment or you are overconfident in your abilities.
A Little Background
Before getting into the details of my recent learning experience, I will start with a little bit of personal background. I have been a certified diver for close to 15 years. I started my technical diving career in 2020 with TDI (cave, stage cave, deco procedures), and I will be taking GUE Tech 1 in a few months. I lived in Northern California for about three years, close to Monterey, with probably more than 200 local shore dives completed. I can honestly say I feel comfortable diving in the area at any dive spot. I don’t believe I am capable of absolutely anything, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t appreciably more experienced than the average recreational diver heading to Monterey every weekend.
After the dive in question, I had planned to sell my pickup truck and leave California, so it would be one of my last opportunities to dive in the area for a long time, especially given the upcoming weeks’ weather forecast (which didn’t look good). I am perhaps not blameless for committing to the objective in spite of weather conditions, but I’m pretty sure that some of you are also guilty of squeezing in a last dive before leaving a place you love, or pushing yourself to see that wreck, tunnel, or cave on your bucket list. I would be dishonest if I said that it was possible to make a total abstraction of “our objective of the day.” However, sometimes stories like the one I’m about to tell you are a reminder that the most important objective is to be able to do the next dive. That means we must try our very best to judge the other aspects of the dive fairly and not focus solely on the objective of the dive.
At that time, I knew the weather would deteriorate over the evening. Consequently, what that meant was that we needed to be efficient on the surface. In other words, we had to hurry if we didn’t want the weather to turn south on us. I will mention that rushing is never a good thing, though what I meant here by “efficient” was something along the lines of not losing hours in pre-dive discussions, as I’m accustomed to doing.
Earlier that day, a few friends and I were making a few dives all around the bay, and they all reported that there was a strong surge, but nothing truly out of the ordinary or dangerous. Unfortunately, however, my dive partner of the day let me know that she wanted to pass on that dive. She was still cold from her previous dive that day and didn’t want to get back in the water for a night dive. While I would have preferred to dive with a teammate, I unfortunately find myself solo diving fairly often, most of the time because finding a teammate is not always easy, and its even harder to find someone willing to be a good teammate and work as a team. [Ed. note: GUE does not condone solo diving] So all things considered, it wasn’t at all a red flag in my mind.
Taking The Plunge
In checking the water, the conditions seemed decent—a bit agitated but totally manageable. I set my gear up, kitted up, got in the water, and had a wonderful 45-minute dive with a max depth of 12 m/40 ft on double LP85s (clearly, available gas was not going to be an issue). I didn’t want to push the limits; I had my nice dive, I was happy to have been able to enjoy this breathtaking place one more time, so I thought it was time to call the dive. So where is the drama you will ask? Oh yee of little faith! You really thought that heading back to the shore would be that easy?
This was a solo night dive at a site I had dived only once before when conditions were surgy. So, nothing totally crazy, but far from perfect. When I began my underwater swim back to shore, I rapidly realized that something was wrong, I was getting in shallow waters way too fast. I thought that maybe I was passing by a reef, as we often see in Northern California, which can make the depth shallower by 3-6m/10-20 ft. But it kept getting shallower. At one point, I decided that it would be safer to ascend in order to orient myself; however, once I broke the surface, my surroundings were completely black, and I had no idea whether I came from the left, the center, or the right. I was able to distinguish that I was very close to the shore, so I decided to swim ahead of me to the shore line and most likely would have to walk back to my truck.
Unfortunately, with the surroundings so dark, I was not able to determine that many large rocks were right ahead of me. In addition, the so-called “shore” in front of me was basically the bottom of a cliff. By the time I realized where I was, it was too late. The waves and current were way too strong to fight them. Waves were crashing me into large rocks, and I was genuinely frightened that one wave would hurdle me onto a rock head first, and that I would lose consciousness and drown. To add to the stress, the waves tended to add an incredible amount of air bubbles in the water, giving me zero chance to see anything even if it had been right in front of my face. Spoiler alert: zero viz cave training is not useful for these situations.
In this kind of situation, the one thing that I believed would keep me alive was TO KEEP MENTAL CONTROL at all costs. Panic was not an option. My strategy was very simple—taking problems one by one, from the most imminent danger to the least concerning, and addressing them the best I could. If there was anything that saved me that day, it was this instinctive reaction to be methodical and to not give panic a chance to take hold in my psyche. Looking back on that moment, it reminds me of an accident story reported by Mike Young at the Blue Hole near Santa Rosa, New Mexico, where Shane Thompson, his dive partner, tragically passed away. Mike said, “I’m not gonna do anything, I’m not making a single move unless there’s a purpose.” This phrase now resonates with me more than ever before. I really believe that this attitude was able to get me out of trouble.
My first reaction was to dump my wing and drysuit in a desperate attempt to regain depth; since waves are stronger on the surface, deeper is safer. I simultaneously turned 180 degrees “feet first” in the direction of the rocks. First, in an attempt to swim away, but primarily to provide a shield for my head; if one part of my body had to crash on these rocks I chose my legs over my head. I finally managed to grab one of the rocks, which allowed me to “pull and glide” (not much of a glide, to be honest) myself out of the danger zone. After maybe one or two minutes that felt like an eternity, I finally managed to get out of that zone and reach the rocky shore. The waves literally washed me on the 1 m/3 ft large rocks all over the beach, which allowed me to finally hold onto something stable and take a breath.
Beached and Breathing
Having a heavy cold-water configuration in steel doubles, standing back up was a real struggle. Once I was able to finally stand up and look around me, I realized that I had managed to get myself onto one of these rocky beaches where there was no walking access (e.g. stairs) in or out and that getting out of that place would probably be complicated to say the least. Without any urgency anymore, I found a rock to sit on and evaluate my options: I couldn’t walk along the shore to get back to where the dive started. I was balancing abandoning my gear, trying to find a way out by foot, and coming back later for it, or trying to carry my gear on my back a little, which could be useful in case I had to swim to connect two beaches (which to be fair, was not really an option in my mind. I would have probably slept on a rock to avoid getting back in the water). By chance, I managed to find a way to hike my way out by hopping from rock to rock which led to the coastal walk path about 3-4.5 m/10-15 ft above the beach. After a few minutes of very careful hiking with a drysuit and twinset (you should try, it’s a fun activity), I was back on safe ground, and I started walking back to the parking lot with the weight of my twinset, as well as shame and stupidity resting on my shoulders.
That being said, nothing bad happened. I didn’t hurt myself at all, my drysuit was still water-tight (don’t ask me how), and I didn’t lose any equipment. So, how exactly did I end up in this situation? Obviously, being “objective oriented” didn’t help and might have influenced my judgment of the weather conditions. One could argue that having a dive buddy would have been safer, but the reality is that it could very well have led to even more trouble. Any rescue attempt would have clearly put the two of us in danger, breaking the first rule of rescue: “Don’t put yourself at risk.” I undoubtedly didn’t know enough about the dive site and managed to get myself into a dangerous zone that I didn’t know existed. And, last but not least, I clearly had no appreciation for the conditions, and I underestimated how fast the conditions on the surface would change.
Though, aside from extraordinary luck, which I definitely had that day, I believe that this mindset of keeping mental control at all costs and attacking problems one by one really made the difference and allowed me to transform what could have been a tragedy into a learning moment and a fun story. Clearly, if there was one thing I did right that very day, it was that. And it once again highlighted the importance of not panicking and not abandoning hope. As long as you can fight, you haven’t lost.
The problem with this type of incident is that, by essence, they are multi-factorials: 10% solo diving, 10% dark environment, 15% not wanting to miss my last dive, 30% poor knowledge of the dive site, and 35% poor assessment of the weather (if the percentages really mean anything, to be honest). It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly the cause of this series of events. And consequently, it’s hard to predict any corrective action. I can absolutely tell you that I drastically raised the bar for what I would consider “acceptable weather conditions;” though, one could argue that it’s an abstract concept. Exactly what are “acceptable weather conditions”? How do you even read a maritime weather report? As technically inclined divers, we tend to focus on technical skills and procedures, buoyancy control, streamlining, team efficiency, and navigation. Unfortunately, the decision as to whether the conditions are diveable or not often falls to the dive boat crew. And this tends to make many (most?) of us environmentally-risk-unaware.
At the end of the day, I changed my perspective. The question is not anymore: “Is this dive doable?” but rather, “Will this dive be enjoyable?” I’m not so much interested to know if the dive will be humanly possible if it means having to fight the surge and waves on the way in, on the way out, or even during the dive. Most of the time, conditions will be arguably acceptable, though it might not be a relaxing experience. And, I came to realize that I’m not so much interested in playing on the edge and trying to make it work at all costs. Some will quote a different sort of “rule of three.” If three or more unplanned things (e.g. regulator issue, or any problem really) occur at any time before the dive, call the dive even if you fix it. Which to me sounds a little like “diving astrology,” to be fair (and it’s not a compliment). Though if it makes divers feel better, I’m totally for it, as we often say, “You can never call the dive too early, only too late”.
When I started to share this story, many told me about similar stories of their own that led them to stop solo diving in the ocean (though they were sometimes more comfortable in caves as they consider the conditions to be more stable, which might not be true everywhere).
I will conclude this article by asking you whether you know about the environmental risks of your regular dive sites. What steps do you take to assess a new environment or new dive site? What could we change in dive training to make divers more “environmental-conditions-aware?” Maybe teaching students how to read a weather report or a wave model chart.
I hope this story will help you to better judge some situations you might encounter in your dive life. I hope this will also spark some discussions with your teammates and maybe lead you to check a weather report on the morning of each dive.
By all means, dive safely.
InDEPTH: Close Calls: I Ripped My Drysuit a Kilometer Back In The Cave by Fan Ping
InDEPTH: Surviving an Uncontrolled Ascent by Maureen Roberts
InDEPTH: The Dumbest Thing I’ve Done Diving by Kyle Bourland
Divesoft Talks: Close Calls and the important lessons learned
Order your copy of the book CLOSE CALLS by Strais Kas
Jonathan Dekhtiar is a 31-year-old Frenchman living in Miami, FL, an artificial intelligence engineer on the dry days, and an avid technical and cave diver on the weekends. Fascinated by the blue world since his teen years, he has lived in many countries to explore and discover the hidden gems under the water line. Instagram: @TheScubaPanda
Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive
Known for his deep air diving exploits back in the day, 86-year-old Hal Watts, aka “Mr. Scuba,” is one of the pioneers of early scuba and credited with coining the motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan.” He founded the Professional Scuba Instructors Association International (PSAI) in 1962, which eventually embraced tech diving, but never relinquished its deep air “Narcosis Management” training. Italian explorer and instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini caught up with Watts and teased out a few stories from the training graybeard.
Interview by Andrea Murdock Alpini
English text by Vincenza Croce
“Plan your dive, dive your plan,” is a common refrain in diving, but it’s easy to forget the meaning of this phrase has changed over time.
The underwater explorers of the early days learned to plan their dives with watches, depth gauges, and US Navy tables. Back then, decompression tables were the Bible for divers—something miraculous, halfway between alchemy and physiology. Those trail-blazing divers defined what it meant to “plan” a dive.
But, at the time, the term “technical diving” did not exist; divers breathed air on the bottom as well as during decompression. Only after many years was oxygen added, followed by the famous jump into the hyperbaric chamber.
Later came new innovations after a few decades of experiments: hyperoxygenated binary mixtures, the NOAA tables, Heli-air (i.e. the addition of helium in tanks loaded with air), the change in the speed of ascent, new molecules to be studied, new physiological and narcotic effects, and their consequent impacts on humans and their psyches.
In a very short time, diving traditions underwent a metamorphosis. The spool and the coral tank became a proper reel, the ascent bin and the plastic bag disappeared in favor of the buoyancy control device (BCD), the surface marker buoy appeared—and then, even later on, wrists were adorned with underwater computers instead of decompression slates.
Divers later renewed and revolutionized a niche discipline, transforming it into a sporting phenomenon and a vocation. Faced with imminent change, there is often nothing that can be done when an anomalous wave arrives; you cannot stop its irresistible force with the wave of a hand. And thus was the American revolution of underwater technique, where the means of exploration—read mixed gas and scooters—have become the end.
The self-proclaimed originator of the “plan your dive, dive your plan” motto was 86-year old Hal Watts, the founder of American didactic Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI) and a diving pioneer who once held the Guinness Book of World records for deep diving. Though the use of trimix grew in popularity, Hal continued to believe in deep air, in the ancient technique of coral fishermen. He supported wreck and cave diving—with decompressive mixtures and new configurations through PSAI; but, above all, he believed (and continues to believe) that deep air, if properly practiced, is a discipline with unique logistics, hidden dangers, and irresistible charms that can take you to a parallel world.
First of all, Hal, what was the dive that changed your way of seeing scuba diving? I mean, a dive that was like an epiphany, a dive which changed your point of view on a technical matter?
Hal Watts: Wow, you sure are really trying to test my old man memory. Now I’ll have to review some of my old logbook entries.
The first scuba dive that really got my attention as to just how serious and dangerous scuba diving can be was on December 2, 1962. I was diving with Bob Brown, co-owner of Florida State Skindiving School in Orlando, Florida. I was a member of a dive club in Orlando known as Orlando Sport Diving Club. Bob and I had heard of a sinkhole in Ocala known locally as Zuber Sink as well as Blue Sink. Years later, I later leased the property and renamed it as Hal Watts’s 40 Fathom Grotto, and I eventually purchased the Grotto in mid-1979.
We had never talked to anyone about the sinkhole; therefore, we had no idea about the visibility or the depth. Up to this point, I had constructed my favorite BCD, using a large white Clorox plastic jug, which we tied to our twin tank system. We put air into the BCD from our “Safe Second Stage” mouthpieces.
Bob and I tied our safety line to a tree on the bank of the sink and reviewed our dive plan. I am reminded of the motto I came up with, many moons ago—Plan your dive, dive your plan.
We all know that motto. I didn’t realize that it was you who coined it.
It was back in the 1960s when I was writing course manuals for NASDS [National Association of Scuba Diving Schools] and opened up my Mr. Scuba dive shop.
But back to the dive at Zuber. I’ve failed to mention the fact that neither of us had been doing any dives below 30 m/100 ft. We followed the cave line down slowly, not paying enough attention to our depth. Before we realized it, we had hit the bottom, stirred it up, and had no clear water.
Lucky for us, I kept the cave diving reel in my hand, and Bob kept his hand on the line. I couldn’t see; however, I could feel Bob’s hand, squeeze his fingers tight on the line, grab his thumb, and give it the “thumbs up” signal. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were both able to use our NASDS safe second stages and add air into the Clorox “BCDs.” We were actually fated to begin an uncontrolled, too-rapid ascent. All of a sudden, we hit an overhead wall, which stopped our ascent at a depth of 9 m/30 ft.
We looked at each other, and gave the OK hand signal. While decompressing, following the old Scubapro SOS mechanical computer, I started to pull up the loose line until the dive reel appeared. Wow, we sure had an awful lot of loose line floating around us. Were we extremely lucky? Of course, we were. Our problem was that we never planned our dive, and consequently, were unable to dive a plan.
After that dive, I worked with Scuba Pro and Sportsways to create the “Octopus,” or “safe second.” A while later, the octopus appeared for the first time in Scuba Pro catalogs. I was also the first to add a pressure gauge along with the Octopus.
Ah yes, the “Safe Second.” That’s what NASDS called backup second stages, right? Sheck Exley (1949-1994), the legendary cave explorer with whom you were friends, was also credited with fitting a redundant second stage reg with a necklace. I want to ask you more about Exley, but first, I want to know: What are the best wrecks you ever dived?
This is really very hard to answer. I’ll have to list four, in the order that I dived them: the USS Monitor, Andrea Doria, Japanese wrecks located in Truk Lagoon, and the Lusitania in Ireland.
The most important would have to be the USS Monitor, a submarine used during the Civil War. A group of well-known USA divers applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to dive the Monitor, as she was located in protected waters. In addition to myself, the group consisted of: Gary Gentile, attorney Peter Hess, and several other well-known expert divers. At first, NOAA refused. Then, Peter Hess filed proper papers asking that we get the NOAA permit. To that end, we presented my Deep Air training material to the concerned NOAA group. I appeared as an expert witness and provided NOAA staff and their legal representatives with my internationally accepted training material and my record of training several world record deep air divers. Our deep air training has been accepted worldwide with zero diving deaths. After that, we received the permit.
Other than the Monitor, my favorite deep wreck dive would be the Lusitania, which is a very personal and proud story for me. The main reason is because venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owned the diving rights to the Lucey at the time. Gregg had contacted me requesting that I train him on PSAI Narcosis Management Level V, on air—which is 73 m/240 ft—and then train him on trimix so he and I could dive to 91 m/300 ft on the Lusitania lying off the coast of Ireland.
When word got out that I had enrolled Gregg in my Narcosis Management Course, a well-known international course director (a personal friend of mine) called and told me, “Hal, do not teach Gregg deep diving.”
He told me that he had been training Gregg at his facility, and that he was a “train wreck.” “He is from a very well-off family in Texas, and if you cause him any injuries, you will be sued and put out of business,” my friend said. Well, guess what? Gregg completed the 240 Level V Deep Air course, then our PSAI Trimix course. My wife, Jan Watts, Gregg, and I went to Ireland to dive the Lusitania. He and I made an awesome 91 m/300 ft trimix dive to the deck.
Diving on the Andrea Doria with Tom Mount, Peter Hess, and several great wreck divers was also an awesome dive. Last but not least was a great trip to Truk to dive on some of the Japanese wrecks.
Please tell us about Sheck. What was your relationship with him like?
Sheck and I became friends and made several dives together, and one of my favorites happened when Sheck, his Mary Ellen, my wife Jan, and I were diving at 40 Fathoms. Sheck wanted to practice gas switches during descents. Sheck was practicing, getting ready for a planned very deep dive (I think in Mexico with Jim Bowden). The four of us swam to the east side of The Grotto, slowly following the wall during our controlled descent, watching Sheck practice gas switching.
After reaching our planned depth of 73 m/240 ft, we began our controlled ascent up to our first planned deco stop. During our last deco stop on our 4.5 m/15 ft platforms, I noticed that Sheck had a funny look on his face and was messing with his drysuit between his legs. I remembered then that he had told me that he had an attachment installed in the drysuit that would allow him to pee underwater. He was clearly in a bit of discomfort and Mary Ellen, Jan and I just floated nearby and watched.
I’ve heard that Sheck later used diapers, or just cut it loose in one of his old neoprene drysuits on his big dives, so evidently he didn’t get that early p-valve to work. What about your friendship and job collaboration with Gary Taylor, your brother-in-arms and a co-owner of PSAI?
Andrea, get comfortable, since this question will take some time to properly answer.
I first met Gary in Miami, which is where we became friends when I was staying in his home and taking Tom Mount’s nitrox course. I have a photo of Tom, Gary, and me gas blending on the floor of Tom’s garage. During the course, Tom was still using his worn-out hand written paper flip charts as his notes.
Gary was impressed with my deep air program and offered to put together an updated slideshow presentation for me to teach with. PSAI still uses an updated version of this system to date. Gary stayed with Tom until Tom thought he had sold IANTD [International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers] to another individual. After that sale came about, Gary contacted me wanting to get more involved with PSAI. Being smarter than folks thought I was, I jumped at the chance to have Gary on the PSAI Team. Tom’s deal fell through, but Gary was totally involved with PSAI, and now is a partner and president of our agency. Thanks to Gary and Tom.
Many, many years ago I was still taking some type of classes—I think regarding mixed gasses, maybe with Rebreathers—at Tom’s house. In fact, I was one of Tom’s instructors who did the final proofreading of one of Kevin Gurr’s manuals. Too far back to recall much about this mixed gas stuff—remember my reputation for being a deep air diver.
Speaking of the people with whom you’ve dived, was the aim of The Forty Fathom Scubapros Club?
Before I invested in a sinkhole in the Ocala, Florida, area—which was locally referred to as Blue Sink or Zuber Sink, and is now referred to as 40 Fathom Grotto—several diving buddies whom I had dived with and trained for extreme deep air diving—as well as cave exploring—got together and planned to dive The Grotto at least one Friday night per month. Within a short period of time, several other buddies joined our group, which eventually became known as The 40 Fathom Scubapro’s dive club. Each diver had to meet my requirements of training.
Eventually, our group set specific personal requirements—being a good person, supporting our club safety rules, and making at least one 40 Fathom Grotto dive per month. We set a limit of 14 or 15 members. Three 40 Fathom members eventually set World Records for deep air: I was one, A. J. Muns, and Herb Johnson set ocean records, and later I set the air depth record for cave diving. Naturally, as time passed and we got older, our membership got smaller. It is notable that none of our club members have died during any scuba dive.
Finally, what led you to create the iconic motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan?”
I used to be a private pilot, and we used to say, “Plan your flight, fly your plan.” This was back in probably 1961 when I had just started diving and there were so many instances where all the other divers would get in the water without saying anything. I’ve seen so many incidents and fatalities that could have been avoided through proper planning.
InDEPTH: The First Helium-based Mix Dives Conducted by Pre-Tech Explorers (1967-1988) by Chris Werner
Alert Diver.Eu: Rapture of the Tech: Depth, Narcosis and Training Agencies
Professional Scuba Association International: PSAI History
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, the new one is on the way, out on fall 2022.
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