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Incident Report: Knowing When To Thumb The Dive

Conducting an incident and accident analysis after the event is relatively easy. Incident and accident prevention, or risk management, is much harder to do because we don’t know which of the thousands of possibilities are the relevant ones.

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By Gareth Lock

“Success is a lousy teacher if you get it right the first time.”

Conducting an incident and accident analysis after the event is relatively easy. Incident and accident prevention, or risk management, is much harder to do because we don’t know which of the thousands of possibilities are the relevant ones. This is especially true with diving. As such, we have to be conscious of our own limitations (skills and experience) and the pressures we will face. Not just time pressures, but also the social pressures we are under.

If someone invites you on a dive that looks exciting, a dive with other divers whom you respect and admire, and they have invited you along because of a certain skill set you have, such as surveying, photography or videography, it can be very hard to execute the right (which every diver has) to thumb the dive at any time for any reason. This is often even harder when we start to look at previous dives that turned out alright, because success is a lousy teacher—especially if you get it right the first time.

Photo by David Rhea.

“In 2015 I was asked to join a project as a documentation diver that would collect photos and video on a dive. We were a relatively large team of eight divers sectioned into four two-diver teams. My teammate on the dive was also the dive equipment manager for the project. At this point, I was still new to diving doubles and did not yet have a doubles wing of my own. Instead, I used one of the wings provided to me, not knowing that it had previously been scheduled to be serviced before this project began.

As we discussed the dive plan to a depth of 100 ft/30 m in a heavy current, it became clear to me that I would have to dive beyond my limits to make this mission a success due to the increased video and lighting equipment, and the scooter they were mounted on. Immediately I realized that I had a choice to make: scrub the mission or push forward and accept the risk associated with adding extra gear to a working dive. To me, adding the equipment wouldn’t be too difficult to manage, but I also did not think far enough ahead to unforeseen issues.

We ran through our pre-dive checklist, the GUE EDGE, on the surface. Everything was good to go. We entered the water as a team and descended fairly quickly to avoid the current throwing us off our bearings on our way to the dive site. To maximize the bottom time, I was diving double AL80s, with an AL80 stage bottle to breathe enroute to the target area. To maximize time in the area, I was using an exploration-sized scooter/DPV that had a DSLR camera, video lights, and housing mounted to the nose. I felt a bit overloaded and my heart was racing, but after we hit the water and submerged, I began to calm down. We scootered downward and forward, which was relaxing and exhilarating at the same time.

This would be only my second scooter dive, my first with a camera mounted on it, and my first time managing a stage and switching regulators at depth. I felt confident in the scooter though, as my first ride went well and in this case it was helping to transport me and stabilize the camera. With the camera adding extra weight, the scooter was negative. This wasn’t really the issue I thought it would be. My confidence in using a stage was based on having filmed the required skills previously, with an instructor, and having watched it many times during editing process.

We stopped during the dive to check our bearings in about 80 ft/24 m of water. Being new to scooter diving, I thought it prudent to power it off while we were waiting to save battery life. At this point the scooter began sinking, so I decided to add a squirt of air into my wing to maintain neutral buoyancy. Shortly thereafter, the power inflator became stuck on as a result of corrosion built up after being in a salty environment for a year without proper maintenance.

My wing began to fill up and the inflator button was not responsive. Since this was my first experience of this, I did not immediately remember my training. However, muscle memory kicked in, and I first quickly signalled my teammate with a rapid light signal. He was looking right at me, so I figured he would be on his way over to help me, but he didn’t. I consequently began to manage the issue myself and reached back to dump the excess gas in the wing with my free left hand.

As I traced my hand back to find the dump valve to relieve excess gas from my wing, I found instead a stage bottle, which my mind said should not be there. I was able to get my hand around it and find the dongle to dump my full wing, but it continued to inflate. I tried to trigger the scooter to hold me at depth but I had turned it off. The thought process developed during training finally kicked in, and I unplugged the inflator hose. Luckily, the over-weighted DPV helped to hold me at depth long enough for me to manage this issue, and my buoyancy didn’t vary too much.

The rest of the dive was uneventful once I was stabilized in the water and had resolved the issue with the inflator hose.

Photo by Dickie Walls.

During the discussion after the dive, there were many lessons my team and I identified and subsequently learned:

  • My teammate never saw me signal, nor did he ever notice I was having trouble, highlighting the importance to both of us of situational awareness.
  • A quick tap of the inflator button to check for proper function during a pre-dive check is not adequate.
  • Overloading oneself with new gear, while easy enough to manage with good skills and the right mindset, can quickly become a serious inhibiting factor in an unexpected situation or when an emergency is encountered.
  • Poorly maintained gear, due to either an act of laziness, forgetfulness, or of being too burdened with other tasks to get the job completed, can cause problems!
  • The dive plan that revolved around me as the camera operator had requirements beyond my training or experience level.
  • I made a repeated series of misguided actions, like turning off the scooter or forgetting I had to get my hand around a stage, instead of immediately just disconnecting my power inflator hose. I had never had to do that before, but during the dive I remembered I saw my fundamentals instructor posing the question to us during class four years prior.

So the situation is all very clear to me now, and I can see how it could have been worse, but also how it could have been handled better. I learned from this experience. I now know better what my limits are and how I could misperceive the skills required versus my current skill levels. That day I became a better, safer diver because my mindset changed. I have continued to train and dive with a new mindset that will hopefully lead to me handling issues in a more intelligent way as I continue forward on project dives and into the beautiful world of cave diving.”


Photo by Andreas Hagberg.

Comments: The subject diver picked up many of the issues they personally faced. These included overconfidence, inadequate technical skills, assumptions, hubris, decision-making, and some of the factors associated with their teammate (I’ll comment on this in a moment). But there are also factors which were missed covering the wider project. Specifically, the team had an expectation that someone with limited experience would be able to pick up a complex task and manage it, even if something went wrong.

Executing this dive when everything was 100% perfect wouldn’t appear to have been an issue, but how often do we consider the “what ifs”—you can’t rely on everything being 100% perfect 100% of the time. As project leaders, how often do we consider the pressures to conform socially, which makes it harder for inexperienced but massively keen divers to say “this isn’t right” and thumb the dive or at least raise some concerns? The greater the social kudos associated with the project, the harder it is to say no.

The comment about the situational awareness of the teammate is also worthy of note because situational awareness is based on building up knowledge using your senses. Just because something is in a teammate’s field of view it doesn’t mean that they have seen it. The diver that had the problem had the responsibility to ensure that the communication loop with their teammate had been closed by signalling until the teammate responded, indicating that they were cognisant that the diver had an immediate problem.

Innovation and exploration cannot happen if you don’t push the limits. By definition, you are stepping outside the experience zone. This also means that the margins for error are greatly reduced and therefore there is a need to get everything as close to 100% perfect as possible. This requirement to “fail safely” means identifying interactions within the system that might cause you and your team problems, e.g., heavyweight scooter, additional stage, lack of practice, and what you can do to mitigate those risks from materializing.

The opportunity to learn directly from adverse events can be hard because diving is pretty safe (in terms of numbers). For that to happen, there needs to be a “just culture”. A just culture isn’t a blame-free culture, but one which recognizes that we are all human, that we all make mistakes, and that grossly negligent behaviors will not be tolerated.

With a just culture in place, we can learn from others by having context-rich stories like the one above, which look at not only the technical aspects (scooter weighting, OPV, servicing of the inflator) but also the human elements (skills practice, social pressures, inexperience, assumptions, hubris) so that we are better prepared to deal with the uncertainties and fastballs that come our way. Learn from your mistakes; better still, learn from someone else’s.

To learn more about “just culture” and what it can do for your team, follow the link to this free Human Diver webinar. Read Gareth’s post Mental Models to learn more about how our subconscious actions effect our safety.

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Gareth Lock is an OC and CCR technical diver with the personal goal of improving divingsafety and diver performance by enhancing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes towards human factors in diving. Although based in the UK, he runs training and development courses across the globe as well as via his online portal https://www.thehumandiver.com.He is the Director of Risk Management for GUE and has been involved with the organization since 2006 when he completed his Fundamentals class.

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Risk-Takers, Thrill-Seekers, Sensation-Seekers, and … You?

It’s likely that many in our community no longer think of tech diving as a risky activity, or perhaps even appreciate how important taking risks may be to one’s personal health—let alone that of our species. Fortunately, InDEPTH’s copy editing manager Pat Jablonski dived deep into the origins, meaning, and benefits of regularly taking risks, and even offers a thrill-seeking quiz for your edgy edification. What have you got to lose?

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by Pat Jablonski. Title photo courtesy of Katelyn Compton Escott.

“Life without risk is not worth living.” – Charles Lindbergh

What defines a risk? What is involved in taking a risk?

Difficult questions to answer, because something that feels risky to one person might be yawn-worthy to another. Risk taking, unscientifically, is something you do that gets your blood up, raises your heartbeat, awakens your senses, and makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings.

Surely we can agree that the Covid pandemic has added an unexpected level of risk to everyday life. Add poor drivers, mass shootings, contentious politics, global climate change, and many are left believing that meeting each day is risky enough. But that’s not true for people who identify as risk-takers or thrill-seekers.

“Everyone has a ‘risk muscle’. You keep in shape by trying new things. If you don’t, it atrophies. Make a point of using it once a day.” – Roger Von Tech

There are many activities that go to the trouble of defining the level of risk involved with a specific activity, and while that’s not the purpose of this article, you should know that scuba diving ranks fairly high on the risky behavior scale–higher than skydiving and rappelling. And, cave/wreck diving or freediving isn’t on any risk scale we could locate. We can assume it’s up there—near or at the top.

Fock A. Analysis of recreational closed-circuit rebreather deaths 1998–2010 Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine. 2013 Volume 43, No. 2. With the caveat that they are “best guess numbers,” Fock concluded that rebreather diving is likely 5-10x as risky as open circuit scuba diving, accounting for about 4-5 deaths per 100,000 dives, compared to about 0.4 to 0.5 deaths per 100k dives for open circuit scuba. This makes rebreather diving more risky than skydiving at .99/100k, but far less risky than base-jumping at 43 deaths/100k. The current belief is that rebreather diving has gotten safer.

Divers are a fairly small niche group for many reasons. One of them could involve the degree of danger associated with the sport. Answer this: Do dry land people ever ask you why you would want to take such a chance with your life in order to go where you weren’t meant to go? 

It’s a reasonable question, albeit a hard one to answer.

Photo courtesy of Glen Kwan

“A life without risk is a life unlived, my friend.” – Big Time Rush

Kevin Costner’s Waterworld aside, humans have (yet) to be born with gills or webbed toes. Still, there you are. You’ve spent unmentionable amounts of money. You’ve carved out a whole day, or maybe weeks, away from your to-do list. You’re suited up and look like an alien. You’re on a quest to explore the aquatic world where you’re able to breathe only with a cumbersome apparatus. You’re planning to explore inner space! You’re going to delve into that amazing realm that’s off limits to most people. 

You may look all matter-of-fact, cool as a cucumber, another day at the office, but it’s a thrill, isn’t it? Inside, you’re a kid with butterflies in your tummy who’s getting away with something big and exciting. Okay, it’s true–you and your team are highly trained, your equipment is top-notch, every box is checked off, and you are behaving responsibly. However, you’d have to be in a coma to not realize that what you’re about to do is taking a risk. Who doesn’t know that people have died doing what you’re doing? Answer honestly: How much more exhilarating is the experience when you know it’s not a walk in the park? Our own Michael Menduno admitted that “the feeling of being more alive lasted for days” after a dive.

So, you’re a diver. Does that mean you’re a risk taker? A thrill seeker? A sensation seeker?

Let’s dive into that subject, first by taking a little quiz, shall we? 

Photo courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett

From A Death Wish to Life Is Precious

In the past, too many mental health professionals treated risky behavior like a disease in need of a cure, focusing on the negative side of risk, even using government funding to address risky behavior and stamp it out. 

Before that, Sigmund Freud might have even believed that thrill seekers had a death wish; in fact, it’s what was believed for many years. 

Modern-day science doesn’t support either theory.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – TS Elliot

For our purposes, we’re focusing on the positive aspects of taking chances, pushing boundaries, and seeking experiences that make life feel . . . more alive. Richer. Fuller. We want to examine what goes into the psyche of a person (like you?) who is enthusiastically willing to engage in an activity already identified as dangerous, possibly even by the people who are engaging in it, and hear what some experts on the subject have to say about such people.

Photo courtesy of Jen MacKinnon

The University of Michigan’s Daniel Kruger proposes that taking chances is a fundamental part of human nature going all the way back to our ancient ancestors—prehistoric humans who had to constantly put their safety on the line in their fight for survival. Think fighting off a wooly mammoth with a stick. Kruger believes we have consequently retained many of those same instincts today, and he believes that it’s a good thing. 

This writer, who is related to a major risk-taker, has always believed that heart-quickening experiences are essential for a well-lived life. I’m convinced and have long proposed that those pulse-pounding moments are often accompanied by a deepened understanding of and appreciation for one’s life—perhaps all life. And I’m happy to report that current science confirms that belief.

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

Dr. Kruger is one of the scientists who proposes that taking risks means “seeking that moment when life feels most precious.

This should not be news for you diving adventurers out there.

Nature vs. Nurture: Born That Way or Learned To Love Adventure

Another scientist, Marvin Zuckerberg, affirms the theory that risk taking is in our DNA. “Certain people have high sensation-seeking personalities that demand challenges and seek out environments that most people’s brains are geared to avoid.” I’ll go out on a limb and say that underwater caves or shipwrecks would qualify as environments most would avoid.

Dr. Cynthia Thompson, the researcher behind a 2014 study from the University of British Columbia, was early to look at the genetic factors that might make a person predisposed to participating in extreme sports, ones that are typically defined as activities where death is a real possibility. The results of her study revealed that risk-takers shared a similar genetic constitution, a genetic variant that influences how powerful feelings are during intense situations.

Photo courtesy of Steve Boisvert

Most scientists agree that personality is a complicated mix of genetic and environmental influences. The “nature vs. nurture” dilemma is alive and well. Dr. Thompson concluded that people who engaged in so-called high-risk sports were not impulsive at all, not reckless either. Instead, “they’re highly skilled masters of their discipline who take a very thoughtful approach to their sports.”

A study conducted in 2019 examined human boundaries, people who pushed them to their limits and beyond, and what made those people tick. Zuckerman labeled such people “sensation seekers” and defined them as “people who chase novel, complex, and intense sensations, who love experience for its own sake, and who may take risks to pursue those experiences.” Is that you?

“History is full of risk-takers. In fact, you could say that risk-takers are the ones who get to make history.” – Daniel Kruger

Other experts posit an alternate theory—one proposing that modern society in the age of seatbelts, guardrails, child-proof caps, safety precautions, laws, rules, and regulations has dulled the sense of survival. In other words, life has flattened out and no longer feels exciting, or risky. So, is one of the reasons we seek excitement because of boredom? 

Maslow’s Theory of Self-actualization

I don’t honestly know who was the first proponent of risk-taking being a positive thing, but the work of Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, was one of the first. Maslow became one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, and he developed a theory of human motivation that advocates for “peak experiences.” Peak experiences are not attained without risk.

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again” – A Maslow

He proposed that, in addition to meeting basic needs, all humans from birth seek fulfillment in terms of what he called self-actualization—finding their purpose/being authentic. Self-actualization involves peak experiences—those life-altering moments that take us outside ourselves, make us feel one with nature, and allow us to experience a sense of wonder and awe. Maslow also believed that those who were able to have such peak experiences tended to seek them out rather than waiting for the next random occurrence. Hence the anticipation of the next dive?

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Anonymous

Photo courtesy of Adam Haydock

Out of Your Comfort Zone Into A World of Wonder

Psychologist Eric Brymer from Queenstown University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, has spent years studying extreme athletes and has this to say: “They’re actually extremely well-prepared, careful, intelligent, and thoughtful athletes with high levels of self-awareness and a deep knowledge of the environment and of the activity.”

Recent research backs up what some extreme sports athletes have been saying for years, even if only to themselves.

“What participants get from extreme sports is deeply transformational, a sense of connecting with a deep sense of self and being authentic, a powerful relationship with the natural world, a sense of freedom,” says Brymer. “They get a strong sense of living life to its fullest as if touching their full potential.”

Brymer’s comments mirror what Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, said back in the 1940s.

We’re not advocating for taking stupid chances (such as diving without proper training, or necessary precautions) and we don’t believe anyone reading this article does that. We simply intended to focus on the scientific evidence that supports adventurers—people who get a thrill from an activity that offers—as a bonus; a chance to feel awakened from the mundane and thrust into a world of wonder. 

Risk-takers and sensation- or thrill-seekers chase unique experiences. Often, those experiences bring awareness of important issues or increase essential knowledge about the planet we share. Many people overanalyze and dither when faced with an unfamiliar situation; they shy away from unsettling circumstances. Risk-takers face the unknown and trust themselves to prevail. Learning to scuba dive, for example, pushes people out of their comfort zone, takes them into a realm foreign and mysterious. Diving forces divers to pay complete attention to a task, to focus with laser-like precision in order to conquer misgivings, and to attain a skill that few others have. Confidence comes with accomplishment. Leadership emerges. Fear is overcome. 

Sensation-seekers see potential stressors as challenges to be met rather than threats that might defeat them. With action, resilience develops. High sensation-seekers report lower perceived stress, more positive emotions, and greater life satisfaction. Engaging in extreme activities brings them peace. 

What does it bring you?

Dive Deeper

Bandolier: Risk of dying and sporting activities

National Geographic: What Makes Risk Takers Tempt Fate? Recent research suggests that genetic, environmental, and personal factors can make people take on risky—even potentially fatal—challenges.

Healthday: Taking Risks By Chris Woolston HealthDay Reporter


Pat Jablonski heads up the copy edit team for InDEPTH. She is a blogger, a writer of stories, a retired tutor, English writing teacher, and therapist. She’s a friend, a wife, a proud mother and grandmother. She is also a native of Florida, having spent most of her life in Palm Beach County. She has a B.A. in English from FAU in Boca Raton and an M.S.W. from Barry University in Miami. She learned to swim in the ocean, a place she thinks of as home, but she doesn’t dive.

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