By Maureen Roberts
Header image courtesy of Julian Mühlenhaus
On Saturday, September 11, 2021, I was on a shore diving trip with friends in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California, when I experienced a runaway power inflator and an uncontrolled ascent to the surface on a technical dive.
I finished my Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) Technical Diver 1 course in December 2019, but didn’t dive much during the first part of the pandemic. Now vaccinated, I was diving again, but I still only had 18 tech dives. I took the GUE DPV Diver 1 course in May 2021, and had 20 scooter dives by the time of the trip.
We planned to do tech dives using diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs) at Point Lobos in a team of three. Our first dive would be a scooter run out to Montana, max depth of 46 m/150 ft, and the 2nd dive to Beto’s reef, max depth of 36 m/120 ft. We discussed the need to avoid surfacing at the deeper parts of the dive if we became separated, due to surface currents in that area. The plan was to scooter back to shallower depths and the protection of the cove before surfacing.
We exited the water in high spirits after the first dive. We had some lunch and then got ready for the second dive. On the second dive, I was Diver #3, and Diver #1 was navigating. We planned for an average depth of 30 m/100 ft and a maximum depth 46 m/120 ft and decompression on 100% oxygen (O2).
The first part of the dive was uneventful and picturesque. We were treated to about 15 m/50 ft visibility and a lot of different marine life than we usually see in southern California (SoCal). I was happy to see so many varieties of starfish, which have become rare in SoCal. As we reached the farthest point out on our dive, 29 minutes runtime, I fell about 3 m/10 ft behind Divers #1 and 2, who were wing on wing. I had just looked at my dive computer, and I saw our depth at 46 m/120 ft, and a deco time of one minute.
I was adjusting buoyancy, and added a little gas to my wing. When I pressed the inflator, it gave a wimpy puff, almost like I’d pressurized my regs and then turned them off during a pre-dive check, and puffed the last little bit of gas into the wing. I added a puff of gas to my drysuit to alleviate some squeeze, then returned to the wing inflator, thinking, “Hmm.” As I pressed it, the button stuck down and my wing began to rapidly inflate.
It All Looks Up To Me
For a few seconds, I tried to unstick the inflator button, but it didn’t budge. I reached for my right valve with my right hand (dropping the scooter handle) and my butt dump with my left hand. I felt myself rising and I realized I could not reach the right post because my wing was so full. My wing’s overpressurization relief valve (OPV) started to dump and bubbles began to obscure my vision. The other divers were now about 6 m/20 ft away, and I was rising above them. I screamed to them through my regulator, but we were all wearing hoods in the cold water, and that plus the hum of their scooters drowned me out.
The gas in my drysuit was expanding as I ascended, and I went to a more vertical position of about 45 degrees and vented my drysuit while I tried to disconnect the inflator hose. I wasn’t able to disconnect it. My hands were cold and I was wearing dry gloves with thick undergloves. At that point, I had risen about 6-9 m/20-30 ft, and I was accelerating. I had gone from “What is happening?” to “I will handle this,” to “Oh my God, I’m going to the surface!” in just a few seconds. I reached back again, trying to get to the right post, but my wing was very full, it was impossible to turn the valve, and I was starting to feel squeezed by the wing.
As my drysuit inflated, I even tried to claw open the neck seal to flood it, but I couldn’t get my fingers underneath my hood. I had a brief moment of wondering if this was going to be how I die, but my brain was constantly telling me to try something else as each thing didn’t work.
My vision was now completely obscured by bubbles from the wing’s OPV, so I could not tell if my teammates saw what was happening. I suspected they had not. Then it became very bright, and I was on the surface. The entire ascent lasted only 90 seconds.
My wing was still massively inflated, squeezing me and dumping out the OPV. I couldn’t reach the right valve on the surface, either. I tried again to get the inflator hose disconnected, but I couldn’t. Simultaneously, I was trying to get my bearings toward the shore. I had surfaced at the exact farthest point of our dive. The thought of the currents we had discussed crossed my mind. I squirmed around trying to get the right post shut off, while I studied the shoreline to make sure I knew where I was. I wanted to try to descend again, but I couldn’t get the wing to stop inflating. I switched to my 100% O2 and clipped off my primary regulator.
After a few minutes of struggling, I was finally able to simultaneously dump the wing and roll the post off by degrees until it was off. Then I was thankful to dump some of the gas from my wing and relieve the squeeze it was putting on my chest. I was surprised to find I still had 2000 psi/138 bar in my double 100s/12 liter. I had about 2500 psi/172 bar when my ascent began.
At that point, more than five minutes had elapsed, and I was not sure whether to descend or not. I looked at my computer, noted the 93% surface gradient, and that it said rapid ascent and missed deco stop. I realized that I had more of a rapid ascent than missed deco, and given that and the length of time already on the surface, I decided not to descend. I kept taking a mental inventory of myself and looking for anything wrong, but I felt physically okay, just a bit shaken up. I told myself, “You are okay” a few times. I wanted to be out of the water, though.
I started to scooter toward the entry point, and for a while I couldn’t tell if I was making progress. I didn’t want to have to be rescued. I decided to scooter until my batteries died, and if I didn’t make it in, then I would go to Plan B. I have a personal locator beacon (PLB) on my harness. I hoped I wouldn’t need it. I should have inflated my diver surface marker buoy (DSMB), but I honestly didn’t think of it. At that point, I didn’t want to summon anyone from shore, yet. But it could have helped my teammates see me if they were on the surface, even though the ocean was relatively flat.
Finally, I could see that I was making progress to shore, despite whatever surface current there was. I felt relief and wondered what my teammates were doing. Had they already exited ahead of me? I didn’t think so, because I didn’t see any commotion on shore. I assumed if they got out without me, the people on shore would have looked like they were looking for someone in the water.
Toward the exit, there was thick kelp on the surface and I made the mistake of heading into it rather than taking a circuitous route. I stopped and had to disentangle myself a couple of times, and then I finally decided to descend to about 1.5 m/5 ft to get through. I was aware of the need not to struggle or exert myself.
Once I got through the kelp and onto the exit ramp, I saw some of my friends there, hanging out after their dives. One of them, not initially realizing there was a problem, came to help me with my deco bottle and DPV. I slowly removed my fins and started to walk out, wondering how to explain myself. I said, “I’m not okay, I had a rapid ascent, can you bring the O2 to me, and can someone look for the other divers?”
I sat on a bench and someone brought my O2, which I breathed on and off as I described what happened. Someone else brought me some water, and I drank that and tried to be calm. I was now very anxious to see my teammates. I knew that being together, they were probably fine, but I just wanted to see them. Some of my friends went to look for them over the cliffs, and some awkwardly wandered around, loading their cars or checking gear. A couple of people asked if I was experiencing any physical symptoms. I said no.
Suddenly, I was all by myself on the bench with my O2 and some water, and I felt very alone and just drained. I wished someone would sit next to me and maybe just put a hand on my arm. I kept thinking how, if that had occurred later in the dive or on the first dive, I could have been badly bent or killed. I wondered if I would ever dive again. I kept remembering the exact moment that I realized I was going to the surface, and the fear that I felt, and how I screamed for my teammates but they did not hear me.
After what seemed like a long time, someone said they had spotted the other divers and they were coming in. I could see the ramp and watched my two teammates get out and walk to their cars to gear down. I wondered if they were mad at me. Once they were free of their tanks, they came over and I explained what happened. I was so relieved to see them.
They had looked back, seen that I was missing, and searched for me underwater for 15 minutes, concerned my scooter may have died and I was kicking back to shore, or that I had become lost, or worse. They incurred a deco obligation during the search, and then surfaced closer to shore than I had. Underwater, they had debated whether to surface earlier or to keep looking underwater. Although it seemed like it took me a long time to get squared away and get out of the water, I had already gotten out when they came to the surface.
At that point, I still felt fine, so I continued to breathe my O2 on and off, and my teammates loaded my gear into the car for me. Once we were ready to leave, I called Divers Alert Network (DAN) and told them my story. The startling reality of what I’d just experienced became evident when the DAN volunteer asked me how long since I surfaced and I said “about 20 minutes.” I then noted that my dive computer said 1 hour 33 minutes! DAN recommended I monitor myself for symptoms but did not recommend I be evaluated at the ER since I felt fine and hadn’t officially missed deco, just had a rapid ascent.
Later, we examined my gear. With the regs pressurized, it was very difficult to disconnect the low pressure (LP) inflator hose, even on land with dry hands. We removed the inflator and the LP hose and replaced both with a new one.
I had a long talk with my teammates and I called my instructor/mentor. I couldn’t decide whether to dive the following day or not. My teammate, Diver #1, told me to sleep on it. The next morning I decided to do the dive we had planned originally, a 52 m/170 ft tech dive to Twin Peaks. We decided to go in a team of two, starting the dive with another team of three. We agreed we would take things slowly.
The dive felt fine. I knew once I was in the water that it was the right decision to get back on the proverbial horse. We had a pleasant dive and then I called it a day, waiting in the sun while the others did a second dive.
Figuring Out What Went Wrong
When we arrived home, I took my malfunctioning inflator to the dive shop to examine it and see if we could determine what went wrong. They serviced my inflator, but it still leaked when we hooked it up to a new hose and tank. I had previously been told, “Don’t service LP inflators, just discard them.” I had ignored that good advice and serviced the LP inflator about 30 dives prior to the incident. It seemed to work fine, until it didn’t.
After each dive day, I soak my gear in hot water in the bathtub overnight. The LP inflator was about four years old. The hose was about five years old. It just wasn’t a style that was easy to remove when pressurized. I never realized that some LP inflator hoses are easier to remove than others. Now I have a new, easier-to-remove LP inflator hose and a new power inflator.
My teammates and I talked about the events of this dive many times over the following days. I will be more diligent in not falling behind when scootering, and if I need the others to slow down for me, I will ask them to.
Diver #1 and I subsequently went on a skills dive together to practice runaway inflator management. We found that consistently dumping from the butt dump while kicking down, we could arrest the ascent and stabilize in the face of a stuck inflator. Once stabilized, we were able to easily shut the right post off and switch to our backup regulator. Once the right post had been purged, the LP inflator hose was easy to disconnect. I tried a different strategy of going vertical and dumping gas from the corrugated hose while trying to disconnect the LP inflator (rather than using the butt dump and shutting off the right post) but found that I ascended more quickly using that method. I was glad that we practiced the stuck wing inflator because I hadn’t practiced it before. Now I feel confident that I could manage a stuck inflator.
At the time of my incident, I wasn’t as committed to dumping from the OPV as I should have been. Once the OPV started to auto-dump, I didn’t continue to dump it myself. That may have made a difference and given me the ability to dump enough gas to reach the right post.
We are always told “Stop, breathe, think, act,” but in this case, I didn’t have time to do that. It was “act, act, act, oh no I’m at the surface.” A lot of the things I did were automatic and I didn’t even think about them. Some folks have asked me if I could have cut my wing with my knife, or scootered straight down, or kinked off the LP inflator hose. I didn’t have time to think of those things; besides, I had dropped my scooter handle as soon as I tried to reach the right post.
I plan to remember this dive by checking the dates on all my gear every year on September 11. I’m going to start replacing LP inflators annually, and hoses every 3 years.
I think perhaps the most pragmatic take on the incident was from my T1 teammate (who was not present). When I told him the story, he said “Replace both the inflator and the hose. You’ll be fine, it’s just an incident. Shit happens.”
The Human Diver: The Debrief
Diver Alert Network: Diving Incident Reporting System
DAN South Africa: One mistake and you are dead – isn’t how accidents normally happen!
Alert Diver.eu: A Behind The Scenes Look Into The Making of “Close Calls”
Forty-four year old Maureen Roberts is an emergency veterinarian based in Pasadena, California and has been diving since 2015. She received her GUE Tech 1 certification in 2019 and her DPV 1 in 2021. She says she likes black jelly beans.
Marine biologist Dr. Sonia Rowley, aka the “Gorg Whisperer” takes us for a deep dive into the life of her octocorallia de désir.
Text and images by Dr. Sonia Rowley. Header Image: The enigmatic gorgonian Annella Gray, 1858 (left) taken at Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia at 60 m/197 ft depth with Dr. Sonia J. Rowley (pictured right).
At the beginning of 2014, I submitted my Ph.D. thesis on the Gorgonian (sea fan) corals of SE Sulawesi, Indonesia with the following statement: “First and foremost I am indebted to the sea fans themselves, who, through their sheer eloquence connect us to the oceans and wonders of nature; they, are my greatest teachers.”
Gorgonian corals are some of the most conspicuous and highly diverse creatures in the marine realm. Evocative images of exotic dive locations typically sport colorful fans amidst an array of reef fish. Yet, despite their splendor, this group of corals is remarkably overlooked. Why would this be?
Gorgonians, like fish, simply don’t exist, they are not actually a thing! What?!? What does that mean? Gorgonians are within a Class of corals called Octocorallia, ‘octo’ meaning eight; 8 tentacles, 8 divisions within the polyp, all eight! Octocorallia is a monophyletic group, meaning that all the members of this group are related to a common ancestor. However, within Octocorallia, the division is complex and unresolved. Gorgonians are not all closely related to each other. They are polyphyletic; the species that are grouped together do not all come from a common ancestor, yet they all share very similar characteristics (e.g., axis type). In fact, gorgonians are all mixed in with soft corals and sea pens. So, what do we do with a quandary like that?
This is a species within the soft coral genus Siphonogorgia Kölliker, 1874. It makes an excellent gorgonian, don’t you think? So did its early taxonomists. However, it’s not one. Good ideas emerge many times across nature—just look at wings! The term for this apparent similarity or relatedness in form is convergent evolution, whereby distantly related organisms have independently evolved the same characteristics in response to their environment.
Safety in Numbers
A fascinating part of gorgonian research is teasing apart who’s related to who, and why; how did various adaptations arise, and can the mechanics of their existence be superimposed on their phylogeny—their relatedness, if you will? The use of molecular techniques to corroborate what we see in the field continues to increase our understanding of these enigmatic corals, and strengthens our conviction on how much biodiversity is on a reef. This, in turn, enables regulators to take appropriate conservation measures. Yet, biodiversity assessments and subsequent conservation strategies are essentially human constructs against our own human influence.
Nonetheless, the biodiversity in the image below is in safe hands and taken very seriously by nearby communities. Ant Atoll is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with local rangers monitoring the atoll day and night. Here, nature’s adaptations can persist as intended, largely uninhibited by our influence. White gorgonians (Melithaea Milne Edwards, 1857) persist in the same habitat as these yellow-coloured black corals (Antipathes Pallas, 1766). Black corals and gorgonians often look very similar, with both coral groups featuring whip, fan, and bush species. With a keen eye, it is possible to determine the difference between the two coral groups and mesophotic depths are the perfect environment to flex those field ID muscles; the closer you look, the more delights you will see.
But, whilst gorgonians don’t exist as entity [or taxonomic/coral group], they do survive, adapt, and persist. Current estimates suggest that less than 4% of global marine ecosystems on the planet are actively protected (i.e., they are not paper parks). The deeper depths are neither isolated nor immune to the vicissitudes of human existence—fishing line, sedimentation, and pollution penetrate them, too. However, time and again gorgonians make it through. Even during my Ph.D. research in Indonesia, I discovered that a shallow water gorgonian turned to coprophagy to survive on reefs degraded by human effluent to the point that the genetic structure of the coral was even changing!
Many gorgonians have evolved a natural resilience or tactics that facilitate survival in challenging conditions. Not being able to get up and move, sessile (immobile) taxa such as gorgonians get inventive. Many species have a battery of chemicals to ward off unwanted invaders. But, gorgonians develop natural resilience by keeping the right company. Numerous species of Acanthogorgia Gray, 1858 can be very colorful, yet remarkably fragile. Thus, they tend to settle either at the base of larger chemically well-defended gorgonians or other aggressive stinging taxa on the reef, such as hydroids (image below) that pack a serious punch if you get anywhere near them. The gorgonian maintains its glory by sticking close to these knights in chemical armor.
Where some corals like to hang together, others prefer to go it alone. The logarithmic beauty of the spiral has evolved several times in gorgonians. Many species of Viminella sp. (pictured below) can be found popping up in seemingly any reef environment and in waters deep to shallow. Their solitary existence has been an evolutionary success.
This rarely encountered, delightfully delicate, and lyre-shaped coral is one that I see only at mesophotic depths. Typically perched upon the crest of old sea-level stands (ancient reefs), this form is likely capitalizing on a prominent position to catch food and attend to reproductive necessities.
Standing out in a crowd
Some species are all about maximizing space—hundreds of tiny mouths all packed in on the branches, themselves closely aligned. Nothing gets past this natural and highly effective filtration system. When you descend onto a beautiful mesophotic reef and encounter these giants, you know that the water flow is moderate to strong, and its contents rich in particulates. This mighty mouth ensemble is repeated many times in the evolutionary history of any coral group, but few are as ornate as those species within the Primnoidae Milne Edwards, 1857.
The intrinsic beauty exhibited by the Primnoidae Milne Edwards, 1857 is arguably unparalleled throughout Octocorallia. Typically mesophotic and deep-sea specialists, the ornate structures manipulate the flow in which they live by creating turbulence and momentary retention of water in the polyp mouth (Rowley, unpublished data). A micro-CT scan (with Prof. Adam Summers) of the deep-sea Hawaiian Primnoid Calyptrophora wyvillie Wright, 1885 from the geologist seamount, McCall more than 50 miles southeast of the Big Island of Hawai’i. Sampled at 1,027 meters/3,370 ft depth.
Testing the hypothesis
The use of closed-circuit rebreather technology facilitates extended duration at deeper depths for experimental testing. Here, I am testing the mechanics of flow and feeding on the mesophotic gorgonian Annella Gray, 1858 at 110 m/361 ft. At these depths, internal waves cause huge variances in temperature, nutrients, and dissolved oxygen (to mention but a few variables). Yet, gorgonians couldn’t care less; with a 20°C variance in a single day, they just keep on feeding. Thus, they’ve been permitted to adapt naturally over the millennia, an opportunity not afforded to many of their shallow-water relatives.
To test a hypothesis, researchers may need to gather multiple lines of evidence on a variety of taxa. Such sleuthing typically generates more questions and subsequent tests that provide insight into the evolutionary processes at play. The gorgonian Annella Gray, 1858 and its network of branches (anastomoses) is an ideal candidate to develop our understanding of growth patterns and responses to hydrodynamic forces. Interestingly, in one specimen, compensatory growth 6 times that of the annual rate patched up a hole in the network in less than 12 months; nature maintains its structural integrity post disturbance.
Getting it on
Moderate to high flow and surge environments also spread the gorgonian seed. The rarely encountered Hawaiian mesophotic gorgonian, Melithaea bicolor (Nutting, 1908) can also be found nestled amidst many invertebrates of the shallow-water sandstone ceilings and pukas of O’ahu. A beautiful white colony is bursting with eggs, where it is actually possible to observe the eggs moving up and down within the tentacles themselves. Using my rebreather to study this Hawaiian endemic–thought to be found nowhere else in the world–in the shallow’s of O’ahu has allowed me to cut my macro skills in the surge for several hours at a time and develop a critical understanding of their functional morphology, particularly at depth. Thus, a rebreather is an excellent field tool irrespective of depth.
When I descend into the ocean in search of these creatures, the true meaning of life comes into perspective, and everything else only facilitates the present moment. That’s it.
Dr. Sonia J. Rowley is a marine biologist; Divesoft Ambassador, Research Associate of the National Museum of Natural History; Fellow National of the Explorers Club (FN18), USA; Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (FLS); and Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology (MRSB), UK. She is the recipient of the Sir David Attenborough Award for fieldwork for her pioneering research on gorgonian octocorals at mesophotic depths. Dr. Rowley has over 38 years of diving and commercial ship experience throughout the world. She sees that the most powerful tool for change is sharing the knowledge and experience gained in the pursuit of scientific understanding and discovery—and to have as much fun as possible doing it while diving.
Disclaimer: All of Dr. Sonia J. Rowley’s diving activities and products thereof are not associated with the University of Hawai’i, nor does Dr. Rowley represent the University of Hawai’i in any way and with regard to any diving activities.”