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The Dumbest Thing I’ve Done Diving

Human factors coach Gareth Lock reminds us that we will all do something dumb while diving; it’s in our DNA. The trick is to ensure there are systems in place to prevent a hyperbaric boo-boo from becoming a catastrophe and to foster a culture where we share our mistakes without shame or blame in order to learn. Here tech diver Kyle Bourland steps up and shares a potential ‘eventful’ dive where he was lulled into making what amounted to a solo cave dive, as an open water diver. Fortunately, he survived to share the tale.

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Text and Header image by Kyle Bourland

The dive trip to West Palm Beach, Florida, working with my favorite local dive shop was coming to an end, and I would have to start the 13-14 hour drive home to Memphis, Tennessee. Along my route heading north through the long state of Florida was a famous dive site known for its crystal clear waters and “open water friendly” cavern. The famous Blue Grotto, in Williston in North-central Florida, had been on my bucket list for some time. I had done some research, watched a few YouTube videos, and desperately wanted to check it out on my way home. 

The day prior to our departure from West Palm Beach, I had started asking other divers on the trip if they’d like to ride back with me and buddy up for a Blue Grotto dive. Apparently nobody else seemed to share my interest in fresh water springs, as my requests for a buddy went denied. “Well, I can’t find a buddy. Guess I’ll have to skip Blue Grotto,” I stated in dismay to the instructor leading the trip.

“Just solo dive it” he said in a manner so nonchalant as to make it seem like a totally normal and acceptable thing to do.

“Really? I questioned. “But I don’t have any of the redundant equipment or training for solo diving.”

“You’re too by the book” he said as he waved off my concerns.

I was puzzled. I had been taught in class to never solo dive. But here was this instructor, a person I trusted, waving it off as no big deal.

Feeling like a complete nerd at this point I thought to myself, “am I too by the book?” “Is this a normal thing that people do all the time and I’m just making a bigger deal out of it than it really is?” “Surely, if this instructor with thousands of dives says it’s ok, it must be ok. It must be normal.”

Making The Dive

Two hundred and sixty miles northwest from West Palm, I pulled into the lot at Blue Grotto. I decided I’d try the old insta-buddy technique first. Unfortunately, the only other group was an instructor teaching an open water class, and I was not about to spend my bucket list dive kneeling on a platform watching open water students run through skills. But there was a dilemma. Per Blue Grotto policy, I had to have someone sign the waiver as my dive buddy. With pseudo confidence, I approached the instructor when he wasn’t busy and asked if he’d sign as my buddy. I didn’t conceal my intent to solo dive. In fact, I told the instructor I’d enter the water with his group, and that once we were under, I’d be out of his way, solo diving, and checking out the cavern. Without hesitation, this instructor agreed and signed my waiver.

“Huh” I thought. “I guess it really is normal. I guess I have been too by the book.”

Just as we discussed, I entered the water, waved goodbye to the instructor, and I was off. I headed down, following the left side of the cavern area until I reached a rope. I had been told that this was a cavern. I had been told that natural light could be seen from any point in this cavern. I was about to find out I had been told wrong.



 Based on what I’d seen online, the rope I’d come to—and now held in my hand—went all the way to the bottom of the cavern then came back up the other side through a sort of swim-through. I proceeded downward, alone, with no redundant gas, no gas plan, no lights, and no solo training. Just a rope in one hand and horribly misplaced confidence in the other. It quickly became very dark. I could no longer see my computer, or any terrain feature in front of me. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I kept swimming, expecting to see light in front of me any second from the other side of this swim through. It didn’t happen. I’ll never forget my thoughts as I stopped. “What are you doing? This is how people get killed.”

I turned around, expecting to see natural light behind me. There was nothing but pitch darkness. I was NOT in a cavern. Without ambient light, one is, by definition, in a cave. I thanked God that I had enough sense to at least maintain a hold on the rope and I turned around, followed the rope out, and reflected on my utter stupidity and all that could have gone wrong.

Post-Dive Analysis

What led an otherwise rational, safety-conscious diver to behave with such irrational disregard for basic safety rules?

In asking this question it’s easy to chalk it up to simple stupid, and readers wouldn’t be wrong in this analysis. However, that diagnosis doesn’t allow for a deeper  understanding of my behavior, nor does it  help to prevent future divers from making the same mistakes. The more complex answer to this question lies somewhere between normalization of deviance and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

 Normalization of deviance is a term first coined by sociologist, Diane Vaughan. She defines it as, “a process where a clearly unsafe practice comes to be considered normal if it does not immediately cause a catastrophe.” When applied to a group, an organization, or an industry, this is called social normalization of deviance.

Credit: Thehumandiver.com

 This sort of social normalization of deviance can be found all around us and in nearly every aspect of life. We become accustomed to it without even knowing what it is. We may even look for it. In my own career as a firefighter it’s often said that there’s the book way to do things and then there’s how we really do things. New firefighters inevitably begin to look for these lines between book and practice. Consider driving a car. The speed limit may be 55 mph, but the custom, the norm, what is accepted is 60. And we’ve all been frustrated when stuck behind that one driver who insists on doing exactly 55 mph.

I fell victim to this phenomenon at Blue Grotto. The encounters I had with those two instructors played a crucial role in justifying my own foolish behavior. Maybe I was looking for the lines between the rule book and what really happened without even realizing it. Solo diving without training and without redundancy, despite everything I had learned in class, became “normalized”.

Next, let’s consider the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This psychological phenomenon has been discussed endlessly on scuba forums, so most divers are quite familiar with the concept. For those who aren’t, however, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is defined as a form of cognitive bias where those with low ability tend to overestimate their ability and those with high ability tend to underestimate their ability. We see this often in new divers. Minimum experience with maximum confidence is the pinnacle of Mt. Stupid and where we can probably find a vast number of accidents and near misses. If survived, the new diver hopefully walks away a bit more experienced and a lot less cocky.

The day before this dive, I had hit 100 dives. I was an “experienced” diver. By industry standards, I could have started an IDC. I felt like I could handle anything. This misplaced confidence and over-estimation of my own skill and ability, without the experience to actually back it up, proceeded me right into a risky situation.

I reflect on this now and remember it as the dumbest thing I’ve done diving. I don’t blame those two instructors. I bear full responsibility for my own actions. I knew better and chose to violate the rules. My only intent here is to share my own story and to hopefully shine a light on what I believe to be factored into the deeper psychological reasons for making such an unfortunate decision. Only through awareness of our mistakes and the distorted thinking that precipitates our actions  can we improve our choices and make diving safer for everyone.

Additional Resources:

InDepth: My Deep Dive Into The Dunning-Kruger Effect by Brendan Lund

InDepth: Drift is Normal. Being a Deviant is Normal. Here’s Why by Gareth Lock

If you had a close call experience that you’d like to share please write to us at: InDepth@GUE.com



Kyle Bourland began diving in 2017, started training with GUE in 2020, and ultimately achieved his Tech 1 and Cave 2 qualifications. Professionally, he works as a firefighter/advanced EMT, and volunteers as a public safety diver in West Tennessee, USA.

Cave

Close Calls: I Ripped My Drysuit a Kilometer Back In The Cave

It’s a potentially life-threatening equipment failure that most divers have thought but, but outside of minor leaks, few have experienced, and almost none have trained for. It certainly got the attention of photographer Fan Ping as he felt the chilly Florida spring water rush into his suit. Here’s how he survived the dive.

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By Fan Ping

🎶🎶 Pre-dive Clicklist: 平凡之路 (The Ordinary Road) by Pu Shu

Finally I had to say goodbye to my six-year old drysuit, in an unexpected way.

It was a cloudy day in January. There were not many people at Ginnie Springs in Florida as the temperature there was still too cold for the inflatable unicorns and flamingos with their masters in swimsuits that you see so often at the park. My friend Derek Dunlop and I met at the parking lot in front of Devil’s underwater cave system, and we started preparing for our photo shoot in Berman’s Room, at about 1006 m/3400 ft on the main line.

I sidemount my camera to the right.

As usual, we had first talked about the shooting plan with a storyboard and had decided to go in with six video lights since Berman’s Room is pretty big and fairly tall. Then we started preparing our rebreathers, but things did not go smoothly. Derek had a leak in his DSV, and then one of his O2 sensors stopped working for an unknown reason. Fortunately, he managed to fix both problems, but by then it was almost 2 pm already. I am a firm believer of ‘Rule of Three’ (If you have three major problems before you start the dive, then you should quit for the day), but I am also a photographer who was eager to capture the last piece of my Ginnie Springs project.

Berman’s Room
The Henkel

We got on our scooters and started diving. When I have many lights, I usually put two on the camera, which is side mounted on my right like a tank, two in my left thigh pocket, and the rest on my buddy. We dropped our own sidemount bailout tanks at Stage Bottle Rock at 1800’ and arrived at our destination 45 minutes into the dive as planned. We spent about 60 minutes playing with the lights and shooting, and then turned the dive happily at 105 minutes.

I was leading on the way out, riding in the high flow and thinking about the photos. When I passed the restricted tunnel before the Henkel restriction, the third problem of the day finally came. Scootering with the flow at perhaps  1 m/sec, the corner of my left pocket on my drysuit got caught on the tip of a rock and ripped a 3cm x 3cm hole. I could feel the chilly water flooding into my suit, so I stopped immediately, and within 10 seconds I lost my trim and buoyancy and was kneeling on the floor like in my Open Water class.

I told myself to “stop and think!” As in all the training we have done, I realized this was not an immediate life threatening situation, but the snowball could start rolling if I did not act correctly in a calm way. I checked my computers and used my primary light to get Derek’s attention and told him my drysuit was done for with the universal hand signal. Then I put some gas into the wing, but I was still on the floor. With more gas into the drysuit, I started moving again, in a vertical fashion. 

As you all can imagine, I had to put myself on the floor again at the Henkel. It is not extremely tight if you choose the right path, but with the DPV and camera and the Global Underwater Explorers (GUE)-configured JJ-CCR on my back, I was worried that I might not get out of the cave smoothly. Usually I stay very calm during a dive, but the depth was 32 m/105 ft, and the clock was ticking I was unsure of what would happen with that hole in my drysuit. I dumped all the gas in my suit and carefully crawled out of the restriction. Luckily, visibility is not a problem in Ginnie’s main tunnel because of the flow, and I can verify that a v-drill is easier when you have your belly on the ground.

To be honest, this was when I just completely got out of the panic mode. I knew I was getting closer to the surface, and I would be fine as long as I stayed focused. I inflated my suit, but as soon as I tried to stay horizontal, the gas leaked out from the hole. So, I put more gas into the loop and started being dragged by my scooter like SLAVE I in Star Wars, while still having to kick the whole time against the weight of my feet. 

That was when I started to feel cold. I could not imagine what this would have been like if I had been in a freezing cold cave like Orda, where the low temperature would have already killed me. All I could do was focus on scootering and choosing the taller passage if possible, in order to avoid messing with my buoyancy. Derek retrieved my bailout tank on the way out, and we made it back to the cavern in about 145 minutes, which is almost twice the time it usually takes.

My dive profile

There was no one else in the cavern when we started doing our longer-than-planned deco. I inflated my suit and knelt down on the rock at 6 m/20 ft so I could at least keep my torso relatively dry. I was getting colder and colder since I was not moving at all, but thanks to the 21ºC/70ºF degree spring water, my mind was still clear enough to think about getting a rental drysuit at Extreme Exposure and coming back in two days. After about 40 minutes of deco, we got back to the surface, and I had a really hard time walking back to my truck with all the water in my suit. What is worse, even the clouds started crying for me (or perhaps for my drysuit).

Drysuit full of water with the hole. Notice the rip on the top of the left pocket.

A fully flooded drysuit is something we always had talked about in our training but would never practice on purpose. When it actually happens, one can lose his trim and buoyancy within seconds, resulting in much more serious problems; for example, navigation, extended deco time, and hypothermia. 

In retrospect, I think there are 3 reasons why it happened to me:

  1. I was diving a Kirby Morgan M48 Mod-1 full face mask to facilitate better communication with my model, but the vision was relatively limited,and I did not pay enough attention to the surroundings;
  2. I had two big video lights in my pocket, and the pocket was exposed as I dropped my sidemount bailout tank;
  3. I should have gone slowly or maybe swum in more restricted areas.

I consider myself lucky that I got nothing but cold and lost nothing but an old drysuit, and thanks to Derek who made the process easier. It could have been a totally different story in another cave with a silty bottom or freezing cold water. However, out with the old, in with the new; it was time to get another drysuit.

Have you or a teammate ever had a “close call” while diving? Please take a few minutes to complete our new survey: Close Calls in Scuba Diving 


Fan Ping is a Chinese photographer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and is dedicated to showing the beauty of the underwater world to people through his lens. He is specialized in combining artistic elements with nature and complex lighting skills in overhead environments, and this artistic style has brought him international acclaim, including awards from many major underwater photo/video competitions. You can follow his work on Facebook and Instagram: Be Water Imaging.

The best of Fan Ping’s work can be purchased at: www.bewaterimaging.com

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