The Missing Third

Ed.'s note: This regular column presents the anatomy of a scuba diving accident and the lessons to be learned from it. The incidents described are real. Names of locations and people have been changed or deleted.

Setting the Stage    Three female divers carefully and cooperatively gear up on shore at the dive site. Their diving experience covers the spectrum - from substantial, to moderate, to just certified. They have much of their own equipment, but some rental gear from two different dive stores. Sea and weather conditions are mild. Their plan is to snorkel a short distance, descend through a kelp bed, and swim a short distance to a wreck in 60 to 90 feet of water. The two experienced divers lead the way and let the new diver follow.

The Dive    Arriving at the shallow end of the wreck (60 feet), the two more experienced divers start exploring. They soon realize their inexperienced friend is not with them. They confer and retrace their underwater route back from the wreck.

The Rescue Attempt    In shallow water (30 feet), just to the side of their route, they find their buddy in the kelp, not entangled, but unconscious and not breathing. They ditch her weight belt, surface immediately, and call for help. A rescue boat, complete with advanced life support equipment and personnel, arrives within minutes. The victim is given full emergency care, including recompression treatment, but to no avail.

The Litigation    The victim's family sues her dive instructor, the dive stores, the equipment manufacturers of her personal gear, the property owner of the shore location they used as an entry point, the government agency with jurisdiction over these waters, her two buddies, several John Does and the insurance company's accident investigator. After legal maneuvering, all but her two buddies are dropped from the suit. Finally, the insurance companies that hold the homeowner policies of the two buddies settle out of court and compensate the family.

Questions Raised

Analysis    Many scuba diving deaths are unattended, and without a witness to the cause, autopsies can reveal only the end result: drowning. Unfortunately the cause of this accident will never be known.

It is well-established that when a diver has difficulty, a successful resolution is far more likely if there is someone there to help. The more qualified this helper, be it a buddy or a dive professional, the better.

If you agree to be a buddy, you take on a moral, if not a legal, obligation to:

A three-person buddy team is not fundamentally dangerous, but it does mean that each diver needs to keep track of two other divers. A buddy team of three is more demanding, but not unworkable.

Newer divers will benefit in many ways by diving with experienced divers, on group outings or on supervised dives. Not only is such diving safer, but in most cases the new diver will be more confident.

Lesson for Life   Buddy diving can improve the safety and enjoyment of diving, but only if you actually do it.