It Happened To Me
When his regulator went into free-flow, Julian Oliver found his dream dive trip in the Maldives wasn’t quite the break he’d been expecting
It was early June in the Maldives and the dhoni (Maldivian dive boat), fully laden with divers, staff and equipment, lazily pulled out of the harbour of our resort island in North Malé Atoll.
We arrived at the site and our guide, having determined the direction of the current, instructed us to hit the water simultaneously to keep the two groups together, descend to 20m and drift with the flow. This was my fourth dive of the trip, and I thought a moderately paced drift dive shouldn’t pose too many problems.
It all started to unravel as we approached the bottom, where I spotted our guide firmly holding onto the reef with one hand, while trying to control a desperately flapping diver – whose partner had attached himself to another coral block like a limpet – with the other. Brian and Ian (my buddies) and I looked on in disbelief as the divemaster attempted to pull himself and his companion along the reef against the direction of the current. It quickly became apparent that we’d been dropped at the wrong end of the reef for the drift!
As time passed, we grew impatient. We were consuming large amounts of air (I was down to just 70 bar) and were battling to hold our position in the water. I signalled to the guys to go up and complete a safety stop. We gave in to the powerful current and were promptly swept away from the reef and out into the blue.
As I started to fin upwards, I sensed that the water had become cooler and darker. My computer told me that I was approaching 7m. My buddies were slightly below me, but the current had taken them about 5m away from my position.
I finned in their direction, when suddenly I could see nothing but a wall of bubbles – my regulator was in free-flow. My head was being buffeted and my ears were being blasted with the roar of escaping gas. It felt as if something had deflated my BC and that I was been dragged down.
Finning hard towards the surface, I located my BC inflator button and gave it a couple of large shots of air, knowing that I was close to the surface and that my short, shallow dive meant that I needn’t worry about decompression. I pulled out my main regulator and could momentarily see again, but to my horror found that the octopus was also streaming in full free-flow. Stuffing the second stage back in my mouth, I exhaled sharply, tried the purge button, held my hand over the front of the regulator and jammed a thumb in the octopus – but nothing would stop the constant, unnerving expulsion of air.
It felt as if there was pressure in the BC but I wasn’t rising. By now, I had dropped to 14m and my legs were starting to tire. I was struggling to fill my lungs, as the delivery pressure to the second stage was weak. I needed to keep my airways open, but I was taking in water and coughing.
It was at 17m – having descended for more than a minute, confused and choking on inhaled seawater, with cramp setting in, no visibility, air disappearing fast, the constant roar of bubbles and a chilling darkness growing around me – that I seriously thought, ‘I need to stop this or I will drown.’ I had one hand on the clasp of my weight belt and was poised to release it when, to my astonishment, I broke through the surface.
Safely back on board the boat, I calmed down and tried to rationalise the sequence of events. I put my regulator on a new tank and checked all my equipment. Everything seemed to work perfectly.
While my buddy discipline should have been better, there remained a fundamental equipment issue that I needed to resolve, so we rigged up my regulator to test the purge action. Sure enough, it took very little pressure to ‘crack’ open the delivery valve. The unit had been factory-set at the extreme end of the adjustment scale and the problem only manifested itself as a free-flow under the most testing conditions. With a couple of twists, we reset it so that the purge buttons had to be firmly pressed to release the gas.
I had been given a firm reminder that diving is all about adapting to the prevailing conditions by having a sound knowledge of the environment around you, the right equipment to cope with
the conditions, and, most importantly, a healthy respect for the forces of nature.