IT HAPPENED TO ME
Taking The Right Shot
Stopping to take a final photograph left technical diver Sarah Gauci with a tricky problem when she found herself alone, at depth, with no shot-line
We were taking photographs for a survey of an artificial reef in 43m of water off Malta, diving as a group of three. The dive had been uneventful, with good visibility, a slight current and a surface swell of about a metre. Our shot-line was positioned just off the reef on the sea floor. After 22 minutes, my buddies tapped me on the shoulder to indicate that our time was up. I signalled that they should ascend while I took two last shots before joining them.
I took the pictures carefully, making sure they were correctly exposed and framed. But when I looked for the shot-line, I discovered it was gone. I went round the square reef several times, searching for the shot at each corner, but still could not find it. With time running out and narcosis kicking in, I ascended to the highest point of the reef at 39m and deployed a delayed surface marker buoy (SMB). But the SMB then jammed, threatening to drag me to the surface until I let go.
Unusually, I’d left behind my spare delayed SMB and reel to reduce my kit load. My computer indicated that I now had 47 minutes of stops, which was going to be interesting with no shot-line, no delayed SMB and no visual references.
I began the ascent, making a two-minute stop on air at 21m, before turning on my sidemount of nitrox 50 for the stops above 18m. As I switched on, the regulator free-flowed and wouldn’t stop. Switching it off and then on again didn’t help. I was left with three options. The first was to forget the nitrox and to carry on breathing my back gas, of which I had a sufficient amount. However, this would increase my already long deco time, therefore increasing the time I was underwater in a current with no marker to the surface. The second was to switch the nitrox on and off in time with my breathing, which would be effective, but would increase the task load. The third option, which for a few moments was the most tempting, was to panic, hit the inflate button and then suck down the emergency oxygen supply once onboard the cover boat.
I chose option two: opening and closing the pillar valve in time with my breathing. While doing this, I had to ascend and swim slowly across the current towards the shore two miles away. After a while, I heard the RIB searching some distance away. However, I couldn’t determine the direction of the boat.
Half an hour later, I heard the sound of the RIB’s engine repeatedly revving above my head, followed by the sight of two concerned faces hanging over the side into the water. A lazy shot was quickly lowered and the rest of the decompression passed without incident.
Back on the boat, I spoke to the rest of the dive team about what had happened. As soon as my buddies had moved onto the shot-line, the current began to pull it out of position. They had tried and failed to attract my attention, but by the time they realised I wouldn’t be able to see the shot-line, they also couldn’t see the reef. They then continued their ascent in the knowledge that I was carrying a delayed SMB. It was only after they had surfaced that the boat went over to my delayed SMB. They realised that it wasn’t attached to anything, and started their search.
I learned a few lessons following that dive. Firstly, that buddy diving means staying together, right from leaving the boat to arriving back on board. I should have started the ascent when my buddies were ready to leave – a camera won’t help you when things go wrong.
Also, you should always check your delayed SMB line for knots. An extra delayed SMB and reel is not a superfluous bit of kit to be left behind, particularly where currents and long decompression stops are involved.
Thirdly, it is perfectly possible to carry out a long decompression stop while switching the regulator on and off in time with your breathing – that is, as long as you can reach the pillar valve comfortably.
And, finally, a good boatman is worth his or her weight in gold.