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Out Of Air

Thorough training and preparation saved the day when Mike Follows’ buddy ran out of air mid-dive

The second dive on the second day of my trip to Oman was a dive on Fahl Island (also known as Shark Island), just off the coast near the capital Muscat. I had hooked up with Tom, a Dane, on the way to the first dive, which had gone really well – cuttlefish at 27m was the highlight for me. 

Tom claimed that he was a rescue diver and spoke of seeing thresher sharks in the Red Sea, giving the impression that he was experienced. However, he was the first to spot that we were short of a divemaster. Weaned on the BSAC buddy system, I wasn’t unduly concerned by this – save for the reassurance of an extra pair of eyes topside when picking up divers.

As we descended, we started finning in the direction of the rendezvous point. As soon as the sea bed came into view at about 16m, it was clear we had been dropped headlong into a stiff drift above a boring sandy bottom. We were kicking very hard just to hold station. While we clung to a boulder for a breather at about 15m, our air pressures were both down to about 130 bar. I was wondering when I should deploy my delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) and was fascinated by a bannerfish that seemed to be caught in an eddy while all sorts of detritus swirled around us.

We were there for a few minutes when Tom showed me his contents gauge – 30 bar. Had he exaggerated how much air he had left earlier in the dive? Had some air been purged from his octopus, which was secured under the belt of his BC? Alarmed, he indicated that he was going to fin along and upwards – a nice gentle ascent that was a carbon copy of the end of our first dive, when we followed the profile of the reef. But there was no reef here and Tom seemed to have forgotten about the current. I knew he was simply going to fin on the spot and I needed to get my DSMB away.

I instantly dumped air from my BC so that I wouldn’t be carried away in the drift. I always have my DSMB attached to my reel so it was simply a case of unfurling it and inflating with my octopus. I was conscious of how easy it was to deploy in warm, relatively clear water – and without gloves. The current was taking a lot of line but, by the time Tom turned round to give me the out-of air-signal, the DSMB was on its way to the surface and I had offered him my octopus. I made sure we weren’t going to lose contact and got Tom’s breathing under control – plenty of eye contact and hand signals ensured that he didn’t panic. We made a three-minute precautionary at 6m and then continued to the surface. 

By the time we surfaced, we had drifted some distance from our entry point. On previous trips, I have been guilty of not packing a DSMB and developing a carefree ‘holiday’ attitude, but my decision to bring one was validated on this occasion.

This could have ended very differently for one or both of us but for the skills I regularly practised over the winter. I simply went into autopilot. But it only went like clockwork because of my buddies at Tamworth SAC, who have given up their time to help me hone my skills. 

It transpired that this was only Tom’s 14th dive. Despite that, I would rate him as a good diver; but with the benefit of hindsight, I would have eyeballed his contents gauge – had he been candid about his experience.

I have since wondered what was going through Tom’s head when he opted to continue with the dive. Was it simply inexperience? What if he had been ‘leading’ me and I had dutifully followed? I now suspect that some people develop tunnel vision when stressed and, if diving, get into difficulty because the ‘plan the dive, dive the plan’ mantra is taken too literally. Bailing out has to be implicit in any plan.

My experience taught me to always take a DSMB on holiday, no matter how safe the diving seems. If I plan to hire kit, I would take a few clips so that I could properly secure the various hoses. And, continue practising skills – they often make the difference between safety and danger. 


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