Threats of the Shallows

IHTM- shallow threat

Even the shallowest water can be potentially dangerous – a fact that Graham Eaton is unlikely to forget following a lake dive in Wales

I was photographing birds in a very cold North Wales lake during October. Following five or six days of getting the birds comfortable with my presence – as well as adjusting to the terrible visibility and bad weather – I finally got an early autumn morning of fantastic weather and lake conditions. Mist, calm water and mixed sky – things were looking good. I spent about three hours in the water with scuba  gear and snorkel, taking photographs of two mallards. Over a coffee in the car, I quickly downloaded the first card of photos. The fifth image jumped out at me – it was the image that would later win me the runner-up prize in the 2007 Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. However, I couldn’t get changed or dash off for breakfast as I was meeting people from the Wildlife Trust.

I sat in the car and waited for the Wildlife Trust people to arrive, chatting to my father, who was my surface support for changing the camera card. I prefer to stay in the water with the birds, in order to cause minimum disturbance to them and the lake bed, rather than getting in and out of the water. 

The water level in the lake was high and had spilled over the top of the grass verge at the side. This was great for me, as it meant that I had around 1.5m of water depth to work in – a distance of about 10m from the bank to a steep drop-off. I could stand up if I wanted to, and could have taken some photographs without my scuba gear or snorkel. I just needed the gear to be able to drop gently down underneath the birds, to look upwards at them, looking down at me.

When the Trust people arrived, I showed them some images. One of them asked if I would get back in the water for some shots of me with the birds. I was happy to do so and I put my drysuit on, but left the scuba gear in the car. I set off into the water with only my camera, mask and snorkel.

A friendly mallard came over to me and I took several ‘split’ shots, while the people from the Wildlife Trust took photographs of me and the duck. When one of the ducks put its head in the water, I instinctively ducked under with it to mimic what I had been doing earlier with my gear on. I was in for a shock! In all the euphoria and distraction, I had not zipped up my drysuit and it was now flooded. I was trying to stand up, but I slipped and quickly realised that I was on the edge of the drop-off.

Luckily, I didn’t lose my footing and I remained vertical, I just got my head above the water and walked rather embarrassedly out of the lake to the amused audience, who were blissfully unaware of the trouble I could have been in. 

It was later that the seriousness of the situation sank in. Had I lost my footing near the drop-off, I could have ended up inverted over deep water with no secondary buoyancy, and no knife to cut the suit’s legs. Add cold-shock into the equation, and the situation could have been fatal. Fishermen who wear chest waders use buoyancy vests as there have been many reports of fishermen drowning after falling into rivers and floating upside down. We are no different – there will always be some air in the boots of drysuits.

The lessons to be learned from this incident are clear. Obviously, make sure you zip up your suit, but just as important is to make sure that you don’t get distracted from your usual checks. It doesn’t matter how experienced we are, or how rigorous we perform our checks, it is often when we do something slightly different to our normal routine that mistakes can be made. Even in a metre of water, you are in trouble if your legs float and your upper body doesn’t.

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