Drift Diver Missing at Sea

diver drifting

photo credit: Bill Downey

I was alone. And it was all because I had stopped to take a few close-ups of a Moray. When I had looked up, my diving buddy and the rest of the diving group was long gone. We were all drifting in the same current, so I figured that the boat would be nearby when I decided to surface. Twenty feet above me, the last red rays of dusk faded, and inky darkness enveloped all but the faint glow of my dive flashlight. Below, a labyrinth of jagged coral canyons raced by as the current swept me along steadily.

The dive computer on my wrist beeped, signaling that my decompression stop was over. I reached down to turn it off, but I must have pressed the wrong button, because it kept beeping. I held it closer to my mask for a better look. And that’s when I hit the wall. Something in my shoulder popped, and then I bounced off the sharp coral several times until I lost my mask and regulator. I tried to reach back to catch my regulator, but my right arm wouldn’t move. I panicked, and all I could think about was getting to the surface, but I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t tell which way was up. I at least had the presence of mind to slowly hum to myself so that my lungs wouldn’t explode when I ascended, but doing so meant that I sank even deeper into the reef. I knew I was going to die.

In my blind terror, I searched around with my left hand for the button to fill my BC. I finally found it and filled the vest with as much air as it could hold, but it was already almost full, and I was still sinking. Even though my eyes were shut, I was starting to see stars. I knew I didn’t have long. “The weight belt,” I thought to myself… I fumbled with the release lever on my weight belt and let it drop away. I felt my descent halt, and then I started to slowly rise as my lungs screamed for air. I had no idea how far down I was, but I had run out of air. Once I knew which way was up, I started kicking frantically. I clawed my way to the roiling surface just as I was on the verge of losing consciousness, and then I almost sucked a mouthful of water as a wave hit me in the face. After a full minute of catching my breath, I started trying to get my bearings. It was dark and choppy, and the dive boat was nowhere in sight. The rest of the group would have surfaced in the last five minutes, so the boat had to be close. As I reached the top of a swell, I tried to kick higher so that I could see further, but the weight of my scuba tank made doing so difficult. We were miles offshore, and I couldn’t see lights in any direction. I had been drift diving dozens of times, but I had never been separated from my group. It started to dawn on me that the guys in the dive boat might actually not be able to find me. They would be looking for me now, and I needed some way to get their attention in the dark. I reached for my dive flashlight, only to find that I didn’t have it anymore.

My stomach sank as I realized that I had quite possibly doomed myself over a few stupid pictures. Pictures! This was my last chance. I reached back with my good arm, and sure enough, my camera was still secured to my BC and bumping against my scuba tank. I turned the camera on and held it as high over my head as I could. When I reached the top of a swell, I took a picture and let the flash go off. I did it again and again for five minutes, pausing after every flash to listen for sounds of rescue. And then the battery went dead. I stared at the camera in disbelief. It had been my only hope. Now, I was floating in the middle of nowhere, bleeding, dehydrated and alone. Every bad shark movie I’d ever seen came to mind, and I screamed in frustration. I kept screaming until my throat went raw.

I floated there, fully appreciating my situation, when I heard a voice in the wind. I thought it was my imagination at first, but I heard it again. As I reached the top of a swell, I scanned what I could see of the horizon. The dive boat was idling just 50 feet away, and it still had its flag flying to signal to other boats that there were scuba divers in the water. I flailed my arm wildly and shouted to get their attention until someone shined a flashlight in my eyes. The engine roared as they started toward me, but I kept my arm up so that they wouldn’t lose sight of me. I almost couldn’t believe it when the boat pulled up and reassuring hands caught hold of me. That was the last time I was ever going to get separated from my group on a drift diving trip.

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