Rescue diver skills in action

I got to see some fierce rescue skills in action the other day when a tall athletic looking guy and his even taller blond girlfriend came into our shop and bought a dive package. He was advanced and she was a beginner and neither one of them had been in the water in over a year. Let’s call them Hans and Maria.

Hans and Maria had no gear of their own and wanted to rent everything from us so I started handing out gear and right away Hans had problems. I gave him a weight belt with 12lb on it and he handed it back to me and said he wanted smaller weights that he could put in the pockets of his BCD. Well, no. Sorry. There’s no way I’m putting weights in the nonintegrated BCD of a diving customer I don’t know and risk having to fish around to find them if something goes wrong.

Hans argued with me but Bella, another DM at our shop, backed me up, told him he couldn’t put weight in his pockets and gave him a different belt with a bunch of small weights on it to pacify him. He wasn’t happy with the belt and only got more difficult in the boat, arguing with Bella and I about how to gear up, whether or not to tuck in his SPG etc. while Maria sat by quietly without saying anything. When they were both in the water and Bella sighed and said “Let’s keep an eye on them.”

The dive briefing had been clear that Ted the DM was leading the dive, everyone should stay with their buddies and follow Ted except Bella and I came down after everyone else and just in time to see Ted go one way while Hans went another way, leaving Maria about 50ft behind him. Bella watched Hans swim away and had just looked at me with her hands up like “where is he going?” when suddenly Maria started thrashing around and I saw her regulator fly out of her mouth.

For you non-divers, the regulator is where the air comes from and without a regulator divers breathe seawater. That doesn’t go well. Sometimes a regulator fails so every diver has an alternate and they’re taught how to recover a lost regulator and how to use their alternate air source in their very first open water skills class. The tricky part is not freaking out in order to remember those things because the other option is to react like Maria did, go into a blind freakout, think only “AIR AIR AIR AIR AIR,” locate the source of the nearest regulator and then claw at that person’s face and try to pull their regulator out of their mouth so you can use it.

That’s panic. It’s not pretty.

In Maria’s case, the nearest person happened to be Bella, who’s a new DM that has never had to legitimately use her rescue skills before but this was a textbook panicked diver and she handled it perfectly. Bella kicked away slightly to keep Maria from grabbing her, guarded her own reg while grabbing her alternate, shoved it into Maria’s face right side up and then grabbed Maria’s BCD to keep her from ascending as she hyperventilated into it. Amazing.

Maria took several breaths and then gestured “up, up, up” and that’s when Bella was a real rockstar. She held onto Maria, made fierce eye contact, shook her head, made long steady “calm down, breathe in, breathe out” motions with her hands and then hovered there for several seconds, breathing with her until Maria started to calm down. Conveniently, this was also the exact moment that Hans showed back up from his little tour of the reef with no idea that there were any problems at all. He flashed everyone the OK sign and Maria hesitated but gave it back to him. OK.

At this point, Maria was calm enough to switch to her own regulator. Bella made “go diving?” motions with her fingers and Maria hesitated again and then nodded, for which I give her mad props. Bella adjusted her buoyancy and then let her go after motioning to Hans that he needed to stay with her. Maria shakily kicked away from us and Hans followed her for about .2 seconds before he took off in another direction. Bella actually had her hands on her hips in what I’ll describe as an adrenaline fueled furious hover as she watched him swim away. I was merely incredulous. That guy. What a piece of work.

Maria did a short dive before running out of air so Bella took her up early, which gave them a chance to debrief. Hans heard all about the regulator mishap when the rest of us got to the surface. He seemed slightly apologetic and stayed closer to Maria on the second dive, during which she had no problems. I hope it occurs to her to thank Bella at some point down the line for keeping her at depth during that first dive. If Bella had let her go up, chances are good Maria’s fear would have kept her out of the water for a long time afterwards. Maybe forever.

But Hans wasn’t quite done annoying us because he and Maria both showed up the next day to dive with our most experienced dive guide, Da Bull. Da Bull is a big burly guy who’s lived on this island for 12 years. He’s a spectacular diver, he knows the island dive sites inside and out, he always finds cool stuff and he knows how to keep a group together. Hans mostly behaved himself until the end of the dive when Da Bull called a safety stop at which point Hans shook his head and pointed to his gauge. He had more air, he wanted to keep diving. Da Bull said no and made the safety stop motion again and Hans turned around and started swimming away.

Yeah, he totally did that.

Well, in our shop we offer guided dives. The divemaster says go up, everyone goes up. No questions. If you don’t like it, go rent a tank and do your own thing but don’t come to our shop and disrespect our guides. Thank God Hans did that to Da Bull who was big enough to be on him like a flash. Da Bull grabbed Hans by his BCD, hauled him to 5 meters, gave him one look and the safety stop motion and Hans nodded and stayed put until everyone broke the surface. Hans played it off and Da Bull let him and we haven’t had any problems with Hans since.

Sometimes you think things can go unsaid but you’re wrong. So, as a note to future divers with us, all we require is that you follow the leader and don’t leave your girlfriends to die.

Is that so hard?

Could your DM actually rescue you?

I think the rescue certification is the most important one a DM can master. In my limited experience diving with DMs in several different countries I can say with certainty that there are some to whom I’d happily entrust my life and others I wouldn’t trust to get my cat out of a tree. I’d prefer to dive with the former because let’s face it, anyone can find fish and no one needs a DM to do a safety stop. Ideally fun divers get a DM that knows the local area and the local wildlife, someone informed and fun and adventurous but at the end of the day if there’s someone in trouble or missing, they best hope their DM knows what to do.

I took the rescue certification pretty seriously and spent several hours absorbing information from the book reviews and videos before we even got into the water. The Seal and I also had a conversation about how Good Samaritan laws don’t exist in Honduras (or Asia) so rescuers are advised to do everything they can until medical personnel show up and then they should leave the scene and keep their names out of paperwork. It sucks but this could prevent a rescuer’s good intentions from blowing back on them if things go south. We also talked about the practicalities of rescue diving on this island and how our procedures might differ slightly from the book and how best to make my open water scenarios as realistic as possible. I emphasized that it would do me no good to practice the rescue scenarios in the book if they weren’t practical to our diving. They might help at a future point but right now, I want to know what to do while I’m here if (GOD FORBID) something were to happen.

The book had a lot of information to absorb and it was much easier (and more fun) to get in the water and actually put some stuff to the test. I did confined water work with the Seal and Goldilocks, who tagged along to be my missing and distressed diver. The first dive was underwater problem solving so they came up with as many ridiculous scenarios as possible, which was like diving with a couple of puppies. I looked over twice and the Seal was head first in the turtle grass, once with his equipment totally off, and once with his mask on backwards.  Golidlocks had disconnected hoses, her weight belt and several different clips so I spent about 20 minutes putting them both back together before Goldilocks disappeared to be a missing diver.

Finding someone underwater is scary work, even when it’s practice and you know they aren’t really dead. The search patterns involve a lot of things to keep track of all at once (compass turns, fin cycles, etc.) overlaid with the urgency of minutes passing and the potential effects on a missing diver. I can see how rescuers need to take care of themselves first because it’s easy to freak out.

We went out in the boat for open water skills and before I could get my gear on, Goldilocks went overboard and I had to rescue her. I was so annoyed because she even warned me that she’d been unprepared for her skill test and had two people jump overboard while she was half dressed and I was STILL unprepared when she jumped overboard and I was only half dressed. That’s what I get for not listening. She got pretty bruised up from getting hauled into the boat (which I think an actual unconscious diver might not mind so much if they end up breathing at the end of it) and it was a good lesson for me about leverage. Even little people like Goldilocks are hard to maneuver up a boat ladder in choppy seas when they’re dead weight.

I then “rescued” a dive bag as a missing diver after the Seal gave me a few hints from my pointed questions (“I think he never went deeper than 40ft and I’m pretty sure he said something about liking crevasses…”). Goldilocks and I split that one up, she counted fin cycles and I managed the compass, which made the whole process much faster and it only took about 12 minutes of my allotted half hour.

Overall, the water skills were easier to put into practice than to read about in the classroom. A lot of it is common sense but all of it requires knowledge of the local laws and procedures. I think my big lessons of this course are to stay in good shape, ask a lot of questions, know how to operate the oxygen equipment and hope I never never never have to put any of this into practice.

EFR and Rescue Diver Certifications

I actually don’t start my DMT yet.

I came to the island with my AOW (advanced open water) certification and needed to get my rescue diver and Emergency First Responder certifications before I could be considered for DMT. Fortunately, this is a common scenario and I think at least half of DMs show up for their DMT and need to get several certifications before they can even begin their training. The advantage is being able to train and work in the same shop and under the same instructors for several weeks at a stretch. The disadvantage is not getting any variety in instruction because you’re working with all the same instructors and also not getting time between certs and instead blazing straight through.

Because I’ll be out here on the island for 5 months and I have loads of time to get my through my DMT, doing everything with the same shop is more of an advantage than a disadvantage. But not everyone has that same kind of time flexibility and in that case I’d recommend (if possible) getting a rescue diver cert and then diving for a while in as many different places as possible before going on to a DMT. Not only does this make you a more technically adept and flexible diver, because you’re used to diving in all kinds of conditions, but it also gives you the advantage of working with several different shops. All shops are different, countries have different standards and expectations and attitudes towards local ecology so divers with a lot of travel experience have a more expansive view of the dive industry than ones who dive primarily in one country or with one shop. I haven’t done a lot of diving but I have been diving in multiple countries so I know how much things can differ place to place.

As to the EFR course, I would highly recommend that all you future DMTs get a CPR certification so you don’t have to endure the EFR course. The EFR video is silly and outdated with a crazy obsession with “barriers” like latex gloves and pocket masks, it’s expensive compared to a CPR course, there’s nothing in it that relates directly to diving and any medical place that offers CPR courses will have better practice equipment (dummies and what all) than most dive shops.

Despite the hassle, my EFR was one easy day compared to Rescue, which was several days, the first of which was LONG and spent mostly reading, watching videos and taking exams. The last part of the first day I did some confined water skills with the Seal (a quiet mild mannered British man with decades of diving and instructing experience and hidden personal depths…). He tested me on self-rescue stuff like tired diver tows, mask removal, gear exchange, buddy breathing etc.

Our gear exchange was a hot mess. The Seal took his gear off with no trouble, of course, but as soon as I took my fins off they floated away. The Seal surfaced and chased down my fins while I held onto his gear. Then he came back down and I started to take my gear off when the Seal’s mouthpiece fell apart. He tried using his alternate but it wasn’t working properly so he took it apart under water to check the diaphragm but something still wasn’t right. He tried removing the alternate and switching mouthpieces underwater, which still didn’t fix it but worked enough to get him through. Watching him calmly problem-solve a malfunctioning mouthpiece underwater was instructive in itself and probably eclipsed whatever I might have learned from gear switching.

We did some buddy breathing switching back and forth on my regulator, which freaked me out. I have a ways to go before I can take my reg out and just hang out under water. Every time the Seal handed it back to me I’d put it in my mouth and take a giant gulp of air. Swallowed a lot of sea water…

On the surface, the Seal gently (subtlety) made a comment about how a calm attitude is the main DM skill to acquire. Learn to not freak out. Assume that there’s some solution and fix the problem because freaking out solves nothing.

Got it. Still need a lot of work on that.

Next post will be Rescue Diver Day 2: less reading and more diving. Always a good scenario.