For divers: How often does "Open Water" happen, and then what?

I’m not giving away any plot points when I say that the new movie “Open Water” is about a scuba-diving couple whose day-cruise boat at a resort inadvertently abandons them at sea after a screwed-up head count. It purports to be based on a notorious incident in Australia where such a thing probably happened, but the boat operator tried to claim that the couple–never heard from again–had staged their own disappearance.

Forget the movie. My question is how often does this happen in the real world? I would think that taking an actual name-by-name roll call before and after the dive wouldn’t be that hard, and I also would think that counting the tanks before and after would be a basic back-up. But no system is perfect. How would you avoid being left behind, and if you were, what would you do? Do you hand the skipper your picture–nicely laminated–and say “Remember my face!”? Do divers typically carry signaling devices? Flares, mirrors, whistles? A cellphone in a waterproof bag? How far could a whistle be heard over water? If a random boat heard a whistle or saw a flare, could you rely on the skipper coming to investigate? Would you try to stay put at the dive site and hope your boat came back, or would you try to swim to where you thought land might be? It would give away too much to talk about what the movie couple did, but how would real divers in the real world deal with this? (I’m not a diver, but I know people who are, and I like it when they get home safely.)

Haven’t seen the movie, but, I’ll attempt an answer, at least until the real dive instructors and divemasters get here.

Many prudent divers carry at least a whistle (which works underwater) and sometimes a rolled up signal tube that can be mouth inflated, or flags or any of several other signaling devices. I carry a whistle and my wife the signal tube but when I travel overseas, I don’t bring them along (they are attached to my BCD and I don’t like to schlep it if I am only going to be diving for a day or two). Maybe I should…

Anyway, many ascents are done on a line or with a point of reference, and it is usually not too complicated to keep a dive group together, especially if everyone is behaving themselves and the divemaster is attentive. Also, a vast majority of dives, especially ones with mixed-experience divers, are done relatively near to shore and in areas with shallows and places to hold on to. Coral doesn’t grow in the 5000 foot deeps, it grows between 0 to 80 feet of water. Even if you are far out, I would imagine that one would usually be able to at least grapple onto a reef and not drift too far out.

I think that it may be more common than is let on, though, especially with inexperienced divers and negligent crews. I think a more common scenario may be that a diver or a pair of diver buddies separated from the main dive group encounters a strong current near the surface on a free ascent. They teach you to go back down and swim under the current, as the strongest currents are usually near the surface. But again, inexperience can wreak havoc on logical thinking. The dive boat goes to the main group to pick them up and doesn’t notice the separated diver or divers. The diver at the surface is swept away in the current and by the time the other 20 divers are out of the water and head counts begin, is a kilometer away.

I don’t know of anyone this happened to, but I know of one close call. A friend of mine was diving in the Gulf of Mexico in the Flower Gardens. Him and his buddy surfaced on the other side of the boat as the main dive group. There was a strong surface current. The boat crew was focused on getting the main group out of the water while my friend and his buddy got progressively farther from the boat. My friend and his buddy yelled out but the boat crew did not hear them. My friend is quite fit, and he decided to give it his all and make for the boat. His buddy was not fit, and was not able to do it. My friend got to the boat and quickly alerted the crew, who turned around and got the boat over to his buddy. Disaster was averted, but my friend was none too happy.

Two divers were forgotten in April; I think in California, but I don’t remember. Four divers went out on a dive boat that was to visit two sites. At the end of the first dive, the crew and two divers thought the other two were already on board and they went to the next site. Only then did they discover the pair were missing. After several hours the abandoned divers were spotted by a Boy Scout who was on an outing and were rescued.

IME dive boat operators take a headcount before each dive, and take the names of the divers. The divers’ names are taken again upon their return and another headcount is taken. Using these procedures, abandoning divers is unlikely if you have 20 divers. How it could happen when you only have four divers and half of them are missing is beyond me.

If anyone remembers the story from last spring, I wouldn’t mind a link.


Here’s one where the diver lived (barely)

Abandoned at sea, she fought to survive as fellow divers held a memorial service

A drifting diver(s) story

ALIVE: 12 missing Red Sea divers rescued after drifting 35 miles

and re your question The True Story Behind Disturbing ‘Open Water’ Movie

Thanks for the link, silenus. I misremembered the number of divers left behind. And I didn’t remember the previous thread! :smack:

[sub]Doot-do-doo… Waiting for my dial-up to reconnect…[/sub]

The reason it stuck in my mind was that they lost half the divers on the boat, and didn’t notice! :eek:

OK…a third. :smack:

I believe two women where swept out to sea off of Cancun about 5 years ago (never recovered). The current between the island and the mainland is pretty swift.

Drift diving is fun, but one problem I have seen is when divers swim back up current to look at something. Usually and exotic fish, turtle, whatever. I use a lot of air. And kicking up current burns to much of it so I have waited for them to drift back. I keep them in visual at all times. And either have my Wife (buddy) stay with me or pair up with the dive master. Works out fine, but it is one way to get swept away or separated. And can leave me buddyless for a few minutes. I’ll only do this if I can make a free ascent.

As I said, I use a lot of air. When/if I run low before my wife, my wife will pair up with the dive master as I slowly ascend. I will hover at my safety stop, using less air at less depth and monitor the group from 20 feet or so. When the rest of the group ascends, I am done with my safety and will often come up first.

Now, many outfits will provide a 100 cu. ft. tank for me, and my wife takes an 80.

The Sep/Oct 2004 issue of Alert Diver, from Divers Alert Network, came out this week, and it has an article on diver strandings. Its points are: Diver strandings are rare, but serious issues that the US Coast Guard takes an interest in; always carry signalling devices on your dives; dive operators should use a physical system to verify which divers are on the boat, in addition to roll calls and head counts. (A side article describes DAN’s own physical accounting system.)

I carry a small bag of safety gear, including a pastic whistle and a safety sausage (that’s a long, inflatable bag in a high-visability color). The whistle can be heard at a considerable distance over calm water; I haven’t had need to use it on the ocean.

Diver strandings aren’t that rare, and the fact that they happen at all is mind-boggling.

My brother is a scuba instructor and taught for a year on Maui. He was shocked at the level of incompetance of certain divemasters, boat crews and dive shops. They often had to circle back for a diver or group of divers who weren’t onboard after the dive.


Well, it’s not as bad as getting stranded at sea, but I was once left at Stonehenge after my tour bus drove off. And they had done a head count precisely to avoid that sort of thing.

Fortunaely, I was able to hitch a ride on another tour bus before the Land Sharks got me, but it was at the price of being a Bad Example.

“Okay, everyone, now if you get left behind by your tour bus, do what this young man has done …”
It’s have been less painful if the Land Sharks got me.

…this is the best article I have read on the Eileen Tom Lonergan story…

some highlights:

CalMeacham: Wasn’t that raddish juice and carrot juice? Or am I mis-remembering?

My question is how often does this happen in the real world?
No idea. I don’t think stats on this would be easy to find, as screw-ups are generally kept quiet.

How would you avoid being left behind, and if you were, what would you do?
To avoid being left behind:
-check out dive operation and walk away if they appear ‘dodgy’
-always use own gear, and always set up own gear myself
-maintain own gear properly
-always listen to divemaster (e.g, site description, instructions, etc)
-find time to chat with a few others seated nearby, prior to the dive. (hopefully they’ll notice you missing)
-follow dive-buddy rules closely
-dive extra-conservatively (when diving with unknown operators)
-keep other dive-buddy groupings in sight (if practical)
-never be afraid/reluctant to end a dive early or abort the dive altogether and remain on the boat if warranted.
-have a safety sausage, and be familiar with using it.

I should have a whistle, and this thread has been a reminder to get one.

If a random boat heard a whistle or saw a flare, could you rely on the skipper coming to investigate?
Around here, definitely.

Would you try to stay put at the dive site and hope your boat came back, or would you try to swim to where you thought land might be?
Depends on the dive location. Most of the time I would have no idea where land was, after surfacing. Probably should carry a compass, but often the distances to land are so great that it wouldn’t matter.
If you did a blue-water ascent (i.e, no reef or identifying features on your way to the surface), then you wouldn’t be able to ‘stay put’, with no references around you.

I remember about a year ago, a couple got left behind. But they were diving near an island and got picked up on the next dive trip. I think it happens a lot, might hear about one or two a year, but that includes people that got picked up again after they got abandoned.

It happened to a friend of mine several years ago. She came up from the dive to find the boat gone. Fortunately, there were some small fishing boats in the area, and one of them picked her up and took her to the dive boat, which was on its way back to port.

Here’s the kicker: her husband was also on the dive boat, and hadn’t noticed that she wasn’t back aboard. She treated it as a joke, but when they got divorced a few years later, she said in retrospect she should have taken it as a sign of marital troubles…

A “head count” is a notoriously unreliable method of making sure that everyone in a tour group has returned. A name check is much better. The names of every individual in the group should be kept handy by the tour leader. As each member of the group returns, their name is checked off. Once everyone has returned, a second name check should be done before leaving.

For something as potentially life-threatening as diving, a physical evidence check should be done. There are any number of ways this could be done. Each diver could take a number and clip it to their gear before departing, then return the number upon return. To make this even more safe, divers could be required to exchange an ID for their dive number, which is then returned to them when they return to the boat.

None of these proceedures are difficult, cost much, or would take any appreciable amount of time. It’s amazing that such simple things aren’t routine.

Forget the movies. For a real world perspective on being afloat in the sea, I highly recommend you read up on the horror that befell the crew of the USS Indianapolis. Sunk by a Japanese torpedo in the waning days of World War II, about 900 men survived the immediate sinking. But by the time they were rescued five days later, only 317 were still alive. The survivors tales are deeply moving: men tortured by thirst and the South Pacific sun; comrades suddenly disappearing from their midsts as sharks dragged a sailor under; flesh so waterlogged that it peeled back from the bones as rescuers tried to pull them into the boats.