For those not already in the know, the Galapagos Islands offer insanely good diving, but at the cost of very challenging conditions, at least in several areas, including the northerly, remote, current-swept islands of Wolf & Darwin.
One morning at Darwin’s Arch, several days into the trip, one of the divers in our group did not appear to surface after yet another adrenaline-producing outing, and no one remembered seeing him since the early part of the dive. His dingy group had gone out into the blue (looking for whale sharks that are known to cruise the area just off the reef edge), and no one noticed that Diver X had turned around and had headed back to the reef. As an explanation, the 14 of us on the trip were all pretty much same-ocean, photographically-fixated/very experienced divers who have been somewhat conditioned to occasionally keep half an eye on the yellow tank of the dive guide, at least in this location ;^) However, some of the best photography/videography opportunities, especially for sharks like we were seeing in massive schools on this trip, mean going off on your own a bit, away from all the bubbles that scare the fish.
Aggressor respects the abilities of competent, experienced divers. The two divemasters who were in the water for most dives on this itinerary were presented more as "dive guides" than as chaperones. In the briefings at Darwin & Wolf Islands, where the currents are strong, it is recommended that you stay within sight of the yellow tank (dive guide), but was not insisted upon. Buddies are also recommended, but not enforced.
Diver X had chosen to stay on the reef, rather the follow the group, led by the Divemaster, out into the blue to look for Whale Sharks.
It shouldn’t have been a biggie, given his level of experience, except that he was caught up in a strong current while doing his (open water) ascent and safety stop and was taken in a different direction than that of the rest of the group.
He is not the only diver who has found himself alone in the Galapagos. In the murky conditions and big currents we experienced during this trip, it happened to other divers on our boat, especially after we had left the reef to ascend. And I will confess it happened to me on a previous visit to the Galapagos when the group left the reef, and I did not notice because I was trying to take pictures of elusive yellow puffer fish, while everyone else was checking out the whale shark ;^)
The confluence of three major ocean currents at Darwin Island draws an amazing cast of creatures to this hallowed place. In simple terms, the currents are weird and wild. They create diving conditions that can confound even a very experienced diver.
On the surface, Diver X found being himself swept back into a strange, mid-ocean surf zone that curled up in the fairly rough seas that day between Darwin Island and the Arch.
The boat issues emergency gear: folding dive flags, Dive Alerts, and epirbs. The safety briefing on this boat includes strategies for getting detected should one find oneself out of sight of the zodiacs upon surfacing. The first thing to do is to snap together the folding dive flag that you stow on your gear, to signal the zodiacs, if they don't acknowledge pretty quickly that they have seen you. This does not indicate emergency, it just lets the crew know where to pick you up. The next level of attention-getting is using the Dive Alert horn. It is streamlined (it goes on your bc inflator hose) but can be quite effective. But watch your ears, they're loud, and you need to have some air in your tank for it to work. They also won't do much good if the boats are far away or there is alot of background noise. And, if you are really hooped, deploy your epirb (electronic emergency transmitter that is attached to your gear by the crew on arrival). Get it out, turn it on, hold it out of the water, and the boat will use technology to locate you. Also underlined is the importance of surfacing quickly (after doing a safety stop, but don't dawdle) should you ever find yourself alone in the blue, off the reef. It is easy in the Galapagos (and lots of other places too) to travel significant distances in a short time in current. Unless you have a point of reference, you have no clue how fast you might be traveling. And you are more vulnerable to unwanted attention from the big bad boys out in the blue when you are flying solo too.
Diver X had removed his Aggressor-issued folding dive flag from his rig, and had neglected to replace it. His flag should have been visible in the conditions that day (assuming it didn’t get knocked down or broken by the waves that were battering him), even at a great distance, and not seeing it had us all very worried.
Although we could not see him, Diver X was not all that far from the boat - perhaps just a few hundred yards. But due to the heavy wave action and lack of surface marker we were unable to spot him. He told us later that he could see the boat and was frustrated that he could not get its attention, but that became less important when the Silky sharks showed up.
Silky sharks are inquisitive, bold creatures that are not very well liked by most divers. They tend to show up when there is activity on the surface, and like a gang, they intimidate with their numbers and their brazenness. Most divers I know choose to get out of the water as quickly as possible when these guys make an appearance.
Diver X told us that for over half an hour he was fending off the sharks with his weight pockets and his camera. He is a pretty tough guy, and kept his head. He also had enough experience diving with sharks that he was quite convinced that they were just testing him, and not really out to get him.
While Diver X was trying to discourage his entourage of sharks, both Aggressor mother boats and their combined 4 dingies were undertaking an extensive search of the area.
The boats circumnavigated Darwin Island and the Arch looking for the missing diver on the shore or in the shallows (or, God forbid, at what the Aggressor divemasters affectionately call No Dive Aqui, which is the legendary diver-crunching dark side of the Arch), and then started searching farther out to sea, in the event that he had been swept out into the daunting horizon. It was extremely tense for all as a very long time elapsed with no sign of Diver X.
With the long lapse of time and the realization that the boats could not see him in the swells, Diver X felt that the only way he was going to be saved from his predicament was to either swim the distance to the inhospitable rocky shore of Darwin Island and try to get out of the water there, and/or to successfully send out an epirb signal. Epirbs (electronic location transmitters) are sometimes issued to divers in current-swept areas by higher end dive operators. Aggressor issues them on both their Galapagos and Cocos Island itineraries. And that is a good thing.
Diver X's epirb transmitter was in a protective pvc case that had been zip tied onto his tank strap by the boat crew. It had to be deployed and switched on for it to start sending a signal. Diver X had to take his gear off to get at the epirb because it was not reachable when wearing his BC. Due to large wave action and bumping Silky sharks it took him some time before he could remove his rig.
Whilst fighting off the sharks and trying to avoid drowning in the surf, Diver X miraculously removed his gear, switched on the epirb, and held the transmitter out of the water so it could send.
The signal from his epirb was detected by the boat crew (and by the dive-bombing Galapagos booby birds, which repeatedly tried to nab the antenna as he held the unit out of the water!) and to the great relief of all, one of the dingies was finally able to locate him, in high waves, close in to the rocky shore. He had been on the surface, alone, literally fighting for his life, for over an hour and a half.
Diver X is a tough guy, and a survivor. His story of beating off inquisitive sharks while avoiding drowning and/or being swept away in current is the script of my worst nightmare, but there are good lessons there too. The most important takeaways are equipping yourself with the right safety equipment for the kind of diving that you are doing, and having the presence of mind to not panic when you find yourself in a challenging situation.
It was a huge relief to all passengers and crew when the epirb signal was finally located, and then when Diver X was safely back on board the Aggressor. His long absence had caused the Ecuadorian crew to get down on their knees in prayer, and it was very quiet amongst all of us as we imagined the call to Diver X's wife to tell her that we lost her husband in the Northern Galapagos.
Here are some survival strategies, and lessons learned, courtesy of this unfortunate incident:
Stay with the dive plan, and the group.
Don’t let the fact that you are a very experienced diver allow you to become complacent about your gear.
If you are issued an electronic signaling device, make sure you can get at it, without having to take your tank and BC off.
Don't forget your dive flag or surface marker buoy. (Aggressor issues folding 6 ft high dive flags to every diver in the Galapagos for signaling at the surface, which work better in the wind there than a safety sausage, plus Dive Alert horns and epirbs).
Have a way to clip off things like cameras, so that you can have both hands free if necessary.
Stay calm, and keep planning your next attempt at having someone see you and/or where you could swim to get out of the water. Keep your mind busy, it helps to keep you from panicking.
© JudyG 2005 (edited February 2009)
material on the Galapagos: