Not Our Normal Sunday Dive

Sunday September 24, 2000 started off as any normal Sunday morning dive, with our dive club meeting at the local pancake house for breakfast. It was a larger than average group that day - there was Dave, Werner, Leaky Bill, Norris, Maya, Bergitta, Nicholas, and myself. Everyone had his or her usual breakfast; I had the apple and cinnamon pancake. The usual breakfast conversation passed around the table and the waitress made her weekly humungus tip....really!

After breakfast we sorted out our gear and divided into vehicles for the day's dive. It was a bright, beautiful sunny day driving towards Whytecliff Park, a popular local dive site. It was remarked more than once how good the day was turning out to be. As we arrived I could see the leaves on the trees were just starting to turn color. A slight breeze was blowing and the tide was very low. This meant the sponge wall would be that much more accessible to us. The parking lot was quite full as dive classes were being conducted. It looked like at least three separate classes were being taught in the bay below the parking lot. This didn't bother us because we dive out along the marker buoy, or day marker, well away from the bay and the students. If there was half decent viz we would have plenty of ambient light. Dave was anxious to practice with his new camera housing and strobe. Buddy teams were arranged in the parking lot and we sorted ourselves into the following teams:

  • Dave and Werner
  • Norris and Maya
  • Leaky Bill and Bergitta
  • Cheeky (that's me) and Nicholas

Bergitta and Nicholas are new divers to the club so we separated them because they aren't as familiar with the dive site as the rest of us. I told Nicholas not to be afraid to bump into me during the dive because then I would know exactly where he was. I also told him that if he wasn't bumping into me, he should shine his light over mine every once in a while so I would know that he was behind me and okay.

Dave, Werner, Nicholas, and I were the first ones to the water and we took our time getting our masks and fins on. Looking out over the bay I could see various dive buoys for the classes at their usual distance from shore. I noticed one buoy was farther out than normal. One of us made a comment about it and the reply was that it was probably an advanced class. I shrugged my shoulders and nodded my head. Then we started surface swimming out along the base of the cliff on the north side of the bay towards the advanced class' buoy.

We were about 30 metres from shore when I heard a woman's voice from further out yelling; "CALL 911!! CALL 911!! YOU ON SHORE IN THE WHITE SHIRT!! CALL 911!! DIVER IN DISTRESS!! DOES ANYBODY HAVE ANY OXYGEN!?!" Because of what was said, at first I thought that for sure it was an advanced class or rescue diver class. But looking back at shore I could see a man in a white shirt scrambling and running away from the shore and up the path to the parking lot. I also saw a woman run towards the water, stumble to her knees, get up, turn around, and run up the beach towards the path to the parking lot. I thought to myself that this doesn't look like a training exercise. I heard Dave and Werner express the same thought that this looked like it was a real emergency.

I got a funny feeling in my stomach and thought to myself, "Is there anything we can do?" Someone in our group made a comment expressing my feelings out loud. But the consensus was - no, not really. People onshore had already called 911 and others on the beach looked like they were doing things in preparation for receiving the distressed diver. We might as well continue with our dive. We kept heading out, and at about the 50 metre mark we passed within 5 or 6 metres of a group of about four divers towing the distressed diver. I thought to myself that they had it under control and we may as well continue with our dive. By the time we reached the start of our dive, about 100 metres from shore, the distressed diver was on the beach, or very close to it, and we heard sirens coming into the park. I thought to myself; "Everything seems to be under control. I hope it's nothing too serious." The last time I was here and there was a diver in distress it turned out he was cold and had some leg cramps. Looking back towards shore I could see the rest of our group was surface swimming out and we would all be diving shortly.

Dave and Werner descended first and then Nicholas and I made our descent. Visibility wasn't what I hoped it would be. When we got to the sand bottom, it was only about 10 feet. "Oh well, maybe it will pick up when we get to depth" I hoped. As we continued over the sloping sandy bottom towards the rock wall, I couldn't help notice that the visibility was deteriorating. At one point it couldn't have been more than 2 feet at a depth of about 55 feet. I thought to myself that this was the general area where the advanced dive class was being held and that the bad viz was attributable to the class churning up the bottom during their exercises. "Oh well, c'est la vie... I sure hope the viz gets better."

At the rock wall, at a depth of about 60 feet, Nicholas and I met up with Dave and Werner. The viz was still bad at this depth. This is where I wanted to stay with Nicholas, but I decided we would follow Dave and Werner down the sloping rock surface and over the vertical face to deeper water to see if the viz picked up. This part of the dive site is a series of steeply dipping shelves and ledges that go deep down to the bottom of Howe Sound. If the viz didn't pick up, we would return to 60 feet and complete our dive. As we went deeper, the viz started to pick up and at 80 feet there was about 20 to 25 feet of visibility. I thought this was a good thing so I could easily keep an eye on Nicholas and he could keep an eye on me. It's shallower than the depth I would normally be at in this area, but if Dave and Werner found anything below us they would signal. With the wall on my right, I started looking for things that I could point out to Nicholas who was right behind me. He was making his presence felt by bumping into me and shining his light over mine every so often. I thought to myself, "I hope he doesn't whack me on the head with his light."

I looked down and I could see three lights. Dave and Werner were at about 100 feet and someone else was below them. I didn't know who the third person was because I could only see his/her light. I thought to myself, "I wonder who that is? Must be one of our group, no big deal, I wonder if they found something down there because it isn't one of our regular stopping points."

I hadn't felt Nicholas bump into me for a bit so I rolled onto my side to see where he was. He was on my left and he seemed to be having a bit of a buoyancy problem. He was in a near vertical position finning away while putting air into his BC and then dumping air out of his BC. He gave me an OK sign, but I decided I should take him back up to 60 feet where he would have an accessible bottom below his feet. We would just put up with the bad viz. But he didn't seem to be doing too badly for a sixteen-year-old diver.

Just after I signaled to Nicholas that we were going shallower and started to go up, I felt a tugging on my right fin. I looked down and I saw Dave with his camera in his right hand and he was tugging on my fin with the other. Once he saw that he had my attention, he took his light and pointed it down at the third light I had noticed earlier. I thought to myself; "Wow, I guess there was something down there, I wonder if it's a big octopus? Wolf eel perhaps? He seems more excited than he would normally be for a War Bonnet, Grunt, or Sailfin Sculpin".

I looked over at Nicholas and motioned to him that we were going down to take a look. As I descended I could see the light and I could see that it was pointing straight up and not moving, "Uh, this doesn't seem normal", then I realized that there were no bubbles. I thought to myself "Oh no, please don't let this be what I think it is." Just as that thought flashed through my mind as I was descending, it became VERY clear that this was a diver that had been involved in a very tragic set of circumstances. As I realized this, the next actual, real, thought that went through my mind was; "Oh shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit...why me?"

I could see that he was on his back with his head towards the rock wall and he was leaning slightly to his right. I shone my light over him and noticed that his mask was half full of blood and his arms were open and outstretched in his wetsuit. There was no reg in his mouth and his face was strangely pale reflecting the greenish tinge of the water. But it was his lips that I was drawn to, and that stick in my mind, as I descended beside him. His lips were closed and slightly pursed, they looked so normal without a reg in them. I kept expecting him to exhale and I watched them closely. I could see three tiny bubbles about 2 mm in diameter on them. Seeing him up close, I had a vague feeling of repulsion overshadowed by a definite sense of sadness plus a feeling of urgency. I thought to myself; "We have to get this guy to the surface as fast as possible", but I have to confess, that in the back of my mind, I had a feeling that we were too late. A human being wasn't supposed to be that pale. He should be blowing bubbles and pointing at things. Something was very, very wrong.

Dave hovered over the victim illuminating the area so I could use both hands. Nicholas and I landed beside the body on his right side at 118 feet and I moved the victim's arms slightly to gain access to his BC's power inflator. I thought I would fill his BC and send him to the surface and we would follow him up at a pace that would not put us in danger. If there were others on the surface, they would find him and take him in. If not, then we would start the tow and call for assistance. That was the plan until I tried his power inflator and nothing happened. I reached further around his body and found his gauges that indicated no air. My BC has about 85 pounds of lift and so I picked him up by his right arm and first stage. I then turned him around, put his tank between my knees, and headed towards the surface with Nicholas beside me in a controlled ascent, but at a speed that was faster than my computer would like.

When we broke surface there were four divers surrounding us. They said they would take over. I thought that one of them might have been the woman that called for help at the beginning of our dive, but I wasn't sure. I turned over the body to them and she asked if someone could dump the weight belt. I reached over and dumped the weight belt and they started towing him in to shore. As they were towing him in I noticed that there was bubbly froth coming out of his mouth which we were told would happen by an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) diver who came to talk to the club about diving related incidents involving the RCMP dive team. The total time from the fin tug to getting the victim to surface couldn't have been more than 2 minutes tops.

I thought to myself; "Why didn't I think to take off his weight belt?" The next thought through my brain was; "Doh! Oh shit, I hope that weight belt didn't hit anybody on its way down. What a f*#%ing day this is turning out to be." I looked at my dive computer and noted our total dive time was 15 minutes.

One of the people towing the victim asked if Nicholas and I could bring in his tank and BC while he helped tow. Nick and I said okay, and we swam in with this fellow's gear. By the time we got to shore the ambulance teams had taken off the victim's wet suit and were administering CPR. The other distressed diver was beside him on oxygen. I couldn't help noticing that the victim we brought to surface looked so young and that the diver on oxygen was looking straight up and seemed to be in a daze. The fire department had cordoned off the area around the victims with yellow tape and I heard that the Coast Guard and a helicopter were on the way. I talked to a fireman and told him that Dave found the victim and that I brought him to the surface. He wanted my name and I told him that I wanted to change first because I was starting to overheat, and that I would come back to give him the information he requested.

Nicholas and I walked up to the parking lot to take our gear off. There were four ambulances, one fire truck, and two or three television cameras in the lot. By the time we removed our gear and talked about it amongst ourselves for a bit, a Coast Guard zodiac was on the beach and a helicopter had landed and taken off from the beach area. What we said amongst ourselves was that we probably performed a service to the family of the victim. Although we did not find him breathing, we at least brought the body back. I walked down to the beach and gave Dave's name and mine to the fireman I had talked to earlier. I noticed that only one person had been taken away on the helicopter. The other person had a sheet covering his body and no resuscitation work was being done. Although I felt that the person we brought up was probably deceased, seeing him covered with a sheet was a little unsettling. I must admit that the thought running through my mind at that time was "Thank god it wasn't one of us. How the hell do you explain this one to his family if you were the dive instructor? How do you justify it?"

Two days later when Norris and I went to get air at our local dive shop we found out that the police were looking for whoever had found the body because there were some questions they wanted answered. I called the police and they wanted me to come down for an interview detailing what we did. I said that I left my name and phone number with one of the firemen at the site. The inspector said that that information was not passed on.

I went down to the police station near the dive site. The first question the inspector asked me during the interview was "How do you feel about this incident and how has this affected you? Have you been sleeping all right? If you haven't there are people you can talk to." I told the inspector that, in truth, I felt pretty good about the whole situation. The inspector gave me a funny look and I went on. I said I felt good because I thought I had helped bring closure for the family. The last diving death at Whytecliff did not return one of the bodies and the family of the missing person must know he is dead, but they had no body to lay to rest. The victim I brought up was not found hours, days, weeks, months, or years later. He was not wholly or partially eaten by scavengers, he was not bloated and decaying. I wish I could have found him earlier when he was alive, but I didn't and there is nothing I can do about that. I said what I felt was probably orders of magnitude, and totally different, from what his dive instructor, dive master, buddy, or other people in his class felt.

However, I did not know how Nicholas was taking this. He seemed pretty cool, calm and collected during and after the incident. I told the inspector I did not have his phone number or know his last name. The inspector gave me a victim services card and told me that if I do get in contact with him, then I should give him the card. He said Nicholas should call them if he has any questions at all or if he feels disturbed by this incident.

The interview continued until I had mentioned all of the things that I could recall. I left the station and I looked out over the water; it was another bright, sunny, warm day. I hope I don't ever have to do this again.

Frank S.

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