Sixty Feet Underwater and Can't Get Air

The following is a diver's account of a dive gone awry. It's presented here not to scare, but to inform and educate. Diving comes with some risks, but many can be successfully dealt with by following the guidelines from your PADI training.

At the start of my first dive in Bonaire, which was also my first dive in about a year, I was focusing on my breathing — long deep breathes — to maximize the dive time. Suddenly, I was unable to draw air from my tank. The sensation was the same as during my certification, when my instructor simulated an empty tank by closing the valve. My SPG confirmed that indeed something was wrong as the needle showed no pressure. This situation did not seem right as only 10 minutes had elapsed in the dive and my tank had been checked by my guide and buddy.

Of course, at 60 feet it didn't matter so much why I wasn't able to get air since the end result is the same. Fortunately I was within 10 feet of the dive guide so I swam to him, grabbed his fin to get his attention, and shoved the SPG into his face. Not quite the “out of air” signal but it got the message across. Plus I needed him to see what I saw, that I was *completely* out of air, since I was still in disbelief.

Throughout this incident, I'm doing my best to contain my panic while continuing to try and draw air from the tank. Knowing that surfacing uncontrollably could result in harm, the only real solution was to use the guide's backup regulator. Also racing through my mind was an early morning conversation I had with some locals that there was indeed a decompression chamber on Bonaire.

The guide moved quickly and gave me his backup regulator. Unfortunately when I grabbed it, I put it in my mouth upside down. So despite clearing it, I was taking in water with every breath. I remember seeing bubbles which was re-assuring somewhat, but the water I was inhaling was quite alarming. Noticing something was wrong, the guide took the regulator out of my mouth and gave it back to me right side up. Things were still not perfect, but there was definitely air flowing now which bought me valuable time.

At this point, the guide and I started a controlled ascent. On our way up, I was desperately hoping that we didn't need to take the 3 minute safety stop — sure enough the dive had been short enough that it wasn't necessary. Not sure that I would've tolerated it anyway.

Once we broke through the surface I started to cough non-stop, but I was also extremely relieved to breath air again. To add insult to injury, there was something wrong with my BCD. Despite repeated attempts to inflate it, I was still sinking and wound up breathing in more water. Fortunately, with my buddy on one arm and the guide on the other, we all made it back to shore — eventually. Reaching land was as much a relief as when I first broke through the surface!

After relaxing for a bit, my guide started to investigate what might have happened. While not definitive, it looks like sand was blocking the flow of air from the tank valve. Sand also appeared to be the culprit with the non-inflating BCD — some of it was keeping the deflator button depressed so any air that came in immediately went out.

Lessons Learned… Or Rather Remembered

  1. If you haven't been diving in a while, review the PADI manual and/or DVD so that procedures are fresh in your mind.
  2. Stay near your buddy (or guide) in case you need to use a backup regulator.
  3. Remain calm! Easier said than done.
  4. As long as you're getting air, follow the safety guidelines for surfacing. You don't want to compound your troubles.
  5. Sand is bad. Very Bad. If your gear gets sandy, it's probably worth checking everything a little more thoroughly than normal.
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