Kate's Comment

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A real SCUBA rescue experience – mistakes made and lessons learned

On my and Izzy’s recent fieldwork expedition to Islay we had a number of challenging conditions to cope with that were new to us as experienced SCUBA divers. One of these was the cold; the loch was about 16 degrees celcius and while in our double-layered wet suits we were fine for several hours, we found there were limits.


Our “one up, one down” approach to doing the final part of our experiment, the shear vane stress measurements of sediment fluidity, worked really well – except that because she was on the surface Izzy got cold faster than me. Also, we slightly fell into the trap of her worrying about me more than me about her because I was the one actually diving. We were pushing on to get the final data point out of about 50, so were towards the end of our second dive of the day – a total of about 5 hours in the water with a short break to warm up in the car. I decided I should check up on her since I had not for about 5 minutes (much longer than I would normally if she were underwater with me), and was surprised to get a rather incoherent set of hand signals from her. I surfaced to find her yawning repeatedly and looking very lethargic, also somewhat distressed and confused. She clearly had hypothermia. I immediately manoevered behind and under her so that I could tow her to shore while ensuring her head remained above water. I continuously talked to her while towing to ensure that she did not fall asleep.

A failure to follow my training

However, even at this point I had failed to follow my rescue diver training; the first step after assessing the victim is to call for help. I think it was social niceties that got in my way, to my shame, though also it did not appear particularly desperate at this stage. Since we were so far out I thought there was a good chance the guys would call the emergency services which seemed overkill, but on reflection and having unfortunately been helped by those services several times myself, I am confident they would have not minded being called out in such circumstances. Regardless, worrying about how my actions would make people feel as opposed to sticking to the procedure was a potentially very dangerous mistake!

Izzy was hypothermic but floating well, still fairly responsive (between yawns) to me and just about able to swim unaided, hence also why I didn’t feel calling for help was warranted. However, about three quarters of the way to shore (50 meters or so to go) having been swimming hard in full SCUBA gear towing Izzy I started to have breathing difficulties. I have exercise-induced asthma which is aggravated by the cold and, foolishly, I had not brought my inhaler. Thankfully Izzy felt able to make the rest of the way to the shore by this point and I decided to ditch my BCD and tank since it was making swimming on the surface much harder and by this point we could easily stand up in the fairly shallow water. This seemed alien again, but was definitely the right thing to do in the circumstances (apart from one important detail). Abandoning my gear in the middle of the loch required overriding one’s normal routine; a bit like not taking your things with you when leaving a burning building.

However, I was clearly not thinking 100% right myself at this point since soon after, with my asthma attack getting worse and feeling a little panicked, I belatedly realised I now absolutely needed to alert Carl and Ian so they could assist us (we were headed to our dinghy on the shore, many long minutes from the quay). I had of course left my emergency whistle on my BCD, and they were not looking towards us! Thankfully they did turn to see my alert signal (arms waved above head).

Once I got to the boat I had to bring it to Izzy; on the shore she had now lost the ability to do things coherently. I helped her in and we headed towards the quay, and as soon as close enough I had shouted to Ian and Carl to get my inhaler and the survival blankets from the car which was up a steep hill. I also followed the other key tennet of my rescue diver training: look after yourself first! I could have helped Izzy more quickly, but recognised that I was in danger myself and that if I was incapacitated then it would only worsen her situation; Carl and Ian had already packed away their boat so it would have taken them quite some time to get to us. By taking things a little slower I was able to ensure that I could continue to help her.

Thankfully my ventolin immediately relieved my symptoms, and having regulated my activity I had been able to continue to help Izzy without pushing the asthma attack further. With Carl’s assistance we were able to swiftly get Izzy out of her wet things and into the car wrapped in silvery survival blankets. I then rushed her home, though being very cautious since I was aware of some reaction time impairment myself (I likely had very mild hypothermia too). It all turned out okay, though it took several hours of being buried in a thick duvet in bed using my body heat to warm her up before she no longer felt cold to the touch and reported she was feeling better.

Lessons learned

We have learned some very important lessons from this experience:

1) Regardless of situation, it is imperative that both buddies keep a close eye on each other! This is diving 101 stuff, but because Izzy was snorkling we sort-of thought it didn’t apply.

2) Hypothermia creeps up on you quite covertly; Izzy had reported feeling cold about 20 minutes before I recognised she was in trouble, but I think she was already cognitively impaired by that point and was failing to recognise her state, a bit like hypoxia. This was a failing on my part; I put the mission (those final data points) ahead of our safety and as dive leader should have been more attentive to Izzy’s state (she had become quite dappy with the waypoint marking, but I dismissed it).

3) The rescue diver procedures are there for good reasons and should be followed! It is imperative to ignore social nicities in such circumstances; if you are at the point where you have to deploy any of the rescue diver skills you are at a point where you might need help, and you could get to a point where you are unable to call for help as I did. Because the situation did not seem too bad (I’m a strong swimmer and the shore was close) I delayed calling for help, but the situation soon changed when my asthma kicked in.

I am also going to book myself on a refresher course for my rescue diver qualification. When I was flying Bell JetRanger 206 helicopters regularly I would constantly practice emergency situations (flame out, hydraulics failures, tail rotor impairment or loss, etc) and feel confident that I would have followed the appropriate procedure on reflex. In my 150 or so hours of diving since getting rescue diver status I have never had the opportunity to use (until now) nor refresh my skills – other than the emergency first responder (EFR) element (recussitation and so forth; I am one of the EFRs at work and you need to be formally refreshed every 3 years). If you don’t use skills you lose them!

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