Many divers are adventurous souls. We like to eat some fish fillets after our long day on the water, trade some tall tails and plan the next outing. Sometimes we are frustrated when we can’t find anyone to dive with; sometimes we plan an outing and it seems like we have too many people on the boat, or that we invited just 1-2 too many divers. Some of us are very social when it comes to our dive time; we use scuba or freediving as a way to meet people and spend quality time with our friends. At times, going diving is the only thing we do with our buddies, which makes the time all that more important. Then comes the day when we are all secretive; we are going to catch all the fish and don’t let those other guys know where we are going, or where our secret spots are. The black margate shown here was in a cave that would kill an inexperienced diver. But it took months to fool him and wait until he was at the cave opening.
Diving takes place along a continuum just like all other natural processes and human activities. We can be secretive and competitive, or social and gregarious. When 6 freedivers head out into the Gulf or the ocean they better be best of friends because that’s a lot of divers to have on a boat. I have never taken that many on my boat! During spearfishing comps all the basic rules about "never dive alone" get thrown out the window. We have seen deaths in our club and national competitions. Take Gene Higa. He died in July of 2004 at the US nationals in Hawai’i. . Higa was an accomplished diver, regarded by many in the sport as one of the state’s best. He was a member of the 1999 U.S. Skin Diving National Championship Team and has represented Hawai’i five times in national competitions. Higa was a marine engineer at Pearl Harbor, and left a wife and young son. According to the skindiving website Team Sporasub, which sponsored Higa, he was "perhaps the best pole-spear free diver in the U.S." Higa was reported missing after he failed to report to a 3 p.m. check-in with the rest of the tournament’s 93 divers. His body was found by a search party close to where he had anchored his kayak. Although no cause of death was determined, a condition called shallow water blackout was thought to contribute to his death. There were three deaths on O’ahu in 2004 alone. The blackouts, caused by oxygen deprivation, generally occur during the end of a dive, and most often when the diver, reaching the end of his endurance, is distracted by a fish or tangled equipment and delays surfacing.
It can happen in competition; it can happen on your day off. Take 19 year old Loren Maas. Loren was on his day-off from work. Like his dad (Terry Maas) he was a true waterman and a child prodigy of the sport. Loren was diving with an experienced buddy and was diving off Thurston Pt. in Kailua-Kona. Both young men were very capable freedivers, with advanced training in rescue skills. Both chose to dive in a relatively shallow reef area and close to public access. They were equipped properly including having a safety float and alternating their dives to always have visual contact with each other and avoiding any chance of them being underwater at the same time. During the excursion of about one hour and a series of dives on a shallow reef, Loren made a dive to about 60 feet. During the first 30 seconds of the time underwater his buddy noticed little movement and then became concerned at about 45 seconds. Since his buddy was worried, his ability was impacted by the stress and he became unable to check Loren on the bottom or reach him freediving. His buddy signaled for help and the County Fire Rescue divers were summoned to the scene. After recovery, Loren was unconscious and rushed to the Kona Community Hospital E.R. room where he was stabilized and then transferred to the I.C.U. unit and later passed away.
It can happen in freediving competitions. Take Nick Mevoli, an AIDA diver. Mevoli reached the 72-meter depth of the no-fins dive, swam back to the surface but had trouble breathing while completing surface protocol. Nicolas was a free spirit who grew up loving swimming and got hooked on diving as an 8-year-old boy on trips to the Florida Keys. It would take him about 2 minutes and 45 seconds to dive down and back up 300 feet of water in just one breath. Mevoli was an accomplished free-diver, winning or placing highly in various international free-diving tournaments.
Okay so here’s the deal. Freediving is a dangerous sport and we all know one can black out. But spearfishing competitions and club events and fun days on the water can be switched around to create safety and minimize deaths and tragedies. Yes, number 1, never dive alone. But when a contest is set up to send out 90 divers alone on kayaks and they all dive alone then people will keep passing away! Contests should be "Pairs Only." Pairs only means that a team consists of two divers and each diver has to spot the other from the surface while the dive buddy is under chasing a fish. Depths should be controlled by the contest organizers by creating rules to limit the depth that the diver can work in. Who said 60 feet was shallow? Don’t choose to dive with someone who can’t rescue you in the depth you are going to, or you are diving alone. Loren Maas died in 60 feet of water. If 60 feet of depth can kill him then it can kill anyone. Did he spear an ulua and then get wrapped? We will never know...
Forget competitive depth apnea. You will never be able to minimize the risk. But yoga, pranayama, relaxation tecniques, biofeedback, and many other modalities can be built in to increase the diver’s resilience and general health as a way to fight edema and other complications. And in the end maybe people will just blow it off and go buy a videocamera and housing and tape the fish... That way everyone wins.