Emergency diver-location devices will soon become familiar, especially for southern Red Sea safari divers.
We may even start taking the type of installation into account when selecting a boat – or taking the initiative by investing in our own personal unit. Nigel Wade investigates
SURFACING AFTER A DIVE and finding that your attendant boat is nowhere to be seen is the stuff of nightmares. Drifting for hours or even days is the one thing that most of us don’t consider, let alone plan for. It’s never going to happen to us – is it?
In 2005, after a deep technical dive on the Duke of Buccleuch, I had to abort after getting caught in a current and separated from my dive buddy.
I couldn’t make it back to the shotline and ascend to the trapeze with the group. Instead,
I carried out lengthy decompression stops while drifting alone under my delayed surface marker buoy. When I surfaced, I had drifted two miles away, and my red SMB was no longer visible to the skipper, who rightly stayed on station with the trapeze.
Adrift with the tide, all sorts of things went through my mind. I was scared and lonely, isolated, with no idea how the situation would pan out.
Spotting my dive-boat on the horizon heading away from me was probably the worst moment. Knowing that I was just an invisible speck in an endless sea terrified me.
How could I make contact and let them know where I was? Waving my fins above my head had no effect, other than to tire me.
My whistle was hopeless at this distance, and my dive light, pointed in the direction of the boat, just mimicked reflections on the sea. I thought I was a goner!
Luckily, it took only two hours of searching before I was found, but they were the longest two hours of my life. I should have planned for this situation but, to my regret, I hadn’t even considered it a possibility.
EVERY DAY, TENS OF THOUSANDS of divers around the world giant stride from boats out of sight of land. It’s inevitable that someone somewhere will find themselves in an unplanned-for situation.
Divers often surface long distances from their boats, and strong currents, varying dive profiles, poor surface conditions and visibility all contribute to them being left adrift. Throw human error into the mix, and the risk becomes a real possibility.
There are hundreds of well-documented accounts in press archives, along with fictional media based on the fact that divers do get left behind or lost on a regular basis.
When you plan your dive in the Komodo Pass, would you consider the possibility that after a nine-hour surface drift you’ll be throwing weights from your belt at Komodo dragons on a beach? A crazy scenario, yet in June 2008 that’s exactly the situation in which a group of divers found themselves. It took two days of searching by the Indonesian Navy, dive and fishing boats before they were found and rescued.
In 2004, a US dive operator in California was subject to a lawsuit that arose from leaving a diver adrift on site. A divemaster on the boat wrongly noted on the dive roster that he was on board when it left the first site, and that he had started the second dive.
It was three hours before anyone realised that the diver was missing and raised the alarm. Search and rescue operations were subsequently conducted in the wrong location. The lost diver, Daniel Carlock, was found and recovered by a passing tall ship after five hours on the surface.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress, and subsequently developing skin cancer attributed to sunburn, Carlock entered a legal battle that lasted for five years. It culminated in a final 23-day trial and the jury assessing total damages of a whopping $2 million. The amount was reduced to $1.68m on the basis that Carlock was partly responsible, and should have surfaced nearer to the boat.
After the trial, Carlock stated: “It has been an ordeal, but I wanted to seek changes in the scuba industry. Others will benefit.”
It’s a sad fact that litigation-avoidance is a driver to deliver change. An award against a dive operator of more than £1 million is a serious incentive to change the way in which operations are conducted. And as insurance companies look to reduce the risk of pay-outs, so policy small print will include ways of avoiding such situations arising in the first place.
So to insure their businesses, dive centres and operators may have to “adjust” their procedures and invest in new equipment.
Change is already on the way. Last year in Egypt, a ministerial decree was issued requiring all dive operators to have a diver tracking system installed on safari boats visiting the Brothers Islands and remote southern areas of the Red Sea.
Egypt’s Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CDWS) and the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA) have together been testing and providing approval for units and systems fit for purpose. The deadline for submissions is the end of June, and the legislation will “go live” shortly afterwards.
Emergency services base their work on “speed of response and weight of attack”. This translates to how quickly they can get an emergency team to the scene and how many members they will need to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Oh, how I wanted a flotilla of rescue craft really quickly when I was lost! My DSMB and dive light just didn’t cut it, and left me wishing I had been carrying equipment to make me extremely easy to locate and recover.
So, what’s available in this hi-tech world of ours to locate and track divers on the surface?
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are considered a vital part of the safety equipment carried by boat-users around the world. These digital beacons interface with the worldwide service of the international satellite system for Search and Rescue (SARSAT). When activated, they send out distress signals on a frequency of 406MHz. The signals are monitored worldwide and detected by satellites. The location of the distress is then transmitted to Earth stations.
The beacons can be uniquely identified, along with a GPS position encoded into the signal, which provides instantaneous identification of the registered user and his or her location.
A secondary homing beacon, transmitting on the 121.5MHz frequency, enables direction-finding as the SAR organisations close in.
The speed of response could be slow.
A satellite may not pass overhead for up to 90 minutes. However, the weight of attack
will be heavy, ensuring that the chances of a successful outcome are reasonably high.
Personal Location Beacons (PLBs) are for personal use, and are intended to indicate the position of individuals in distress.
They can operate on the SARSAT 406MHz frequency and be classed as EPIRBs, or more commonly form a system that transmits a signal that is relayed to a local receiver unit.
With the receiver in your vicinity, the speed of response is going to be swift, and the weight
of attack and subsequent cost implications will be light. The chances of a successful outcome will be very high.
VHF marine radios are standard equipment on all seagoing vessels. Operating on frequencies between 156 and 174MHz, various channels are selected for voice traffic, either locally between users, or specific channels for emergency use.
Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) is the international emergency distress channel. Channel 9 can also be used in some locations. Transmission power ranges between 1 and 25W give a maximum range of up to about 60 nautical miles between aerials mounted on tall ships, and 8 nautical miles between aerials mounted on smaller boats, or at sea-level.
Frequency modulation is used with vertical polarisation, meaning that antennae need to be vertical to achieve the best reception.
Nautilus LifeLine GPS Marine Radio
The Nautilus Lifeline is a water-resistant VHF marine radio with the latest Jupiter 3 GPS receiver integrated into the unit. The radio is housed in a tough O-ring sealed polycarbonate case, giving the unit a depth rating of 130m.
Once on the surface, the casing can be opened, deploying a VHF whip antenna and giving access to the controls. Various radio channels can be selected, enabling a direct voice link with your dive-boat.
In an emergency, GPS co-ordinates can be relayed, enabling a quick response. Alternatively, if contact is not made with your boat an SOS message can be sent using the internationally recognised emergency channel 16.
Transmitting on a frequency range of 156.025 to 163.275MHz and powered by integrated USB rechargeable 1850mAh lithium-ion batteries, the radio has a stated working duration of 24 hours. It weighs in at a light 280g and doesn’t need a dedicated receiving unit. That should make it ideal for individual use.
The first Nautilus Lifelines were expected to hit the market by April. Nautilus will then apply for CDWS / NTRA approval. Prices are not yet available.