Divers Who Get Lost at Sea

From the February, 2014 issue of Undercurrent

The couple most famous for disappearing on a dive is Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left behind on a Great Barrier Reef dive trip in 1998 when the crew failed to take an accurate headcount. They were never found, and their tale was memorialized in the box-office hit Open Water a decade ago, a film that was made because the writer/director, Chris Kentis, and his wife, producer Laura Lau, first read their story in Undercurrent. Since then, it’s commonplace to see stories about divers left to drift at sea pop up in the media.

Take Jake and Lexa Mendenhall from Mesa, AZ, who celebrated their openwater certifications with a Thailand trip in November. The press was all over their story about how they surfaced from their second dive to find their boat gone (apparently, the captain had engine trouble and sped off to shore for a quick repair). Luckily, they were with two divemasters, who inflated a safety sausage that attracted a snorkeling boat. Back home, the Mendenhalls gave an interview to their local ABC news station. Lexa told how, exhausted and freezing, she climbed into the rescue boat and collapsed, splitting her chin open. “When we were bobbing, I knew there were sharks,” she said. “I saw them all around this reef, and here I am just bait on the top.” Total time the couple estimates they spent “lost at sea” — 30 to 45 minutes.

Then there are St. John and Claire Neilson, a British couple who went to San Pedro, Belize last spring for a Blue Hole day trip with Aqua Scuba. During the lunch break on Halfmoon Caye, they wandered off to see the red-footed boobies and returned to the dock 16 minutes late, only to see the boat disappearing into the distance. A ranger on the island put them on another dive boat, and when the Neilsons returned to San Pedro, they reported the incident to the authorities as well as to the media. Belize’s Channel 5 News filmed them talking about how they were scared to be on the island alone, and how the owner of Aqua Scuba refused to give them an apology. “Whether you are late or not — 10 minutes late or half an hour late — you do not leave people behind,” Claire said. “If we were in the water, it could have been a much worse scenario.”

Claire is right. It could have been worse. But why on earth did the Neilsons and the Mendhalls merit such media coverage for their experiences — anxiety-causing for sure, but not much more? They weren’t in much jeopardy, especially the Neilsons, who were on dry land with a ranger to rescue them. Folks, these are non-stories.

However, these non-stories provide allow us to share some stories from Undercurrent readers who answered our request for their own bobbing-at-sea stories, their explanations for why it happened, and their advice for other divers on how not to end up drifting away into the open.

Randall Rothenberg (New York City, NY) learned his lesson about getting separated from his group, but he came out fine because he stayed calm and trusted his instincts. During his final dive on a Cozumel trip, he made a giant stride entry, only to find his regulator freeflowing. “The group was waiting for me, but I waved them on and returned to the boat. One of the crew gave my regulator a good whack, and it stopped free-flowing. He motioned for me to go back in, but I couldn’t see my team. ‘They will be for you beneath the boat,’ he said. Well, they weren’t. Everyone was from another group.” Since it was a drift dive, Rothenberg knew his boat would be gone if he surfaced. “I had no choice but to drift along the reef to the end, making sure to keep in proximity to other dive groups. After a 40-minute drift, I saw a group surfacing, and decided it would be smarter to surface rather than risk drifting to a place where there might not be any boats. So I ascended with this group, explained my predicament, and the divemaster said in a French accent, ‘Ah, I see your boat there!’ He radioed to them, and they picked me up. It wasn’t my boat, but it was from my resort.” Rothenberg said he learned some lessons for serious current diving. “First, don’t listen to the guy on the boat; don’t go in unless you are with your buddy or your group. Sacrifice the dive, not yourself. Second, when all else fails, keep others in sight, and prepare to depend on the kindness of strangers.”

Years ago, Randy Shuman (Seattle, WA) took his family to the Galapagos for a land/dive trip and they all learned a lesson in staying calm. On that notable dive, they went with the boat owner to a rocky reef in open sea, with a few islands nearby. “We were taken there in an inflatable, driven by a young crew member. He was instructed to follow our bubbles and retrieve us at the end of the dive. Our goal was to find and photograph sharks in rock caves. After successfully doing so, we returned to the surface to find no inflatable in sight. We inflated an orange rescue sausage, blew whistles, and waited for 30 minutes. With still no boat in sight, we decided our best option was to swim to a nearby island, as we were slowly drifting away from it. After swimming for 30 minutes, we came ashore, and hauling our bulky camera gear, climbed to the top of the island. From the 65-foot height, we could spot the inflatable. He either saw us or heard our shouts and came to the island. My understanding is he was fired for not following our bubbles, but he was inexperienced, and the waves were significant. Having two crew members to follow the bubbles, a GPS on the inflatable and a loud signal horn for the divers might have helped. Also, the dive-capable VHF radios now available would have allowed us to contact the main vessel.”

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