Offshore oil rigs serve as way stations for big fish, which stop and hang out around the massive structures. Roy and his buddies knew this and made regular trips to nearby oil rigs to go spear fishing. It was the best local opportunity to find game fish, and they always brought home dinner.
On the first dive of the trip, Roy speared a large goliath grouper near the rig. As he began bringing it toward the surface, the 200-pound fish started to swim away, pulling Roy along for the ride.
As a dive instructor, Roy spent hours in the water helping new divers learn the basics. He often said the feeling of watching new divers’ eyes light up when they took their first breaths underwater was priceless. He trained upwards of 100 new divers each year, guiding them through each of their open water checkout dives.
One thing that Roy loved just as much as teaching new divers was spear fishing. Every couple of weeks, Roy and his buddies would schedule a dive trip without any students. They always headed to one of the nearby oil rigs and brought their spear guns along. Once they arrived home, they’d enjoy grilling that day’s catch.
When Roy turned on his air just before getting in the water, his hrefa moment. He slapped it against his hand and reset the diaphragm. Roy commented to his buddy that he needed to get it serviced, but he had been diving so much he hadn’t had the time.
With the reg fixed, he did his giant stride and immediately descended down one leg of the oil rig. The visibility was typical for the location — they could see 30 to 40 feet in any direction, but beyond that, the open ocean was murky.
Many of the bigger fish they wanted to hunt stayed deep. When they approached 130 feet, Roy indicated he wanted to go deeper. His buddy signaled that he planned to level off and hunt there. Roy signaled OK and kept descending.
Roy couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the size of the grouper hovering near one of the oil rig’s legs. He estimated it weighed 200 pounds or more. He quickly prepared his spear gun and moved into position. Taking careful aim, Roy shot the large fish through the side. He reeled in the cable connecting the spear to his gun and began ascending. Roy could feel the weight of the fish below him, so he focused harder on swimming toward the surface. As he passed 130 feet, Roy paused for a moment to signal to his buddy that he was taking his catch to the boat.
On the way to the surface the grouper woke up, but Roy didn’t notice at first. With a jerk, the fish suddenly attempted to escape, only to come to a stop when it reached the end of the cable Roy had looped around a D-ring on his BC. The surge pulled Roy to the side as the line snapped taut. He grabbed the cable and attempted to continue ascending, but the grouper took off again — this time, the fish pulled Roy toward the surface. As they ascended together, Roy hit his head on one of the oil rig’s cross beams. Dazed by the collision with the cross beam, Roy found himself struggling at the surface.
A diver already on the surface reported seeing Roy wave his arm over his head to signal that he needed help. As Roy appeared to lose consciousness, the boat driver started the boat engines to get to Roy as quickly as he could. Roy sank below the surface of the water before help could arrive. Roy’s buddy and another diver spent nearly 30 minutes searching for and recovering his body.
Back onboard the boat, Roy’s buddies attempted to resuscitate him, but he was pronounced dead at a local hospital. When they found Roy’s body, his scuba cylinder was empty, his weights were in place and the grouper was still attached to the cable attached to his BC . Though Roy’s regulator showed signs of poor maintenance, this was not considered to be a cause of the accident.
The medical examiner determined that Roy had suffered trauma to his head after striking the leg of the oil rig, and this was a contributing factor in his loss of control on ascent; this, in turn, led to an air embolism that caused him to lose consciousness and drown.
Roy was in trouble the moment he speared the large grouper. In his mid-40s, Roy was of average size; the fish weighed as much as he did. Even if it had been killed instantly, Roy would have struggled to drag his prize to the surface. At the very least, Roy should have asked his buddy to help him get it to the surface. Better still, he could have attached the fish to a lift bag, inflated it and sent it to the surface, allowing him to ascend slowly and easily without struggling. When the stunned fish attempted to swim away, Roy was immediately in danger. With the huge fish attached to a cable fastened to his BC, Roy had to go where the fish wanted. At this point, he should have let go of the speared grouper.
Roy most likely wasn’t thinking clearly when he surfaced. He was probably dazed and suffering symptoms from the embolism. If he had dropped his weights and let go of the speared grouper, Roy might have survived the incident. He would have needed treatment in a recompression chamber, but he probably would have lived.
While it wasn’t a factor on this dive, Roy’s equipment was not well maintained and he was not properly equipped for a dive to nearly 200 feet. A diver depletes a tank very quickly at those depths, yet Roy had no backup or additional air supply. He also had no procedures in place for making decompression stops on his way back to the surface.
Roy made several lapses in judgment, all related to planning. If he had thought through what he would do if he speared a large fish — one too large for him to bring to the surface by himself — he might be alive today.
Lessons for Life
1. Nothing you find on a dive is worth your life. Struggling to bring an artifact or a speared fish to the surface is a recipe for disaster.
2. Drop your weights. If you feel yourself struggling on the surface to stay afloat, release your weights. You will be positively buoyant instantly and able to rest and relax while you are rescued.
3. Plan your dive according to the situation.
4. Have the proper equipment for the dive you are making.
5. Stay with your buddy.