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.
DIVER TRACKING UNITS
210 406Mhz GPS PLB
The Fastfind 210 Satellite PLB is in fact a compact EPIRB unit. Constructed in a high-impact polycarbonate body and water-resistant to 10m, it requires a waterproof canister to be of use while diving.
These are available from Custom Divers, manufactured from high-grade PVC with double O-ring seals and depth-rated to 180m. A lanyard and 50mm harness attachment loop should ensure that your investment doesn’t go astray.
The Fastfind is manually activated and operates using both the 406MHz and 121.5MHz frequencies. It also has a built-in 50-channel GPS receiver to ensure pinpoint location.
The unit incorporates a high-intensity LED SOS flashlight to aid location in poor visibility. Measuring about 100 x 50 x 35mm and weighing in at a mere 150g, it’s not going to take up much space in your dive-bag.
The battery has a five-year storage life and, fully charged, will allow the unit to transmit for at least 24 hours.
This highly portable standalone EPIRB / PLB unit can be used anywhere in the world, including on land. Price is £204, and the Custom Divers PLB Canister costs £69.
Tracking Location System
The Seasafe System comprises an unobtrusive personal transmitter, partnered with a boat-mounted alarm and tracking receiver.
The receiver connects to a marine-grade omni-directional antenna, which receives signals
from any Seasafe transmitters that are activated within a range of 12.5 miles.
When activated, a visual and audible alarm is raised on the receiver. Once an alarm has been received, the lightweight folding tracking antenna is connected to the receiver and the direction of the transmitting beacon is ascertained. By following this direction via visual and audible signal-strength indicators, the diver can be quickly located and recovered.
The beacon measures 80 x 80 x 32mm and weighs in at 250g. It can be attached to the BC via a karabiner, or stored in a Neoprene pouch. Powered by a 3V lithium cell, once activated it will transmit for seven days.
The receiver is powered by 1.2V ni-mh AA rechargeable batteries. Only one signal can be tracked at a time.
The system was tried out on Red Sea Emperor Fleet vessels in 2009, and subsequently modified. It has now been upgraded to a 100m depth rating.
A recent addition is a portable receiving unit housed in a waterproof Peli-case and stubby 30cm antenna that connects via the case; this will receive signals from up to two miles away.
Approved for use by CDWS / NTRA, the Seasafe transmitter costs £210 and the receiver £2299.
Sea Marshall AU9 PLB
& SARfinder Mobile Locating System
The Sea Marshall AU9 PLB operates solely on the 121.5MHz frequency, as a direction-finder. The beacon’s high-impact PVC waterproof housing has a depth rating of 75m.
This unit forms part of a system that incorporates the beacon with a base “SARfinder” homing unit located on the boat.
The beacon incorporates a 1m cable with a flexible helical spring section and an in-built LED strobe that forms the antenna. This can be attached to a DSMB and, uniquely, activated under water and deployed from depth should the need arise.
The beacon batteries are user-replaceable, with a five-year life, and will transmit for at least 42 hours. With overall dimensions of just 90 x 70 x 35mm, and weighing in at 250g, this compact PLB will transmit a signal receivable by all 121.5MHz homing units from over four miles at sea level.
Approved for use by CDWS / NTRA, the AU9 PLB costs £235 and the SARfinder 1003 MOB Alarm Direction Finder £3229.
SeaReq ENOS Electronic Locating & Rescue System
The ENOS system incorporates GPS technology with transmitting beacons and a portable or wheelhouse-mounted receiver. The GPS location is sent and received via a UHF radio frequency of 869.525 MHz over 16 channels. The 210 x 50mm tubular beacons are housed in high-impact PVC with a depth rating of 100m, and weigh 365g.
When activated by rotating the base, an audible alarm is sounded at the receiving unit from up to 6.5 nautical miles away.
The beacon is instantly allocated an identity number, displayed on the base-unit screen along with its GPS location. Further alarms appear simultaneously, along with their relevant locations, so multiple divers can be tracked at once.
Each beacon is supplied in a pouch with a lanyard and clip for attachment to a BC, keeping everything neat and tidy.
Four user-changeable 6V lithium AA batteries power the beacons; the base unit is powered by 12V batteries, or via a 12V DC external source.
Approved for use by CDWS and awaiting NTRA approval, the ENOS ETX 3005 transmitter costs £660; the receiver £2500.
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.
RED SEA SAFARI-BOAT operators have about a month left to choose a system, based on what’s available, approved and affordable.
Systems involving the use of transmitting beacons and local receivers are ideal options for fleet or dive-club use, especially in areas with only limited emergency services. Let’s hope that the teething troubles that could arise when electrical apparatus meets water don’t happen!
Twenty or more beacons and one base unit per boat will not be cheap, but then neither is litigation. Insurers could force these systems to become standard equipment on dive-boats worldwide. The Egyptian decree could well set the ball rolling in the Maldives, while litigation threats could bring them to areas popular with US divers, such as the Caribbean and Florida.
For individual divers, the choice is limited. 406MHz GPS EPIRBs/PLBs are an excellent option, but they do have the limitation of a slow response, and the latest concept of submersible marine radios could prove a popular choice with both individuals and fleet-owners.
Using simple, existing technology with hi-tech GPS may well prove to be the future in diver location.
Diver location and tracking systems should be used only in real emergencies; clipping one to your BC should not replace comprehensive planning and safe-diving practices.
By combining both, being lost at sea should become just a bad dream. So, where’s Wally About two miles away; south, south east!