Diver Missing (but Found) on the Tin Plate Drift

The view here is calm but it wasn’t so on Wednesday evening. As we milled about after our dives, our last group was in the water and expected to exit right about here. However, some of its members surfaced early, calling to us from upstream for assistance with a missing diver. In the end, everyone returned safe and sound and I can now take the time to review some lessons that we learned (or re-learned) afterwards.

The Dive

The extended Tin Plate Power House Dive is a 45-minute dive that is quite close to shore; the route normally exits at our yard or at the public dock beside.

5 divers: 1 guide in front with 2 sets of paired buddies behind.

The guide and one other diver were familiar with the route.

The other three were not familiar but had all been at Lock 23 several times, and had experience with high current and low visibility.

The crossing from wall entry across the canal to the outer berm went smoothly, after which the group descended toward the first landmark at about 40 feet. Some say their guide swam past the landmark without seeing it; others thought he’d gone behind. At any rate, he was suddenly nowhere to be found. They spent some time looking to no avail, including moving a bit downstream in the extremely poor visibility.

After searching, the group made the decision to put up a marker and check. When they saw no one, they descended, swam north and low across the canal and up to the road (10 ft), where they surfaced in the shallows upstream of the exit and drifted to our yard, calling for help.

Shore Emergency Management

Information: The missing diver was the group’s guide and the most senior member of the group, a diver quite comfortable in the low visibility environment. He was noted missing very early in the dive so should have had lots of air remaining. All divers felt that he had drifted ahead of them and they were unable to catch up. They deployed a surface marker and went to the surface to check but saw no one. They descended, swam across the canal, and resurfaced near shore. Their total dive time was 20 minutes, at a brief maximum depth of 40 feet but mainly at 15-20 feet.

Because at least 15 minutes had passed since the leader had been seen and he had not himself deployed a marker and surfaced to check for the others as is the usual practice, the decision was made to search for him.

Seadoos: Two seadoos were motoring about near the exit area and were flagged down by divers on shore. One diver went on board with them to track back over the diver’s assumed general route to watch for his bubbles. She took a mask should she get an opportunity to look below the surface.

Search Divers: Two highly experienced divers suited up and entered where the group had started from since the diver had gone missing not far from there. They planned to search both sides of the berm so fastened a line between them to keep together in the low visibility. They also deployed a marker as soon as they reached the berm so that those on shore could track their movements.

A second set of divers suited up for entry slightly further downstream from the first. Fortunately, the missing diver was located before they were needed – the seadoo team saw his bubbles and he surfaced shortly thereafter.

Basic Dive Protocol Reminders. New Ideas. Lessons Learned.

  1. What happened to our guide? He waited for some time at the site’s first large structure, a place he was certain the other divers would reach with the guidance of the remaining diver who knew the route. He was reluctant to deploy his marker and surface in high current. When no one arrived, he slowly continued on his way, assuming the diver who also knew the route would lead the group.

Although some of the group saw the leader swim right past the first landmark, they did not follow. Instead they chose to stay in that area and search for him. They did not move to the structure mentioned; instead, one of them deployed a marker, surfaced and checked, but saw no other marker. They then ended the dive.

The best way to avoid this sort of miscommunication is to include all the “what ifs” in the pre-dive briefing, including details of managing in low viz with a group, and what specifically to do should one or more of the group become separated. Details may vary with the experience of the group.

2. On shore, there was an awful lot of hollering and interrupting and suggesting by bystanders and dive group members, including possibly getting on boats and making noise to attract the attention of the diver. Some had flashing lights on their vehicles. One called EMS immediately, in order to get fully staffed water rescue and trained divers deployed, relaying that it could take up to two hours to get the necessary help.

There must be a pre-designated shoreline team leader.

No one under water can hear any sound made above water.

A lot of people vying for attention leads to confusion.

Flashing lights are an unnecessary addition to shoreline work.

Calling EMS with an early, simple, “We have a missing diver” gives the impression that we do not have search divers at the ready (or for that matter already in the water) and would result in a delayed arrival of manned boats and divers travelling from a great distance for a diver that was very close to shore. The call should have been “We have a missing diver but have one (or more) search teams already in the water, seadoos closely monitoring for bubbles, and medical personnel and oxygen standing by, but may need transportation assistance”. This would give them a much better indication of what services were needed. This problem got me specifically thinking about checking with some local boat owners to see who had crafts that could accommodate a diver in trouble and get him to shore quickly from a distance, and if they would be interested in being “on call” for such a situation.

3. Our first pair of search divers was organized and clear about their plan and got into the water quickly. Our second pair was slower because they came from two different spots and needed full air cylinders; we found the missing diver before the second diver was on his way to the entry site; we raced there to ensure the first diver was still on shore – she was ready and considering entering the water alone.

No one goes without a buddy as a search team. To not clearly state this was an important oversight. WAIT for your partner to arrive and carefully plan your dive together after consultation with the shoreline team leader.

4. Lastly, our initial 2-man search team was not far into their dive when we received the OK that the diver was found. This meant a long “meandering” dive for them since, although their marker was up and we knew their position, we could not contact them. It would have been foolish to send another diver or two to find them with the news.

A well-meaning boat, at the request of divers on shore (ahem) went to the deployed marker and tugged on it to alert the divers – however they proceeded to pull in the entire reel until the diver was forced to surface. Ultimately he had to exit by swimming in cross-current on the surface, a pretty exhausting endeavour. The second diver remained below and followed the regular line in to our property.

Both commented that they would rather have completed the dive. If a team like this were needed again, it would be nice to have a communication system in place, either by prearranged marker movements, or some way to access and tug the marker from the surface as a code.

The Wednesday night group had a long and interesting discussion afterwards, reviewing normal procedures, discussing experienced vs inexperienced ways of managing a difficult situation, and reminding ourselves of all the safety protocols in place and the most effective way of managing a missing diver situation.

While we hope that we never have to deal with this when a diver is deeper, further out, or longer alone, it is safe to say that we’re all thinking a lot about our briefing details, our dive procedures, and our rescue management plans. It makes us all safer and stronger.

Good diving to you!