Experts say lax attitudes contribute to diver deaths.
Thursday, August 14, 2003
Jeff Field spends his days looking for patterns in coroner''s reports, and trying to prevent more emergencies in the water. Field is a surfer, a scuba diver, a State Parks lifeguard, and a training officer on the Pacific Grove Fire Department Ocean Rescue team. He''s finishing up a master''s in Ocean Science at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. This extensive resume gives him plenty of perspectives on the water.
According to Field, those in the know agree that the Monterey area is notorious for having dangerous water conditions, and those conditions are commonly misjudged by tourists.
"In Monterey there is a feeling that if you go in the water you are accepting a higher risk," he says. "There''s a feeling that if you drown, it''s your own fault."
Most ocean drownings in Monterey County kill people who have oxygen tanks strapped to their backs and are certified to scuba dive.
"It''s not intuitive here," he says. "People expect the water to be warm, the water looks deceptively calm on the surface, and they don''t realize that they need the right gear."
Field and others on patrol try to identify badly prepared divers so they can offer safety tips. Sometimes it''s easy. Field says when he sees a person headed into the surf with their wetsuit on backwards and carrying rented gear, he stops them to talk about the conditions.
But surprisingly, even those with scuba certification make fatal mistakes with the water, a fact Field attributes to numerous reasons.
Some of those reasons are financial. When tourists drive four hours to dive in Monterey, Field says that they are unlikely to cancel their dive, even if conditions are dangerous and beyond the training of the often out-of-shape diver.
"I have nothing to back this up," he says, "but my feeling is that because diving is a business, the emphasis is to encourage people to dive when it wouldn''t be appropriate, like if they have a medical condition or are not in their comfort zone."
And being competent to dive in the county is not an easy thing. A scuba diver certified in Florida, for instance, can rent equipment in Monterey and dive right in. But with the area''s cold, dense, heavy and dynamic water, plus kelp, that can prove deadly.
"There''s a lot of northwest exposure, big surf and northwest swell in the area," he says. "At Monastery Beach, it''s an advanced level because of the depth and that the beach is so steep. There isn''t a surf zone, but a backwash area that surges up and off the beach. It''s not necessarily going to break bones, but it can knock someone down, then they lose their mask or regulator, which causes a panic situation in some people. And they aren''t prepared to dive at that depth."
Field says that as a lifeguard he can rescue a swimmer in ten minutes, but that a dive rescue is much more difficult to do.
"It''s very hard to identify a distressed scuba diver underwater," he says. "You can''t see them."
Instead, rescue workers attempt preventative measures, especially when there''s heavy surf.
"We try to talk to dive groups on the beach, and when appropriate, give them the option not to go in," Field says. "Sometimes they opt not to."
"Perfectly intelligent people can do stupid things," says Robert "Bear" Hornady, a retired physicist from Lawrence Livermore Lab and a member of the PG Ocean Rescue Team. "Or simply strange things can happen underwater."
Hornady stands beside the hyperbaric chamber in the PG Fire Department. An orange cylinder of half-inch thick steel dotted with portholes and pressure gauges, the chamber is the only one in the county. PG''s is the only fire department in the US to have one.
When divers ignore crucial limits on their ability to stay at certain depths, bad things happen to the body, besides impaired judgment. The chamber can help reverse those bad things. The chamber treats as many as 25 divers a year.
The day before we talked, the Ocean Rescue team treated a US Navy Diver in the chamber who brought himself in for help.
"This guy partied hearty the night before," Hornady says. "With his training, he should have been fine--but he was massively dehydrated, malnourished, and had a raging hangover."
There really isn''t much room for error in the sport. In scuba diving, a tank filled with 20 percent oxygen and 80 percent nitrogen provides a limited amount of underwater time for divers. As divers reach greater depths, conditions become more hazardous.
"Scuba diving is basically an issue of physics," Field says. "You have super-pressurized air, up to 300psi, in a steel tank. Every 33 feet you go down, you increase one atmosphere and add pressure to the gases in your body. At 99 feet if you take a breath you are taking in three times the air you normally would."
With the increase in nitrogen, Field explains, divers can experience nitrogen narcosis, otherwise known as "rapture of the deep." The symptoms, impaired motor skills and judgment, can cause a diver to forget how to return safely to the surface.
"I''ve seen people take out their regulator and give it to the fish, because they think the fish needs air," he says. "I didn''t think it was affecting me, then I tried to do a division problem on a slate underwater. I couldn''t think straight."
When a diver comes up too quickly, decompression sickness, known as "the bends," can occur. Field explains that nitrogen bubbles settle in the tissues of the body, typically causing pain in the joints (or bends) of the body.
"If you stay too deep, too long, you violate limits," he says. "An air embolism or an arterial gas embolism occurs when you come up to the surface too fast or hold your breath and the air expands again. It''s like shaking a coke bottle and eventually it pops its lid."
Some of the not so fun consequences can include bubbles in the bloodstream with stroke-like symptoms, collapsed lungs, paralysis, bubbles in the sac around the heart, and subcutaneous minor emphysema.
"The treatment is to go back under pressure and get the bubbles back to solution," Hornady explains. "We put them in the chamber and they breathe ordinary air, then pure oxygen every 20 minutes. The idea is to skirt on the edge of oxygen toxicity to get rid of the nitrogen."
Field suggests that a mostly reactive approach to water accidents has been typical protocol for the county, with sporadic funding for preventative programs.
"This county does not have the same emphasis on proactive water safety as others, like Santa Cruz, or in southern California," he says.
With the PG Ocean Rescue team, Field and the other volunteers attempt to patrol the coastline, a task made difficult given the enormous amount of water to monitor, from the Pajaro River south to the Bixby Bridge, and the lack of a budget for the self-funded organization, with part-time members who make $8 an hour.
"The fire and and ocean rescue patrols are not dedicated to water patrol," he explains. "We have other priorities, we have to be generalists."
Some of the preventative measures are already working. Field says that the junior lifeguard program, relatively new to Monterey, but already well-established in Santa Cruz, has already resulted in three rescues by teenagers.
Two days after we talk, the Ocean Rescue team meets members of the State Parks Lifeguard division and the Monterey Fire Boat team at Seaside Beach for a training session. The guys are practicing making rescues on the two new Aquatrax jet skis that State Parks just received.
When we meet, Field says that a woman scuba diver has just been taken from Stillwater Cove in to CHOMP. Later, he says the woman drowned.
Field fastens a helmet to his head and points the craft into the surf zone and navigates through big waves toward other members of the team, who bob in the water, waiting to be rescued.