Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lessons for Life: Wounded Grouper Strikes Back, Fatally

kirkscubagear is publishing this article as a learning/teaching experience for divers. My condolences to Danny's Mother/Family.

Danny was having one of the greatest days of his short dive career. Conditions were perfect. Visibility seemed to go on forever. Big fish circled the oil rig where he and his mom were diving, and he had just shot a big grouper with his spear gun.

Now he had the large fish dangling from a stringer that he had connected to his buoyancy compensator. Its weight was slowing him down some, so he looked around for his mom before he headed back to the boat. Danny moved toward one of the steel rig supports, looking for his mother, when he felt a sharp jerk on his BC jacket. He turned to see what caused it, when something knocked his regulator out of his mouth and his mask askew on his face.

Suddenly he couldn’t see what was going on, he couldn’t breathe, and he was in trouble.


Danny had wanted to dive for several years, and finally convinced his parents to give him lessons for his 15th birthday. He loved to fish and swim in the ocean not far from his house, and he wanted to spearfish. He joked with his friends that spearfishing on scuba gave him the chance to get on the same level as the fish. He could chase them down where they lived.

The trip to dive the oil rigs and spearfish was a present for his 16th birthday. He had made a few dives — including a few spearfishing dives — since earning his certification, but not as many as he would have liked. He was diving with his mom, but Danny thought she was pretty cool, and they enjoyed being together. She wasn’t interested in spearfishing, but she went everywhere he did on the dive, although she stayed apart from him so she wouldn’t spook the fish he was chasing.


Danny and his mom were diving from a local charter dive boat that regularly ran spearfishing charters to offshore oil rigs. Fish of all types congregate around the rigs. Divers could find everything from smaller reef fish to bigger pelagic animals patrolling the structures.

The bottom was more than 500 feet below them. They were 50 miles from the shore and had boarded the boat early that morning for the two-hour ride to the dive site. They had great visibility, and Danny felt at ease going deep in search of fish. Danny didn’t have a dive computer of his own, but his mom had one. Her computer recorded depths of more than 200 feet on the first dive, and they went back to the same area on the second. She spent her time looking at smaller fish and crustaceans clinging to the steel supports of the rig while Danny hunted.

He saw what he was looking for: a large grouper hovering calmly by a steel support. Danny lined up a perfect shot, spearing the fish through its side. The barbed head on his spear was stuck in the fish, so he tied the line off to his BC and looked around for his mom to show her his prize.


Everything was going fine until the stunned fish attempted to get free. It flailed around, charging to the end of the stringer line, and then changing course and going in another direction. When it bolted back on its own tail, the grouper collided with Danny’s face, knocking his mask askew and pulling his regulator out of his mouth. Danny frantically searched for his regulator, but the fish took off in another direction, jerking him once again. Panic set in quickly, and Danny’s actions and reactions failed to do him any good. The fish struck Danny again in the body and then in the face as it attempted to make its escape, finally breaking the stringer loose from Danny’s BC before it took off for the bottom of the ocean.

Danny’s mother first realized that there was a problem when she heard her dive computer beeping. They had maxed out their bottom time and were going into mandatory decompression status. She looked around for her son to tell him it was time to go to the surface when she saw Danny struggling with the fish. She arrived just as the grouper broke free and took off.

She grabbed Danny, only to realize he was unconscious. She attempted to straighten his mask and put his regulator in his mouth, but she couldn’t get him to inhale. She immediately began swimming with him to the surface while inflating Danny’s BC.

Danny and his mother surfaced close to the boat, and the crew quickly responded to her cries for help. They dragged Danny on board the boat and began resuscitation efforts, but they were unsuccessful. Danny never regained consciousness.


This fatal accident occurred for several reasons, both dive related and general-safety related. Danny was not a very experienced diver and didn’t follow the general rules of dive safety. He was well beyond recreational diving limits, but was more focused on the fish he could catch than on his own safety. He was not tracking his own dive profile, either with a depth gauge and a watch or with a computer. Instead, he relied on his dive buddy to do it for him. That is never a good idea. In this case, the two divers weren’t even staying together. (It didn’t have any direct bearing on the accident, but when police inspected Danny’s regulator afterward, they found it to be in marginal working condition.)

Danny wasn’t a very experienced diver. He should have gained more experience in the water, enough to be completely comfortable, before he began spearfishing.

He should have practiced the emergency procedures that he learned in his open-water diving course before he picked up another task. This is true for any secondary activity underwater. Anytime you add more equipment and more mental tasks to an already task laden activity, you increase your risk.

The large fish attached to Danny’s dive gear wasn’t dead, only stunned. The fish didn’t intend to hit Danny in the face, but it did, and Danny was unable to respond to losing his mask and regulator underwater. Because Danny and his mother had different goals for the dive, they weren’t close enough to each other to be able to help each other.

If Danny’s mom had been within five to 10 feet, she could have quickly helped him find his regulator, or given him her alternate to get him under control before the problem got worse. As it was, she didn’t even know there was a problem until it was too late.

Drowning doesn’t have to be a long, slow process, and it doesn’t require the person to inhale large amounts of water. Often, just a teaspoon or two inhaled into the airway will cause the airway to shut off. This is called a laryngospasm. Danny’s larynx probably closed off with his first inhalation of water and he suffocated, losing consciousness fairly quickly.

Thanks to Scuba Diving and Eric Douglas
Kathy Dowsett
NB picture is from net---not related to story.

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