Confessions of a Freediving Speara
by Sheri Daye
Little did I know when I switched from technical diving to freediving that holding my breath could be more dangerous than diving to 250 feet with multiple tanks strapped to my back. Believe it or not, freediver blackout is more commonplace than extreme scuba diving accidents.
I was aware of the obvious dangers from freedive spearfishing — sharks, boat propellers, entanglement, loaded weapons — but then I read about the mysterious “freediver blackout” phenomena. “Sounds serious,” I thought, “but it must just happen to reckless, extremist types.”
A few months later, I am in Kirk Krack’s PFI freediving class, and my buddy’s face throws me for a loop. His lips are blue, his eyes are vacant and rolling back in his head, and his facial muscles are quivering. After a few seconds, I’m thrown into action only because Kirk yells out the instructions I’d forgotten while watching the horror show.
I hold my buddy face-up, take his mask off, blow air across his eyes, tap on his cheek, and gently tell him to breathe. He takes a few ragged breaths and regains consciousness. True to Kirk’s prediction, my buddy is completely unaware of what just happened. Despite the look on my face and the fact that Kirk and several people are staring at him, he almost refuses to believe he blacked out — until we point out that his mask is missing.
I leave the class with certain images burned in my brain. For sure, I now understand blackouts and the importance of buddy diving. But I also know that my regular spearfishing partners are not going to agree to dive “one-up, one-down”. I don’t even mention the idea, as I’m sure they’ll think of it as sissy-diving. Unbeknownst to my buddies, I keep a closer eye on them, and I realize that the class benefits them more than it does me in terms of safety.
Fast-forwarding one year to July 2004, I am standing on the shores of Hawaii after my second Nationals. All the competitors are back in, except for one. A boat goes out to search, and Gene Higa’s kayak is spotted, anchored and floating on the surface. My first thought is that Gene is too good an athlete to have blacked out. My second thought is that he is too good an athlete to not be back in time for weigh-in.
My heart sinks when I hear they found his body underwater. I see his wife and toddler son still standing on the shore, looking out to sea, waiting for him to return. Who is going to tell her? I cannot imagine a worse pain than losing your parent, your spouse, or your child. It is mind-boggling how quickly a life can end — how a young child can be left without a parent, or a parent without a child — hearts broken and lives changed forever.
On the flight home, I sketch a vest that can automatically inflate and keep a blacked-out diver afloat face-up. From years of working in product development, I know that, technically-speaking, such a device is possible. The bigger question is whether freedivers can afford it and will they wear it. And who would be willing to fund such a project?
I soon find out that Terry Maas and David Sipperly have also been thinking about a freedive vest. The concept is an obvious one, and many people before us have also thought of such devices. However, having ideas is the easy part. Taking an idea to fruition — investing time, energy, and money to make it a reality — is where the rubber meets the road.
Dr. Terry Maas, a respected leader in spearfishing, steps up to make the dream come true. Five years later, the Freediver Recovery Vest is now available. Clearly, it will not take the place of a good buddy, and it is not an excuse to act recklessly. But applying technology to save lives is a worthy cause, and at the very least, it will serve to make body recovery easier.
A few months after the fateful Nationals, I return to Hawaii again. Terry and I meet in Oahu to take pictures of an early-version mock-up of the vest. We are hosted by Daryl Wong. After taking pictures, Terry and Daryl leave the area to take pictures of whales, and the rest of us go spearfishing in 100 feet of clear, blue water.
I notice that one of the divers has been down awhile, so I watch until he surfaces to make sure he is alright. After he surfaces, I swim away, looking for my next spot. I am about to dive, but a little voice in my head whispers, “You know from class that many blackouts happen after surfacing. Look back.”
I glance over my shoulder and step into the dreaded Twilight Zone. Alarms go off in my head…waah…waah…waah. The diver is about 5 feet beneath the surface. His eyes are half-closed and his arms outstretched as if mounted on a cross. His right hand is twitching, and he is sinking! I tell myself, “It’s OK. I know what to do.”
I kick over, dive down, put my arms around his chest and kick him to the surface. I take his mask off, hold his face out of the water, and blow across his eyes. He isn’t waking up! I grow frantic and tap harder, “Common, breathe! Breathe!” Two other divers arrive to help.
I start prying his clenched jaw apart so I can give him a rescue breath. His eyes open and he wakes up saying, “I’m OK. I’m OK.”
“No, listen. You blacked out,” I tell him. The other divers recover his mask and weights and call the boat over. As the boat approaches, I think about the irony. Here we are, working on the vest, and we almost lost a diver. Perhaps someone was trying to reaffirm our commitment to the project.
My new friend calls me on the anniversary of his blackout every year to thank me. I am grateful for his call and happy to hear his voice. I thank God that we didn’t have to call his wife and tell her that her husband was being shipped home in a box.
I tell him, “It was no big deal. I just held you up. You would do the same for me.”
Before I start feeling too proud of myself, I think about the fact that Kirk would surely reprimand me for not having caught the diver at the surface before he started sinking. We were taught to watch the diver during the ascent and then for an additional 30 seconds, as that is the window of time when a blackout can still occur.
We would also be reprimanded for wearing too much weight — a mistake I made for many years. All divers should be positively buoyant at the surface (even after exhaling) and neutral at 30 feet. In other words, a diver who loses consciousness at or near the surface should not sink to the bottom of the sea.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure out that there is no benefit to being over-weighted. Not only is it unsafe at the surface, but it also hurts your hunting technique at depth — fish tend to be wary of a diver who is bouncing around the bottom or having to kick to overcome the weight. In addition, over-weighting hurts total dive time. To begin with, resting even a couple inches lower in the waterline makes it harder to inhale a full breath due to additional pressure on the lungs, not to mention being less relaxed throughout the entire dive.
My buddy decides that he wants some good to come out of his blackout, so we document the incident and submit it to the new “Freediver Incident Database” that Dr. Neal Pollock, a Research Director at Divers Alert Network, started in 2005.
DAN was already doing an outstanding job of recording incidences and improving safety for SCUBA divers, and Dr. Pollock felt they should do the same for freedivers. Our story became one of his earliest comprehensive non-fatal entries, and it remains his most oft used example in presentations at various conferences.
Since then, Dr. Pollock has collected five years worth of data. It’s obvious that only a portion of the total number of incidences is being captured, as awareness of the database continues to grow. But even with what has been collected so far, the numbers are disturbing. In 2008, the documented number of fatalities in the U.S. alone was 32. Thirty-two precious lives — fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, or daughters — gone forever.
Imagine if every football team in the NFL lost one player each season (32 deaths per year). How would the public react to a sport with so many deaths? However, freediving does not have a lot of visibility in America, and the coroner usually lists “drowning” (rather than “blackout” for which medical evidence is typically not present) as the cause of death. The surviving families often do not understand what happened either, as most divers do not want to explain the inherent dangers of their beloved sport.
Even within the spearfishing community, few divers discuss their near-misses. Many have experienced “sambas”, or loss of motor control, along with other precursors to a blackout. However, many think of these as a sign of weakness or inferiority, and the events are quietly ignored. Some may not even admit close calls to themselves.
With so little talk from dead divers (understandable), so little talk from survivors (due to misplaced shame or embarrassment), and so little publicity surrounding the real cause of freediver deaths, it’s no wonder that blackouts continue to haunt our sport.
What can we do about it? For one, we owe it to newcomers, and ourselves, to start talking about the elephant in the room. After all, there is good news:
- 1. The availability and quality of freediving classes is getting better and more widespread.
- 2. DAN is gathering freediver incident data — and knowledge is power!
- 3. A freediver recovery vest is now available.
- 4. In 2008, Julie Richardson, a concerned mother, formed a non-profit organization, DiveWise, to educate freedivers.
But…all this knowledge, technology, and education will not help us if we do not change our ways — if we dive alone, if we don’t watch each other, if we over-weight, if we hyperventilate to excess, if we constantly push the limits, if we value a fish more than our own lives.
In late 2009, I have a blackout article half-written in my head. I’m diving with Bill, a strong and capable diver who has attended Kirk’s class. From the very start, we fall into a “one-up, one-down” rhythm without ever having to talk about it. It is not only comfortable; it is productive and feels “right”.
We take turns hunting for mutton snappers by lying on the bottom at 50 feet. Bill gets a fish, and I watch as he hits the surface. Without warning, he slumps forward face-first. I’m surprised, because it was not an unusual dive for him, but I am ready. I feel calm and confident from having done this before and from visualizing it in my head many times. I gently push his head back, and we go through the motions.
He regains consciousness and acts like it’s my turn to dive. If not for the fact that my speargun is missing (because I let it drop during the rescue), Bill could have kept diving and remained oblivious to the fact that he had a blackout. I inform him that he left our presence for awhile and tell him to watch me while I retrieve my speargun. It’s an easy depth, but my heart is still pounding a little.
When done right, the blackout-rescue scenario is not a big deal. Still, we quit diving and go eat at our favorite Cuban restaurant. We try to do a “lessons-learned”, and we are most struck by the fact that Bill’s pre-blackout dive was nothing out of the ordinary — meaning it could happen to any of us at any time! We become more committed than ever to “one-up, one-down”, and I resolve to finish the article.
So here is my confession. I have been embarrassingly stupid. I am alive because of sheer dumb luck. Although I have never blacked out, I flirted with death hundreds of times. I’ve had two sambas (spasms in my legs) with no one around, and I shudder to think how many times I’ve looked up at the surface with no one near and thinking, “Uh, oh…I think I pushed it too far this time.”
I love life, and I love my family. I will only partner with trained divers who will dive “one-up, one-down” and watch my back as closely as I watch theirs. Why it took me so long to reach this stage of maturity as a diver….I do not know. But my hope is that I can influence at least one person to reach this point sooner in their evolution.
God bless the families and loved ones of Gene Higa, Phil Stevens, Juan Rodriguez, Steve Redding, Dimitris Vassilakis, Steve Seo, Larry Staat, Jim Warnock, Josh Choi, Tyler Pillion, and the countless other divers that left us far too soon.