April 19, 2008 was the 20th birthday of my oldest son Robert. That day will also always be the anniversary of the day I nearly lost my two oldest boys in a freedive accident. On the ascent from a 90’ dive, Robert attempted to rescue his brother David, who had blacked out, but Robert also blacked out in his effort to save his brother.
Memories of that day never fail to slam me back to the deck of our boat where I received a phone call that would be any parent’s nightmare. The voice on the other side told me our sons were unresponsive, bleeding from the mouth, and receiving CPR as medevac was enroute to them. Tentacles of terror wrapped around my heart and squeezed it painfully until I felt I might have a heart attack. The memories, though seven years old, are powerful enough to bring tears to my eyes as I write this.
That day God heard the cry of my heart and my sons returned from what they described as a near-death experience. Their arterial blood oxygen saturation was an unbelievable 32% and 53% (normal is 95-100%) and the pulmonologist reported that films of their lungs presented as identical to those of drowning victims. And yet my boys lived and were fully restored within a two-week period.
This event put me on a mission to advance safety education in the sport of freediving to help others avoid fatal events. And so, with encouragement from Sheri Daye, Terry Maas, Neal Pollock, and others, I founded the nonprofit DiveWise two months after the accident.
Fast forward with me now to last week when a physician, Dr. Poonam Manasa, contacted me with deep concern for her husband Ted, who was going to dive in the springs near Tampa to a depth of 50 feet, as he wished to start a family tradition of doing something challenging to earn a special family heirloom. With this dive, he was to earn his father’s 21-year-old Omega SeaMaster watch.
Ted shared with me what it meant to him to complete this dive. “We want to start a tradition our family can use to encourage our children and their children to live up to the family name, which means ‘beyond the mind.’ To me, few things are further beyond what you can picture in your mind than holding your breath down to 50’ underwater. When I was a boy, my father introduced to me to open water diving. So it is fitting to earn his dive watch by taking up a diving challenge.”
Poonam ordered a Freedivers Recovery Vest (FRV) for her husband Ted, but also wanted a safety team to support him. The doctor explained to me that she had twins and was afraid her husband might get into trouble underwater and die, as no one would be able to rescue him should there be a problem. She was willing to pay whatever it would take to keep her husband safe.
Poonam wasn’t passively concerned – she was strongly proactive. I have long felt that if more friends and family got involved in the dive safety of their loved ones and their dive partners, our sport would see fewer fatal events. Getting educated about freediving and reminding family and friends to follow freedive safety guidelines when they’re on the water, to wear the FRV, and to have proper equipment onboard, are things we can all do to help safeguard the people who are important to us.
Wanting to help the Manasas, I reached out to my freedive friend Bill Van Deman, as I knew he lived in the area of the Hospital Hole dive site, where Ted would be diving. What I didn’t realize is that Bill owns Abyss Freediving, a freedive certification school where he offers Performance Freediving International (PFI) courses. He was very concerned about this dive scenario and agreed to help if Ted would become certified. We discussed the necessary arrangements, and Bill coordinated a private classroom and dive session for Ted, a pontoon boat to get them to the dive location, a dive platform, a dive line, and two safety divers. When I called Poonam to tell her of the arrangements I could hear the relief in her voice and the smile on her face. Her husband was going to be safe for this dive that he very much wanted to make.
Bill Van Deman and Cale Heit helped Ted to obtain his PFI Freediver certification and Poonam made the decision to become a Safe Buddy. “I got certified as a safety so I will be okay with him diving with me nearby and he will also be wearing the FRV.” Bill explained to them the FRV combined with a safe buddy is like wearing a seatbelt along with having an airbag. “It’s not either or,” Bill said, “but having layers of safety.”
“Poonam was worried,” Ted admitted, “but she did the most amazing thing: she found out how to help me do what I wanted to do, but in the safest way possible. We are very grateful to DiveWise and to Performance Freediving International for helping us become safer divers. Now, when our twins are of age, they will earn their PFI Freediver certification and take the 50’ challenge to inherit my watches and continue the tradition.”
Life has a funny way of bringing things full circle. Seven years ago I was on the brink of losing my two sons, terrified for them, and afraid of what was to come. Their survival moved me to do what I could to help freedivers dive safely. And so it seems perfectly fitting that I was able to be involved in helping Dr. Poonam Manasa keep her husband safe on the day of his dive – a day that holds significant meaning for me: April 19.
Live to Dive Another Day!