The ocean is an unforgiving mistress, or maybe a better description is a spouse scorned. You can only see what is on the surface until you are in over your head. To many divers, a wall dive with a current flowing across the face of the wall is the perfect dive. You drift and let the current carry you to where ever it is going, and when you surface the dive boat will come pick you up. Think about it for a minute what if the current takes you somewhere you do not want to go, like down.
I read an article about two underwater photographers who were recording the sea trials of a new personal submarine. The dive plan took them to a hundred feet where they were to level out and cruise. At about ninety feet the divers established neutral buoyancy and recorded the submarine from above. The visibility was perfect and there was a slight current that they rode. What the divers did not realize was that a mild down current was taking them down. They reached 150 feet before they checked their gauges. Here being a Monday morning quarterback, you can easily fault these divers for being so involved in their work that they failed to monitor their gauges. While that case was a mild current that they did not feel, Many times a diver will come across a vertical current that can take them up or down (and sometimes both) a great vertical distance in a matter of seconds.
Vertical Current Disasters at Santa Rosa Wall
The Santa Rosa Wall is one of the most popular dive sites in Cozumel. You will find it on a list of best dives and best wall dives. You might also find it on the list of the most dangerous. I have dove the wall a few times and each dive was exciting and very enjoyable. We were told of the possibility of down currents, however, I had not encountered any on my dives. Other divers have not been so lucky. In September 2002, six divers in Cozumel diving the Santa Rosa Wall required treatment for Type I and Type II DCS after being tossed like a rag doll by violent vertical currents. The divers were pulled from 80 feet to 165 feet in a matter of seconds and then pulled to the surface only to be dragged back down and up again.
On March 28, 2012, Christina Cassin and her husband Scott Turco took a shore excursion from the cruise ship they were on. The shore excursion took them diving on the Santa Rosa Wall.
There were about ten different dive boats at the site that morning. Some of the dive boats had diverted from other dive sites because conditions were unfavorable. Some local dive masters have been quoted saying the currents had been crazy that week. Publish reports say that both Christina and Scott were experienced divers and had dived together for over 16 years. According to the reports, Christina and Scott were diving along the wall and reached a point where their air bubbles were not raising to the surface and some were even seen going down. Christina made the move to abort the dive and signaled her husband. The husband acknowledged her call and reached out and grabbed the fin of the dive master. Scott signal the dive master they were aborting.
When he turned back to his wife she was not there. “I turned to let the dive master, to let him know that we were going up and when I turned back, I didn’t see her,” Scott Turco has been quoted as saying. He assumed that she started to the surface without him so he surfaced. When he returned to the surface he was a distance away from the dive boat. Shortly after Christina and Scott aborted the dive, the dive master encountered a strong downward current and he aborted the dive for all the divers.
No one saw Christina again after she aborted the dive. When it was discovered that she had not returned to the boat, the captain communicated with the other boats to make sure she had not just returned to the wrong boat. After confirming that she was not on onboard, a lost diver protocol was started. After a 72 hour search, the search was canceled.
One of the divemasters from the dive boat that Christina was on was quoted a few days later saying he had encountered a down current that had his concern for his life. Some people on social media blamed the husband saying you should never leave your dive buddy. However, he only took his eyes off her for the time it took to communicate to the dive master. In a blink of an eye, she was gone. Only three months into the year and Christina was the second diver to go missing at that dive site.
A View of Santa Rosa Down Currents
A few days after Christina Cassin died, a diver posted an underwater video on a scuba diving message board. The video was taken at the same time Christina was in the water starting her dive. It was also recorded at Santa Rosa Wall and shows three divers caught in a down current. The video is from a mounted camera of a teenager, on a diving vacation with his father and mother. The father was an experienced diver, while the son and mother were fairly new at the time. In the thread that followed the posting of the video, it was stated that the son had over 30 dives and it was his fourth wall dive. The dive plan was for an 80-foot dive. It was also revealed that the father, who was near his son, was not in the strong portion of the down current. He went to his son’s aid and they exit the current at 150 feet. There were many comments in the thread some positive and others negative. The video was copied and posted a number of times on other social media outlets. Some of these re-postings were edited and some even implied that it was a video of a person that had died.
I am posting one of the copied but unedited versions that are on the web. I did not post the original as it seems to have viewing restrictions on it. Also, the copy I am sharing has the ability to select where to start. The mother is not shown in the water, she had equipment problems on the boat and enter the water late along with a dive master. Shortly into the dive, the dive master had her abort the dive.
The video is starting at the 3 minute and 30 seconds mark, which is 1 minute and 30 seconds after the diver started to descend. At that point of the video, you will get a glimpse of another dive buddy team. These are supposedly an instructor and an AOW diver. They will end up clinging to the wall at 165 feet and will be assisted by another diver.
The video is hard to watch, it has a great deal of movement and the air bubbles obscure the view at times. As you will hear on the audio, the young diver did get into a panic state. As the video starts watch how the divers struggle to get back over the wall. Also watch when you can, the other two divers. Notice how they go from a normal descent to one where they are fighting to maintain depth. Later, They are sinking faster than the camera diver. Notice the air bubbles. You should see that at one point the air bubbles is like a mushroom cloud, it goes up and then disperses out and down. Then the bubbles are going down.
On the social media sites, many faulted the diver pointing out a number of things that could of lead to the dive buddies being a little separated from each other. But be realistic, are you always within an arms reach of your buddy? The other two divers who got pushed to 165 feet were side by side, they fared worst. The question of the day. Would you be ready to react?
Vertical Currents, How to React
Vertical currents are just that, they go up and down. Like any current their strength can vary. A current might be so mild that you do not even notice it. You may be able to counteract it with just a little more buoyancy. However, a current like the one in the video that can stop your air bubbles from reaching the surface will not be off set with buoyancy. Vertical currents are often found along walls. Generally they are limited in width so you should be able to swim out of them.
If it is a down current, then the diver should swim away from the wall, positive buoyant and at a 45 degree angle up. The diver should be prepared to vent air from the BCD as soon as they break free of the current. Once free, the diver needs to check gauges and computers as they slowly start to the surface. Depending on the depth and duration your major concern after a severe down current is drowning. Do you have enough air to return to the surface? Remember you will likely have been breathing hard and at depth your breathing gases do not last as long. If you believe that you can return to the surface with your remaining air or with available supplemental air, then you can worry about decompression. You can be treated for DCS, but there is no treatment for death due to drowning. If you have an opportunity to grab onto the wall or under an overhand with no current, that might help you prepare to swim out of the current.
Being caught in an up current is a different set of concerns but a very similar reaction. You need to constantly equalize to prevent permanent damage to your ears and constantly breathing to avoid bursting your lungs. A rapid ascent can also lead to DCS. In this case, you want to be slightly negative buoyant but prepared to become neutral. Here you will also swim out but this time at a 45-degree angle down.
Some dive sites such as the Santa Rosa Wall are known to have down currents. However, they are unpredictable. As shown in the first video, the currents impacted the divers differently. The question is will you be prepared?