How An Experienced Scuba Diver Ended Up In A Solo Dive Emergency | Sport Diver

How An Experienced Scuba Diver Ended Up In A Solo Dive Emergency

Hindsight can be helpful. And humbling. When I look back to a certain submersion off Tongue Point on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, when my mistakes were manifold and the dive went south in a big way, I curse myself for a fool. I also attempt to comfort myself, saying that it could have been worse and that I’ve learned from the experience.

salt creek washington kelp

Salt Creek's thick bull kelp and current presents tricky conditions.

Brandon Cole

I arrived late at Salt Creek. I geared up quickly, grabbed my camera and scrabbled down the rocks and through tide pools, a clumsy mountain goat in scuba gear, eager to explore one of the Northwest’s best shore sites. I caught my breath and surveyed the scene. A bit windier than yesterday’s forecast for today. Foggy out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a gray gauze partially obscuring what I knew to be a stunning view. Frothy in the shallows, waves slapping against the rugged shoreline, surge pulling at the water beneath me. But I didn’t get all kitted up for nothing. I jumped in.

Relieved to be in the water — you can definitely psyche yourself out standing atop the rocks for too long — I began the long surface swim. I wanted to get out to a deeper reef beyond the kelp. That kelp, annoyingly thick, seemed hellbent on slowing me down, repeatedly snagging my fin straps, tank valve and camera. Frustrated, I decided to drop down and swim underneath the canopy, blowing through a few hundred pounds of air. Finally on the kelp forest’s far side, there was more current than I expected. Apparently, I had missed slack, or the predicted time was incorrect — not uncommon during large tidal exchanges. I bombed down to the bottom. Thanks to the dive shop’s short fill, my gauge read 2,400 psi when I touched down in 50 feet.

Critters and color were everywhere. I was instantly reminded of why I liked Salt Creek. But on this day, visibility was poor, and both current and surge were strong. I found cool photo subjects aplenty, but had great difficulty photographing. A half-hour into the dive, and the current, if anything, had strengthened. But I wouldn’t give up. I stuck with my (bad) plan for another 20 minutes before admitting defeat and ascending.

salt creek washington anemones

Salt Creek is known for its diverse marine life, such as this fish-eating anemone.

Brandon Cole

The weather had deteriorated significantly. The fog was thicker. The waves had picked up. And still the incessant current. I couldn’t see any kelp. Where was I? Which way to shore? My compass was useless. It had started acting up a week ago, and I hadn’t replaced it. I heard a boat, somewhere, but couldn’t see it. Reckoning it was in the middle of the strait, I swam in the direction opposite of where I thought I heard the boat. When the fog lifted maybe 15 minutes later, I saw that I had been kicking the wrong way. I was angry and alarmed. I could see the kelp bed, and the wave-battered shoreline beyond. Salvation was at least a hard 30-minute swim away. I cursed my compass, the weather, my bad luck, my stubbornness. I would have yelled at my dive buddy too, but I didn’t have one.

Adrenaline powered me to the kelp. With my tank nearly empty, I had to fight through the tangle on the surface. My pony bottle (in the car) sure would have helped. By the time I made it through the jungle, the wind had increased to 20 knots, and waves were hurling themselves against the rocks. Plus, the tide had dropped. I faced a cliff for my exit. No way. Berating myself for jumping off the rocks in the first place, I swam to another place I thought might be easier to exit.

brandon cole

Brandon Cole is a wildlife photographer whose work appears regularly in Sport Diver. He lives in Spokane, Washington, and often dives off the Olympic Peninsula with his wife Melissa.

Brandon Cole

I tried to ride an incoming swell up onto the rock platform. The wave creamed me. I hit hard, clung in desperation and then lost it completely, falling badly and hurting my wrist while trying to protect my camera. (Later I would learn that one strobe flooded from the impact, and my housing’s port was scratched to ruin by barnacles.) My leg was wedged into a crevice, and the rocks tore a big gash in my drysuit. The next wave tumbled me backward into the ocean. Near panic, I kicked away from the rocks. My suit was full of water now. I ditched my weights and manually inflated my BC. I was shaking, and not just from the cold. I screamed at 
the world.

My savior — a man in a fishing boat zooming east outside of the kelp bed — didn’t hear me. But he did see me flailing about, waving my hands frantically. His boat slowed, and then turned toward me. When he pulled up alongside me and asked if I was OK, I didn’t know how to answer. Perhaps my wild eyes said enough. He invited me on board.

When I told him about my dive, I found myself almost in disbelief recounting just what I had done, and not done. How could I have been so careless, so many times? My poor judgment, at many stages before and during the dive, had turbocharged Murphy’s law, resulting in a near nightmare.

Epilogue: A few months later, I returned to Salt Creek with a friend. Exercising more care in preparation and execution, we enjoyed a wonderful dive.

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