Overhead diving procedures have been developed, over time, by persons who have had to go into dark passages and recover far too many bodies. Most of these victims had no business being where they were. Many experts have met their end as well by thinking they’re above the rules, or fall for the “it-can’t-happen-to-me” syndrome. If you look at any high-risk pursuit like race car driving, flying, mountain climbing, and overhead penetration diving, you’ll see two big spikes in a graph showing accident data. Plotting incidents against years of experience will generate a curve in the neophyte beginning years, and another one out a number of years where the “know it all” club usually hangs out.

Author: Joseph C. Dovala. This article was previously published in our print edition of California Diver Magazine.

Miniature versions of this “graph” can even be seen on your resort dive boat heading out for the day’s first deep dive on a wreck. Recently, off a popular island dive resort, I witnessed this phenomenon in full bloom. The wreck was indeed an artificial reef and there were many exit points cut throughout the bridge and superstructure. Cradled in the sand at about 120 feet, it was well within “recreational” limits. Wrecks do generate excitement for most divers and this one was no exception. The dive master was busy describing the dive well before his normal reef briefings and most everyone was listening. He spent a lot of time talking about swimming inside, exploring the sights, and where to exit. After the “pool’s open” exclamation by the dive leader, most buddy teams talked amongst themselves as they suited up. I noticed one couple actually sat down and discussed the coming dive in detail. It was a husband and wife team who had only been certified for about a year and a half. She was showing signs of trepidation about entering the wreck and he actually listened. They eventually decided he would enter with the dive master and she would buddy up with another person from their travel group who wasn’t going to enter either. The whole exchange was exactly how it should be done. They both went on to have a very enjoyable dive.

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Several others, with much more experience, barely chatted about how they were going to make the dive and pretty much either defaulted to the dive master, or went their own way. They ended up being scattered across the wreck. One person sent their computer into full deco because they opted to swim a little farther to another exit point, at depth, instead of the one the dive master identified during the briefing. All in all, everything went fine and there was no serious trouble – this time. And that’s where the crux of overhead diving issues tend to migrate. You might get away with cutting corners a hundred times, but on that 101st attempt, it’ll be time to pay the piper. When its a direct shot to the surface, paying the piper may not be too expensive, but when you’ve got a thousand tons of steel over your head, you may not be able to afford it.

Imagine the following scenario: You’re at a depth of 90 feet and you’ve just threaded your way more than 100 feet from the wreck’s opening. You’re wearing a single rental 80cf aluminum cylinder, and carrying a single borrowed 4 c-cell light. You’ve silted out your path bouncing off the deck, and the multiple passageways in front of you all look alike. Halfway into the dive, the light grows dim and then flickers out. Damn, should’ve asked about the batteries. You now have to make your way back because you have no idea where you are or what lies ahead. Paying attention to the dive briefing might have been a good idea. Your breathing rate is going way up as you fumble in the dark. The silt clouds are eliminating any trace of ambient light from the hatch that you came in, and you’ve just discovered you took a wrong turn and entered a dead-end side compartment. At this point, you have about ten minutes of air left and your computer has just flipped into deco. Oh, and by the way, billowing sediments can take hours to settle back down, so waiting ‘till it clears may not work. It may sound far-fetched, but this very thing can and does happen!

My particular wake-up call with overhead environments occurred many years ago when I was a much younger “invincible” diver, who was just too good to get into trouble. Or so I thought. It was a perfect Southern California night with a new moon; the very dark ocean would provide a perfect backdrop for the brilliant bioluminescence of the diatoms we knew would be present. At that time, my dive buddy and I subscribed to the “same ocean, same dive” philosophy of staying together. That is, we hit the water at the same time, and usually exited at the same time, but rarely spent more than a few minutes in contact underwater. I had spent many hours during the day around this area and felt quite comfortable poking into the large crevices that permeated the reef. One of these fissures was more like a small cave that twisted into the rock. I’d gone into it before, during daylight, and found it interesting, but with little critter activity. As I finned up to the entrance, I thought that at night it was probably bustling with lobsters, so I swam inside to have a look around. The surge had been picking up during the dive, but I paid little attention to it.

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As I made my way into the crevice, I noticed that the walls, floor, and ceiling now resembled a spiked torture chamber from some Indiana Jones movie. Sea urchins were out by the hundreds, and their rotating spines looked like anti-aircraft missiles trying to home in on a target. I thought that it would be cool to turn out my light for a short while and see what other critters might show up. Just a few seconds after being enveloped in utter darkness, a particularly strong surge pounded in and flattened me up against the spiked wall. All of a sudden this wasn’t so cool anymore. I had at least a dozen spines now taking up residence in various locations of my body. It definitely was time to go, but wouldn’t you know it, my light failed to come back on. I did not have a backup light, and I’d been diving sans gloves because I didn’t pack them. In the next couple of minutes, two more heavy surges plastered me into the walls; things were now getting serious. My breathing rate was way up and I couldn’t read my pressure gauge. There was no one else around to help me, so I had to feel my way out – a very painful version of diving by Braille. I finally got out and made my way to the surface, where my buddy had been looking for me. I felt like I’d been stabbed with a hundred red-hot needles, and I still had to swim in to shore. Of course, my cylinder was now empty, so I had to come in on the surface, crashing into the beach with the surf.

Driving home that night, I thanked my lucky stars. I’d set myself up for disaster: useless buddy plan, improperly equipped without backup light or gloves, and most important, making an overhead excursion on a whim without using proper techniques and examining prevailing conditions at the time. Even though I was only a few yards from the entrance, I could not just head for the surface; I still had to travel the horizontal distance first and with much pain. If any of this scares you – good! Think hard before entering any overhead environment. Gain proper training, use adequate equipment, practice the new learned skills, and recognize your limitations. Applying a managed risk approach instead of just taking a risk will keep you exploring overhead environments far longer and with much more enjoyment.