Friday, January 9, 2015
To dive or not to dive the Oregon Coast Aquarium..."
...that is the question. Here's why.
I brought several divers to the aquarium about a year ago. As the leader, their instructor, and friend, it is my obligation to make sure that everyone is safe. As much as we all want to have fun, safety must come first.
I was really looking forward to it, too. What I saw really disturbed me. What happened bothered me even more. It was like the divers were being herded through like cattle... There were too many divers for the staging areas; too many volunteers that only had one responsibility which meant that none of them communicated amongst the rest of the volunteers; and when it was time for a supervisor, none were to be found that could make any executive decisions.
I'll leave out the details of the logistics of getting to the aquarium, getting in, where to go and the like out as those are not relevant to the issues I had with the diving portion of this experience.
If you aren't aware, you are not allowed to bring your own gear. You can bring your own mask, but that is all. All the gear is chosen for you by volunteers. Many of them were divers, but when it comes to fitting and sizing others, they have very little experience. I understand that a perfect fit doesn't have to be a priority, but some were in equipment that was just totally wrong for them. The issue of fitting and sizing becomes a concern as will be seen in some of the following narratives. There were plenty of each in all the sizes, but sizing variances due to manufacturer made a big difference. Additionally, many of the new divers that had only rented equipment before just didn't know what size they wore. It had always been picked for them at their local dive shop where they rented.
BCD sizing was first. A proper fitting BCD is important. A proper fit ensures that the BCD holds the tank firmly to your back, keeps the tank properly attached so it doesn't fall out, allows easy reach of the airway and power inflator, and in some instances is the place that the alternate air source, octopus, and/or instrument console are attached. Lift capacity was not a consideration for those that were in drysuits. Weight integration was not an issue as all wore weight harnesses. No fittings, bolt snaps, plastic quick releases were on the BCD's which meant that octos, and instrument console were left to dangle. While it is very likely that monitoring gas pressure, depth, and dive time was the least of anyone's worries, not having the octo in a location that can be easily accessed, deployed and used or shared surely is. Octos that are dragging behind the diver, dragging through the sand, are rarely there when you need them.
Next was the weight harness. As this was a DUI event, DUI weight harness systems were used. If a diver had never used one before, explanation of ditching the weights was adequate but fitting was not. When I started to proceed to adjust the harness to be in it's proper position for me, I was told to not adjust it. I was told that the harness was to sit low on my hips. There are several issues with this placement. The first is the center of gravity and pivot point. For those in a drysuit, it would meant that the low fitting harness would keep the diver's legs so low that they would very likely be in a vertical position. Most divers I witnessed were. Divers that dive in this position will be very likely to have propulsion issues as well as are very likely to be dragging their fins all over and on the habitats. Most were. The biggest issue about having the system so low was the angle of the divers arms to the dump handles. In order to maximize leverage to pull the weight pockets out, ones arm must be as close to the body as possible and as close to 90 degrees as possible. As the harness drops and the angle increases, the ability for the muscles in the arm to pull the dump handles diminishes. It is very possible that one might not be able to ditch the weights at all. For recreational divers, ditching weight is a critical part of an emergency buoyant ascent. I couldn't understand how all the "DUI Reps" that were there didn't know this and why I had to fight to get the harness in the place that I wanted. It was such a battle that I almost didn't dive until someone just said, "let him put it where he wants." Later, that person told me that one of the reasons that they wanted divers in that position was to avoid drysuit runaways. Since this event gave divers the opportunity to try out drysuits, they might not have had a lot of experience in one. Modifying gear configuration in order to keep a diver's feet down to avoid a runaway is not a justifiable alternative to proper fitting and proper training and comfort in a drysuit.
Drysuit fitting was simple and quick. Most suits sizes fit divers adequately. After our drysuits were on and we were showering off (to keep bacteria from entering the aquarium tanks) we were reminded to use the BCD for buoyancy and only add enough air to the drysuit to relieve squeeze. I guess I should probably just nodded my head and stayed quiet, but I said that I use my drysuit for buoyancy and this individual went off about all the reasons why this was wrong. Without starting a debate about the pros and cons of each method, suffice it to say he was not a drysuit instructor, not a scuba diving instructor, had not logged over a thousand dives in his drysuit, and had no technical diving experience (particularly as a cave diver -- the type of diving that requires the best buoyancy techniques).
The equipment was completely assembled by the volunteers. A lot of it was assembled adequately, but personal preference played a varying role from setup to setup. I could see that some of the systems were being set up in a general fashion and that others were set up as they would had done for themselves. When the time came for me to check the equipment, confirm that the tank valve was on, the tank was full, the tank strap was firmly connected, the BCD height to tank was appropriate, I was told to "Not touch the equipment." Now I can understand if someone changed something that could effect safety, but checking your gear and checking your buddy's gear is part of the pre-dive planning that I teach all my students. Not being allowed to touch the gear was ludicrous.
After the gear was assembled, it was brought into the area near the tanks. During this waiting period, I asked about the safety divers and emergency procedures. I asked what their protocol was if there was an accident. Why? Because a part of every dive briefing includes one. No one could tell me who would call 911; who would bring emergency services to that area (if they could even find it); who would identify who was in need of help; and most of all how to get divers out of the water (the entries and exits are usually precarious rock entries -- not a place that the diver can be "dragged" out -- like from a beach and on the shore). There was so much going on and so many people moving around and doing their own thing, that I could easily see that a diver could have an issue in the water and no one would be the wiser. It was quite noisy in there and not very well illuminated. A diver calling for help could be lost in the background noise and easily missed as they slipped below the surface.
Once we got in the water, a guide was present while the divers explored. I didn't see much of our guide, but upon leaving the aquarium I did see a diver in a different tank on his back struggle to right himself while the other diver in the water was occupied elsewhere. The regulator was in the diver's mouth and eventually they righted themselves, but the "guide" could have easily looked up to find that the diver had drowned.
I haven't looked into the statistics of accidents at the aquarium during these diving events, but I bet they are low to non-existent. Perhaps a fall or a slip... Whether or not anyone has ever been hurt, I find that I cannot recommend that anyone attend this event and dive at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The event is poorly managed, there are too many people that don't know what is happening around them, and in my opinion, it's just too dangerous. Visit the aquarium, but don't dive in it.
Were these experiences solely my own? Was I having a bad day and making mountains out of mole hills? I asked several others that had dove the aquarium before about their experiences. Most enjoyed the experience but didn't see what I saw. A few of the more experienced saw things they didn't like, but didn't say anything nor voice any concerns at that time. They did their dives and went home. Some even said to me, "that's not my problem." I can't help but wonder how many new divers just went along with what they were being told to do regardless of how they felt about it. I ingrain in my students that any diver can call off or end any dive for any reason. If they feel that anything doesn't make sense to them, ask questions about it. I didn't hear any of the divers asking questions that day. I saw these issues... I know that many others did too.