DAN Case Study: Untrained Diver Dies Entangled in Kelp

This tragic case study illustrates just why professional training is so important before donning scuba gear and jumping in.


This tragic case study illustrates just why professional training is so important before donning scuba gear and jumping in.

The Dives

The incident involved three scuba divers and a free-diver, who were all related as cousins. None of them were agency-certified divers. Divers 2 and 3 were experienced, self-taught divers; Diver 1 had some dive experience, but this was his first night dive. The free-diver was on the boat during the incident and was using only mask, snorkel and fins to assist.

All three divers entered the water and started their descent. Five minutes into the dive, Diver 2’s tank slipped out of its BCD strap and was floating free. Diver 3 was able to get Diver 2’s attention and let him know that his gear had become loose and needed adjusting.

Diver 2 signalled that he was going to the surface and return to the boat to get the gear adjusted. Diver 3 also ascended without getting Diver 1’s attention, leaving him alone on the bottom.

After reaching the boat, the two divers realised that Diver 1 did not return to the surface with them. After a short surface search, the free-diver located Diver 1 in about 8m of water, entangled in kelp. He got the boat captain’s attention and indicated that the diver was still wearing his mask, and his regulator was still in his mouth. The free-diver made several attempts to swim down and try to free the diver from the kelp but was unable to help. The free-diver had to return to the boat and explained that the diver was conscious and was panicking and struggling to free himself.

A fourth diver on the boat was now equipped with scuba gear; he entered the water and found Diver 1 completely entangled in thick kelp. Unfortunately, by this time, the diver was no longer wearing his mask, had lost his regulator and apparently ceased breathing. He brought the unbreathing diver to the surface and pulled him onto a small boat piloted by a good Samaritan who heard the screams for help. CPR was started immediately; the diver was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.

The Evaluation

The three divers were related and were not certified divers. They had some experience diving together many times previously. However, Diver 1 was not as experienced as the other two divers and had not participated in a night dive before.

Though all three divers were diving together, there was no indication that they were paying much attention to each other. When the two divers returned to the surface with a gear malfunction, there was no indication that Diver 1 was considered missing until they reached the boat.

The entangled diver became separated from his cousins and did not know they had ended the dive and returned to the surface. The diver then became dangerously entangled in the kelp and drowned before the rescue diver was able to reach him. The trigger factor could have been either the separation or the kelp entanglement provoking a panic.

The victim’s gas tank was recovered and found to still contain 2200 psi (151 bar) of air. If the diver had not panicked and had stayed calm until the rescue diver arrived, he may have survived this ordeal.

The Discussion

Diving in heavy kelp requires special training, particularly in managing entanglement. As early as open-water level, formal training provides knowledge about the risks of diving in kelp, proper gear configuration (“tighter” gear configuration, no dragging hoses or gauges), tools and the skills needed to free yourself or others from entanglement. It was not reported whether the divers had appropriate cutting devices that could have been used to cut away the kelp from the entangled diver.

Divers prepared with formal training should experience less stress and anxiety. Formal training also would have taught the divers to dive in buddy pairs and not as a trio. It has been found that many dive accidents are caused by the third person in the group losing contact with the other two, each thinking the other was paying attention to the third diver.

Retrospectively, it appears that if the rescue diver had entered the water immediately when the entangled diver was spotted, the entangled diver may have been saved, but this is just a speculation. Having a divemaster or rescue diver on the boat, ready to dive, is important when diving in areas with high risk.

Lesson’s Learned

  • Do not dive without formal training.
  • Take specialty training for diving in conditions and environments containing specific risks such as kelp, night diving, etc.
  • Have a contingency plan for known hazards, share it with your buddy, and comply with it.
  • When diving in kelp, streamline your equipment to reduce the risk of entanglement.
  • Carry proper cutting tools to liberate yourself from the entanglement.
  • If entangled, stop, think and then act.

Case Summary provided by DAN’s Brian Wake.

Author: DAN World

DAN® is the world’s leading dive safety association.

2 thoughts on “DAN Case Study: Untrained Diver Dies Entangled in Kelp”

  1. “Formal training also would have taught the divers to dive in buddy pairs and not as a trio. It has been found that many dive accidents are caused by the third person in the group losing contact with the other two”

    That’s ridiculous. Tech divers are taught that diving in teams where available is always the better option due to extra gas, an extra set of eyes and more back up equipment.


    1. There are a number of scenarios where divers with training beyond recreational levels find themselves diving in teams of more than two divers (or less) to safely achieve the required goal of the dive.

      However, this article discusses an incident involving divers with limited experience and no formal training. The article highlights the risk of an inexperienced three-man team where assumptions are made regarding who has told who about intentions to perform a task. As noted this can, and does, cause buddy separations leaving one diver alone.

      In situations involving inexperienced divers with limited training, suddenly finding yourself alone on the bottom can trigger a panic response. In cases such as this, where an incident occurs, this will leave the diver alone and panicked. Unfortunately in inexperienced/untrained divers, and often even in those with more experience or training this can result in a fatal outcome.

      The advice provided was focused on the need for basic scuba training, and not directed at those who already have the higher-level tech training you refer to. We apologise that this was not clarified in the piece.


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