Left to #die #scuba #diving in #Galapagos?

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The zodiac (panga). The yacht had two. This is how we were taken to/from dive sites.

I’ve never before had the feeling I might not survive a scuba dive. It happened THREE times diving in the Galapagos in December 2016.

The most terrifying was when the inflatable zodiac (aka panga), to which I was assigned, left me bobbing alone in the choppy surface waters after a dive. Took off without me. Jose was my dive guide and was also supposed to be my buddy.

Luckily, a diver on a different zodiac heard me crying out, “help me”, and pointed me out to the skipper. I was hard to see. The waves were incredibly high.

Still, it was many minutes before they attempted to pick me up. Now, I was so close to the rocks, the zodiac risked getting punctured if it ventured closer. So there I was. Bobbing up and down, hardly able to catch my breath. Becoming more fatigued by the second. Realizing they might not be coming for me.

What did Reuben the dive guide do when they finally moved closer? He shouted at me from the safety of the zodiac, “where’s your dive buddy”?

To which I breathlessly replied, “I don’t have a dive buddy – you haven’t given me a buddy.” panga2

Yup, this is what it had come to. Unwilling to provide me with a safe dive buddy, I was on my own. And, in danger.

“You have to swim to us,” Reuben called out. “We can’t come to you.” Reuben, evidently, wasn’t going to swim out to assist me.

It was difficult, but I did make it the 30 or so feet to the zodiac, swallowing water and gasping for air. I clung to the rope on the side. Breathless and terrified. Reuben asked me to remove my fins and buoyancy jacket. I had NO energy for that.

Hand over hand, I shifted myself to the ladder and held on for dear life. I couldn’t climb it. They insisted I move back onto the rope. I refused, not trusting them. So, Reuben and the skipper pried my hands off the ladder and moved me themselves. Then, they hauled me onto the zodiac with all my gear on.

I remember sitting there in a lump. Too fatigued to move. I have no idea how the eight other divers on the zodiac reacted. A couple did approach me afterwards to see if I was okay.

Back on the yacht, Reuben and Jose went to speak with the captain about the incident.

I sat on deck. Crying, and I’m not a girl who cries easily. A few hours later, I prepared to dive again. I knew I had to. But, not before Reuben and Jose had hatched yet another ‘brilliant’ buddy plan. This one involved Flo’s private dive guide/servant, Eduardo, and he WASN’T happy about it.

To be continued…

 

Videography or #scuba diver safety?

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Dive guide Jose and his GoPro video camera

Of three dive guides on the Galapagos yacht, Jose was the most arrogant. Thirty-something guy with a swagger.

Jose led the majority of the safety and dive site briefings. He was easy to dislike. As an ‘older’ woman, I got an inkling early on the feeling was mutual. (He was very fond, however, of the 25-year-old skinny girl – more on this in a future post.)

I recall a particular briefing on the third day. Jose forcefully lectured us on not being annoying to the turtle mamas-to-be who needed to surface from time to time during the mating season. “Stay out of their way”, he said. “Don’t swarm them to take photos.”

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Dive guide Reuben and his GoPro on a stick

So, what does Jose do as soon as we drop in the water? Shoves his GoPro in the face of a turtle. Other divers followed his lead. WTF?

Turtle-abuse aside, I was astounded the dive guides were shooting videos during our dives. A revenue stream, I guess, if they can sell their videos to the divers onboard.

I thought priority one for a dive guide was to keep an eye on the divers. Especially in the dangerous, strong currents of the Galapagos. Video shooting is a distraction.

Remember, AT LEAST two women divers have drowned during dives from this ship –  in 2009 and 2015.

Enough. A wonderful diver on the ship (kind, caring, animal lover) was equally annoyed about the dive guide’s video-shooting and turtle harassment. Together, we decided to have a chat with the captain.

Long story short. The captain reiterated that ‘divers dive at their own risk’ (yeah, we know – the ship isn’t responsible if we die), but agreed to curtail dive guide videography for the duration of this trip.

What was most remarkable – the other diver is my witness – was a comment the captain made. That in his opinion, the dive guide to diver ratio of eight to one (8 divers looked after by 1 guide) was a source of concern considering the challenging diving conditions in the Galapagos.

I was already getting a taste of dive guide inattention and there was more to come, courtesy of swaggering Jose.

To be continued…

Ivan the terrible – worst ever #scuba #dive buddy

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The worst dive buddy ever – enabled by a unsafe dive crew

Imagine paying thousands of dollars for a bucket list scuba trip to one of the most challenging dive sites in the world (the Galapagos). You get there and discover the crew is lax about safety.

On a yacht where AT LEAST two divers have drowned since 2009 after they were abandoned by their dive ‘buddies’.

You’d think the operator would be a wee bit more safety oriented. But no, because when you question safety practices, the operator tells you “divers dive at their own risk”.

Translation: we’ll take your money. We’ll let you dive. Our dive guide may even point out a turtle or two. But you’re responsible for EVERYTHING. Don’t expect any help from us if things go wrong underwater or on the choppy surface.

Diving without safety briefings is NO problem

My assigned dive buddy, Ivan, arrived on the vessel one day late. He missed ALL the key safety briefings pertaining to the way dives are to be conducted on the vessel. The dive crew let him dive anyway and partnered me up with him.

Divers are supposed to stay behind the dive guide and NOT dive any deeper. On our first and only dive together, Ivan was all over the place – but mostly below – at least 15 feet deeper at times. I stayed close to him. He didn’t care where I was.

At one point, I became winded in the strong current. I tried to signal to Ivan that I needed to stop on the rock for a minute, to rest and catch my breath. I was beginning to panic. What did Ivan do? He swam off with another diver who had a fancy camera.

Overexertion kills divers. More than 400 dives under my belt and I’d never been so scared.

Alone, I had no choice but to follow Ivan. The rest of the divers had disappeared. Ivan finally took notice of me and I signalled to abort the dive. To go to the surface. That he agreed to follow me was astounding.

Back on the boat, I reported Ivan to the dive crew. I informed them he wasn’t a safe buddy. I also reminded them Ivan hadn’t been present for ANY of the safety briefings. They scowled.

The remedy they came up was even worse than being buddied with Ivan.

To be continued…..

Lax safety on #Galapagos scuba yacht?

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YOU’RE FIRED. Ivan, the useless lump of a dive buddy. I did only one treacherous dive with him.

Where to begin?

Along with my drysuit, scuba gear and camera, I guess I should have packed a ‘dive buddy’ as well.

I booked my seven-nights-aboard-a-luxury-scuba-dive-boat Galapagos trip in October 2015 (to happen December 2016). Nowhere in the fine print did it say, “we won’t give a shit about your safety if you travel unaccompanied and fail to bring along a loved one or friend to be your dive buddy.”

Yup, I travelled alone, fully expecting the dive liveaboard to partner me up with a buddy from among the other passengers – a responsible dive buddy. Because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Meaning buddies would be compelled to adhere to safe diving practices – such as sticking together. Or, have their diving privileges taken away – as the dive crew threatened, but NEVER acted on.

“Where’s my buddy?”

Ok, so the expectation on my part was that my cabin-mate – a woman diver – would be my buddy. And, she’d have some experience. Here’s the fine print: Recommended requirements include 50-100 open water dives, experience in currents, ability in removing gear in water and ability in getting into small boats in choppy seas.

Only, Flo, my cabin-mate, had roughly 15 dives. Most of those dives had been done one week earlier in calm, turquoise warm water, when she took an advanced skills course. Flo had NOTHING recommended in the fine print. A total rookie and prima donna, to boot. But, very wealthy. Money talks.

That’s not all, Flo had hired a private divemaster on the ship who acted as her personal servant/sherpa/ass-kisser for the week. Carrying her dive gear and essentially dragging her around dive sites. Meaning, Flo wasn’t going to be my dive buddy. (Maybe that’s a blessing because Flo would’ve been a danger to me).

Flo’s presence was the first of many clues the liveaboard company wasn’t exactly safety focused. (Lots of fine print in CAPS stating divers are responsible for themselves, yadda, yadda……) Essentially, the message was this: we’ll take your money, recommend you have some training and experience, but don’t really care if you don’t and we’re NOT responsible if you die.

As for my buddy? Well, “Ivan” failed to make it to the ship on time before we departed on the Sunday. “He’s coming tomorrow,” the dive crew told me.

“So, what do I do for a buddy until “Ivan” arrives?” I asked.  “Just stay near me,” the divemaster said. Bad idea.

Methinks, it’s possible Donna Newton and Eloise Gale may have laboured under the same delusion I did. That it was okay to travel alone because the liveaboard would pair you with a responsible other diver and ensure safety practices were followed.

To be continued…

 

Die-ving #Galapagos – is being a woman a risk?

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Darwin’s Arch, Galapagos. The currents here can be deadly for divers.

If I’d know about scuba divers Donna Newton and Eloise Gale, I might not have been so eager to book a liveaboard dive trip to the Galapagos.

Unlike Donna and Eloise, I made it home alive from my Galapagos dive trip. But, I can identify with the circumstances that seemingly were factors in their deaths.

I’ll leave my own experience for a future post where I can explore what happened in detail. Suffice to say, for now, my experience triggered extensive research into the dangers of diving – especially Galapagos diving, liveaboard diving and deaths associated with ‘bad buddies’. Buddies are a pair/trio of divers who agree to stick together at depth and keep an eye on each other. NOT leave or abandon each other.

My research was eye opening and frightening. Now, bear in mind, few diving deaths ever make the news. Especially when they occur in countries where English isn’t the main language or the deceased isn’t from an English speaking country. The diving industry certainly isn’t going to publicizing this kind of news – it’s bad for business.

First, 40 year old Donna Newton of Britain. She drowned in the Galapagos in October 2009. According to the coroner, factors in her death included her dive buddy leaving her alone at depth and her divemaster failing to watch over the divers he was guiding.

Next, 23 year old Eloise Gale of Texas. She drowned a few months later, in February 2010. Like Newton, she was a passenger on a Galapagos liveaboard and, according to a report, it appears her dive buddy left or lost track of her underwater.

Finally, I’m also aware of the death of a Chinese national on a Galapagos liveaboard in November 2015. I learned of it from a trusted friend whose friend was an eyewitness. The diver was a mother of two, who’d travelled to Ecuador with her scuba club. The diver was partnered with a buddy who apparently abandoned her underwater. Her body wasn’t recovered.

Three dead women left alone by their ‘buddies’ to fend for themselves. That’s NOT supposed to happen.

The Galapagos are known for strong currents. This isn’t diving for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. I knew what I was getting into. I have 400+ dives, experience in strong currents and cold, green water. I travelled to the Galapagos expecting the dive crew on my vessel to follow safe diving practices.

They failed miserably, in my opinion.

Last thing. Regarding the liveaboard yacht I travelled on in December 2016 – two of the three dead women whose stories I’ve described were on the same vessel as me.

To be continued…

Bad omens on the way to #Galapagos? #1

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The good folks of the sleeping room.

A minor irritant.

Location: Avianca lounge, San Salvador, El Salvador.

Eleven hour layover. I’d used tens of thousands of Aeroplan points to get business class travel to the Galapagos and free access to lounges like this one. Much needed due to the number of connections and length of layovers. Enough Aeroplan points to get me two dive trips to Mexico and back.

Some airlines limit the time you can spend in their lounge. Between four and six hours. But not Avianca. Thank goodness.

The image depicts the quiet rest area in the modest lounge. Dim lights. A place to sleep. Just want I needed after 10 hours and two evening/overnight flights from Vancouver to San Francisco to here.

Only, there were no available seats when I arrived. All occupied by people, except for one, which was occupied by someone’s bag. Someone not using, but ‘reserving’ the seat.

I waited to see if the bag holder would show up to use the seat. And waited. Tried to sleep in a different part of the lounge. Only to be tortured by a guy having a loud and lengthy conversation on his smartphone. Then, I got pissed off. Screw this reserving stuff. I wanted that seat if it wasn’t in use. (I’m not, admittedly, at my best when I’m sleep deprived and anxious.)

So, off I went in search of a staffer who could help. What I got were stares of cluelessness. Plus, a few refusals. Finally, someone agreed to try to locate the bag owner. Turns out it belonged to the loud guy on the smartphone.

We convinced the loud guy to remove his bag from the seat. Seems he had no intention of using it – at least at that point.

Appreciate that he gave me the seat. Still, I hate people who do this stuff. You often see this at all-inclusive resorts.

Use it or lose it, I say. Wait a reasonable length of time – maybe an hour – or a bit longer during meal hours. If no one returns, I’m grabbing a seat.

Wish this had been the worst of the Galapagos trip. Far from it.

To be continued.

 

Galapagos trip – what the hell happened?

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A hammerhead shark in Galapagos. A star attraction.

The great expectations bucket list trip. The take-money-out-of-the savings-account trip. The trip of a lifetime. Or maybe not.

My excitement turned to jitters a few months before my December 2016 departure. During a visit with my orthodontist. A wonderful friend and highly trained scuba diver who’d just returned from the identical Galapagos scuba trip. Same liveaboard yacht – same trip on which I was about to embark.

Our conversation left me feeling uneasy. He’s level headed and not one to exaggerate. He calmly described crazy strong Galapagos currents – so strong a diver needed to hold onto the rocks for dear life or risk being swept away. He described the challenges his dive buddy – a small woman like me – had in the currents. As well, he spoke of rocks so sharp they could rip a hole and flood your drysuit (a drowning hazard). Don’t take an elaborate camera set up, he said. You could lose it and besides you need free hands to hold onto the rocks.20161219-thumb_img_8684_1024

The most worrying bit of info: that a woman diver on the yacht had drowned about a year earlier in November 2015.

What had I gotten myself into?

The Galapagos is known for its tough diving conditions – among the toughest in the world. Cold water and strong currents. I trained in cold water and dive in a drysuit. Wasn’t concerned about that so much.

As for the currents, what exactly is a ‘strong current’?  Surely, I was experienced enough. I’d done dives in extremely strong currents in the Sea of Cortez, Cozumel, Bali, and in Palau at the Blue Corner dive site. Where we had to hook ourselves onto the rocks. I handled all of it like a champ.

Of course, I’d be okay in the Galapagos. I met the experience criteria outlined by the liveaboard operator and then some. As well, I planned to carry ALL the recommended safety gear, which I’d also practiced using. I’d been running and weight training. What possibly could go wrong?

Quite a few things, it turned out.

To be continued…