Death in the Deep | Three Incredible Tales of Scuba Diving Survival
These incredible tales of narrow escapes show just how dangerous this seemingly sedate sport can be
We’ve teamed up with Seiko, who make the Prospex PADI Special Edition Kinetic Dive Watch to look at the challenges faced by divers, and why accurate timekeeping is essential in the most extreme underwater environments.
To the casual observer, scuba diving probably doesn’t look like a dangerous sport. The movements are slow and floaty, the communication is silent hand signals rather than frantic shouts, and there’s a certain stillness to the world beneath the water that just looks calm and relaxing.
Of course diving can be calm and relaxing, and usually is. But it’s also deceptively dangerous - especially at the extreme end of the sport. Whether it’s getting trapped in caves, running out of air or succumbing to the bends, the potential pitfalls are plentiful. Careful planning and accurate timekeeping (needed to calculate decompression stops and air reserves) is everything. And as these incredible tales of survival show, the smallest miscalculation can have fatal consequences.
Returning to the Darkness
In February 2014, a group of five Finnish divers cut a hole in the ice of the frozen Plura river in Norway, and dividing into two groups, slipped under the water. Their objective was the Steinugleflaget opening at the other end of the elaborate Plurdalen cave system.
To get there, the five friends would have to negotiate narrow, pitch-black passages, and swim down to depths of 130 metres. Most recreational divers operate at depths of around 30 metres, and won’t stay underwater for much longer than an hour or so. But these Finns were not most divers. All hugely experienced underwater cave explorers, they relished these sorts of extreme challenges. Several of the group had done the traverse before.
“Horrified at watching his friend die in front of him, Gronqvist nevertheless had to steady himself and breathe calmly to avoid the same fate."
The group were split into a lead pair of Patrik Gronqvist and Jari Huotarinen with the other three, Vesa Rantanen, Jari Uusimaki and Kai Kankanen, following about two hours behind. They had planned for the trip - including the lengthy decompression stops needed to ascend from such depths - to take around five hours. But 11 nightmarish hours later Kai Kankanen, the last diver to surface, was only just climbing out of the frozen water. Rantanen was suffering badly from decompression sickness and Jari Huotarinen and Jari Uusimaki were dead.
At these extreme depths, any quickening of the breath can rapidly lead to carbon dioxide poisoning, or hypercapnia. Rebreathers, which many cave divers use to reduce the amount of gas they have to carry, absorb carbon dioxide and allow you to ‘rebreathe’ unused oxygen instead of wastefully expelling it. But they can become overloaded quickly.
When a bit of Huotarinen's gear got tangled, he became trapped in the cave and panicked. His quickening breath meant he quickly succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning, despite Gronqvist’s best efforts to save him. Horrified at watching his friend die in front of him, Gronqvist nevertheless had to steady himself and breathe calmly to avoid the same fate. He had no choice but to carry on, making the long, lonely ascent to Steinugleflaget with only his thoughts for company. He eventually made it out - albeit with decompression sickness because of the extra time he’d spent trying to help Huotarinen.
The three trailing divers however weren't so lucky. When the first of the three, Vesa Rantanen encountered the body, he made the difficult, but rational, decision to squeeze past it. But the sight of the dead diver blocking his way sent Uusimaki into a panic. He and Kankanen turned around to go back the way they came, but although Kankanen tried to help, Uusimaki died in the same area as his comrade - in the deepest part of the cave.
What’s incredible about this story is not just that the three remaining divers survived - although that was an achievement in itself. All three had spent extra time at depth trying to help their friends and faced a horrifying choice between running out of air or contracting the bends by coming up too quickly. Yet they successfully walked that tightrope, calculating the timings as best they could and staying alive. All the while staying calm enough to avoid succumbing to hypercapnia themselves.
No, the truly incredible element of the story is that the team, aided by other friends, went back into the cave just over a month later and managed to bring back the dead bodies of their two friends. The tale of this recovery mission is told in the documentary Diving Into the Unknown, released earlier this year.
The film reveals that the meticulously-planned recovery operation had to be kept secret. The Norwegian police had deemed the attempt too dangerous, and the team were in fact arrested when they’d finished (although they were later released without charge). But the film also shows the risks they took, and the lengths these courageous Finns would go to to ensure that “no-one was left behind".
The Woman Who Came Back From the Dead
Perhaps slightly less extreme than the incident in the Plura caves, but no less horrifying for those involved, is the tale of Hilary Greenberg, a woman who seemingly came back from the dead after spending about 40 minutes without a discernible pulse.
Doctors and diving enthusiasts Bill and Hilary Greenberg were on holiday with their three young sons in Costa Rica when the accident happened. That morning, the boys - aged 11, 13 and 15 at the time - had headed off with an instructor while Bill and Hilary joined a more advanced dive party. With years of diving experience between them, the couple were two of the best qualified members of the group.
On their second dive of the day however, something unexpected happened. An underwater ‘surge’ or strong current hit them, pushing them forwards by about 40 foot along the edge of a reef. Except that Hilary wasn’t carried with the rest of the group. Four anxious minutes passed while Bill and the divemaster leading the party searched for her. Eventually Bill spotted his wife lying on the seafloor with her regulator out of her mouth - Hilary had apparently been knocked against the coral and it had fallen out. She was unconscious and wasn’t breathing.
“Bill spotted his wife lying on the seafloor with her regulator out of her mouth. She was unconscious and wasn’t breathing."
Luckily the group wasn’t very deep, so surfacing didn’t take long. But Bill estimates that about 10 minutes had passed between the surge striking - and Hilary losing her air - and getting her onto the boat where he began frantically performing CPR. After 20 minutes Hilary was still unresponsive.
In all his medical training Bill had never done CPR for more than 20 minutes, and he knew that even if Hilary had come round there and then there was a chance she might have suffered severe brain damage. But as he told CBS in an interview: "I just keep thinking I've got to bring her back. She's my buddy, got to bring her back," he recounted. "I'm not going to let her die." By this point the couple’s three sons had returned to the dive boat to find their father pumping their mother’s chest, his desperation growing with each minute that passed.
When they finally got Hilary to shore and into an ambulance, they found a pulse - a very weak one - but she still wasn’t breathing. It was another 45 minutes before they got her to hospital. Incredibly, after ten days of lying unresponsive, Hilary woke up. She was talking, and despite having been deprived of oxygen for so long, she eventually made a full recovery. Medical experts speculating about how and why Hilary managed to avoid brain damage believe that by performing CPR for far longer than usual, Bill may have pumped blood to her brain even when her heart wasn’t. Through his quick actions in those few vital minutes, the diving doctor had literally brought his wife back from the dead.
Raising the Dead
Diving partners Don Shirley and Dave Shaw were part of an elite club in scuba diving. In the history of the sport, fewer than 30 people have ever reached depths of more than 250 metres with self contained underwater breathing aparatus. Even fewer have lived to tell the tale.
To come up from that kind of extreme depth requires carefully-timed decompression stops at specific depths in order to avoid the buildup of nitrogen which causes the bends. The process takes hours, with every minute at the bottom adding to the time you need to spend in the water on your way up.
In October 2004, with Don Shirley acting as his dive partner, Dave Shaw descended to the dizzying depth of 271 metres below the surface in a cave called Bushman’s Hole in South Africa. In the process he set several records which still stand to this day, including the deepest ever reached using rebreather apparatus.
“Fewer than 30 people have ever reached depths of more than 250 metres with scuba gear. Even fewer have lived to tell the tale."
Although more complex than conventional ‘open circuit’ scuba equipment, rebreathers are more efficient, allowing divers to spend longer at depth while carrying less gas with them. Dave had been able not only to make it almost to the bottom of the hole, but to spend some time exploring. While he looked around however, he found something unexpected - the skeletal body of Deon Dreyer, a young diver who had died further up in the cave some 10 years before.
Shaw was unable to free the trapped body on that first dive. But hoping to bring some closure to Dreyer’s family, he and Shirley planned to return the following year on a recovery mission. In January 2005, with a careful plan, a backup team of nine experienced cave divers and a mobile decompression unit on the surface in case of emergencies, Shaw and Shirley went into Bushman’s Hole again.
The plan was for Shaw to descend to 270 metres and follow the line which he had tied to Dreyer’s body on the previous dive. He’d have a few minutes at the bottom to free the corpse and slip it into a specially designed body bag which would get passed back up the line of support divers, starting with Shirley, who would be waiting for his friend at 220 metres.
The body, according to the plan, would be raised about 80 minutes after the start of the dive, but in order to stay alive himself, Shaw would need to spend around 12 hours in the water decompressing as he came up.
In the event, nothing went according to plan. Video footage from his head-mounted camera showed Shaw descending quickly, reaching the body fine. But as he battled to get it into the bag, it started floating free. As he struggled to get the body in the bag, his breath quickened leaving dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide in his lungs.
Shaw would have been feeling disorientated and confused - as the contemporary account in Outside Magazine put it: “It was probably as if he had downed four or five martinis". When he finally gave up battling with the body and turned to leave, Shaw’s torch became entangled in the dive line, trapping him. He reached for his diving shears to cut it but he was too late and he succumbed. By the time Shirley, who was 13 minutes behind Shaw, was 50 metres into his dive, his friend was already dead.
Spotting the stationary dive light at the bottom Don Shirley made the brave decision to push on beyond his planned depth to try and help - or in the worst case scenario bring Shaw’s body back. As we went down however, his rebreather broke and suddenly Shirley too found himself in a battle for his life.
On his way up, a small bubble of helium formed in his left ear, throwing him badly off balance - essentially giving him vertigo. Spinning off dizzily into the vast, dark void of the cave, he just managed to grab the dive line and cling on, a movement which undoubtedly saved his life. But in the spinning, he’d come up too quickly. He forced himself to descend again, but was hit by wave after wave of nausea and vomited repeatedly into the water.
Disorientated and confused from a combination of vertigo and the bends, he had to spend a full 12 hours coming up in stages, sticking to a strict timetable as teams of support divers made multiple descents to help him. Hypothermic and in a poor state when he surfaced, Shirley spent seven hours in the decompression chamber and had six treatments in hospital over the course of the following week. It took him months for him to relearn to balance, but he was incredibly lucky to be alive.
The full story of the dive, told in Phillip Finch’s book Diving Into Darkness, reveals an interesting postscript to Shirley’s incredible tale of survival. Four days later when divers were recovering the last bits of gear from the cave, they were surprised to discover that Dave Shaw’s body had floated up to just 20 feet below the surface. He was still attached to the line he’d become entangled in, the other end of which was tied around the body of Deon Dreyer. Shaw had died in the attempt, but he’d achieved what he and Shirley set out to do - to bring Deon’s body home.