Written February 14, 2010 by John Bisnar
The first real dive of a scuba diving adventure for 14 divers aboard the Galapagos Aggressor II ended in the death of E.G., a 23-year-old kindergarten teacher from Galveston, Texas and New York.
Due to the numerous requests for more information about what happened and how E.G. died, the following account is provided. First, my deepest condolences to E.G.’s family and friends. I have no words that will alleviate your pain or give you back what you have lost. E.G. will, however, live in our hearts and memories. But for a twist of fate, both my wife, Kimberly and I could have been with E.G. today.
Second, E.G. was a teacher. Let’s let her last act, that of succumbing to a sport that she loved, be a lesson for all of us, especially scuba divers. I ask, in E.G.’s name, as a tribute to her and in the hopes that we can learn from her tragedy, in the spirit of the lessons we learned from our own kindergarten teachers and dive instructors, to please, at the end of this article, in the comments section, add any insights you may have into what may have happened and how such tragedies may be prevented in the future.
On Thursday, February 11, 2010, in the baggage pick-up area of the San Cristóbal Island airport, Kimberly and I meet E.G., Denise Friou, dive masters Jamie, Patricio and the other ten divers on our adventure. E.G. and Denise immediately gravitated together, being the two unaccompanied women on the trip. They quickly discovered that they were both from Texas.
We were bused to the Galapagos Aggressor II and boarded immediately. After a short briefing, room assignments and luggage stowage, all of the passenger divers went into the water for a short “check-out” dive to test and familiarize ourselves with our equipment. The dive was less than 20 feet for about 20 minutes. E.G., as many of us did, struggled with finding the right amount of weight to carry for neutral buoyancy. We were in heavy wetsuits and high salt content water. All appeared fine.
Shortly after 6:30 am the next morning, February 12th, we had breakfast followed by a dive briefing by Jaime. Jaime explained the dive site and plan from a map drawn on a white board. The map indicated we were at the eastern most point of North Seymour Island. Among other instructions, Jamie instructed us that visibility was about 60 feet, not to go below 90 feet, there were currents going in different directions and we were not to stay down longer than an hour. He gave us some tips on surfacing safely around the pongas and how to get back into the pongas from the water. Kimberly and I were surprised at the brevity of the briefing, especially being our first actual dive of the trip.
We geared up and headed into the pongas in two groups of seven. E.G., Kimberly, four other divers and I were in the second ponga, along with the ponga driver and dive master, Patricio. I was surprised that there was no equipment or “air on” check by the dive masters before we headed into the pongas, which has been our experience on our two other Aggressor trips. At that point I wrongfully assumed we would do a dive plan briefing, safety check and “air on” check in the ponga, with Patricio before going in the water.
We traveled about 100 yards from the Aggressor to the dive spot. Patricio instructed us to push off backward into the water at the same time on his instruction, otherwise the ponga would be unstable and those still in the ponga would get tossed around. At that point Kimberly and I both recheck our regulators to be sure our air was on. On Patricio’s command, we went off backwards into the water.
As soon as I was in, I located Kimberly and we gave each other the “OK” sign. I cleared my mask and rearranged my hood which was causing water to leak into my mask. Patricio and others were +/- 20 feet below and moving away. I am usually slower than most to equalize on early dives, so Kimberly and I were behind most of the group from the start but were descending much quicker than my usual in order to stay with the group being lead by Patricio. I do not know where E.G. was at that time. I was focused on descending safely and keeping close to my buddy, Kimberly.
My dive computer indicates the following dive time in minutes and depth in feet at that time: After one minute – 22 feet deep, 2 – 43, 3 – 52, 4 – 88, 5 – 98, 6 – 104, 7 – 103, 8 – 96, 9 – 89, 10 – 86, 11 – 85, 12 – 84, 13 – 79, 14 – 62, 15 – 54, 16 – 52, 17 – 48, 18 – 51, 19 – 49, 20 – 42, 21 – 35, 22 – 35, 23 – 33, 24 – 34, 25 – 44, 26 – 44, 27 – 29, 28 – 18, 29 – 16 and 30 – 14.
On the descent, Patricio was always lower and further out from the island than Kimberly and me. I was surprised when Patricio led us past 90 feet due to Jamie’s previous instruction. At some point I remember struggling greatly against the current. My best estimate is that it was around the 3-5 minute mark based my computer’s information. I was near hyper-ventilating and had to consciously slow myself down. I could see from Kimberly’s body language that she was struggling as well. At about the nine minute mark, Patricio was closer to the island and was signaling to us to grab hold of the sloping bottom and hand over hand move up against the current. Kimberly and I were struggling against the current and neither of us had gotten comfortable in the water yet.
Kimberly said that during the time she was struggling, at the 3-7 minute mark, was the last time she saw E.G. who had been just behind her, toward deeper water. Neither of us remember seeing E.G. or Denise grabbing onto the sloping bottom. It is Kimberly’s recollection that Denise was in front of her and me, while E.G. was behind Kimberly.
When Kimberly and I got control by hanging onto the rocks and moderating our breathing (about 10-15 minute mark based upon my dive computer), I started looking around to see where everyone else was. I didn’t see E.G. Kimberly and I were well under 2000 psi of air at this point, which is a lot of air to have used so quickly.
What caused me to start looking for E.G. specifically, was that I saw what looked to me to be Denise and Patricio communicating about someone missing. It looked to me that Patricio communicated to Denise to stay put, hang on to the rocks with the rest of us and Patricio would go after E.G., which it appeared he did. This was about the 13-17 minute mark.
We moved up to watch a group of sharks circling in 35-50 feet of water. Kimberly eventually indicated she was low on air, as was I, at about the 23-24 minute mark. I signaled to Jamie that I was at 700 psi and he signaled for me to go up.
I moved down to Kimberly and took her hand to ascend, I was concerned about getting separated in the current as we left the rocks for open water. Kimberly said I was holding her very tightly like I was afraid she would drift away (I was). She said it was the first time in any of our dives that she was glad I was hanging onto her so tightly. Kimberly was also concerned that she would drift away in the current.
We did a three-minute safety stop and then surfaced at the 30 minute mark. I expected E.G. to already be surfaced, because I thought there was no way for Patricio and her to fight the current to get back with the group. While waiting for the others to come up we searched the surface for E.G. Both my wife and I thought we heard a diver’s whistle and said so to the other ponga driver who took off in that direction. At that moment I assumed it was E.G., although we couldn’t see anyone. Now I believe the whistle may have been Patricio because the next time I saw that ponga, Patricio was in it (although I am not certain he wasn’t in the ponga before it went off in the direction of the whistle). I could see that he was worried.
As divers came up we kept looking for E.G. I have done only 150 dives but I had a bad feeling about E.G. when she didn’t make it to the rocks. She was young and very slightly built. She did not look strong enough to fight the current the way we did. With her training (I am told she had done a dive master’s course and a rescue course) I would have thought that she would have simply gone with the current and slowly ascended to the pongas after getting separated from us, which is standard protocol when getting separated from your dive buddy.
E.G. had a diver’s flag designed to activate on the surface to make it easy to spot. We searched the surface for that flag for hours both from the Aggressor and from the pongas. At some point, separate from the Aggressor searching the surface, I believe that Patricio and Jamie dove from one of the pongas back down in the water to search for E.G., without success. During that time, there was also an aerial search. Many other boats and the Ecuadorian Coast Guard also joined the search. Later in the search I believe Jamie mentioned that he was “bent” from his dive looking for E.G. Jamie was clearly shaken.
At some point during the search, Jamie mentioned to a few of us that it was getting close to time to do our land excursion that was planned for the afternoon. I sensed that he was looking for feedback or some direction as to what to do. I told him, in no uncertain terms, we can’t go on until E.G. is found. After all, how could someone go on about their vacation diving trip, not knowing where a missing diver is, not knowing if they are bobbing in the water, waiting to get picked up?
Eventually, after four plus hours of searching the surface, we returned to the original dive location. Denise Friou and Patricio went back into the water at the place E.G. was last seen with an extra tank (Nitrox) of air.
Denise told us they descended to the place E.G. was last seen and then rode the current to where it took them. At 150 feet Denise saw E.G. laying on the bottom at 168 feet. She said she was in somewhat of a fetal position, eyes closed, looking restful and calm, without a mask and the regulator out of her mouth. Denise said upon inspection after getting E.G. to the surface, there was 2000 psi of air in E.G.’s tank and she showed signs of downing although she didn’t seem to have water in her lungs. She said she saw no signs of equipment failure or loss. Denise was not certain if E.G. had both her fins on when she was found but does know at least one of them came off during the ascent.
At this point the crew and other divers were in various states of shock. Most of us were feeling sick, for our stomachs had been in knots for hours. Ecuadorian officials came on board and questioned some but not all of us. They eventually took E.G. away.
At this point I don’t know that there was anything more that could have been done to save E.G. after the 6-9 minute mark of the dive. It is my belief that she died in that time frame. My belief is based upon the time Kimberly last saw her and the amount of unused air in her tank. Everything after that time was in vain. I am so thankful that Denise found E.G.’s body. Otherwise we would still be haunted by the thought of E.G. waiting to be rescued and us not finding her. I am sure the family is better off having E.G.’s body recovered, so there are no doubts.
Jamie informed us that the owner of the Galapagos Aggressor I and II, Peter Orschel, would make accommodations for anyone who did not want to continue on the trip, including giving a credit to return at another time. Seven of us were interested, and I talked to Peter via the ship’s cell phone. For various reasons, only three of us, Denise Friou, Kimberly, and I actually left the ship and headed home. Peter was very accommodating and seemed prepared to do anything he could for us. He appeared shaken and seemed to have been crying.
It didn’t feel right to continue. We didn’t feel like partying and having a good time vacationing. We didn’t feel safe with the dive masters. We didn’t feel that they prepared us for what were going to do and what we would encounter. This just may be our own inexperience, however.
Peter met us at the airport on Baltra Island. It seemed to us that he did everything he could for E.G.’s family and for the divers. Although we were bearing all the extra expenses to get back home, Peter’s staff was a great help in making arrangements to get us back to Guayaquil.
At this point we have spent considerable time with Denise Friou. She is devastated and questioning herself for not doing more, and she is questioning her decision to follow Patricio’s instruction to stay with the group while he searched for E.G. She has shared with us every detail of the fateful dive, the rescue dive and all its details, many times.
As I write this on February 14th, we have made it back to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We are standing by for a flight home. It happens to be high season for travel from Ecuador to the US, and it is difficult getting a seat and they are very expensive at the last minute, which is what deterred others from terminating their trip. I had been planning this trip for 30 years, and it was over in about 24 hours after arriving in Galapagos. We just could not continue on our vacation and enjoy ourselves after what had happened, knowing how E.G.’s family and friends must feel and thinking about a young girl, the age of our children, who had tragically lost her life.
We are experiencing nightly nightmares. That is one of the reasons I wanted to put this account in writing so that the bad dreams do not distort my recollection of what happened.
So what could have prevented this tragedy? The following are my suggestions. Keep in mind I am not a very experienced diver (150 dives over 10 years; 100 of them in the last six years). Please add whatever tips or observations you may have … it may save one of us.
1. The dive briefing could have been much more detailed as to what we would encounter and what the dive plan was.
2. Patricio could have descended slower to keep the group from getting as spread out as we did.
3. We could have not gone as deep and possibly avoided the heavy current as the first group of divers apparently did.
4. The Aggressor fleet should make it abundantly clear that the Galapagos dives are for advanced divers only.
5. Be physically fit and free from any medication influence that may affect diving in such challenging waters.
6. Stay with your buddy.
7. Find a considerably easier spot to do the first full dive allowing the divers to get more comfortable with the environment and their diving buddy.
8. Use satellite locating devices on all dives.
9. Carry an easily activated noise maker easily heard under water.
The following was emailed to me by a diver who had been on the Galapagos Aggressor II the week before our trip:
Thank you very much for the details. I’d like to share my thoughts based on my week on the Aggressor, and I do not intend to judge anyone. There are always several reasons which lead to a disaster. I am a PADI Rescue diver and had 170 dives before entering the boat. My wife is PADI OWSI and has 200+ dives.
When we planned the vacation, we both of us were unsure if we had sufficient experience for the dive spots in Galapagos. However, we have been to many different places before in all kinds of equipment up to dry-suit diving in very cold water and with zero visibility.
The next step to mitigate risks was to stay in Puerto Baquerizo three days before embarking. So we already did a day of diving with Wreck Bay Divers to warm up after 6 months of inactivity and checked thoroughly how we got along with the new equipment pieces we bought for the trip.
Of course we were challenged by the strong current, too. Even my wife as an instructor aborted one dive because it was too much for her. But I had not expected from the guides to prepare us for that. The big fishes are where the currents are strong. So we expected really tough dives from the very beginning. And Patricio did a very good job to find the best ways to get through; Jaime’s group often had more problems with the current than his.
What I want to say is: I would not recommend the trip to anyone with significantly less than 200 dives and some of it in stronger currents. The problem is: No one tells this to the people for business reasons. We had professionals among the guests with 4000+ dives, and they confirmed that the usual maximum requirement in ads is “50+” for difficult dives anywhere. This is definitely not sufficient.
And PADI & Co make it even worse when they certify people as dive masters or even instructors with 60 or 120 dives, as you said, most of them in lakes or swimming pools. My wife’s instructor certification was worth nothing in the current at Darwin’s Arch, where the current was so strong that it twisted our reef hooks. The only thing that counts is experience. And this cannot be provided by the dive guides. However, only few instructors I have seen so far tell their students bluntly about their current stage of capabilities and prevent them from overestimation. For the same reason — the truth is bad for business.
It is a very sad story, and I understand your reaction to quit, as all vacation feeling was gone. But my feelings are not only with the girl and her buddy, but also with Patricio, who has now the hardest time ever. And I do not believe he is to blame.