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Tourist Dies on a Discover Scuba Diving Course September 26, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Emergencies, Training.
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Reported Tuesday on the Cyber Diver News Network (CDNN), and Wednesday in an article in Pacific Magazine, a 48 year-old Japanese tourist died during a PADI Discover Scuba Diving resort course in New Caledonia. Having not much to go on from the article, except that the Nouméa Diving Manager suggested that the diver died because he panicked, and that he was treated for severe brain damage before being pronounced dead, I can’t really comment on the incident.

However, I have heard horror stories from several people about so-called resort courses. My dental hygienist’s told me a story of a close friend who suffered Pneumothorax, while a friend told me he was put in charge while the instructor/divemaster sorted out a problem with one of the other divers. I tell my friends not take resort courses, but rather opt for the full open water course. It’s not a big investment in time when you consider your life or health is at stake. Mind you, a well-run resort course should be quite safe, but how can a neophyte tell the good from the not-so-good?

Having said that, my dive shop (not mine, but the one I hang out with) runs Discover Scuba Diving in the local pool. Not quite as exciting as a tropical reef, it gives the students the experience of breathing underwater. We also give them instruction in the shallow end and only let them into the deep end with one on one supervision, so we can stop them or slow them down if they panic and bolt for the surface. I don’t think you can safely take someone to depth without constant supervision until they’ve gained familiarity with the equipment and basic procedures. Our open water students are sometimes prone to panic, even after the pool training, and we always have divemasters hovering behind them to stop them from bolting.

On the training panel at the 2008 DAN Technical Diving Conference, Tom Mount’s opinion was that 15 percent of all students can go through training just fine but will always panic under stress in a non-training setting. Another 15 percent are prone to panic but in a given situation may or may not do so. I’ve experienced the occasional bout of anxiety under water, but once recognized, have been able to think through the possible responses and choose an appropriate one first. Following the rule “stop, think, then act” has always kept things from spiraling out of control.

It was interesting that the article mentioned PADI by name, and another article slams the PADI Scuba Diver Course, which is an abbreviated version of the Open Water Diver course where the certification carries additional restrictions. Other agencies offer similar courses to Discover Scuba Diver and PADI Scuba Diver (the latter not mentioned on their web site) but I do agree with the training panel at the DAN Technical Diving Conference who were deeply concerned about the dramatically lower requirements for certification compared to 30 or 40 years ago, and how these may backfire on the industry. If a new diver has a bad experience on their first few dives due to inadequate training, they are unlikely to try diving again, and probably tell their friends what a horrible experience they had. And while the training may be sufficient to dive within the restrictions, they will not necessarily be followed as the article points out.

Many people I speak to think diving is dangerous, and stories like the ones reported here contribute to those opinions. The home page of CDNN would certainly make you think that diving accidents are rampant.

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Comments»

1. deepstop - September 26, 2008

One thing I’d like to add is that panic alone shouldn’t excuse the operator from responsibility for the accident. Panic is a natural reaction and can easily happen in an unfamiliar environment to those who aren’t trained or disposed to control it. Once a diver is trained to a reasonable level of proficiency, though, then they become more responsible for managing their own anxiety under water.

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2. Tasi - September 30, 2008

As I live, work and dive in New Caledonia, I feel that I must add some comments concerning this accident. First of all,the victim was not participating in a PADI Discover Scuba Diving course or a resort course. He was doing a “bapteme de plongee” which is just a one off dive with a diving instructor. As the participant does not have any prior training, he is completely under the responsability of the instructor who is normally at his side at all times. With nervous divers it is usual to have direct contact throughout the dive. There is a police investigation being carried out in order to decide whether or not there was negligence by the operators. For information Raoul Monthouel, the director of Noumea Diving, was expelled for life by PADI some years ago. Hopefully this tragic accident will serve as lesson to certain dive centres who are more concerned in making money that the safety of their customers. Accidents do happen.

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3. deepstop - September 30, 2008

Tasi, thank you for the clarification. I’ll have to be a little more skeptical about these articles. Perhaps it’s natural to insert PADI into a news article in the absence of contrary information. That’s something I’d expect from the general press, not a publication that’s dedicated to diving.
It reminds me a little of the reporting of aviation accidents, where any small plane is branded a Cessna even though it might have been another make entirely.
You’re right that accidents do happen, but this one seems entirely avoidable.

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4. CC Benoit - July 6, 2009

Scuba diving is dangerous. Pretending otherwise in order to lure more paying customers into dive shops is downright criminal: “Oh you can’t swim? Don’t worry about it–just sign the waiver and put on a weight belt!” CDNN should be commended for the daily reality check, for reminding us day in and day out not to become complacent about the risks of scuba diving, for putting safety ahead of money. Instead, they get bashed by dive industry insiders for publishing news accounts of accidents that contradict dive industry marketing schemes downplaying the risks of scuba diving.

My wife and I have been diving twice with Raoul (two separate holidays) and I found him to be honest, friendly and professional. And yes, Noumea Diving does offer PADI courses including PADI Discover Scuba. I know because I asked him about it for non-diving friends who joined us on our second holiday in New Caledonia. Tasi’s mistake is to assume that the qualifications of a dive shop owner or director necessarily determine what courses his/her company can offer. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, there is nothing that would prohibit someone with no formal diver training at all — Sport Chalet’s executive board for example — from owning and operating a dive shop (or fifty of them) that sell PADI courses. Provided Noumea Diving has at least one current PADI instructor on the payroll, they can promote and sell PADI stuff including Discover Scuba. So I think it’s pretty logical to assume that a dive shop promoting PADI courses on its web site is doing PADI Discover Scuba just as one would expect that a flight school promoting Cessna pilot training would be running Cessna airplanes.

And how about Tasi’s allegation that Raoul was “expelled for life by PADI some years ago”? Well it took about 30 seconds and two Google searches to find PADI’s list of expelled instructors at http://www.padi.com/padi/en/footerlinks/expelInstructors.aspx where there is no mention of Raoul Monthouel. His name does appear in another “Advisory” PADI list which states simply that he “is not a PADI Member since 1996” suggesting that he decided to move on of his own volition: http://www.padi.com/padi/en/footerlinks/advisoriesinstructors.aspx

Me thinks I smell a competitor’s smear campaign. Whatever. Our dives with Raoul were excellent and I can say without hesitation that he runs a tight ship, but I absolutely agree with deepstop’s comments to the effect that dealing with panic comes with the underwater turf, especially on a discover scuba dive when newbies need expert hand-holding. You’re right. It’s a terrible tragedy that never should have happened. I also agree with CDNN and DAN’s training panel that expanding the diving market by reducing certification requirements is a terrible mistake. I also think it will come back to bite the dive industry, probably in the form of government regulation.

Sorry to join the discussion so late–I bumped into it by accident (pun intended) while googling other stuff.

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5. deepstop - July 6, 2009

Scuba is not without risk, but if the recommendations of the agencies are conservatively followed, the risk is low for recreational divers, and the accident statistics show it. The stories I hear from uncertified divers on experience dives coming back from the Caribbean sometimes make me shudder.
There seems to be a lot of inadequate preparation and supervision, in depths and conditions well beyond what is recommended.
On the specifics of this incident it seems there is a lot of conflicting information, so I won’t venture any further opinions.
Thanks for your comments.
Chris

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6. deepstop - July 9, 2009

I thought some more about this and would temper my comments about controlling panic with the notion that despite the best efforts of the instructor, a panicking diver may overwhelm the instructor’s ability to conduct a rescue. So it’s not necessarily an instructor’s fault if a new diver who panics and gets injured, but it’s certainly not an excuse by itself. The instructor should be in control at all times.

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