James Blackman, the charismatic frontman of the Divers Ready YouTube Channel, is an experienced CCR diver, technical diving instructor and safety officer – and he ended up with a bend. Here he explains what went on, and cautions how it can happen to anyone.
It was the perfect dive. Right up until I got bent.
Make a top-three list of everything that you love about diving. Here’s mine.
Firstly, it’s the wildlife. In particular, the unexpected encounters. Big animals that sneak up on you. Little critters you have to hunt for.
Second, the camaraderie. My friends and colleagues who hold the same passion I have for the underwater environment, and the jokes and good times we share. I live for that.
Third would be the gear. I love technology and this is a great sport for that. We get to see equipment innovations every week.
Wildlife. Friends. Equipment. That’s why this was the perfect dive.
It was 2 March 2022. A beautiful spring day, the air was crisp and missing the choking humidity Key Largo is known for most of the year. The Gulf Stream was firing up, bringing the warm water back, so for these dives I had retired my 5mm suit for the season and cracked out my 3mm. Temperature, surface, visibility, current. Conditions were perfect.
There’s that words again: Perfect.
Unusually, I was not teaching or guiding. I was diving with friends. Fun diving (you remember that, right?! Dive pros?!) I knew everyone on the boat, 14 people or so, on a first-name basis. Everyone was having a great time.
My mission was to continue to build hours on my new rebreather. I am not new to CCR diving, but I was new to this model, having completed MOD1 Helitrox just two months prior.
The morning dive was spectacular. The Spiegel Grove, the world’s third-largest artificial reef, looked resplendent in the tropical blue water. Descending down the five ball, midship, starboard side, we could see almost bow to stern (the Spiegel Grove is 155 metres long.) My buddy and I completed an uneventful 120-minute run time, surrounded by sharks, turtles and schooling jacks. After clearing deco, we surfaced for over three hours of surface interval.
The second dive of the day was just as flawless. I distinctly remember thinking on deco that all the extra work that a CCR requires (the prep, the build, the maths, the cleaning) is so absolutely worth it if only to get to dive in utter silence.
Ten minutes in, I happened upon an active baited hook hanging off to the side of the wreck over the sand (line fishing is allowed on the Spiegel Grove – she rests outside of the Key’s National Marine Sanctuary.) As I approached, a small yellowtail struck the bait, hard and fast, but before the fisherman topside could react, a large grouper struck the struggling yellowtail! The obliterated remains of the yellowtail drifted down, attracting a huge school which quickly dispersed as a large female bull shark came charging through the commotion. And I had a front row seat.
Wildlife. Friends. Equipment.
I cut my dive a little shorter than the 70 minutes I had planned. We ascended, joining other technical divers on the mooring line, hanging out like a string of Tibetan prayer flags, flapping in the mild current. With every inhale of our oxygen-rich deco gases, our tissues slowly released the inert gases – nitrogen and helium – we had soaked up at depth.
As the divers cleared their deco, one by one they made their way up to the surface and back to the boat ladder. I was the second-to-last diver in the water to clear deco. As is only proper to do, I completed ‘extra’ deco while I waited for the last diver to clear, so as not to leave a diver alone in the water.
What a perfect dive! Great wildlife interactions. Great friends. My equipment performed flawlessly. Wildlife. Friends. Equipment.
I surfaced. I climbed the ladder. I stripped off my gear. I made use of the head. I drank water.
While debriefing the dive, all of a sudden, both of my wrists started to throb. A real bone-wrangling buzz, then a sharp pain, almost sprain-like. I play rugby, I’ve sprained wrists before. This is what it felt like. Immediately, all of my book knowledge and 22 years of diving experience rushed toward my frontal cortex and screamed, ‘uh-oh!’
I knew I was bent. The question now was, how bad was I about to be? As the pain in my wrists spread to first tingling, then numbness and partial paralysis of my fingers and a burning sensation crept up my forearms to my elbows, I turned to my friend, who happened to be the owner of the dive operation with which I was diving, and I asked for help.
Fast as lightning, the big green box appeared, and I was sucking through an oxygen mask in no time. For those interested in more details of my profile, or the rest of my treatment, I would direct you to the video we put our on Divers Ready! I would like to use my remaining word-space here instead to focus on the lessons I learned, that maybe you can learn or be refreshed upon.
James Blackman ‘You can do everything right and still get bent'
I am definitely not a perfect diver, but on this dive, I was pretty close to perfect. My goal is always to make zero mistakes, and on this particular dive, I think I achieved that. Diving physiology and decompression modelling are not perfect sciences. I have searched for a reason why this happened to me on the dive it did. I was well rested the night before. I was well hydrated. I planned the dive and dived the plan. I was conservative. My equipment was solid – I even had an expert review my gear configuration and my dive profile and they could not find an error. Sometimes, you can do everything right and still get hit. Right from the Open Water level, we accept that scuba diving is an inherently dangerous sport. Humans did not evolve to breath underwater. Sometimes, your number just gets called. I have a friend whose theory is the more dives you do, the closer you get to having an undeserved hit. I’m sure a good statistician would argue a different case.
James Blackman ‘If you can get DCS even when doing the right thing, you better have a plan'
Here in the USA, most employer-provided health insurance would not cover claims for diving-related accidents, as scuba diving is considered a ‘dangerous sport.’ Therefore, for people living in, or travelling to, the USA for scuba diving, dive accident insurance is an absolute must, and thank goodness I have always carried it. And while having dive accident insurance was a central pillar of my plan, (and helped me avoid a $45,000 hospital bill), here are some other considerations for when you have your worst day diving.
While I was sitting on the boat, sucking down the O2 kit, I was so thankful that I have always been picky about my dive operators. Throughout my career, I have seen horror stories of disreputable dive operations – locked O2 kits that no-one had the key to, empty O2 bottles, untrained staff, and so on. Maybe you don’t want to dive with the cheapest dive operator out there? What about all you self-reliant shore divers and private boat owners? Do you know where the closest chamber is? When was the last time you checked your O2 kit? When was the last time you tested/serviced your O2 kits’ flow-restrictor?
I was lucky. Lucky that my undeserved hit was incredibly mild, with Type-1 symptoms only. Lucky that I’m writing this having already returned to the ocean, to teaching technical diving at Miami Technical Diving, and to the sport I love. Lucky that I have no long-term symptoms. But luck is where preparation meets opportunity. Bad luck is where unpreparedness meets a negative opportunity. So I guess you have to ask yourself one question in your best Clint Eastwood ‘Dirty Harry’ accent…
Photographs courtesy of James Blackman and Jennifer Idol