Missing in the Ocean

By Karen Erens


Missing in the ocean. The fear of every diver…


After a nice dive, you pop your head above the surface. You see nothing but water; no boat is waiting to pick you up, and the shore is too far away to swim to. This could be a scene from the movie “Open Water.” Maybe some inspiration for my colleague’s next edition in his series on scuba diving movies.


As a scuba diver, you might think there’s not much you can do in this kind of situation. Well, this thought is completely wrong!


Be prepared, and let me tell you how to be prepared…


In this article, I would like to give some tips on preparing yourself for each dive to be ready if disaster strikes and you float in the ocean. But first, let me start with a real-life story.


While SY Blowing Bubbles is anchored at the Spanish Water in Curaçao, we see the Coast Guard flying over the coastline almost daily, performing their daily tours. Out at sea, we see the Coast Guard boats on regular bases. They make sure the waters of six islands will stay safe (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, St Maarten, Eustatius and Saba).


Jean-Marc and I were lucky to have the opportunity to visit the Coast Guard base. Coert Smits, head of the MOC (Maritime Operations Center / RCC (Rescue Coordination Centre) of the Dutch Caribbean Coastguard, showed us around the base at Parrera, Curaçao. This is the main center of operations, including all the vessels, going from a simple jet ski to fast RIBs, metal sharks and even a big cutter. These vessels are waiting to do routine patrols, maybe an intervention, or simply keeping an eye on the waters surrounding the islands.


The Coast Guard on these six islands has two main tasks: SAR (Search and Rescue) and (LE) Law Enforcement on the water. This means that they will search for vessels in problems or a man-overboard situation, but they might also stop your boat to check all the papers and do interventions on drug trafficking or smuggling of humans.


As divers, we are mainly interested in the dive-related business the Coast Guard is performing. There is no better person to talk about this than Coert Smits. He tells us a very interesting story about a rescue of a small group of missing divers, including himself! This is where he learned how to be prepared as a diver for this kind of situation.


Some years ago, together with some friends, Coert made a boat trip to the small island “Klein Curaçao.” It is uninhabited and surrounded by clear blue waters, absolutely perfect for diving. So Coert went out diving with three other friends while the rest of the friends stayed on the island’s beach. During the dive, the divers suddenly got taken by a very strong offshore current that they couldn’t fight. Being the most experienced diver, Coert took the lead and surfaced with the divers. At that moment, they were already too far out from the coastline to be able to swim back to shore. The other friends on the boat did not expect them back on the surface yet, so they did not pay attention to the drifting divers.


About an hour later, the non-divers started looking for the group of divers as they began to ‘miss’ them. They used their small boat, but because of the strong current, they searched an area too small, as the group of divers drifted already too far away from the island.


Coert knew that it would take a while for them to be found, so he made sure to attach all divers to each other with a rope, so they would stay together, drifting in one group.


Unfortunately, they did a late afternoon dive, so it soon got dark. During the night, they heard the coast guard helicopter and boats searching for them, but their group of missing divers was slightly outside the search pattern.


So, they ended up drifting all night around the island of Klein Curaçao taken by very exceptional currents resulting from the passing of a very heavy storm more north in the Caribbean Sea, pushing the ocean water in different directions than the prevailing winds. This made the search and rescue very difficult.


The group of divers saw that the search continued during the night. The pilots of both the helicopter and the Dash airplane fly with night vision goggles, but it is never easy to spot a small human head in the ocean waves, and none of the members of the dive group was carrying any light or strobe.


By sunrise, the Coast Guard started a new tactic of searching. They then flew in a particular area flying in a line for a certain time, then they turned around and flew again but just next to the previous stretch to cover the whole area. This pattern is called an expanding square. Pilots and crew of the Dash airplane have a limited view from the cockpit, they only look forward, and as the plane has a certain speed, it is not easy to spot a diver. Coert Smits recognized their strategy, so he waited for the right moment to get the pilots’ attention. At the right moment, the group of divers started to splash in the water, wave with their fins and coloured SMB to get the attention. The plane passed them…. and turned back. The pilots saw something in the water! After 16 hours floating in the open ocean, the group of four was saved!


What can we, divers, learn from this story?


Well, here is some advice on how to be prepared for this kind of situation, which can happen to anyone on every dive.

  • Tell somebody about your dive plan. They can call the emergency services when you are not returning according to the plan. Time is of the essence; the sooner the call to the emergency services, the smaller the search box and the higher the probability of being found.
  • Carry a dive light at all times or a small chemical light which lights up when you break it (preferably green). It will facilitate search activities at night.
  • Carry a rope so you can connect all divers to each other and stay in one group. The chance of finding a group is higher than finding an individual in the water.
  • Make sure to have an SMB that is closed on the bottom side so the air stays in the SMB at the surface so you can use it to wave or as an extra floating device.
  • Always carry a snorkel. Breathing through a snorkel will avoid swallowing salt water when there are a lot of waves.
  • If you did not bring your snorkel, make sure you have a knife with you to cut the top of the silicone nose out of your mask. In this way, you can breathe while having your mouth shut. Keep the mask on your face as it protects your eyes from salt water and less sunburn, less dehydration.
  • Bright colours are easier to spot in the ocean, so get rid of these black fins, suits or jackets and choose yellow or another bright colour.
  • A small mirror is very useful to signal to a rescue team.
  • Bring a plastic whistle.
  • The ultimate thing to carry is a PLB or ENOS beacon. If you’re in trouble, you can use it to warn the emergency services or other boats. This is not so cheap (+/-250 USD), but what’s your life worth to you?


As we (Jean-Marc and I) are living on our sailing yacht, Blowing Bubbles, we are diving a lot in remote places without anybody knowing our diving plans. In our dinghy, we always carry the handheld VHF radio, and while diving, we have a waterproof Nautilus Lifeline Rescue GPS so we can put it in our jacket pocket. If needed, we can easily transmit a signal to the AIS of other vessels or a distress signal. I hope we’ll never have to use it, but we are prepared in any case of. Are you prepared?


If you have further questions about this system, please send us a message; we are happy to help you and give some more advice!

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