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April 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Cozumel Tragedy

sometimes only a buddy knows what happened

from the April, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Divers arriving in Cozumel, Mexico, can sign up with any number of dive operators -- and generally are organized into groups and frequently not assigned buddies. Much of the diving is drift diving, which can lead to problems if a diver in a group needs to return to the surface early. That's what appears to have happened to a woman on February 19th near Palancar Reef, with fatal consequences.

We contacted several people in Cozumel to learn about the tragedy, but had great difficulty getting anyone to tell us what actually happened, and some inquiries were met with an aggressive response. One witness even replied, "Mexico isn't a salubrious environment for whistleblowers, or even journalists who merely dare to expose events seen as detrimental to the profit margins of vested interests. Cozumel is a small place, the tourist and diving industries have a lot at stake here, and human life is worth very little." Wow. This probably explains the reluctance of anyone to give any information.

This is the story Undercurrent distilled after some detective work and confirmed in part by a British diver who was there at the time, aboard a Deep Blue dive boat:

The dive had not started well for Tammy R. Schmitz, 43, from Denver (CO), diving with Scuba Mau's Gaviota1. Some witnesses reported she had trouble with her BC inflator mechanism, and once at the dive site, she found it was not compatible with the regulator and her direct-feed hose. In order not to lose the dive, she probably intended to inflate it orally as and when she needed buoyancy. A well-practiced diver can handle this, but if anything else went wrong, it could lead to an incident.

If anything else went wrong, it could lead to an incident.

And something did go wrong. During the dive, she decided to surface because she apparently wasn't feeling well. Local 19-year-old dive guide, Ricardo Loeza, who was assisting Instructor Paulín Fuentes, escorted her up to the depth of a safety stop. He had to be quick because of the current: He could easily lose contact with the rest of the group he was escorting. We were told that he passed her his delayed surface marker buoy, leaving her there, assuming she was competent enough to complete a safety stop and then make it the short distance to the surface. He re-joined his charges back at depth and continued the dive. Cozumel marine park regulations state that the ratio of guides to certified divers is 6:1.

We don't know what happened next. Schmitz' computer would not have recorded whether she actually made the surface (they usually stop recording at around 5 feet [1.5m] deep), but her lifeless body was discovered by a pair of divers from a different group sometime later back on the seabed. She had no buoy. The computer appears now to be in possession of the police.

Brian Highe (High Wycombe, UK) told Undercurrent: "We were diving on Palancar Reef from one of two Deep Blue boats that morning. We had completed our first dive and were just about to return to shore when there was a lot of chatter in Spanish on the VHF. Our captain took our boat alongside a second dive boat, which had two English-speaking divers hanging off its side. They were diving with a group of divers and had found a diver on the reef, unresponsive, not breathing, and she had no regulator in her mouth. Her BCD inflator hose was disconnected, and they were unable to reconnect it. Evidently, she had 'loads of air' in her tank.

"It later became clear that the regulator [direct feed hose] and BCD were not compatible. They could not raise the diver, and so, surfaced and called for help. As the dive boat that had found them needed to pick up its own divers, we picked up the couple and took them back to their boat. My impressions are that they were experienced divers and very shaken by the incident.

"The two Deep Blue boats then set up a surface search carried out by the divemaster from the other boat. He located the diver after 10 minutes, and then the two divemasters marked the spot using an SMB and a weight. As they were doing this, the dead diver's boat finally arrived on the scene. Apparently, they had dropped a party of three divers, including the deceased, with a divemaster at one part of the reef and then a second group of two and a second divemaster, elsewhere on the reef.

"From talking to the two young ladies from the deceased's group, it transpired that she had aborted her dive and surfaced. They are probably the only people who know whether she surfaced alone or with a divemaster, whether she got to the surface and whether she took an SMB. We took the rest of the deceased's party back to shore near Palancar, while the two divemasters from her boat recovered her body."

It may be that upon surfacing, Schmitz was unable to inflate her BC orally. She might have been carrying too much lead. She certainly did not drop her weights. She might have been suffering from some debilitating health problem. We will never know.

There are unconfirmed reports that the casualty suffered a heart attack or stroke. However, that might have been as a result of the struggle to stay afloat. Whatever it was, she was alone and eventually dropped and drowned. Nobody would have seen her go. It's an indictment of group diving where there are no specific buddy pairs.

We don't know whether she was assigned a buddy, or, if she were, whether the buddy was expected to surface with her. Although it's irritating for many divers to be assigned an impromptu buddy, had one surfaced with Schmitz, it might possibly have avoided a tragic ending.

Because of the reluctance of many people to talk with us, we think there may be more to the story. We'll follow up, if we can.

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