Sixteen scuba-diving deaths occurred in the UK in 2021, two of them on a single dive – and in 10 of the incidents the casualty had either become separated from their buddy or buddies, or had started out solo-diving.
The average age of the fatalities was 54.9 years, and in four cases there was enough information to conclude that natural causes were a factor.
The information is included in the just-published British Sub-Aqua Club’s Annual Diving Incident Report, the comprehensive analysis of trends in diving incidents.
Covering the 2021 calendar year, the report analyses the background to reported incidents involving divers from all agencies and backgrounds, as well as some occurring to BSAC members overseas. Half of the 16 UK deaths involved the club’s members.
Since the report first appeared in 1965 (when three fatalities were reported), the sport’s national governing body BSAC and other UK-based training agencies have used the data it provides to revise and update their courses and safety guidance.
Most of the anonymised incident reports are provided by individual divers but the document also embraces data provided by other bodies including the Coastguard, RNLI, MoD, HSE, DDRC Healthcare, PADI EMEA, the Water Incident Database and RoSPA, as well as media reports.
From April 2021 the number of incidents reported suggested that scuba-diving activity had “largely returned to pre-pandemic levels” during the year, says BSAC. In the lockdown year of 2020, the number of UK fatalities had fallen to six.
Also related to the Covid pandemic, BSAC reported that there was evidence that some equipment failures might have been affected by malfunctions following extended lay-off periods. As always in the report, the club has concluded that some incidents “could possibly have been avoided had those involved followed a few basic principles of safe diving practice”.
“In addition, many of the unavoidable incidents are prevented from escalating into something more serious by the prompt utilisation of rescue skills and support of the rescue services,” says BSAC Diving Safety & Incidents Advisor Jim Watson, who compiled the report with BSAC Data Analyst Ben Peddie.
Mainly during the summer months, the Coastguard was required to help rescue scuba divers on 109 occasions and the RNLI 45 times. Helicopters were needed on 26 occasions.
The 2021 report details 235 diving incidents, including 17 classified as overseas. Fewer were ascent-related than normal, even though slightly more involved decompression illness (DCI).
The proportion of incidents starting at the surface was down significantly, which meant a consequential and significant rise in the number of reports in which depth information could not be ascertained, says BSAC. From the data available, maximum depths of dives in which incidents occurred appeared “somewhat deeper” than before.
Fewer of those involved in incidents and casualties were experienced divers than in previous years.
In the longer term, and after allowing for the pandemic-related dip in UK diving, a downward trend in DCI, ascent, boating and surface incidents noted especially over the past 10 years is continuing.
Immersion Pulmonary Oedema (IPO, or “drowning from the inside”) is notoriously difficult to diagnose but was noted as a possible factor in at least 12 incidents. BSAC continues to recommend that any diver experiencing breathing difficulties under water should end the dive, ascend safely and exit the water, and buddies exhibiting IPO symptoms should be helped to do the same. Out of the water, the casualty should sit, be given oxygen and medical advice should be sought.
Divers linked with any agency are recommended to download the BSAC Annual Diving Incident Report 2021, and also to report incidents in confidence for future reports. BSAC also publishes a detailed Safe Diving Guide.
The club is set to present its findings to dive professionals by webinar on 28 November at 2pm GMT. Registrations are on a first-come, first-served basis, with recordings available afterwards.