A New Zealand coroner has used the death of an unqualified scuba diver who had been using faulty equipment as an opportunity to send a message to other divers tempted to cut corners.
Lee Victor Tohu, 52, from Whangarei, died in the sea off Kauri Mountain Beach two years ago, on the morning of 27 January, 2020. He had been on a diving trip with friends Ben Waldron and Terry Fricker, using the latter’s boat to reach the dive-site in the north of New Zealand’s North Island.
The three had launched the boat from Tutukaka, and Tohu and Waldron had dived as a pair in calm, sunny conditions, according to reports of the inquest in local press.
From the boat Fricker saw Tohu surface and wave, but by the time he had turned the boat he could no longer see the diver and assumed that he had redescended.
Waldron then surfaced, told Fricker that Tohu had become separated from him and was missing, and began a search while Fricker raised the alarm. Waldron found Tohu floating lifeless at the surface, about 60m from where they had started their dive.
‘Very poor condition’
At the inquest the Police National Dive Squad (PNDS) described the regulator Tohu had been using as being in “very poor condition”, causing over-exertion in his breathing. It also said that faulty pressure and depth gauges would have led him to believe that he had more air than was the case.
He had no dive-computer, so could have had only a vague idea of how deep he had dived and whether he was within safe limits in terms of decompression illness.
Tohu was thought to have run out of air but to have failed to ditch his weight-belt to facilitate an emergency ascent to the surface.
Coroner Debra Bell said that Tohu had no formal diving qualifications, and had been using cannabis before his dive. Lacking accurate information from his gauges or a computer, she said he had effectively been “diving blind”, and had subsequently drowned.
Panic and fatigue
Reconstructing Tohu’s last moments, she said that he had panicked on suddenly losing his air supply, but his response had been affected by fatigue caused by the excessive inhalation effort required by his regulator.
“This would have been compounded by his fins, which would have been less effective at elevating him to the surface and, because he had limited or no air, he could not inflate his BC to assist in his ascent.”
Bell endorsed PNDS recommendations that people should scuba dive only if they had an appropriate qualification, should take a refresher course if they had not been diving regularly, and ensure that they were medically fit.
Divers should stay with their buddy, use a computer and ensure that their equipment was in working order and serviced regularly, at least annually in the case of regulators. They should also know how to dump their weights if in difficulties – and not use illegal drugs before diving.