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Scuba Divers' Deaths in Kelp Forest a Concern

Three have died in the Monterey Bay marine sanctuary since May, puzzling experts.

October 20, 2003|Irwin Speizer | Special to The Times

MONTEREY — For scuba divers, one of the world's great cold-water destinations is the kelp forest of Monterey Bay, with its rich sea life, which includes everything from starfish to sea otters. As many as 1,000 divers walk in or drop off boats into the bay on busy weekends.

Lately, though, the bay has been unusually treacherous. Since the summer of 2002, five divers have died in the bay's chilly waters in a string of accidents that worries local officials and the businesses that cater to the swarms of divers who descend on the bay each weekend. This year, two divers died in August and another in May. Two died in 2002.

"We are all asking ourselves the same question: Why?" said Keith McNutt, manager of Bamboo Reef Enterprises dive shop in Monterey. "I've been diving here 15 years, and this is the most I have ever seen."

Drowning was the apparent cause in four of the deaths, according to coroner's officials. The fifth victim suffered a pulmonary embolism, apparently the result of decompression sickness. The circumstances and locations have varied, leaving diving enthusiasts and public safety officials puzzling over what, if anything, should be done in response.

Jeff Field, a training officer with the Pacific Grove Ocean Rescue Team, said part of the problem might be the age of the generation of divers who came to the sport in the 1980s, a period of rapid expansion.

Skills can get rusty, physical conditioning often fades and health issues arise with advancing years. They combine to increase the chances for underwater trouble. Though divers must take classes and pass a certification test, subsequent training or follow-up classes are not required.

"Everything changes over the course of 15 or 20 years," Field said. "Your physical fitness, your body chemistry, your comfort in the water."

Two of the five fatalities involved divers who were 51. A third was 42.

William Sidarweck of Norwalk, Conn., is still trying to figure out why his wife, Corinne, 51, an accomplished diver, drowned in less than 15 feet of water while diving in the bay during an August visit. She had come to California to attend a wedding and decided to make a diving side trip.

She joined a diving boat trip out of Monterey that ferried participants to a spot off Pebble Beach. Divers were to follow a line down to a depth of about 30 feet.

From what he has been able to piece together, Sidarweck said, it appears that no one noticed that his wife had not made it to the bottom with the rest of her group. By the time other divers noticed her motionless at about 15 feet and came to her aid, she had drowned.

"For her to die in 15 feet of water was unbelievable," Sidarweck said. He noted that he and his wife had been diving for more than 15 years, including numerous cold-water dives in New England.

Why she drowned may never be known. Some medical problem might trigger a spasm, seizure or heart attack that leads to drowning, but often no underlying cause is found. A final coroner's report is pending.

Later in August, Tammy Nguyen, 42, of San Jose was diving off Point Lobos when she became tangled in kelp and apparently drowned. In May, Marie Murray, 51, of Salinas drowned off Lovers Point in Pacific Grove after a walk-in dive with her brother.

Ryan Masters, an avid diver who lives in Pacific Grove, was walking past Lovers Point that morning when he heard Murray's brother frantically calling for help from shore. Masters dove in, found her in the kelp and pulled her ashore.

Masters says the spate of diving fatalities probably is just a run of bad luck for Monterey Bay. But he adds that he often notices divers so out of shape that they struggle just to carry their tanks to the water. Once underwater, they face temperatures in the 50s, constraining wetsuits, limited visibility and a kelp forest. "For an amateur diver, the conditions are a lot more challenging," Masters said.

The Pacific Grove Ocean Rescue Team, which operates out of the city's Fire Department, responds to about 70 calls for help a year. Of that total, usually 20 to 25 involve divers, including an average of about one fatality a year.

"It's a very dangerous sport," said Pacific Grove Fire Chief Andrew Miller. "People really need to be physically fit to participate."

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