The Numbing Concussion of a Fish Bomb Makes a Diver Deaf for Life!

By Lee Peterson

It began as a unique dive adventure in Malaysia with a few great companions from China, Japan and Australia. They are specialists in their fields of photography and marine biology. Our plan was to document new diving areas, test new photographic equipment and have fun in the process. Each dive uncovered new species and unusual fish behavior and it was possible to expose all our film and never repeat the same subject.

One item of concern to us, though, was the constant sound of fish bombs employed by the local fishermen. Every hour of diving was hailed with 10 or more blasts. Some seemed very close. Our dive boat operators were careful to protect us. As soon as we were dropped off at a site they would rush off to the nearest fishing boat to warn the fishermen that divers were in the water. The fishermen would either leave or refrain from using the fish bombs as long as our boat was in the area.

The evidence of the bombing was reefs removed of life;white crumbled coral or large chunks of rubble. We chose to dive where there was no damage.

After five days I began to investigate farther away from the dive dock. On one afternoon dive, I ventured alone to explore new territory. It was an easy swim and close to shore. As I swam the schools of small fish became more plentiful. Shapely sponges, soft corals, colorful tunicates, seafans and a variety of other corals blanketed a gently sloping reef habitat.

I had only exposed a dozen pictures, preferring to observe the animal behavior and size up the potential of the reef system. At this point I had 1,700 psi in my tank and was in only 15 feet of water. I reversed my direction and began to glide back to the dock.

Just as I changed direction a thunderous shock hit me, blowing my mask off enough to fill it with water. I tried to catch my breath but I was gasping for air even though the regulator was still in my mouth. My chest hurt and I was disoriented. I couldnt see well enough to make out anything solid and I couldnt clear the pressure in my ears. I froze for a moment to size up the situation. I realized a fisherman had used a fish bomb.

After surfacing, I looked around. Not far away I saw a fisherman standing in his outrigger canoe with his back to me and another fellow jumping in the water. I was gasping for air and it seemed I couldnt get a clean breath. I couldnt call out or blow my whistle. I managed to put a short blast of air in my BC and tried to calm down. As I regained my composure the fisherman turned around and spotted me in the water. He stared at me then motioned to the fellow in the water and pointed to me. The person in the water climbed into the canoe and they paddled away. I was astonished at first but soon realized they had no idea of the harm they had caused me.

I didnt seem to be in any more danger;I was close to shore and in shallow water. I had dropped my camera when the explosion hit me so I put the snorkel in my mouth and cruised the area to find it. I spotted it right away and began to descend. It was difficult to clear my ears and it took some time to get to the bottom to pick it up.

I sat on the ocean floor and relaxed a moment. I looked around and realized some of the fish were having problems of their own. The goatfish were banging their heads into the sand, not to eat but in an attempt to stay down. Smaller fish seemed to have no difficulties but the bigger fish were in trouble. I picked up the camera and listened for the water detector to see if the housing had flooded. No sound. I peered into the front port and it looked dry. It had survived! I pushed the shutter release. Nothing happened. I tried it several more times and gave up. Dizziness was a problem so I checked my compass, put the reef on my right, slowly headed east and up to the surface.

Reaching the surface I dropped the regulator mouthpiece and rolled over on my back, placing the camera on my stomach. My hearing was gone. I considered it temporary and, by the time I reached the dock, I could hear people talking and the splashing sound of water.

One of the dive assistants came over and relieved me of my burden. When the assistant spoke his voice was muffled. My right ear felt as if it was still full of water. I discovered the camera still worked, I had just forgotten to turn it on.

I discussed the fish bomb incident with the dive operators and they said it was the first time any fishermen had worked so close to the resort. I spent two days not diving because my head felt thick and my right ear continued to have pronounced static.

My story isnt about damage to the ecology of a region but a warning if you intend to dive in areas where the fishermen use fish bombs.

If the dive operation can work with the fishermen and keep them from bombing divers then it is a good idea to let them know where you are going to dive so they can send a surface escort to keep an eye on you. Obviously the fishermen didnt know I was there, so it remains my fault even though I feel fish bombing is wrong.

My doctor believes I will never get the hearing back in my right ear. The MRI shows damage that may keep me from ever diving again. It may be the end of a 40 year career.