2000-07 Dragged Down by Tank Troubles

By Allene Symons

We couldn’t wait for our first kelp experience as the 65-foot boat pulled into Catalina Island’s Italian Gardens dive site. I couldn’t wait to photograph the waving kelp fronds and water pierced with shafts of sunlight, all punctuated by bright orange Garibaldi.

My buddy and I reviewed our dive plan and checked each other out. All systems go. Or so it seemed.

Maybe we were distracted by the cold water gear. After three years of warm water diving in destinations such as the Keys, Hawaii and Belize, my buddy had never worn a full wetsuit; I hadn’t donned a 7mm exposure suit since my certification dives nine years before in murky water off New York City’s 8th Street Beach. In retrospect, what happened that day was probably due to an inadequate equipment check as we squirmed into thick neoprene and donned an unfamiliar amount of lead. Or, maybe I spent too much time fiddling with my underwater camera.

My buddy giant-strided over the side, gave me the OK sign, and I followed him to the boat’s anchor chain, where we made a smooth descent.

We were soon deep in kelp, and I experienced a feeling of impedance and slight disorientation as the fronds brushed against my mask and fins. My buddy entered an opening in the kelp leading to deeper blue water, the perfect scene for a trophy image to show my photo club. After a couple of shots, I descended into denser kelp at 60 feet.

Once again, I felt impeded and thought I was tangled in the kelp. The green stuff shouldn’t resist like this, I thought, but some force was pulling me sideways and slightly downward. I tried to reach my tank banger to signal my buddy, and that’s when I knew the drag was not the kelp, it was my tank. It had slipped out of its velcro band.

I flashed my buddy the trouble sign and pointed to my tank. He positioned himself behind me and re-seated it.

I’d managed to calm down and get back to shooting when the tank slipped out again, and I slipped like a drunk driver against a rock. Again, I banged the tank with my knife. I wanted to ascend and signaled with emphatic jerks, but my buddy was determined to re-seat it again, and I reluctantly signed OK.

Soon I was diving lopsided and struggling again, getting exhausted and, this time, vigorously flashing him the ascent sign.

Finally we ascended slowly and snorkeled to the boat, which fortunately wasn’t too far, because by then I felt drained from the repeated need to manage a problem situation.

The boat staff immediately saw the problem and helped me onto the platform. After a rest and a topside reset of the tank, we completed our dive.

I had always wondered what would happen if the tank slipped out of the BC. What I learned was that the first time it happens, it can cause considerable anxiety, especially if the slip comes at a surprising moment, is involved with a kelp tangle or causes you to unexpectedly collide with the underwater environment.

I also learned not to expect to successfully re-seat the tank underwater, especially if you’re at depth. Although my buddy is a mechanically inclined guy and an engineer, his re-seating attempt failed three times. I’d advise going back to the boat to get the tank squared away.

Most important, before entering the water, give the tank a good check-out hoist a couple of times to be sure the tank band is secure.