Diving safety, regulation, and lessons from a pair of tragedies

Timothy Chu’s family has every right to be upset.

The 27-year-old British tourist died in a dive accident near Victoria, B.C., on July 5, 2015. He had gone out on a charter to the Race Rocks dive site, near the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

The site is popular and known for its rich marine life, although many local dive operations caution prospective divers about the strong currents and require advanced certification or describe it as “for advanced divers only.”

Timothy Chu was certified as an advanced open water diver in 2010. His family said he had 14 dives under his belt when he joined the Race Rocks charter. They want a public inquiry and tougher regulation of the recreational dive industry.

The coroner’s report said he ran into difficulties which overwhelmed his training and experience. Additional accounts say he became separated from his dive buddy. His body was recovered several weeks later.

OK. With that out of the way, let’s be clear about what we’re discussing here.

There are several principles involved in any discussion of diving safety. We’ve all heard them. We’ve all discussed them. We’ve all encountered them, probably more than once, in the course of our training.

Personal responsibility. Know your limits. Keep your skills sharp. Keep up with your training. Stay in shape. Don’t attempt a dive that’s beyond your abilities.

But there are also professional obligations on dive shops and charter operators. Make sure you’re not putting your trainees, customers, and/or passengers in situations they can’t handle. Verify their training and abilities, not just their certifications.

Balancing those out isn’t easy. Some will argue that the tragedy is solely on Timothy Chu; he knew the risks and chose to attempt a dive beyond his abilities. Others will argue that the dive operation should have known that it was too dangerous, and that he should never have been allowed on the boat in the first place.

I’m not taking sides on any of that. Timothy Chu’s death was a tragedy. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know whether the dive was beyond his abilities or not. I don’t know whether it was avoidable or not. And I’m not saying there should or shouldn’t be a public inquiry, let alone predicting what will or should happen if there is an inquiry.

(And incidentally, it’s hard not to notice the contrast between the discussion surrounding Timothy Chu’s death and the reaction to Sharkwater director Rob Stewart’s death. Stewart was an experienced diver with a high public profile. He was celebrated for his film and conservation work. His death has silenced one of the environmental movement’s most compelling voices. He disappeared Jan. 31 off Florida in more than 220 feet of water, after his third dive of the day. I’m not drawing any conclusions about that either, but just compare the conversations about the two tragedies. It’s sobering.)

People make mistakes. People do stupid things. I’m not saying that’s what happened in either of these cases, but we all make mistakes. We don’t deserve to die as a result. That’s why we’ve established another principle: Having Each Other’s Backs. You forgot to hook up your low-pressure inflator? No worries, I caught it during the pre-dive safety check. I miscalculated my gas consumption rate? Good thing you had that sling bottle.

So yeah, mistakes. I’m a PADI instructor and I make them. I did a pretty challenging dive last summer and learned, the hard way, that my dive skills weren’t good enough, so I’ve gone back to basics and enrolled in GUE Fundamentals. And even then, I can’t guarantee that I’ll never make any more mistakes — only that I’ll do my best to learn from them.

Anyone can make a mistake, from beginners to instructors. And sometimes bad stuff just happens. We don’t know what happened to Timothy Chu, and maybe there’s something that can be learned from this. Maybe through an inquiry, and maybe not. But if it makes diving safer and helps prevent similar tragedies, what’s the downside?

You’d think that would be intuitive, right? Unfortunately, the reaction’s been marked by a groundswell of howling, in some quarters, against further “government intervention” or “regulation” — as if regulation is a Bad Thing. Some of it, frankly, is coming from the Twilight Zone. You’ve got people railing against creeping tyranny, and government conspiracies to destroy personal freedom, in what’s probably a reflection of other things going on south of the border. The less said about that, the better.

There’s a worthwhile discussion in how to balance public regulation, industry self-regulation, and personal responsibility, but we don’t need to get into it here. At the end of the day, diving safety isn’t about regulation, or government tyranny, or politics, but about looking out for each other. Because isn’t that the whole point of being neighbours, or dive buddies, or part of any kind of community? Having Each Other’s Backs?

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