|Robert and David Richardson survive after both falling victim to blackout|
In the early morning hours of April 19, 2008, my two sons Robert, 20, and David, 16, left on a 22 ft boat with three of their buddies to fish and freedive just outside Biscayne Bay National Park. Within hours they would become victims of shallow water blackout, their lives precariously balanced between life and death. That day the call to act was thrust upon their three young friends who together faced a nightmarish scene – the outcome of which would depend solely upon them.
Robert and David are experienced freedivers and are adept at hunting fish with Hawaiian slings. To celebrate his 20th birthday, Robert chose to freedive with his brother and their friends Carson Williams, 20, Nicky Bravo, 16, and Richard Howard, 15. A morning of diving delivered success; the boys had bagged four nice fish for supper.
Following lunch, Robert asked David if he would like to make one last dive with him – to a depth of 90 ft. The two jumped back in the water, inhaled deeply, and followed the anchor line down to the bottom. After grabbing some sand, the brothers began their ascent. Feeling the water temperature begin to change as he neared the surface, Robert looked into the waters below to check on his brother. David was sinking motionless in the blue expanse beneath him and, with no time for another breath, Robert dove back down to rescue his brother. Grabbing David around the chest, he began kicking up towards the surface.
Back in the boat, Richard and Nicky were fishing. Carson knew it was past time for the boys to emerge when he saw the pair surface and float face down in the water. He screamed and dove off the front of the boat, catching Nicky’s attention, who followed immediately. Both swam furiously to the motionless pair. Richard, who had never operated a vessel before, quickly managed to move the boat closer to the boys, saving precious moments. The brothers were hauled aboard and the rescuers became engulfed in a state of controlled panic.
The boys’ faces were bluish purple, their eyes were open and staring, and the color of their naturally dark eyes had faded to a watery gray. They were not breathing; they appeared dead. Carson, a certified fire fighter, EMT, and paramedic-in-training, taught life-saving techniques to Nicky and Richard as together, the three struggled to revive the brothers.
Nicky choked back his emotions as he desperately breathed into his dying friend’s mouth. Finally, Robert coughed up blood and gasped for air. Nicky held Robert’s hand as he coaxed him to recovery.
Meanwhile, David – still unconscious - had begun coughing up blood profusely. David briefly held Richard’s gaze, but as his eyes rolled back in his head Richard felt he was witnessing David’s last moments of life. He frantically patted David’s face and pleaded with David to stay with him.
As the brothers slowly recovered, Carson radioed the Coast Guard for help and piloted the boat to the helicopter rendezvous point. Soon the divers were transferred to rescue crews who administered life support and transported them to the hospital where they would later make a full recovery.
I am grateful to God for the lives of my sons and for the actions of their heroic rescuers. Their quick thinking under immense pressure demonstrated maturity and a deep sense of responsibility. It is with an awesome wonder I consider the gift they gave to me that day.
An Interview with Bruce Boyd about his near death experience
Bruce Boyd is from Santa Barbara and after his tour in the US Navy, became a fire fighter for ten years in California. Later he moved to Utah where he started Bruce’s Industrial Painting, a specialist high rise painting company.
CC Bruce, how did your love affair with the sea begin?
BB A close high school friend, Noel Kemp introduced me to freediving in 1960 when I was seventeen. A year later he taught me a painful lesson when he died while freediving at a place called the Deep Hole off the beach in Ventura, L.A. County. Noel was diving for white sea bass and had a shallow water black out.
CC You are 59 now but you had a hard time making it this far in life. I can’t save this question for later, so tell us about your own shallow water black out.
BB This was my first spearfishing trip into Mexico. Although I had experience in shooting white sea bass, halibut, big sheepshead and calico bass along the Pacific coast I was not prepared for the strength and power of a large pargo, (dog snapper). This incredible reef predator when speared will go straight for a hole and take you with him.
I was diving with my friend Richard Glenn at Cabo Pulmo. A large school of pargo surrounded me and I shot the largest one I estimated to be over 50 lbs. The fish went for a hole 40 feet below. While releasing the line on my reel, it jammed and I was being pulled down. After fighting the fish for several minutes I was able to release the reel and started swimming for the surface.
The last thing I remembered was looking up about 10 feet from the surface. The next thing I remembered was waking up in the boat. I had suffered a shallow water blackout and because I was negative I sank back down to the top of the reef. My friend Richard had retrieved me from about 40 feet down and he and Enrique were giving me mouth to mouth resuscitation.
Richard told me later that he thought I was dead but Enrique put his head to my chest and said that he could still hear a faint heartbeat, so they kept going. I was blue and had suffered a severe mask squeeze which ruptured all the capillaries in and around my eyes and bruised my face, turning it purple. They estimated that I was underwater around 6 minutes.
Back then in 1969 Cabo Pulmo was so primitive and remote the Mexicans didn’t even have motors for their boats. It took an hour to row me back to the beach.
There were no services in Pulmo so they took me to a small hotel on the beach about 2 hours away. I stayed there for several days recovering. The next day Richard went out and found my spear gun with the fish still on it. I was very thankful to get this gun back as it was a hand made Attic gun that has landed many big fish since that day. A week later I was back sticking big fish with a new sense of caution for big pargo.
I would like to express my most sincere gratitude and thanks to Dr. Richard Glenn and Enrique Castro for saving my life that day.
Lessons learned: Use a line guide on your gun several feet in front of the reel, and if you’ve shot something you can’t handle, just let go of the gun.
CC Your travels into Baja California were pretty extensive from the sixties through the eighties; tell us a little about them.
BB Yes, I have been on about 35 to 40 freediving trips over the years with divers like Bev Morgan, Dr. Jerry Bastion, Jay Riffe, Ted Hoffman, Terry Dahl, Jerry Henthorn and of course Dr. Richard Glenn. Besides Cabo Pulmo we usually stayed for 2 to 4 weeks at a time diving places like Isla Cerralvo, Punta Arena and Los Frieles. We shot big groupers, pargo, amberjack and roosterfish, which I chose as my signature fish. We all had a fish design we chose to mark our gear.
CC Your second near death experience had nothing to do with diving; tell us about it.
BB On July 5th, 1991 I was involved in an industrial accident where another painter and I fell six stories while painting a grain silo in Burley Idaho. I was permanently disabled and told I would probably not walk again. It was my swimming therapy with mask, fins and snorkel that in three years got me out of the wheel chair, off crutches and using a walking stick. I still had a long way to go but I started scuba diving again with my brother Bill and after ten years of swimming therapy and a few freediving trips each year, I now get around pretty good! I don’t have the stamina I once had for diving in currents and I have trouble spotting halibut buried in the sand due to needing glasses. Very few halibut ever got by me in the old days.
CC Do you have family members that dive?
BB My oldest son Bruce II and I have been on many spearfishing trips over the years. Last year we went to Lapaz, Baja CA. We dove Isla Del Espiritu Sontos for a week of spearing grouper, pargo, and cabrilla. We also hit a cow and had to pay off a crooked cop for going through a flashing green light, but that’s Baja!
CC What about Utah diving and the competitions there?
BB I competed in four competitions at Fish Lake in southern Utah placing first and second for the most pounds of non-game fish. In Sept of 1983 my son Bruce II and I were the only freedivers in one tournament, in which we took first trout and first non-game fish with 68 pounds. But later I told the story of a brown spotted fish I had shot and lost that day that was three times the size of anything turned in. This of course drew comments of “yeah right, the one that got away!” So I went back the following Sat to the same spot with my big reel gun and after an hour of searching found him in 20 feet of water. I made a silent dive and nailed the fish through the top of the head, pinning him to the bottom. The big trout had my fresh spear wound on his left side. There was another big fish tournament going on at Fish Lake and I won first place at 26 lbs. It took 5 days to certify the Utah State Record for German Brown Trout and the fish had lost over 4 lbs. The certified weight was 21 lbs. 12 oz., a length of 35.5 inches and a girth of 21.75 inches.
CC Tell us your future spearfishing plans?
BB I am considering competing in the 2nd Annual Blue Water Classic Spearfishing Tournament at Fish Lake Utah this August.
CC Finally, what advice would you give to a new spearfisherman?
BB Always keep your buddy in the water and close by. Also have a sharp boatman watching you, ready to assist for whatever reason and with a tank ready to go incase of a black out. Trust me on this one, Baja Bruce.
In July of 1999 I was doing some diving off Marathon Key, FL with a few friends. Near late afternoon, the local dive cattle boat was leaving the wreck of the Thunderbolt, so we made our way over top of the wreck. I landed a 27" yellowtail snapper and was energized to get some more nice fish.
A few days earlier I had spotted some big cubera snapper on the wreck and figured I might have a shot at one. After a few reconnaissance dives I spotted a few cautious cubera milling about. I breathed up and began my dive as my friend, Chris, and a girlfriend were spotting me. I lay down on the deck at 90 ft trying to pique the curiosity of the fish. I saw one late in the dive and decided to go back to the surface and give it another shot. At this point I was very concentrated and focused on executing a long quiet dive on the wreck. I breathed up carefully a few minutes and headed down, not paying any attention to where my dive partners were before beginning the demanding dive.
After reaching my stalking spot on the deck of the ship 30 seconds or so into the dive, I looked around, saw a cubera come out for a quick peak, and missed my opportunity to swing the gun in time for the shot. I waited a bit longer for the fish to return, but to my disappointment it never did. I started slowly making my way off the wreck toward the surface.
At this point an amberjack swam by me and I thought, "What the heck - why not?" The fish took off, peeling line out of the reel. I worked the fish to keep it away from tangling in the wreck. Then, a goliath grouper showed up into the mix and tried to get a hold of my amberjack. At this point I was trying to horse the fish away from the wreck and the goliath, and was exerting considerable energy. At 60-70 ft I realized I'd really pushed it and muscled my way with determination toward the surface without letting go of my gun.
At 20 ft from the surface the thought of releasing my weight belt never occurred to me. The next thing I remember was waking up after hitting the surface and then choking and slowly sinking back under the water toward the bottom. For some physiological reason I was choking while I sank but I was unable to kick back up to the surface, unable to swim, and unable to help myself. As I continued to choke and swallow water, completely aware of my surroundings, I spotted Chris out of the corner of my eye. He swam down 10 ft or so, grabbed me, and brought me to the surface where I continued choking and convulsing. I saw the light when I hit the surface and it was the brightest and most beautiful sunlight I've ever seen.
I was nearly another SWB statistic but, as luck would have it, my friend rescued me and I got another shot, no pun intended. I got another chance at life. Chris now regularly asks me for "friendly" discounts.
At that time, awareness of SWB was minimal and there were no safety conscious professionals like Kirk Krack and Martin Stepanek to teach divers how to find their limits safely and not the hard way.
I encourage anyone who enjoys this sport to first, always dive with a someone they would trust with their life and, second, to take a professional freedive course in order to safely discover their limits and potential. No fish is worth your life. Watch for boats driving over you, too, and keep a float with a state regulation dive flag near you when you're diving. In an accident, a legal size dive flag can make the difference between right and wrong.
I was recently free diving off Miami, Florida in about 50' of water. My dive partner, Sheri, and I had both been through Kirk Kracks' Performance Free Diving class. We were spear fishing together as we had many times in the past. We are both committed to staying with and backing up our partner in a "one up and one down" rotation. My previous dive had been a little longer than usual for me at 1 minute 50 seconds. I felt good and relaxed. After a surface interval of close to 3 minutes, I started my next dive. Just before starting my ascent, I spotted a hogfish and speared it. The fish got tangled in a lobster pot line so I freed it. Then my shaft caught the line so I had to free it also. I felt OK coming up, not in any major distress. The next thing I remember is Sheri close behind me asking if I was all right. I had no idea what she was talking about until she said I had been sinking and she had to pull me back up. I felt fine and if she had not told me what had happened I would not have known.
I have spent much time since analyzing what had happened. I have been doing a lot of free diving and this was relatively shallow compared to some of the depths we have done. I was wearing 8 lbs of weight with a shorty 3mm wetsuit. At the surface with a full inhalation I was positively buoyant. My dive partner said that she had watched me surface and then glanced down to see what I had speared. When she looked back up, I was sinking. She immediately dropped her gun, swam down, and pulled me back up. I believe that upon surfacing I exhaled and then blacked out prior to my next inhalation. Since I no longer had a lungful of air I was negatively buoyant and sank. The dive had lasted 1 minute 30 seconds, an average time for this depth. I am convinced that our commitment to stay close together and the knowledge of what to do in the event of a Shallow Water Blackout (thanks to Kirks class) saved my life. What scares me the most about this incident is that this was just a normal dive that I have done thousands of times. I have since lowered the amount of weight I wear and try to be neutral at about 30'. This makes spear fishing harder but increases the safety factor. I also am now getting into the habit of doing "hook breaths" even after relatively shallow dives. This is a quick inhalation followed by pressurizing the air in your lungs (using your tongue to prevent air movement) prior to exhalation). Several of these immediately upon surfacing can help to prevent a blackout. This incident has certainly reinforced the need to dive with a partner and stay with them.