Deep Diving Tragedy Unfolds in the Beautiful Depths of the Bahamas

Deep Diving Tragedy Unfolds in the Beautiful Depths of the Bahamas
Incident LocationDeceased Diver
Bahamas, Andros Island Blue HoleArchie Forfar, Anne

On December 11, 1971, two divers got themselves into a life-threatening situation while attempting to set a deep diving record to a depth of 480 feet in the blue holes of Andros Island. Watch till the end to discover the horror story of their dive.

The Unique Blue Holes of Andros Island

Cross Island is one of the islands in the Bahamas, and there are more blue holes on Andros than anywhere else on Earth. The uniqueness of these sinkholes in Andros makes them popular and often visited by many divers. Blue holes are generally circular and have steeply sloping walls. They can be found both inland and offshore. Blue holes were formed when ocean levels were 300 to 400 feet lower than current levels during the last ice age. Rainwater combined and eventually turned to seawater, eroding the foundation of the island, which was made of limestone, creating caverns of different sizes and shapes. Divers are always excited about Andros Island blue holes because of their rarity and ecological and scientific significance. They are always fascinating.

The Dangers of Deep Diving

Several divers have dared to dive to extreme depths in these blue holes. Diving at extreme depths is called deep diving, and it can be very dangerous, as we will cover next. Deep diving is diving to a depth beyond the benchmark accepted by the diving community for recreational divers. Diving beyond 98 feet is often regarded as a deep dive, but in technical diving, the deep dive is a dive beyond 200 feet. At this depth, the use of oxygen alone becomes unsafe due to a high risk of oxygen toxicity. When diving beyond 200 feet, the partial pressure of oxygen rises to such a level that it becomes toxic to the central nervous system, also known as oxygen toxicity or oxygen poisoning. It can cause varied symptoms such as breathing difficulties, dizziness, and seizures.

Besides oxygen toxicity, divers who go beyond 98 feet can suffer the effects of nitrogen narcosis. However, divers who’ve gotten used to diving beyond this step may no longer feel narcosis at such depths until they go much farther. Nitrogen narcosis, also called “rapture of the deep,” is a change in consciousness caused by breathing compressed inert gas at depth. Divers often feel uncomfortable and confused, affecting their ability to judge certain situations and make decisions. This oftentimes causes them to make the wrong decisions, which could lead to endangering their life. For deep dives or dives beyond 200 feet, it’s advisable to make use of gas mixtures like trimix, a combination of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium used during a deep dive with technical diving equipment and techniques.

The Ill-Fated Record Attempt

In 1971, a group of well-experienced divers made their way to the Andros Island Blue Hole in the Bahamas. The divers were Archie Forfar (38 years old) and Gunderson (23 years old), Jim Lockwood (21 years old), and Sheck Exley (22 years old). Sheck was there as a support diver for the rest of the divers who dived into the depths.

Jim, for the sake of training, set up a regimen of progressive deeper dives close to the drop-off walls of the Andros. Jim was the most experienced in deep diving among the four divers. He held the record for dives below 400 feet, having made more than 150 dives in his career. Jim went to the Bahamas to visit Tom Mount, a fellow diver, because he wanted to explore the virgin blue holes in the Bahamas. Jim was introduced to Archie and Anne, who had previously been diving between the depths of 380 and 400 feet.

Jim, Archie, and Anne had discussions and all agreed to attempt to break the Watson Gruner record for the deepest dive. In October 1968, Neil Watson and John Gruner had dived to a depth of 437 feet on air in the Bahamas. Jim, Archie, and Anne planned to dive to 480 feet. With this determination, they started workup dives. They first made 40 dives below 400 feet, and next, they made another 25 dives approaching the 450-foot mark. Their practice dives went smoothly, and there were no difficulties encountered. This was significant evidence that they had mastered the art of diving beyond 400 feet.

The official record attempts were supposed to be set for December 11, 1971. Archie, Anne, and Jim were ready for the record-breaking dive. Sheck and some other divers were there as support divers to keep an eye on them. Archie planned to use a weighted cable, like Neil and John also used for their descent while setting the deep diving record three years earlier. Together with the weighted cable, he also planned to use a traveler clip system, which is sliding down with the divers for maximum depth recordings. All these precautions were taken to ensure their survival because when under a narcosis attack, you’ll begin to lose consciousness.

Most divers who have experienced narcosis usually retain their regulators and continue breathing, but what this team of divers planned was to ensure that their buoyancy compensators were inflated fully during the descent and to tie some weights behind their knees. Once they straightened their legs, this weight would automatically drop off their knees if a blackout happened to them.

Such a diver would float up to where Sheck was located at about 300 feet, and he would be able to recover the diver. They fixed an engine block as a dead weight on the end of the 480-foot cable, but they didn’t unspool the cable before the dive commenced. Archie and Anne were to leave the fall-away weight system and use an empty buoyancy compensator for the drop, while Jim stayed with the original system and made his descent with an inflated buoyancy compensator. Jim intended to use the positive buoyancy safety factor together with the weighted bar. However, Archie and Anne had different perspectives on this, so they didn’t use it.

The Tragic Descent

Jim immediately realized that he had gotten into trouble as soon as he made his descent. The cable they were using was oily and greasy, and it was all over his hands. Jim had difficulties holding the inflator valve for the pony bottle through which his buoyancy compensator was being inflated. The weight behind his knees made him drop too quickly into the depth. He couldn’t get anything into his vest to reduce the excessive negative buoyancy. Jim went down as fast as 200 feet per minute. Jim thought that Archie and Anne were not keeping up with him, and he was trying to wipe off his oily hands on his wetsuit. It was extremely difficult for Jim as he was consuming more energy than necessary due to the stress as he was passing into the deep.

Shack, their support diver, was hovering at a depth of 300 feet and watching their dives. Archie and Anne had both gone so far into the deep, and somehow they lost control of themselves. Once Shack noticed that Archie and Anne were in trouble in the deep, he immediately descended below 400 feet. He was desperate to rescue these two divers, but all efforts to rescue them proved abortive. Although the other support divers had determined they wouldn’t exceed 300 feet, they had no option but to go deeper for the sake of Archie and Anne.

Bill Wiggins dove as deep as 360 feet, but due to the effect of narcosis, he couldn’t go any further. Randy Hilton, another support diver at 300 feet, also dove deeper, close to 400 feet, but was also affected by narcosis. Shack watched his two friends, Archie and Anne, in great horror from a distance. They were still breathing on the steeply sloping wall. Archie’s head was down against the engine block, and he was still kicking gently as though he was going down the cable. Anne was about 10 feet away on one side.

Jim became unconscious at about 400 feet, and he began having tunnel vision. Jim was trying his best to survive at the depth. He was sure that he would probably run into the engine block when he got to the bottom of the cable. He had not opened his inflator valve, but when he got close to Archie, who was still doing very well at that point, Archie helped him inflate his buoyancy compensator. Archie unknowingly expended so much energy doing this that, before he knew it, narcosis had taken him over. Possibly not wanting to leave Archie alone in the deep, Jim, who had become unconscious, managed to get himself to ascend back to Shack, who was at 300 feet. Shack examined Jim and assured him that there was nothing much wrong with him. Archie had somehow saved Jim’s life but couldn’t help himself or his girlfriend in the end. Archie and Anne were lost, and they were unable to recover them.

A Tragic Outcome

A dive that started fine later turned into a horror story for these divers. Three embarked on the accomplishment of this feat, but only one made it out alive in the end. Truly, diving at these great depths isn’t for the faint-hearted.

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What are blue holes and why are they popular in Andros Island?

Blue holes are sinkholes that are circular in shape with steep walls. They were formed when ocean levels were lower during the last ice age, resulting in rainwater combining and eventually turning into seawater, eroding the limestone foundation of the island. Andros Island has the highest concentration of blue holes on Earth, making them popular among divers due to their rarity, ecological significance, and scientific value.

What are the dangers of deep diving?

Deep diving refers to diving beyond the depths accepted by the recreational diving community. Beyond certain depths, deep diving can be extremely dangerous due to two main factors: oxygen toxicity and nitrogen narcosis. Oxygen toxicity occurs when the partial pressure of oxygen rises to toxic levels, which can lead to symptoms such as breathing difficulties, dizziness, and seizures. Nitrogen narcosis, also known as “rapture of the deep,” is a change in consciousness caused by breathing compressed inert gas at depth, affecting judgment and decision-making abilities.

How did the ill-fated record attempt unfold?

In December 1971, a group of experienced divers, including Archie Forfar, Anne, Jim Lockwood, and Sheck Exley, planned to break the deep diving record in the Andros Island Blue Hole. Their practice dives went smoothly, indicating their mastery of diving beyond 400 feet. During the official record attempt, Jim encountered difficulties with the oily cable, descending too quickly and experiencing stress. Archie and Anne lost control in the deep, and despite rescue attempts by support divers, they couldn’t be saved. Jim, unconscious at around 400 feet, managed to ascend back to the support diver at 300 feet, but Archie and Anne were lost.

What precautions did the divers take for their safety?

The divers took various precautions to ensure their survival during the dive. They planned to use a weighted cable, a traveler clip system, and inflated buoyancy compensators. The weighted cable and traveler clip system were intended to prevent blackout incidents. In case of a blackout, the weights tied behind their knees would automatically drop off, causing the diver to float up, where a support diver could recover them. Additionally, using gas mixtures like trimix and technical diving equipment and techniques were advised for deep dives beyond 200 feet.

What was the outcome of the record attempt?

The record attempt turned into a tragedy. Out of the three divers who embarked on the dive, only one, Jim, survived. Archie and Anne were lost in the deep and couldn’t be recovered. The incident serves as a reminder of the risks involved in deep diving and the importance of proper training, precautions, and awareness of one’s limitations.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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