Tragedy at Elephant Head Rock: The Incident Involving Diver Liam Barlow

Tragedy at Elephant Head Rock: The Incident Involving Diver Liam Barlow
Incident LocationDiver’s Full Name
Thailand, Similan Islands, Elephant Head RockLiam Barlow

If you’ve come across any information about the Similan Islands before, then it’s highly likely that you’ve also heard about this particular location, the Elephant Head Rock. Situated between islands 7 and 8, the first remarkable feature that catches your attention before diving into the water is a huge rock protruding from the surface. Close to this rock, you’ll notice three additional boulders. This exposed rock is quite easy to recognize as it breaks through the water and resembles an arch. When the tide is low, the site is given its name based on the largest and tallest boulder, which bears a resemblance to the head of an elephant. Elephant Head Rock is renowned as the second most easily identifiable dive site in the Similan Islands, and at its 131 feet deep, it provides a remarkable diving experience due to its exposed nature, allowing for exceptional visibility ranging from 65 to 98 feet in its deep waters. However, it’s important to be aware that currents and surface waves can pose challenges when exploring this site. Additionally, the water temperature in this area typically ranges between 80.6 to 84.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Adventure Begins

Once underwater at Elephant Head Rock, you’ll encounter a captivating site consisting of numerous colossal granite boulders that are arranged in a stacked formation. Liam Barlow, a 25-year-old medical student, developed a keen interest in diving inspired by his roommate, Chan Onarak, who grew up near an island. Liam decided to pursue his passion for diving. He underwent training and successfully obtained his diving certification. Coincidentally, a mutual friend invited them to embark on a sailing cruise to the captivating Similan Islands, where they instantly fell in love with the serene atmosphere of the location. As avid divers, Liam and Chan had the opportunity to meet two other passionate divers on the island, and they quickly formed a connection with them. After the conclusion of the sailing cruise, the group collectively decided to explore the renowned Elephant Head Rock through a diving expedition. They were informed that the dive site had a depth of 131 feet. Dividing into two teams, the adventurers prepared themselves for the upcoming dive.

A Tragic Turn of Events

The following day, at around 11 A.M., they were transported to the dive site via a speedy boat with their diving gear securely in place. They reviewed their dive plan, which involved descending to a depth of 65 feet. As the surface conditions were choppy, they decided to swiftly submerge themselves before the strong current could potentially carry them away from the designated site. The first team of divers dove in, followed closely by Liam and Chan. Together, they carefully traced their path along the impressive arrangement of boulders, continuing their descent into the depths of the underwater world. The divers found themselves captivated by the breathtaking scenery and the fascinating marine creatures surrounding them. Upon reaching the 65-foot mark, the members of the other diving team signaled their intention to begin ascending. Chan communicated this to Liam, but Liam did not respond. Suddenly, he appeared weak and unresponsive, causing great concern for Chan. In an attempt to assist Liam, Chan gently held on to him, hoping to guide him upward. However, Liam showed no signs of movement or effort.

Recognizing that their oxygen supply was dwindling, a sense of worry began to settle among the divers as they realized they might be overstaying their time at that depth. Concerned about Liam’s condition, one of the remaining divers decided to ascend to seek help, leaving the other three divers at that depth. Chan persistently attempted to communicate with Liam, while the other diver also made efforts to engage with him. The diver kept a close watch on their dive duration, hoping that they wouldn’t run out of air. Eventually, Liam finally responded and initiated a slow ascent. Pausing at approximately 49 feet for a safety stop, during this time, they noticed that Liam was experiencing difficulty moving and appeared sluggish. After spending a minute or two at 49 feet, the trio resumed their gradual ascent toward the next safety stop. To their astonishment, Liam remained below them, avoiding any eye contact. Throughout the ascent, they observed him with confusion as he surfaced momentarily only to descend once again to the depth of 49 feet. At this point, Liam’s movements were sluggish, and Chan, unable to see his face clearly from their position, attempted to capture his attention by banging on his tank. Liam did not respond and continued to sink and drift further away from them. Their air supply was running low.

The other diver, who was slightly ahead, received a signal from Chan indicating his intention to go and get Liam. As Chan approached Liam, it became increasingly apparent that he was not swimming but rather sinking, and he displayed no signs of communication with the rest of the team. Upon reaching Liam, Chan signaled that it was time to ascend. However, Liam had a blank expression on his face and merely continued to breathe without much responsiveness, moving at an extremely slow pace. Liam struggled to make any form of communication. Chan signaled for Liam to ascend and positioned himself behind him to secure a grip on his tank valve. Together, they gradually ascended. Disturbingly, Liam made no move or swim whatsoever. As they reached a depth of 32 feet, Chan tried communicating with Liam once again, but there was no signal or response.

Realizing the severity of the situation, Chan signaled to Liam to inflate his buoyancy control device (BCD) to prevent him from sinking. Unfortunately, Liam remained unresponsive, his arms floating limply. Not risking it, Chan held him from behind and inflated his BCD. Gradually, the divers reached a depth of 26 feet. Suddenly, Liam appeared to be more conscious of his surroundings and signaled that he was feeling unwell. Chan repeated the signal back to Liam, acknowledging the issue. Chan reassured him by signaling that he would guide him through their ascent, providing continuous support. As they reached the surface, Chan carefully positioned Liam on his back and began swimming toward the boat.

Emergency Response and Tragic Outcome

During their journey back to the boat, Liam momentarily removed his regulator to communicate his symptoms to Chan. He expressed experiencing a rapid heartbeat, a heavy sensation on his chest as if an elephant was sitting on it, significant pain, and difficulty in breathing. Then, he properly reinserted the regulator to protect his airway. Upon reaching the boat, they discovered that the first diver who ascended ahead of them had alerted the authorities about the situation, resulting in an ambulance being prepared and waiting to assist. Upon reaching the shore, Liam’s chest pains persisted, and he continued to rely on the regulator for breathing. However, the medical personnel in the ambulance recognized the need for a change and swiftly replaced the regulator with an oxygen supply. At this critical juncture, Liam’s consciousness began to fade, rendering him unable to communicate. He became unresponsive, his eyes barely open, but the emergency responders repeatedly urged him to breathe. Medical professionals swiftly administered an intravenous line to Liam, allowing for direct access to his bloodstream while simultaneously monitoring his oxygen saturation levels. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, they wasted no time and promptly transferred him to the closest hospital. Unfortunately, before reaching the medical facility, Liam ceased breathing. He did not make it.

The Cause of Tragedy

According to the autopsy report, it was determined that Liam had experienced tension pneumothorax, which is characterized by sharp chest pain and a sensation of tightness. Tension pneumothorax is commonly referred to as a collapsed lung. It was later revealed by Liam’s parents that he had once had a history of spontaneous pneumothorax during his younger years, which never recurred. However, his friend was unaware of this medical background. When excessive pressure accumulates within the chest cavity, such as when a diver holds their breath while ascending, it can lead to the tearing of lung tissue. Eventually, the entire lung collapses, resulting in symptoms such as rapid and shallow breathing, as well as chest pain. Due to these factors, medical professionals specializing in dive medicine would not grant medical clearance to individuals with a history of spontaneous pneumothorax. This cautious approach arises from the high likelihood of recurrence among those who have previously experienced such an episode. When it comes to diving, pneumothorax poses a significant risk, as it can lead to a potential fatal arterial gas embolism. However, the most severe danger may arise from tension pneumothorax, which can rapidly develop as the gas expands during ascent or decompression. Given the risks associated with tension pneumothorax, most physicians specializing in dive medicine will strongly advise against scuba diving at any depth when the desire to be submerged in water arises. Alternative options, such as snorkeling, are recommended. Snorkeling allows individuals to still experience the pleasure of being immersed underwater and enjoy the captivating sights of the aquatic realm without exposing themselves to the potential hazards of serious injury.


What happened at Elephant Head Rock in the Similan Islands?

A tragic incident occurred involving diver Liam Barlow, who experienced health issues while ascending.

What caused the diver’s health issues?

Liam Barlow suffered from tension pneumothorax, a collapsed lung, likely due to holding his breath during ascent.

Did Liam Barlow survive the incident?

Unfortunately, Liam Barlow did not survive the incident.

Why was tension pneumothorax a risk for Liam Barlow?

Liam had a history of spontaneous pneumothorax, making him vulnerable to such complications while diving.

What safety measures can prevent such incidents?

Divers should never hold their breath during ascent, and individuals with a history of pneumothorax should avoid scuba diving and opt for snorkeling instead.

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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