Could have died adrift on the open ocean at Diver's Nightmare - May 15, 2011
Several months before our planned trip on May 14, 2011, I had set up a SCUBA diving schedule with an experienced local PADI Instructor that I personally knew and dove with on previous trips to Tobago. Unfortunately he became ill, and after provisioning the boat on Saturday, May 14, 2011, I got the phone number of Johnny of SAS as someone who owned a dive shop and might be able to help us out at the last minute.
Unfortunately, I did not check him out in advance, either on this web site, or with anyone else I know in Tobago. That was our first big mistake.
As you may have heard, on Sunday, May 15, 2011, Johnny Procope and three divers were lost on Divers Dream.
I was one of the 3 divers with Johnny. I am a PADI Dive Master, Ola is a PADI Instructor and Corey is a PADI Rescue Diver. We are all very experienced divers.
We were scheduled to meet Johnny at Store Bay at 9 AM. He called and pushed back the start time to 9:30 AM. He called again and pushed back the start time to 10 AM. By about 10:15 AM we called him because our dinghy was at the beach by Bago's Bar. He was at the Store Bay Park. We moved the dinghy to pick him up and the tanks and weights.
He was aware that we wanted to dive Diver's Dream, Diver's Thirst and Cove Ledge from our cat. We were diving from our sailboat which Johnny knew before we started. Our boat captain was licensed, a resident of Tobago for 18 years and well experienced, but he did not know the dive site, all of which Johnny also knew before we started out.
Once on board we confirmed that he could locate the dive sites on our charts or by the boat's GPS. Johnny said he had a GPS with the co-ordinates but lent it to somebody. We asked him if he could call for the co-ordinates. He made some calls and said he had to return to the beach to borrow a GPS. When he returned he had a piece of paper with co-ordinates on it. His delaying and disorganization meant a 3 hour delay in starting from the 9 AM start time requested.
Johnny appeared to know what he was doing. We signed the typical forms. He spoke a good dive briefing. He is friendly and very personable. He is a natural salesman at heart and very smooth.
We started out with a heading Johnny provided. The captain entered the co-ordinates but they were wrong as they placed us in the center of Tobago. Johnny assured us he could eyeball the drop position for the site.
This was our second big mistake. We did not know at the time that Diver's Dream should only be dove in the mornings because of typical worsening conditions in the afternoon, and the difficulty of a search in afternoon if anything goes wrong. But this is why we hired a local dive shop for the trip, so we could be warned about local conditions that should be taken into account.
The dive did not start until 1:47 PM (Dive computer log). At that time we were several miles off shore with about 3 foot rollers, but otherwise relatively calm water. It was foggy and overcast. The sun was partially peeking but conditions were deteriorating since earlier that morning.
Johnny's attempt to eyeball the drop point was wrong. We were actually on Drew Bank, not Diver's Dream. The dive was uneventful and lasted 56:20 minutes. Max depth 51 average depth 41, we were on the flat the entire time.
Aside from the fact Johnny could not find the dive site, the dive was uneventful, but upon surfacing the boat could not be seen. We looked for the boat and Ola spotted it in the distance, further downstream. It was hard to estimate but I would say it was about 3/4 miles away, periodically moving in a search pattern.
Our Third Mistake was not checking the size of Johnny's SMB. We hired Johnny to give us expert local advice about diving conditions and did not check his equipment. After the fact we discovered that Johnny's SMB, the size of a soft ball and partially deflated, sunk after 15 minutes. People were amazed that even Johnny would have done that site without a proper SMB.
Once the SMB went down 15 minutes after the start, the captain continued to follow the same path for 15 minutes then called for the Coast Guard giving the GPS coordinates of both the last point he saw our SMB and his present location. By that time, conditions worsened. 6 foot rollers meant that we could only see the boat when we were on top of the wave. It also meant that even with our SMB sausages extended, our sausages could not be seen unless we were on top of the wave at the exact time someone was looking.
The surface current seemed to be moving faster than the current below. We were taking pictures during the dive requiring Johnny to stop periodically to wait for us. I believe we were actually behind the boat's projected path for us because of the difference between the speed of the drift at the bottom and at the surface.
The 3 of us each had personal SMBs and whistles. Johnny did not have a whistle, Corey gave him an extra that she had. I also had an air horn and mirror, but it was overcast with no sun, making the mirror useless. We connected to each other as a group to wave our SMBS and make concerted whistles to the boat. I also sounded the air horn repeatedly as part of the signaling effort. The boat did not respond to concerted efforts to signal.
By about 3:15 we spotted the boat in the distance and it appeared closer. Johnny said that maybe something happened to the captain so he would swim to the boat about 1/2 mile away. We 3 stayed together as a group. We kept in whistle contact. Johnny made it about 2/3 of the way and the boat turned. Within about 15 more minutes or so we lost both the boat and Johnny.
At that point, I realized that we only had 3 hours of light left and the current would move us further away from the island. I said we need to save ourselves. Its only three miles, lets swim toward the mountain. (We could see the tip of the mountain over the waves) We agreed to start swimming for the non-moving island and not further out to sea toward the moving boat.
We continued as a chain, holding the other's octopus to remain together. We took a compass heading of 70 degrees, we dropped weights, reversed the BCDs and laid on top to make swimming easier. We all had snorkels so we could continue to swim as waves broke over us. We all wore 2mm shorties.
A Coast Guard helicopter passed over us twice and did not spot us. We also saw Hard Play (fishing boat with tuna tower) but it did not see us. Each time we stopped swimming and tried to signal as a group with SMBs and whistles. The sun was completely blocked by this time so the mirror was useless. We only had pocket lights with us (AAx4) and mine was not working because I did not change the batteries.
Over the coarse of the 3 hours on the surface it appeared that we were making progress. We had crossed over a particularly rough patch and Ola (also a licensed yacht captain) determined that the current had changed and appeared to be moving toward the island of Tobago and not out toward Granada or Venezuela. (We mentioned this to the coast guard later so that people might know to try to get to the inside current as soon as possible which might allow them to wash up in Plymouth or somewhere further North and not go out to sea)
It was getting dark and the lights were on buildings we could see from the water.
Around 6 PM R and Sea found us, Johnny was on board. He yelled, "Yeah" and we yelled "Yeah". They picked him up about 2 minutes earlier. Apparently, when the sail boat turned, Johnny decided to swim to shore and not return to us in the group. We were deliriously happy to not be dead.
Within minutes of being picked up it started raining and was dark.
We suffered some sunburn, jellyfish stings, cramps but no real injuries, but we never panicked. It was the combination of cool headedness, experience and Grace that saved us. We never entertained for a second that we would not reach the shore, no matter how long it took.
What if our group were open water, once a year divers? There would have been 3 dead divers.
Sometimes people say things that later you connect but do not connect at the time. Johnny said he likes to climb mountains, and is a thrill seeker. These are not the characteristics of a dive leader.
We met the coast guard the next day without Johnny because he shut his phone off. We called his partner or friend "Davey" who drove to Johnny's house to get him to the Coast Guard. Eventually Johnny got there. The Coast Guard asked him if he would have done anything different. He said he should have had a proper SMB. Then he said, I would have taken Ola's fins because the power bands on Johnny and Ola's identical fins were broken and Ola's were not. (He actually said this to the Coast Guard)
Johnny could not produce his PADI instructor card or ID number, had no proof of insurance, and claimed he was a member of the dive association. Johnny signed the Coast Guard report stating he had a business, was a PADI licensed Instructor and was a member of the Association.
I personally spoke with Alvin Douglas (President of ATDO) that night after we had been saved, who said Johnny was thrown out of the Association of Tobago Dive Operators. I also believe his PADI license may be under investigation or has been suspended. Alvin also saw the SMB Johnny used - and I told Alvin to put it in the "Tobago Diver's Museum" as what to never use as an SMB.
Ola and I intend to file an incident report with PADI as we are certain Johnny will not.
I have 68 dives in Tobago (plus others before this computer) and we love Tobago and the diving there.
Johnny is a very friendly and likable guy and it is easy to see how his friends may innocently refer him because they like Johnny, without really knowing about him professionally.
In my opinion, Johnny is a danger to the diving public and a blight on diving in Tobago. Since this web site is an important source of information, I feel it is important to provide accurate information to protect the public and Tobago Tourism.
Its All About the Journey