QR Code
Open Door Travelers       https://opendoortravelers.com
[Skip to Content]

The Travel Blog

Bent in Belize - Getting the Bends Diving the Blue Hole

Image Title: Stalactites at 120' in the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Key, Belize [Photo: Ricardo Auriemo]
Stalactites at 120' in the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Key, Belize [Photo: Ricardo Auriemo]

Image Title: Decompression Sickness (DCS) or the Bends Symptoms. [Photo: Internet]
Decompression Sickness (DCS) or the Bends Symptoms. [Photo: Internet]

Image Title: Entering the Decompression Chamber in San Pedro, Belize. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Entering the Decompression Chamber in San Pedro, Belize. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Dr. Daniel Gonzoles - Gynecologist AND Dive Physician. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Dr. Daniel Gonzoles - Gynecologist AND Dive Physician. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: The iconic Blue Hole on Lighthouse Reef, Belize. [Photo: Internet]
The iconic Blue Hole on Lighthouse Reef, Belize. [Photo: Internet]

Image Title: Phil's Dive Profiles. 1 & 2 on first day, 3 & 4 on second day. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Phil's Dive Profiles. 1 & 2 on first day, 3 & 4 on second day. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

 

Yep - I'm now a member of the dubious SCUBA diver's club of Bent Divers. I got Bent in Belize while diving the iconic Blue Hole. The Diver's Alert Network (DAN) reports that about 1,000 divers join this club anually out of the bazillion dives taken around the world every year.

I first certified as an open water diver when I was 16 years old in 1981 with PADI. I re-certified with NAUI in 1987 at Washington State University with my then girl friend/now wife and blogging partner, Diane, for a PE credit and subsequently got a PADI Advanced Open Water Certification in 2001. Almost all of my dives for the last 10 years have been warm water charter trips and have been one or two shallow tourist dives with a guide.

I think that the Blue Hole was probably too ambitious for my current experience and fitness level. Even with my certification and good dive skills, my previous dive before this was six-months earlier and before that was probably three years earlier. I don't own a dive computer. True confession: In the past I have only really paid attention to depth and time when a dive computer comes with rental gear.

The Dive Charter we went with in Belize (Hamanasi Dive Resort) required us to do two checkout dives with them the day before the Blue Hole and everything went just fine. Both my dive buddy Wes and I were a little light on the first dive of the first day and had trouble holding a safety decompression stop of 3 minutes at 15 feet – we kept slowly bobbing up to the surface and had to actively swim down to 15 feet, but we were well within the Navy No Decompression Limit (NDL) tables so it really was a precautionary thing. The second dive of the first day was uneventful after 1.5 hours of surface interval with 2 more lbs of weight. The next day, we dove the Blue Hole. Wes stayed shallow at ~ 50 feet because he didn’t have an Advanced Open Water Certification. Despite my “Plan” to just dive with Wes and stay shallow, I went down to the caves because I had the cert and Wes had other divers for buddies.

So, I joined the guide and another diver and went all the way down. It was a ~ 1 minute descent to about 90 ft and followed by another 4 minutes of exploring descent that bottomed at 137 ft for about 3 minutes and started a slow circular ascent over the next ~15 minutes and then 5 minutes safety decompression stop at 15 feet – total time, 29 minutes.  Great dive, no issues. An hour-fifteen later we did a second dive of 46 minutes max depth 60 feet/Ave Depth 45 ft. Again, no issues. You can see my recollection of dive profiles in the pictures.

About 30 min after the second dive, while eating lunch I started to feel the symptoms – tight chest, numb fingers, dizzy. I really thought I was having a heart attack. The Captain and Dive Master did an evaluation and put me on oxygen. When my symptoms didn't get better after 30 minutes on oxygen, they aborted the planned third dive, and headed back to the mainland which was a 2 hour boat ride. From the dock, they had a truck waiting to take me to a local physician who confirmed DCS and then I was on a medevac flight to San Pedro and a Decompression Chamber.

The doc (also a gynecologist – really, check out the picture) examined me and sent me to the chamber. The techs took my credit card and placed me in the 5 foot diameter chamber with a nurse for a 4:45 hr decompression ride. The whole thing cost about $6K of which my insurance will cover some of once I blow past my annual deductible.

Fortunately, the awesome Belizian Dreams Resort where we were staying, arranged for the three-hour private car ride from San Pedro back to Hopkins and they comped us the extra night stay because I couldn’t fly for 72 hours and my original flight was scheduled in 48 hours.Truly First Class service from Belizian Dreams Resort.

Back to the dive computer. Having my own computer - and knowing how to use it - would have certainly given me more situational awareness and an exact bottom-time profile rather than my guesstimates and blind trust of the dive masters. It's really not fair to put blind trust into dive masters and I don't associate any responsibility for this incident to the dive masters on the trip and I would 100% recommend Hamanasi Dive Resort.

As an amateur post-mortem (pun) review, I think the biggest contributing factors were dehydration and air consumption. Alcohol and overexertion were not contributing factors. I’ve always been a bit of an air hog and I got back on the boat from the Blue Hole with just 400psi so it’s likely that I used more air than the NDL table averages. Regardless, I don’t think that I ended up with DCS because of lack of information from a dive computer, but I do think that having my own computer is a must if I want to keep diving more than the occasional 40 ft tourist dive. I also think that I will pad my future decompression stops and surface intervals knowing that I had this experience.

The other lesson learned is to carry the DAN insurance.  For $109.00 a year, all of this would have been covered and if it was even more serious it could have been a lot more expensive.

Anyway, I think my experience is a good reminder not to be complacent about SCUBA diving. As adventure tourism continues to grow its important to remember that we are untimately responsible for our own safety and that adventurous activities can get very serious very quickly.

Phil