Lost in the Caribbean Sea

Edit, August 12: Additional details: Nic Bach and Roatan Marine Park

When one of the Roatan Marine Park directors invited me to dive two offshore seamounts, I didn't think much about the dive plan. The director has a decade on the island, and he is more experienced than myself and most others, but with qualifications oftentimes comes complacency. As a professional diver, I know better than to follow dive plans blindly.

Despite fast and loose planning from four dive professionals, what got us into trouble was an incompetent and negligent captain. What kept us in trouble was a local dive shop owner who neglected for three hours to tell anyone that we were in danger. 

We spent more than seven hours alone in the water, rescued only three minutes before sunset. Darkness without rescue could have meant death. We could have used those three hours. 

Entered the water: 11:01 am
Surfaced after dive: 11:47 am
Dive time: 46 minutes
Surface interval: 6 hours, 16 minutes

Dive shop learns that we are missing: ~1:00 pm
Dive shop informs the Marine Park: ~4:00 pm
Rescued: 6:03 pm
Sunset: 6:06 pm

Boat: 24-foot panga, equipped with approximately eight tank holders, 75hp four-stroke Yamaha engine, life jackets, mobile phones, GPS, water, food, and approximately double the fuel necessary; no emergency oxygen, no first aid, and no marine radio

I was the first of four divers to surface. Immediately it was clear to me that we were in serious trouble. The seas were flat for miles in every direction, but there was no boat, only our surface marker. 

Lost at sea, May 4, approximately 28 miles from Roatán and 20 miles from the mainland.

We had attached our surface marker to the seamount before the dive so that our captain and his assistant would be able to stay in one place, and so that we could more easily ascend at the same spot where we descended. Discovering our boat gone, the surface marker allowed us to avoid being washed away with the current, assuming it didn't break free from either current or bad luck. Drifting aimlessly in open water 20 miles from land is basically a death sentence.

We also knew with a fair bit of certainty that at least one person at home (our eventual rescuer) had our GPS coordinates (in additional to our captain, who also had our GPS coordinates). To be rescued, we needed to stay put. We needed to stay attached to the seamount. 

Panga equipped (not shown) with tank holders, docked at Roatan Divers, that we took to the seamounts. This is basically the same as Henri's boat, Barracuda, except fewer horsepower (75 as opposed to 150). With single-engine four-stroke engines (more finicky than two-strokes), neither is a great choice for the seamounts. Engine trouble was not an issue that day, but if an engine fails, you're boat is going to drift. There are no moorings where we dove. A better choice would be a boat with dual engines, and one with a marine radio. Dive boats in Roatán are rarely equipped with marine radios, despite that being the law, but hopefully that culture will change. 

One of our first courses of action upon surfacing and seeing no boat was to return to depth and attach a second marker to the seamount. The first marker kept us attached to the seamount and alive. The second marker gave us a backup in case the first marker failed. 

We had five markers between four divers, and with two attached to the seamount already that left three remaining. About an hour after hitting the surface, we spotted a fishing boat perhaps a mile away, circling slowly, turning toward us and loitering as we waved our markers and blew our whistles. They didn't respond, disappearing toward the mainland. We didn't see another boat for five or six hours, until we were rescued, but we did have false alarms. Airplanes, at least two, maybe three. It would have been nice to have had a signaling mirror. Not exactly standard gear for the region, and frankly I don't know any divers who dive with one, but I'll be attaching one to my safety marker.

We tied our remaining three markers together, to create one massive jumbo marker. One of our three remaining markers was a six-foot, wide-body marker that doubles as a 30-pound lift bag. It was able to handle being the foundation for our makeshift marker of three. We are fortunate that between four divers we had five total markers, and two 100’ reels. I’d venture a guess that most professionals on our island carry only 40’ or 60’ reels, neither of which would have done us much good on a seamount this deep. We also had two flashlights, at least one Storm whistle, and a couple of dive knives. We did not have snorkels. The conditions didn't require them, and although they would have been nice to have, they might have also gotten us into trouble: our heads in the water, bored, watching for marine life and losing heat even more rapidly.

The conditions were fantastic, even if the weather itself was a threat. One of our divers suffered heatstroke, and back on land lost consciousness and vomited. By our eighth hour in the water, I was experiencing signs of hypothermia (e.g. chattering teeth, sleepy eyes, perhaps a bit of indifference). None of us had wetsuits, but most had a hood or vest. The divers lent me a zipup top and vest to help keep me warm, on top of my hoodie. Being the skinniest, I was most at risk for hypothermia. Being English, a couple of our divers were more at risk of sunburn. I gave another diver my rash guard so that he could protect his face from the sun. He didn't have much skin showing, but still he managed to look scorched by the end of it all. The curse of an Englishman.

I was humbled by the unselfishness of my friends in the water. I said no when they first offered their gear to help keep me warm. It was only later when I heard one say to another that I was getting too cold, that I realized that I needed to stop trying to tough it out and instead accept their generosity. When they later got too cold and needed their gear back, we huddled up together for body heat, and by the time we had been found, our bodies were wrapped together, my back resting on my backplate and wing, chest angled toward the sky, with another diver on top of me, chest to chest, and our gear tied to the marker so that we could more confidently stay in one place throughout the night.

Being the first to get cold, I was also the first to consider what it might be like to spend the night in open water. Within 30 seconds of hitting the water, I knew that we were in danger, and within five minutes of being on the surface I was already mentally preparing myself to spend the night. At the risk of coming across as pessimistic, I pushed the others to consider what we would do in an overnight scenario, so that we wouldn't be making key decisions later in the day when we would be colder, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and more prone to mental errors. One of our divers suggested swimming to the mainland, but fortunately that idea was squashed pretty quickly. We made a plan early, and our plan was to stay put and stay together.

After more than seven hours in the water, we were rescued three minutes before sunset. There was a local captain who knew our GPS coordinates, but unfortunately it had taken hours for somebody to raise the alarm. Had we not been able to remain attached to the seamount, those coordinates would have offered nothing more than a starting point for a search area that would have grown continually larger, as minutes snowballed to hours and morning turned to night.

Our rescuers spotted us not by our makeshift marker, because by then it was already too dark, but by the flashing from one our flashlights. We had two torches, neither with full charges but each with juice. Whether we signaled the boat before or after the boat was visible, I don't know. But I do know that we had turned one torch on and off, once or twice quickly, before the boat came into view. It's possible that they spotted us then. Thankfully the seas were uncharacteristically calm, otherwise it's unlikely that they would have been able to reach us before darkness. 

The boat that rescued us three minutes before sunset, traveling 40 knots (46mph) to find us.

We saw our rescuers silhouetted against the sunset, like something out of a Hollywood movie, a cliché that makes you roll your eyes it's so fake, only this felt really fucking real. They beelined toward our us, fast, approaching 40 knots. FUCK YEAHs and THAT'S A FUCKING BOAT washed away our humbling sunset, and we knew that we were safe, absent something crazy like a shark attack in those final few minutes. We were getting stung by quite a few jellyfish, though.

During our first few hours on the surface, we speculated about what might have happened to our captain. Understanding what might have happened to him would inform our planning. Also, we were curious. What the fuck happened to our boat?! Initial speculation from other divers was that perhaps the engine had failed, and that he was drifting in open water, in danger himself. That was certainly a possibility, but my instinct right away was that he had fucked off, gone fishing, and gotten lost. 

Only the captain and his assistant know for certain what happened, and neither of them has said anything to me, but that's what I think happened: They fucked off and went fishing. Our captain ventured too far from our marker, overconfident in his navigation. He neglected his primary responsibilities, and we almost paid with our lives. 

When our captain realized that he couldn't find us, he panicked. After viewing the GPS data from that day, it is clear that he did not execute a search pattern, nor did he head for the closest help (either Cayos Cochinos or the mainland). Instead he navigated aimlessly until fuel was an issue.

At that point, he called the Roatan Divers.

[Edit, May 17: The call from our captain to the dive shop was received by the dive shop's captain, our captain's father, who then informed the owner of Roatan Divers.]

The owner of the dive shop initiated a failed search and rescue attempt, informing neither the marine park nor other dive shops that we were in trouble. For three hours, the few people who knew our situation said nothing. It's impossible for me to know exactly why the dive shop said nothing.

But I do know that we left from their dock, with their captain's father at the helm, and that their owner was personally involved in our pre-dive planning and pre-departure gear check, going so far as to tell me shortly before departure to not bother checking the air in our tanks because he had checked them and they were all 3000psi (mine turned out to be a few hundred psi short of 3000).

[Edit, May 17: After further discussions, it's my understanding that the owner of the dive shop checked only the tanks that he provided, but not all of the tanks. That was unclear to me until now, but I did know before the dive that my tank was not provided by Roatan Divers.]

Perhaps they preferred to solve the situation quietly? Perhaps they were concerned that a more involved rescue might impact their personal or professional reputations? I don't know, but I do know that they had enough information to know that we were in serious danger, and they said nothing.

[Edit, May 17: After speaking with one of the directors at the marine park, it is my understanding that Roatan Divers kept silent not to protect their own reputation, but rather the reputation of our friend, the director from the marine park who organized the trip, hired the boat captain.]

Our captain has said that a squall (i.e. brief, intense storm) arrived while we were underwater. 

I don't buy it.

As for the weather, I spoke with a marine park employee who was on the ferry from the mainland (La Ceiba) to Roatán. She said, "It rained, but it wasn't a storm." 

Qualified or not, our captain accepted responsibility for the job ahead, and then he failed us. The marine park employee told me that locals, anecdotally, blame our having been lost at sea on the captain and his poor choices, whereas most gringos on the island seem to blame our dive group for having hired a terrible captain.

It's true that our dive leader hired a poor captain; however, that captain also accepted the responsibility of being our captain. He knows his qualifications better than anyone.

The captain of a boat is responsible for navigation, unquestionably and without debate, and the captain is responsible for everyone on board. Instead, he fucked off and went fishing. Or maybe he didn't go fishing. Who knows. But it was his job to bring us home and he did not do that. It was his job to navigate properly and clearly he did not do that, neither before he lost us nor while he searched.

And the only person who accepted those responsibilities was our captain. He accepted them, and then either failed those responsibilities or he skirted them. I suspect it's the latter, but the former isn't really all that OK either. They're serious responsibilities, with lives depending on them.

It is possible that a squall hit, but I don't buy it. Perhaps there was a squall wherever he happened to be, after he had left us alone to go fishing, but there was no evidence of bad weather at our seamount. Not before the dive, not during the surface scare, and not during the dive. In fact, the weather and conditions were uncharacteristically fantastic, especially later in the day when things typically tend to get a bit rougher. The water was flat, flat, flat, not a single wave felt or seen all day.

Even if a squall did hit our location, and I don't think that one did, there is still no excuse: If the captain did not know how to use the GPS with which he was provided before the trip, he should have asked how to use the equipment with which he had been provided, or he should have stayed by our marker instead of leaving. Even with bad weather, if he had stayed in one place, he or his assistant should have been able to keep his eyes on the marker. It just doesn't add up. 

Two days after our rescue, I spoke with the owner of Roatán Divers, who told me that our captain went to the hospital the night we were rescued, reportedly with exhaustion and anxiety, worried about what would happen to him and potentially his family. He was worried about the repercussions for his actions, not apparently for the safety of those he left behind.

Two weeks later, and still no word from our captain. I have requested, via the marine park, a meeting with our captain, so that we can hear in his words what happened. It's been about a week since I made that request, and I've heard nothing. I'm not holding my breath, but I was able to speak with the owner of the dive shop about why he chose to say nothing. 

[Edit, May 17: There is nothing substantial included in this story that I did not first share with the owner of Roatan Divers, face to face, two days after the rescue. I waited an additional 10 days before sharing my story publicly: to give myself time to cool, to give myself time to gather more information, to give the marine park time to respond to my request for a formal debrief.]

Roatan Divers received a call from our captain, already lost, who said that he did not know how to use the GPS and that he could not find us. The owner of the dive shop chose to tell no one, instead attempting solve the problem himself by taking another boat to meet the lost captain, so that he could either show him how to use the GPS, or more likely take care of it himself.

Unfortunately, this attempt failed because the lost captain had unknowingly reset the current GPS coordinates by pressing MOB (i.e. man overboard) approximately five miles from our location.

Even if this had not happened, the resetting of the GPS coordinates, and even if our lost captain and the dive shop owner dive use our correct GPS coordinates instead of the red herring coordinates, the dive shop owner should have sounded the alarm immediately. We were no longer in eyesight of the captain, and by even conservative estimates he would have known that we had been on the surface for an hour or more. Also, we were nearly 30 miles from home, and it was quite possible that we had drifted from the seamount and were continuing to drift in open water, toward who knows where. 

The possibility that we were drifting aimlessly in open water is an emergency situation. 

Even if we aren't drifting, it's still a dangerous situation. At that point, we are missing divers. In my mind, there is no debate, but we debated this point and agreed to disagree, closing with my request that he make a different decision if in the future, if he finds himself in a similar situation. 

The dive shop owner said that his decision was poor only in hindsight, whereas I believe that his decision was poor outright. I say this not to point fingers, but as a reminder that missing divers require immediate attention, an organized plan, and backup resources. With any search and rescue, it is better to err on the side of caution. 

Ask for help if people are in danger. Notify others. Do this immediately. 

There has been some debate as to whether or not we were "his" divers, him being the dive shop owner. Although this is irrelevant, because any dive professional who knows that divers are missing has an obligation to raise the alarm, I'll put forward a few facts, only because the owner of the dive shop was quite defensive that neither he nor his shop had anything to do with our dive. Again, I think it's irrelevant, but for the sake of posterity and transparency, here are a few facts:

  • We departed from their dock
  • The owner of the dive shop contributed gear to our dive (e.g. tanks)
  • The owner was involved in both our pre-dive planning and pre-departure gear check

[Edit, May 17: After further discussions, I'd like to clarify that the owner of the dive shop checked some but not all of our gear before the dive, and that the overall planning of the dive was done by our friend at the marine park, who also chose our captain.]

[Edit, May 17: I've also heard the opinion that the dive shop owner, when he chose to not share our situation with others, that we became his divers, that with that choice he accepts at least a certain amount of responsibility for our safety, because he knew our situation, was empowered to do something, and his choice was to take on that responsibility alone and say nothing.]

I am not suggesting that this dive trip was organized by Roatan Divers, because I agree that it was not; however, it's clear to me that he and his shop were both involved on some level, and I think it's disingenuous of him to say that he had nothing to do with our dive that day. Also, it was his captain's father's boat, with his captain's name painted on the starboard side, and although I can't verify whether or not this is true, I've heard that it was the dive shop (either via their owner or captain) who arranged our trip that day with their captain's father, and also that originally our captain was supposed to have been the owner of Roatan Divers. I'm not really sure. I don't really care.

The dive shop knew that we were divers in danger, but they said nothing for hours.

Unable to locate us, the dive shop eventually contacted the marine park, which immediately mobilized resources, including dive shops, boats, and captains willing to search.

Rescue plan at Roatan Marine Park, including our GPS coordinates, boats involved in the search, and diver names and nationalities, the latter of which was important because the U.S. embassy would not authorize a helicopter for search and rescue unless the marine park could produce a passport for either of the missing Americans. Two friends got into my apartment and found my passport. Another friend of mine knew were my passport was located. Outside the frame, there were resources listed for planes and helicopters, and boats on standby for the morning.

They met at West End Divers to divide and conquer. That's where I dive, and those are the captains I know best. For my money, José and Nelson are the best captains on the island. It was reassuring in the water to know that those guys might be out there looking. I knew for damned sure they'd be looking if somebody bothered to tell them that we were missing. 

The search and rescue efforts were led by the executive director of the marine park. Some boats headed east. Some boats headed west. Other boats were on standby for the morning. One boat headed directly to our last known location, which is where we had been all day and evening.

The reason that some boats were on standby, instead of all boats being in the water, was because the marine park was notified too late in the day for slower boats to be of any use. 

In the water, I was somewhat bored, equal parts confused ("Where the fuck is our boat?!") and frustrated, and of course also cold. I'm thankful to have not had to fight that cold through the night, because I'm not sure that I would have been able to remain conscious, although I'm confident the other divers would have kept me out of the water in an effort to keep me warm and breathing.

I was more concerned with hypothermia than sharks, but sharks are a concern when you're stranded in open water. Sharks don't want to eat people, but that's when sharks eat people: when you've been hanging around for too long, you're vulnerable, and they've grown incrementally more curious and brave. Typically pelagic (i.e. open water) sharks are the ones that'll get you. We had one false alarm with regard to sharks, about halfway through the day. The diver in me was actually disappointed that it turned out to be driftwood and not a fin. 

Even in those final minutes when the jellyfish grew in numbers and stung our legs, and the sun disappeared over the horizon to travel around the world, I still occasionally dipped my face in the water to watch the jellies float, and to see what else we might find underwater.

Near the end of our adventure, a turtle came to join us near the surface. I remember thinking, "I am fucking cold. I should not have my head in the water. But look, a turtle!" 

When we boarded the rescue boat, it was only then that we saw the silky sharks circling, likely attracted by the lionfish that had been hunted and killed by one of the divers on our dive.

It had not been possible given our situation (e.g. low on air, surface current) to safely ditch the lionfish kills entirely, which would have been preferred so as to limit our risk with sharks. But after we hit the surface and realized that we were in trouble, we returned the lionfish to the seamount while attaching our backup marker to the reef, to at least give ourselves some distance should pelagic sharks arrive. The lionfish were in two white containers specifically designed for lionfish kills. The containers served as a visual reference throughout the day and evening, allowing us to more easily tell whether or not we were still attached to the seamount.

During the week following our rescue, I walked up and down the West End to thank and apologize to those who helped save our lives. It was emotional, to experience nearly an entire community focused on nothing but bringing us home alive. After returning to land, within minutes the executive director of the marine park handed me a phone. It was the United States embassy in Honduras, which had been in touch with Washington, and they had rescue helicopters and planes ready to search. The same can be said for the folks at Divers Alert Network. They were mobilizing additional resources when we were found. 

There were also additional boats, helicopters, and planes on the island, but I have heard that some boats were unwilling to search without guarantees fuel costs would be reimbursed. Business is business and no hard feelings, but I'm grateful for those who put people before profits. 

The average money spent by each participating rescue boat was about $125. Nobody spent more than $300. In the end, Divers Alert Network made a financial gift to our community, pledging to reimburse in full the captains and dive shops who spent money in an effort to save our lives. 

I knew a good number of the folks searching for us, and between all four divers I'm sure we knew them all. These were our friends searching for us. Divers and captains. Friends, neighbors, and our island family. When I spoke with the guys at West End Divers, my friends, family, and the guys with whom I dive daily, they told me that near Cayos Cochinos, with only a few minutes of daylight to spare, right around the time that we were being rescued and circled by silky sharks, that they spotted driftwood that until they were closer looked like a body.

"We thought it was one of you."

Later, one of the rescuers on that boat asked me, "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"

The dive itself was fantastic, and I look forward to returning soon with a more competent captain, and also a dive plan that we share with both Roatan Marine Park and the authorities in Cayos Cochinos. Beautiful hard and soft coral, batteries of barracuda, schools of jacks, 10' nurse shark. 

Edit, May 16: Oh, and on the way out to our dive we snorkeled with wild dolphins. Not a bad day.

351. 84F. 45M. 18339.