Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Diver Dies At Bondi
On Saturday 5 February 2000, at approximately 9am, a total of 10 divers (probably eight paying customers and two "dive masters") gathered at an Eastern Suburbs dive shop for a shore dive. The divers appear to have nearly all been inexperienced and mostly tourists, including at least two English tourists and two Singaporeans. It is not clear whether all hired gear from the shop but certainly a few did. After paying their fee of $55 (which is a bit steep for gear hire and a shore dive!), they travelled the short distance to the world famous Bondi Beach where they planned to dive North Bondi (or as the dive shop called it, Ben Buckler Point). For information on this dive site see my North Bondi page.
The dive was being escorted by "two instructors" according to some media reports although it really appears that there was one dive master and one female trainee dive master, that is, a normal diver (according to the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 February 2000). No indication was given of their experience, but the dive master was Paul Griffith who was 26 years old and said to be experienced (no indication what this means but in my experience, this can mean as little as 50 dives). The trainee dive master was Sonia Greoseot.
The group included 44 year old English tourist Peter Russell, another English tourist, 24 year old Nicky Sheen, Niall Bird from Sydney, Ong Chye Ong and his wife Tan Bee Thing from Singapore and a Bondi woman (this may have been the trainee dive master). Ms Sheen had learnt to dive in Thailand, one report stated that she did a British Sub Aqua Club course (BSAC) but I find this unlikely as these courses take months to complete and very unlikely that BSAC even runs courses in Thailand. It was stated that her temporary certification card had expired and a lot was made of this by newspapers, although I personally see no problem so long as some clarification was gained by the shop renting her equipment that she was who she said she was. It was also reported that she had previosuly completed two dives (these may have been course dives) and that this dive was a Christmas present from her boyfriend (who, I believe, later on the night of 22 to 23 June 2000, survived a fatal fire in a backpackers hostel in Childers, Queensland that killed 15 people). It was reported that Ms Sheen had a weight belt with 15lbs. If she was using an aluminium tank and a 5 mm wetsuit, this would probably have been a bit overweighted (based on a photo of her in the papers and knowledge of weight needed by similar sized females). However, I have been informed by two very, very reliable "official" sources that she was using a steel tank and a 3 mm wetsuit. This would have made her at least 8lb overweight and more likely 12lbs. More about this later. Mr Bird had done about 25 dives.
The weather that day was very hot, about 35°C, with a strong north-easterly sea breeze blowing (which would affect the sea action on most of the dive site). Australian mystery author and former toughman actor, Bob Barrett (who I used to know many years ago when he was a barman) was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph on 7 February 2000 as stating that he had stopped snorkelling earlier after deciding that the sea conditions were too rough. "I would not go out there on a day like today" he said.
The normal dive here starts at a point right below the the carpark, to the west of the huge "Mermaid" rock and in really calm seas, if you are experienced, you can enter from a spot further around to the north from the rock. The normal exit is a small boat ramp to the right of the carpark. However, the seas must be calm. Under no circumstances would you enter the water anywhere else but these locations as even if the boat ramp was used, the swim out would be long and dive not very good. You would certainly not enter the water at the beach. From the normal dive spot, the maximum depth I have ever reached (remembering that I have 1740+ dives experience, am very good on my air consumption and that I have always exited the water at the boat ramp), is about 14 to 15 metres. From the alternate entry, you can reach 21 metres but you need to swim almost constantly to get to the ramp without running out of air.
In any case, the group commenced the actual dive at 1045. According to the newpaper reports (see references), one of the group, Peter Russell, stated that the group snorkelled from the beach to the dive location. This would mean that they must have left the beach at about 1030 to 1040. If this is correct, then it indicates either that the seas were too rough to enter the water from the rocks or the people running the dive were not knowledgeable as to the best way to dive this location. It is a long (and I mean long), swim out to the dive site from the beach. As indicated, they apparently snorkelled out from the beach to the headland. It may even be possible that Ms Sheen used her regulator rather than her snorkel, thus wasting valuable air.
A printout from Mr Bird's Aladin dive computer (later versions of these computers can be downloaded to a PC and give a graph of dive time versus depth) shows that they descended (at 1045) to about six metres and stayed roughly at this depth for about six minutes (1051). For the next four minutes he gradually got deeper to about 10 metres (1055) before rising to seven metres and then dropping back to ten metres two minutes later (1057). This is consistent with the depth of the rocky reef running out south-west, south and south-east from the rock platform. From here, Mr Bird's depth gradually increased over the next seven minutes (1102) to just over 15 metres then dropped a little more to about 18 metres at 1107:30. This would indicate to me that they were along the sand edge of the reef to seaward of the normal entry point. He then made a gradual climb back to about 14 to 15 metres but with one drop of three metres at one time. This was reached at about 1117, 32 minutes into the dive. This indicates to me that he was up a bit from the sand on the rocky reef but that at one spot he dropped over the small "wall" onto the sand area before climbing again.
It was said that at one spot, Mr Griffith signalled for the group to check their tanks. Here, some found that they had already used half their air and he indicated for them to return to shore. Among this group was Mr Bird, Ms Sheen, Tan Bee Thing (in one paper referred to as being Japanese) and Sonia Greoseot, the female trainee dive master. See comment made in Coroner's Inquest section about this decision. It was said that Ms Thing had been having problems with balance and equipment through the whole dive. Some reports state that they then ran into a current but I find this as being unlikely as I have never encountered a current at this dive location. What appears certain is that they did not return straight to the shore. My guess is that this was at about 1107 or so. However, from what happens next, I doubt that they went in the right direction as I cannot see that the depth that was to be eventually achieved (21 metres) can be reached on the swim back to the beach, the normal entry point or the normal exit point. I think they kept going north. This is, in my experience, the only place that 21 metres can be reached. This thought is supported by the fact that I have also been told by the two reliable "official" souces mentioned above that the group was badly lost. In May 2002 I explored this area fully using my scooter and could not find any place that 21 metres was achievable except as above. This is a long way from any normal dive and I have only even reached this depth here twice before using the scooter (and remember that I an very experienced and very good on my air consumption.
As mentioned above, at 32 minutes (1117) Mr Bird was at 14 metres and his gradual ascent stopped (possibly a minute earlier). I assume that they were on a section of the rocky reef adjacent to the sand edge. As I indicated above, from what happens next (that is the depth of the water), it appears that they must have been to the north of the secondary normal entry point. This indicates that they must not have swum in the right direction or that they did not discover that they were low on air till very late in the dive. It was here that Mr Bird (and presumably Ms Sheen) suddenly dropped from about 14 metres to 21 metres. This is where I assume that Ms Sheen ran out of air, or more likely, reached the last approximately 10 to 12 bar of her tank.
A short explanantion here - the first stage of a regulator drops the pressure of the tank from whatever it is (for example 200 bar) to a constant line pressure that the second stage regulator can handle. This is typically around 10 to 12 bar. When the tank pressure drops below this figure, then, as you can imagine, the line pressure leading to the second stage also drops. It is now less than that normally available so when a breathe is taken, the air now comes in at a lower pressure. This makes it harder to breath and for an inexperienced diver, this can be interpreted to be a failure of the regulator or an immediate total lack of air. In reality, there is still quite a lot of air available and useable. In my estimation, assuming an aluminium tank of 11.2 litres (an "88"), a breathing rate of 45 litres per minute surface equivalent (three times a normal rate) and that the harder breathing was not really noticed till 10 bar, then there should have been almost a minute of available air, more than enough to safely, if somewhat quickly, ascend from 14 metres and even from 21 metres.
The reason for the drop was probably that Ms Sheen panicked and during the time when Mr Bird attempted to give her his main regulator (his equipment appears to have been rented and with an octopus that was intergrated into his power inflator) so he could breathe from the intregrated octopus.
For two minutes (till 1119), Mr Bird was at 21 metres, presumably trying to get Ms Sheen to ascend. Of course, both would now have been over weighted for the depth, even assuming that they were correctly weighted in the first place. I am sure that they would not have been able to inflate their vests during all the panic that was going on. Also, remember that if the air in their tanks was lower than 12 bar, it would have been very slow to inflate even if they tried. From here, it is a bit hazy but Mr Bird shot to the surface in less than a minute (1120). This indicates that he probably dropped his weight belt or he inflated his vest. This is not clear from newpaper reports.
At the same time, the trainee dive master and Ms Thing were having their own emergency. It appears that Ms Thing also ran out of air and they both did an emergency ascent. Both survived (see later for details).
Mr Bird was seen to surface in distress and was foaming at the mouth, in pain and distressed. It is not clear who brought him to shore, but he was dragged up onto the rocks with the help of at least one of the group. From the Aladin graph, it seems he was on the surface for at least five minutes before leaving the water (Aladin computers keep running till you are out of the water, recording time and zero depth). Whether this was because he was a long way from shore or incapable of exiting for reasons of rough seas or the decompression sickness/stress he was suffering I am not sure. Mr Barrett said that Mr Bird "was vomiting and barely conscious". He added "Then I heard them say there was still someone out there". Onlookers phoned for an ambulance and Mr Bird was treated on the rocks before being winched into the Westpac Rescue Helicopter and flown the short distance to the Prince of Wales Hospital and the hyperbaric chamber.
The trainee dive master and Ms Thing also surfaced and reached or were brought ashore. They were also taken to hospital but not apparently suffering decompression sickness.
It was alleged that Mr Bird's tank, although empty, showed it still had 25 bar (Herald, 8 February 2000). The Herald reported that the diver who rescued Mr Bird had checked the tank after he rescued Mr Bird, although it is not clear if he checked the tank to see if it actually was empty or if he just checked the gauge. See my comments at end of a possible cause for this.
On Tuesday 8 February 2000, the body of Ms Sheen was found after an almost three day search. Her body was 250 metres from where she was last seen. Apparently her weight belt was not on her body, indicating that she had dumped it, although the Herald's report on 12 Febrary 2000 indicated that the belt was found only metres from her body. This probably means that she did not dump it until the very last moment and she drowned immediately. I have been told by the same reliable "official" sources as mentioned earlier that the body was extremely heavy, even when found, let alone when her weight belt was taken into account.
What Happened in My View?
- I would guess that the training Ms Sheen received was just the most basic to get her to pass the course.
- Her training in Thailand would have been in calm seas with warm and clear water. This is totally different to the conditions encountered at Bondi.
- As new divers and using rented gear, both Mr Bird and Ms Sheen were unfamiliar with the equipment they were using.
- As new divers, both Mr Bird and Ms Sheen were probably overweighted as is the normal with new divers. Dive instructors tend to grossly overweight divers during training to keep them on the bottom when doing shallow training dives. They then neglect to impress how important it is to get buoyancy correct, especially when diving deeper than the training dives and as you get more relaxed in the water (I have seen novice divers 5 kilograms overweight!).
- It is certain that Ms Sheen was severely overweighted.
- This overweighting probably led to them having poor buoyancy and swimming at a 45 degree angle, leading to increased air consumption.
- The seas must have been rough as the dive did not start from the rocks but from the beach.
- The swim from the beach to the dive's starting point may have been carried out on scuba (even though on the surface) meaning less air was available for the actual dive. This may only have been Ms Sheen.
- Even if they snorkelled, the divers would probably have been tired and possibly out of breath when they finally descended.
- The divers went way past the normal turn-around point for even a normal entry and certainly if you entered from the beach and reached a location where the depth potential was 21 metres or more.
- An alternative to this is they they went off course and ended up out in the middle of Bondi Bay but I do not think this likely.
- They were certainly lost and far from an easy exit point.
- At a constant 21 metres and a normal air consumption of 13.5 litres per minute, the air in a 11.2 litre aluminium tank filled to 200 bar (it would/should have more) would last over 40 minutes, still leaving a reserve of 50 bar. Even longer would be available with a steel tank as the pressure is normally higher.
- At the average depth of the dive till the drop from 14 to 21 metres (say 10 metres), the air should have lasted 62 minutes (till reserve) and even if at a high rate of 20 litres per minute, 42 minutes. Even totally using all air should have taken 56 minutes.
- As the air appears to have run out at about 31 minutes, I estimated an average air consumption of almost 35 litres per minute for the whole dive, a rate I have never achieved even when working hard moving an anchor at depth.
- It is certain that Mr Bird and Ms Sheen did not check their pressure gauges often enough otherwise they could not have got in this situation, no matter how high their air consumption.
- When Ms Sheen's tank reached about 10 bar, she suddenly found it hard to breath and fearing that she was out of air, starting panicking and used her remaining air even more quickly. If she had ascended at this time (from 14 metres), she would have safely surfaced.
- However, she panicked and dropped from 14 to 21 metres.
- Mr Bird went after her and attempted to share his air with her, either by buddying breathing or giving her his main reg and using his integrated octopus.
- The combined breathing from two, panicking divers, may have meant that Mr Bird's regulator first stage could not provide enough air to the two divers for them to quickly calm down.
- One possibility is that within two minutes, Mr Bird's air ran out and they attempted an emergency ascent.
- An alternative possibility if Mr Bird's tank still contained air (say 25 bar as may be possible) is that the combined need of two panicking divers could not be met from Mr Bird's regulator (as mentioned above) so Ms Sheen and Mr Bird thought that the tank was empty and attempted an emergency ascent from 21 metres.
- Another possibility is that if Ms Sheen's tank still had 25 bar as reported in the Herald of 8 February 2000, then it is possible that the tank valve was not fully open and that once this low pressure had been reached and two divers attempted to breathe from one regulator, it would have appeared that it too was out of air. See a similar incident report for details on this sort of problem.
- It would appear that they then both dropped their weight belts.
- Considering that they would already have been in a panic situation, then it is very difficult to believe that they could safely ascend from 21 metres without an air source.
- During the ascent, Mr Bird and Ms Sheen were separated and only Mr Bird reached the surface.
- Ms Sheen drowned.
- Mr Bird was very, very lucky to survive.
Why Did it Happen?
- Inexperience and lack of attention to tank contents' gauge.
- Overweighting leading to increased air consumption.
- Unfamilarity of the equipment being used.
- Starting dive at beach instead of rocks (if it was too rough for rocks, then dive should have been aborted).
- Wasting air instead of using snorkel on way out to start of dive (may be).
- Lack of understanding of physics of diving and knowing that when it gets hard to breath, no matter the reason, there is still enough air to ascend from 14 metres.
- Inexperience again.
- Possible failure to correctly set up equipment (the valve not opened fully) or inability of regulator to supply sufficent air to two panicking divers.
- Finally, inexperience.
Note that the above was mostly written in February 2000.
On 8 March 2002, the Inquest into the death of Ms Sheen, as well as the death of a Japanese tourist at Shelley Beach while on a dive with Manly Dive Centre, owned by the same person as the Bondi Dive Centre, was held. Evidence apparently given at the Inquest included the fact that Ms Sheen was overweighted. The Coroner criticised the dive master, Paul Griffith, for splitting the group into two and sending the trainee, Sonia Greoseot, back with the three divers who were low on air. Mr Griffiths was also criticised for telling the divers to wait till they had 30 bar before surfacing. It is not clear whether this was meant as when they should advise him or that they should start their ascent or that they should surface with 30 bar. From reading the newspaper reports it appears that it was meant that when they reached 30 bar they had to start their ascent. This is clearly too late under even the best of conditions for inexperienced divers.
The Coroner, Elwyn Elms, terminated the Inquest and said "The evidence is capable of satisfying a jury beyond reasonable doubt that a known person has committed an indictable offence and there is a reasonable prospect that a jury would convict the known person of the indictable offence". It was not disclosed who this "known person" is, but it is likely to be either the dive master or the dive shop owner.
I lay no blame for what happened on any person on this dive or associated with the dive shop concerned. In the end, we as divers must take responsibility for our own actions, even if under the "care" of a dive master or instructor. However, many, if not most, of the deaths of divers that have occurred in NSW in recent times, have been of inexperienced and/or new divers. In many cases, this appears to have been caused by poor training.
In my view, it is too easy to become a dive instructor and even a dive master. It is possible to become a dive instructor within three months of starting your initial dive course. This is plainly ridiculous. No-one can gain enough experience to become a very good diver, let alone become someone capable of imparting knowledge to new divers in such a short period of time. It must become harder to become an instructor. Likewise, it must become harder to become a dive master. I have dived with dive masters whose total number of dives was less than the dives I have done in that year. They were attempting to tell me how to dive. Big chance!! When someone now attempts to tell me the correct way to dive, I tell them that if they have more than 1/5 of the number of dives I have done (at 7 April 2023 this would mean they would have had to have done well over 900 dives), then I might listen. Not many can reach this mark.