A High Case of the Bends
George Watson was on an exploratory scuba dive in a remote lake in the Peruvian Andes when everything that could go wrong suddenly did
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Our team was diving in Lake Sibinacocha, in Peru, which is at about 16,000 feet. We wanted to collect data on the effects of diving at altitude and also look for Incan artifacts. I’d been a rock climber and a diver most of my life, and I thought of the trip like a first ascent.
My dive partner on the third day was Geoff Belter. We were heading down to around 200 feet, with four tanks each and battery-powered scooters. At about 165 feet, my scooter died, which was a serious enough failure that the dive was essentially over and Geoff would have to tow me up. At about 110 feet, my first tank ran out of gas, so I switched to the other and it immediately ran out. That was a surprise. We weren’t supposed to get close to blowing through that much gas. We’re still not sure what happened with the tanks, and in any case it’s clear our judgement was compromised for some reason—most likely we got too cold. Geoff tried to give me a hose so I could share his air, but I realized that his tank was empty, too. We immediately went up to 80 feet, where it was safe to switch to our remaining tanks, problem solved. I signed to Geoff to send a signal bag to the surface, where another diver, Umberto, was standing by in a kayak. But we were really unstable in a water column, suddenly oscillating up and down and away from each other. The last I remember seeing Geoff, he was holding the bag in his hand in a peculiar way that I’ll never forget. Then he was gone. His body was never found.
I got pulled all the way back down to 110 feet. I hit a button on my drysuit to use air from my new tank to help me get back to a shallower depth. But I lost control and shot to the surface. I yelled to Umberto, who picked me up in the boat, put me on oxygen, and paddled me frantically to shore. Bubbles were forming in my body, and I was expecting to have a massive stroke. I was hypothermic and shivering violently, so the team put me in a winter sleeping bag. After an hour, I could feel my toes. A helicopter evacuation wasn’t an option, so they put me on a horse, but after 30 minutes I lost control of my abdominals and fell off. They carried me in an inflatable boat over a 17,000-foot pass, then drove me to a decompression chamber in Cusco. Back in the States, after rehab, I did my first dive in 2015. Last year, we all went back to Lake Sibinacocha and recovered an ancient artifact from the bottom. There’s now a memorial to Geoff in Florida’s Jackson Blue Springs Cave.
As told to Will Cockrell.