Open Water – Left at Sea Surface Survival

By Judy Ann Newton

Open Water – Left at Sea

Open Water – Left at Sea

It would appear that the case of Tom and Eileen Lonergan opened a genie in a bottle when they disappeared from the Great Barrier Reef in 1998. The tale of how they were left behind by the dive boat and the subsequent washing ashore of a cryptically written message on a dive slate has become an urban legend among divers worldwide. Fuelled by the highly successful low-budget film Open Water, the story has found a new level of terror as reports of other ‘lost at sea’ incidents seem to be on the rise.

In early September 2004, Australian Danielle Gibbons and her dive instructor were dropped off on a reef in Viti Levu, Fiji. They were never seen again. Despite a widespread search, no sign of the two divers ever surfaced. Theories abounded that the two had arranged their disappearance in a bid to elope. A psychic claimed that they had washed ashore on a deserted island and were in desperate need of help. The ‘gone without a trace’ angle on any story underscores the sensational nature of an incident and maintains the media mills into grinding overtime.

Not all distressed divers on the open water tales arise from stranding or end without a trace. In October, four divers from New Zealand were cast into the ocean when their dive boat sank in rough seas. Two divers were rescued after 17 hours adrift and the other two were recovered dead.

The film Open Water preyed upon the intrinsic fears of humans for the vastness of the sea and the fear of sharks. The true-life accounts of divers lost at sea reinforce the basic fears of facing the unknown. There is no way to conclude that any of these open water encounters could have survived if properly trained for such an occurrence, but their chances of survival might have been increased.

Survival and the open sea

As divers we are trained to safely enter the water, dive and return to the boat. In advanced diving courses, we learn drift diving, rescue and basic first aid techniques – all with the support of a dive boat in mind. Nothing really prepares us for surfacing to a vast blue sea. It is at that moment and the initial response to the event that will determine your survival and rescue. If you cannot deal with life and death realities, then this article may not be for you. This article is directed at the heart of survival and whatever it takes to survive.

The greatest asset in any life threatening situation is the human spirit and the will to live. If the will is strong, determined and steadfast, the brain works in ways you would never consider possible. If necessity is the Mother of Invention, survival is truly the biggest Mother of them all. Anything and everything surrounding you becomes an implement for survival with the correct knowledge, skills and foresight. Hopefully, you will be better endowed with some of these attributes at the end of this series.

The ‘Open Water’ Survival Test

You might be wondering what you can learn from a magazine article about survival on the open sea when you have been abandoned by a dive boat or drifted down current too far to be seen. Well, I wondered almost the same thing….what information could I relay that could increase a diver’s chances for survival and rescue. The idea for the Open Water Survival Test was the answer. I enlisted the talents of my long-time dive buddy to serve as guinea pig in a series of open water exercises to determine what worked best, what was most comfortable and what tools you could have on your kit that would increase the probabilities in your favour.

Just throwing him into the ocean was not enough for the Open Water Survival Test! We returned to the same waters in the Bahamas where Open Water was filmed – yes, even the same sharks were on stand-by waiting for a replay of the movie’s infamous ending.

Assuming that you are not endowed with a personal EPIRD that is water and pressure proof for rapid response, our experiments and equipment tests showed us the best way to survive an open water experience. We can offer you the information you will need and all the links for survival gear, but you must supply the most important piece of kit – you must remain


This is possibly the hardest rule to follow, but you must


You cannot think rationally if the brain is frying adrenaline. As soon as you come to the surface to find you are nowhere within sight of any boat or land, you cannot afford to waste time or energy by throwing yourself into a panic.

It will accomplish nothing towards your survival!

Rule One:

Remain calm and relax.

Rule Two:

Think ahead of your needs!

For this part of the exercise, Mark Lessard, my stranded test case, was left at the surface with only his basic dive gear. The best scenario we came up with was to fully inflate your BCD, keep your mask, snorkel and fins, but dump your weights. Keep the weight belt as that might be a useful bit of gear in the near future. Many survival guides would advise you to drop the camera also, but a camera strobe at night would be a highly visible signal device. As long as the batteries hold out, I suggest you hold on. Deploy your surface signalling device; more commonly know as a safety sausage. Be realistic about this device. It is only visible within a short range from a boat and totally invisible at night unless used to mount a light.

Assume the HELP (Heat Escaping Lessening Posture) floating position. This is an upright foetal position that retains body temperature. Remember that hypothermia is the second greatest killer in open water next to drowning. Fifty percent of body heat is lost through the head, followed by the neck, sides and groin region.

For the diver with the basic dive kit, this is all you can do other than wait and watch for rescue. Personally, I am not interested in a personal real-life replay of Open Water so I devised a small survival kit that can be attached to the sides of the dive cylinder. The tests that we performed in the open water of the Bahamas have streamlined the survival kit to three pounds of extra kit that could very well save your life.

Thermal blanket:

weighing no more than a few ounces, a thermal blanket can protect your head from the sun, from heat loss and create a very large reflection for searchers. By placing your safety sausage under your knees and covering yourself with the thermal blanket, you are conserving energy, creating a larger pattern in the water for search teams and retaining body heat. We also discovered that when the thermal blanket was deployed over the diver’s head, condensation provided much needed moisture for a thirsty diver. I should also mention that the thermal blanket is see through, which gave the diver sun protection for his eyes from the sun’s intense rays.

Personal life raft:

Assuredly, this is an extra piece of kit that you may not have considered, but if you are seriously concerned about stranding at sea, this will be a life saver! Halcyon has created a genius system that folds up to the size of a magazine and deploys either by your low pressure hose or by mouth. Taking no more than four minutes to inflate by mouth, my 6-foot 3-inch diver was up and out of the water, warming in the sun beneath a thermal blanket within six minutes of surfacing with the BCD safely in tow. Halcyon also makes a super-sized inflatable signal device that doubles quite effectively as a small floatation device. (


After deploying the diver’s life raft, the signal device and covering himself with the thermal blanket, my victim was able to relax and keep warm for the remainder of the test. And if your concern turns towards the thoughts of sharks, getting up and out of the water is very comforting. Remember that when sharks are present, remaining calm and still is your best defence. If a shark attack seems imminent, using your hands and feet as battering rams is not a wise option – use your dive fins and dive knife. If you have an audible signalling device, set that off underwater to create an acoustically caustic environment. Thrashing around in the raft will increase your chances of tipping over and excite the shark further.

Fluorescent dye markers:

when deployed one can cover an area about 250 sq feet with a bright green pattern that can be seen for a mile or more. Depending on surface conditions, the dye lasts about 30 to 40 minutes.

Water and food:

No matter what you may have heard, drinking sea water or urine is no substitute for water and will do harm! My survival kit includes two plastic pouches of water, the daily recommended life boat ration of 8.4 ounces per day. For food, I have included 12 survival food tablets. These high-calories food supplements provide 100% of essential vitamins and minerals. To prevent dehydration from nausea, seasickness pills are essential. You may augment the size of your personal survival kit by adding more water and food tablets.

SPF chap stick:

More than just a cosmetic cure for chapped lips, it will prevent dehydration of the lip and painful blistering from the sun and extended exposure to salt. When applied around the eyes, cheeks and forehead, the SPF factor will protect against sunburn.

Other items in my personal survival kit that proved invaluable for this test included: duct tape, fishing line and hooks, needle, water purification drops, dental floss, cable ties, magnifying lens, multi-purpose utility tool, zipping waterproof bags, matches, a CD rom and a small ion of first aid gear. Remember that there is nothing that you can put into a survival kit that will replace calm and rational thought and reasoning. You can find many websites that will spell out in greater detail the skills for open water surface survival, but preparation and a plan are your best allies in a war against the elements. Although a survival kit and diver’s life raft will require an outlay of cash and extra gear on your tank, the compensation is that you can reduce the weight around your waist and you can go into the water with the security that you will be prepared to handle any situation you may find – or not find – when you return to the surface.


In the third instalment of this series, our hapless diver makes it to shore. Alas, it is a deserted island and Tom Hanks is not there to guide our castaway. Using only his dive kit and the items in the survival kit, he will have to set up shelter, a fire, a signal for searchers, collect water and find food before the sun goes down. Stay tuned.

Credits and Kudos: With special thanks to Mark Lessard for enduring a long day bobbing on the sea and to Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas for their generous assistance with this test.

Life expectancy times for immersion in water:

Water Temperature Time
21.0 – 15.5° C / 70 – 60° F 12 hours
15.5 – 10.0° C / 60 – 50° F 6 hours
10.0 – 4.5 ° C / 50 – 40° F 1 hour
4.5° C and below / 40° F and below Less than 1 hour

© Copyright 2004

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