Considering psychological factors that may have contributed to the fatal record attempt.
Edited/abbreviated text from Andy Davis’s blog after the fatal depth record attempt by Dr Guy Garman.
15th August 2015, the technical diving community received news that the latest World Depth Record attempt, to 1200ft/365m, had ended in tragedy when Dr Guy Garman failed to return. The attempt in St Croix, US Virgin Islands was supported by the local technical diving school, Scuba Tec.
Firstly, my sincere condolences to the friends and family of Dr Garman.
I would like to consider some psychological factors that seem pertinent to the failed record attempt. I am not seeking to attribute blame, nor to define a cause for the tragedy. I am writing purely for educational purposes in the hope that the information may help prevent future accidents.
The Issue of Experience
Dr Garman, known by friends as ‘Doc Deep’, had been diving for four years and accumulated less than 600 dives. His progression from learner diver to advanced technical diver was extremely fast, a third of these dives (200) being below 60m. Of these, 35 were below 150m at the time of his record attempt.
Most in the technical diving community, professional and recreational diving industry, would consider this experience to be woefully small. Dr Garman had previously dived once to a maximum depth of 244m. It was an enormous escalation to attempt a dive to 365m. That depth increase left him under-experienced in his personal tolerances of extreme deep-water hyperbaric physiological reactions. Especially High-Pressure Neurological Syndrome (a known killer) and Compression Arthralgia (a hyperbaric effect that compresses joint cartilage causing extreme pain and immobility).
The Issue of Glorifying Deep Diving
Scuba Tec Facebook wall shows a distinct trend towards glamourising and glorifying excessively deep dives. Virtually every posting is boasting of a deeper, more extreme dive … an ‘elite’ club that dives below 110m. Glorifying deep dives; making depth a ‘goal’ in itself; rewarding deep dives through varied forms of clique and status can so easily become an insidious form of gung-ho peer pressure. Rather than supporting a conservative and progressive approach to developing technical diving limits with patience, humility, caution and self-awareness. Depth should never be glorified.
The Issue of Ego and Over-Confidence
Dr Garman’s dive team’s Facebook page states he: “…knew more about technical diving than anyone else on the planet.” There’s some serious ego behind a sweeping statement like that, especially given his experience and time as a diver.
Competency needs to be proven at one level, before progression to subsequent levels and challenges. Competency can only occur through accumulated experience. A technical diver must have a chance to encounter and overcome a full breadth of real (not simulated) foreseeable and unforeseeable problems and prove to themselves their ability to deal with issues. It is critical to surround yourself with peers who help you retain a grounded ego-free approach. Ego kills divers.
Prior to his record attempt, the technical diving chat forums were filling with concerns over the attempt and Dr Garman’s relative inexperience and potentially flawed approaches to the dive. Some of this advice originated from diving medical professionals and vastly experienced technical or commercial divers. Collective wisdom and shared community and peer experience is a great thing. Ignore it at your peril.
Few people desire to break records. We must accept that strong ego is what drives most of those who aspire to achieve great things. But ego can be good and bad. It drives us; it motivates us… but it can also lead us to flawed decision making. It can be a fatal flaw if not balanced with some prudence and wise counsel.
Recall the old classic?
There are old divers and there are bold divers,
but there are no old, bold divers.
The Issue of Normalisation of Deviance
Normalisation of Deviance (ND) is a term that arose from NASA’s inquest into the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Steve Lewis’s diving blog describes ND well: “ND is a dangerous facet of human nature: we do something that does not follow the accepted rules or guidelines – for example, we skip certain steps in a ‘standard’ procedure because it saves time. The trouble stems from the unfortunate fact that we get away with taking the shortcut. Then, believing it’s safe to make the same safety shortcut next time around, we do the same thing. We ignore established safe practice. In the absence of things going totally pear-shaped, our deviation from normal practice and safe procedure becomes a new acceptable norm.”
What we might identify in Dr Garman’s short progression is a rapid escalation in diving depth and challenge, but rarely any time consolidating before progressing. We also see the most basic ‘standard guidelines’ in respect of prudence, experience acquisition and technical diving mindset being over-ruled again and again.
Dr Garman conducted risky dives that were successful. They weren’t repeated, to check procedures. Every successful deep dive established an unquestioned precedence that he was ‘competent and safe’ to progress further.
We can see a distinct deviation from best/accepted practice. The increment of deviation got larger with each dive that didn’t go wrong. Ultimately it did go wrong. Many in the technical diving community publicly predicted such a tragic failure.
“While each accident may be different, and some of them occur in an instant, most accidents can be represented as a chain of multiple events that lead to a deadly outcome. Removing any link from that chain may change the outcome.” –Dr Petar Denoble, DAN Research Director
The Issue of Support Team Mindset
These teams provide the logistics, expertise, finance, publicity, sponsorship, in-water and psychological support that enable extreme diving projects to happen. Positive thinking and motivation are key aspects in that support.
However, it is also the responsibility of the team to keep the primary characters grounded and realistic. They should challenge egos and presumptions, not eagerly promote them. Support teams should not contain ‘yes men’, sycophants and cheerleaders. The fact is, those who aspire to break world records rarely suffer from a deficit of motivation or self-belief. The last thing they need is further artificial stimulation of their ego.
The support team should seek counsel and consultation from the wider technical diving community. They should respect and consider that external advice. It is too easy to get goal tunnel-vision as an individual and as a team.
The Scuba Tec team’s mindset is apparent with this posting on Facebook: “He knew more about technical diving than anyone else on the planet.”
It’s important to surround yourself with the right people. Choose those who challenge your ego, not flatter it. Dive with people who humble you with their skills, not sycophants who applaud you. Resist the temptation to become the biggest fish in a small pond.
The Issue of Group-think
Group-think occurs when a team is under pressure to achieve a goal. They can make faulty decisions and ignore alternatives from outside the team. This can result in careless and irrational thinking in their endeavour to preserve the team’s cohesion. This can ultimately deteriorate any successful outcomes.
The Issue of giving Unrealistic Positive Motivation
When someone has a deep goal in life, it is tempting to support that dream, whatever the reality. To do anything less is seen as negative. The desire to ‘be positive’ can easily become irrational.
This baseless positivity is not suitable for those aspiring to extreme deep technical diving, where the consequences of failure are inevitably fatal.
Often we are told; we can achieve whatever we want, instant gratification! Technical diving; it’s a ‘cool hobby’ to impress your friends. Some Dive centres and technical instructors are more than happy to pander towards that culture of instant gratification, regardless of the potential consequences.
Four years and 595 dives from his first Open Water course ‘Doc Deep’ had received sufficient positive affirmations to seriously believe he knew more about technical diving than anyone else on the planet, and was ready to dive deeper on open-circuit scuba than any man in history.
In hindsight, it seems ludicrous. The fact that it wasn’t apparent to Dr Garman and his team, at the time, should cause us all to robustly and honestly re-assess our own capabilities, strengths and weaknesses.
A good technical diving instructor will leave their students in no uncertain terms of their capabilities. The high-fives and “you’re a superstar” must end.
If you didn’t feel humbled on your technical training, then you got ripped off. If you don’t feel humble, then you’re insulating yourself from the big pond of knowledge.
The Issue of Destructive Goal Pursuit – When to Say Stop
In diving, we normally operate as buddy pairs or teams, and there is always the understanding that anyone can thumb (end) the dive at any time for any reason.
When a strong-willed, highly-driven person sets out to accomplish a difficult goal and is surrounded by a positive, motivating team, it can create a situation that makes it very difficult for anyone involved to ‘apply the brakes’ if necessary. There needs to be group protocols to reassess progress routinely, and enable the project to be aborted or amended as a formal consideration. The team must be encouraged to think independently and voice their thoughts truthfully.
Questions That Arise from the Fatal Record Attempt
At the time of publication this article a full accident analysis has not been released. There are many factors, beyond the psychological mechanisms mentioned in this article that could have contributed more directly to the fatality such as catastrophic equipment issues. My writing on the potential psychological factors looks into the less direct causes.
The question must be asked: Had Dr Garman’s support group become so task-focused on achieving their goal that they lost track of the ‘last safe point’, and nobody suggested stopping or slowing the endeavour.
Did anyone on the team:
• Try to ‘thumb the dive’ in the weeks or years leading up to the fatality?
• Counsel caution or raise doubts?
• Seek outside advice or consultation to provide a ‘second opinion’ on the group-think and goals of the team?
Some very important lessons to arise from this, especially:
• There is need for team checks and balances to prevent group-think leading to a destructive goal-pursuit situation.
• The role of a support team isn’t to be cheerleaders or provide unquestioning positive motivation. The team needs to keep individuals grounded and cognizant of the big picture.
• Don’t be insular as a team. Reach out to the community, to other experts, for a second opinion. Heed that opinion.
About the Author
Andy Davis is a full-time, professional technical diving instructor. He has over 25 years and 8000+ dives’ experience; including 12 years and 1400+ dives as a qualified technical trimix, CCR, technical wreck and advanced sidemount/overhead diver and instructor.
He has never felt the need to dive below 100m yet.