Ken Murray's Shallow Water Blackout

Sunday 1/20/02

From Ken's Perspective: From Pat's Perspective:

 "I was extremely excited about having a three day weekend because it meant that I could justify going home for the weekend. I had been watching the weather from up here in Santa Cruz for a while and it seemed that we were heading into a nice weekend. Recent sightings of seabass also had me jumping at the opportunity to get a day out at the Channel Islands. I drove home after my last class on Friday leaving here about 2:15 and hoping to get to Santa Barbara by 6:30 which shouldn't be a problem with normal traffic. It was smooth sailing until I got to Pismo Beach when I hit a little stop and go traffic probably normal since it was around 5. Unfortunately one of the times the freeway came to a stop, the guy driving the work truck behind me had dropped his cell phone and did not react in time. He swerved at the last second and hid the right side of my bumper doing significant damage. So after dealing with swapping insurance I was off again and got home with no further complications. My mom had her company business party on Saturday night so My dad and I decided that we would go diving on Sunday since we would have to come in early if we went on Saturday since he was going to the party. That was fine with me because it gave me a chance to spend time with my family and some friends alike, as well as to get a start on my homework. I also jumped at the opportunity to get in a quick beach dive in with Patrick Saturday afternoon since he didn't think that he was going to be able to make it out with us on Sunday. It was fun but we didn't see anything. I knew that Matt Lum was heading out on Saturday so I got a report from him as to what the conditions were like. He had said that they hadn't seen any seabass but had done fine on lobster.

"Marco Farrell asked me to write down my experiences last Sunday at Santa Cruz Island, hoping that what transpired might offer some insights into free-diving safety.
 As it happened, Patrick called me late Saturday night asking if there was still room for him to go, and since we had called about everyone we knew and hadn't found a single person who could go, I told him to be at our house at 6. Sunday was looking to be a good day. Matt had said that they checked for seabass early and had not seen anything but some had been seen on Friday. I was generously invited by my friends Ken and Doug on their boat for a free-diving trip at Santa Cruz Island in search of WSB and lobster.
We checked the bed and didn't really like what we were seeing so we decided to go look for lobster and then come back when the current had changed. So we moved around a little dove a couple of spots including Gull Island where the water was crystal clear. There were a bunch of lazy sea lions rafted together that did not even budge until I was within arms reach of the closest ones. They did not want to move, but quickly became interested in us. We got out to the back side of SCI, scanned a couple kelp paddies for WSB, but no luck. The sun had just risen, the sky blue, the air temperature cool but rising, it looked to be an amazing day. On our first dive was great fun, fairly shallow, enough surge to make it interesting but not dangerous. I think I snagged a legal bug in about 3 mins. I thought we�d have our limits before noon. We moved onto another spot where we were surrounded by California sea lions, cavorting and careening around us while we dove for bugs. I had a cheapy disposable water-proof camera with me and snapped a couple of pics of sea lion pups sunning themselves. I saw a lot of bugs, but unfortunately a lot of bugs saw me first. Anyhow, the viz was fantastic, the sea lions ever amusing and the diving beautiful.
I picked up a few lobster and headed back to the boat where immediately upon getting out of the water saw a pair of Grey Whales less that a hundred yards away coming in our direction. I could see spouts further out also which turned out to be Common and Risso's Dolphins along with a single Grey Whale.  We all jumped in the boat and motored out to be in front of them in order that we would have a chance to swim with them. Upon entering the water, we found that the visibility had dropped to only about twenty feet. We know that the whales were within a hundred feet but they seemingly disappeared when they started to near. One of them seemed to be much smaller and was probably only a year old making its first trip south with its mother since it was born in Mexico the year before. We were a little disappointed but is was still neat seeing them up close even if we didn't get to swim with them. We checked the kelp again for seabass since the current had changed to no avail. In transit to the next spot, we came upon a mixed pod of common dolphins and pilot whales. There had also been a grey whale in the group, but he disappeared as we pulled up. His smaller cousins were anything but shy. The dolphins surfed the bow wave, with an occasional pilot whale joining in as well. I lay down on the bowsprit and�.just barely�reaching�reaching�.a dolphin surfaced while surfing just allowing me to caress him. Wow! This day was rapidly proving itself to be unforgettable. How prophetic that was to be�
The day was getting on so we headed east to hit some lobster spots hitting one new spot along the way. Upon reaching one of my spots, I found that there was an enormous cow elephant seal relaxing in the surge above one of my best holes. I gave her a little room to start to make sure she could get to open water if she wanted and also to see what her demeanor was. She was enormous, I am guessing that she was pregnant because it would have taken all three of us holding hands to reach around her belly. I was holding on to whatever I could not to get beat around by the surf and she seemed to not even be phased by any of it. I had an intenerating experience with her, I would look at her above the water and then look at her just under the water and she would fallow with her head. We played this little game for several minutes before I got on to business of crawling into my hole. The sun was now high in the sky and as we got to our next spot, Ken quickly snagged two lobster just 30 seconds in the water. This spot was especially interesting as we had a mammoth onlooker as we dove. A female elephant seal floated in the water, at times within 3-4 feet of us. I was especially watchful, okay, I�ll admit, I was scared. While I didn�t think her to be especially aggressive, I didn�t want her to feel threatened by our presence. I scanned the surrounding waters several times to ascertain if perhaps there was a pup present. I also didn�t want to come between her and any pup. But nothing happened, we quickly adjusted to her lolling presence (and she to ours).
I had never seen so few lobsters in the hole. There are only a few places where I have a chance of reaching any and these were the only places where there were any. I got two on my first dive and on my second dive there were two together in a little tunnel. I caught the smaller but couldn't determine if it was legal and I was laying on my bag so I let it go and tried to get the other which was in my other hand but way back in the hole. I ended up not getting either one. Oh well. The rest of the normally great area didn't produce much so we decided to head on to the next spot. The next spot we jumped in at looked about the calmest I had ever seen it so I expected to find lots of lobster. It looked promising especially since the wind had picked up earlier and I didn't think that I would be able to dive some of my spots.  Upon jumping in at this spot, I went straight to a crack that always has tons of lobster but usually you only get one chance. I got ready and dove, there were lots of lobster all right but they were all at the back which is not normal especially when it is calm as it was. Moving on I really didn't find much, especially since the surge was really light. Again, the viz was fantastic, the urchins that deep shade of purple (as well as quite sharp) and we successfully managed to pull a couple lobster out of there. Earlier that day the wind had come up, but now appeared to have slackened.
Being a little disappointed since it was getting late and I had not really found any good area for bugs I got Patrick and headed for my big bug hole out in deeper water. We agreed that he would hold my bag and he was going to count to thirty after I dove to make sure that I didn't have any problems since it can be tricky getting out sometimes. I made a few dives in and pulled out a few from a crack that runs along the top of the cave only about half way back. I had seen some bigger ones when I first went in but they were way in the back and I didn't think that I could get to them. I made five dives getting one each dive but two of the times they got loose of my grip on my way out of the cave. We decided to hit one more spot on the way home, in fact, at this spot, there was a specific crack we wanted to check upon. The crack is about 14 feet down at the bottom of an enormous underwater rock outcropping, and is often filled with a dozen or more bugs. The mouth of the crack is about 3-4 feet across, rapidly narrowing as it goes back about 10-12 feet. A free-diver can literally disappear within it, fins and all, and not be seen. Ken and I quickly discussed our plans. We agreed he was to dive it and I would ride shotgun, should he get into trouble. He estimated that his dives would last about 45 seconds.
Getting three really quick I decided to make a longer dive and go a little further back to see if I could reach any more. I took a longer rest and some deep breaths, which I think was part of my fall out because my breathing seemed a little, off but nothing significant before making the dive. He dove a couple times while I paddled around in circles trying to stay warm. I wore his bug bag, and in no time at all, we had 3 bugs. Ken was taking his time resting, probably 3-4 minutes, between dives. For the last couple of dives, he, rather than lay on his stomach, had rolled on his back and entered the cave, deeper into the cave with each subsequent dive as the lobsters scurried further back.
I dove down as I had five times previously and turned over onto my back as I had done each time. I crawled and contorted a little in order to make my way back to some I thought I could reach. I could just get a hold of them but there was no way that I was going to be able to pull them out so I decided that there was no point in being in there any longer. I started to back out when I realized that my mask was caught between two rocks so I freed myself but in doing so filled my mask with water. I remember thinking that it wasn't really a big deal since it was dark in there anyway and this sort of thing happens to me all day so I didn't think anything of it but it was much darker than I thought that it should have been. It went pitch black and this was strange to me since it was not completely dark in the cave and I had my flashlight. This all takes place in a split second. On his last dive, I watched his fins disappear into the cave, as I was counting to myself��one one thousand�two one thousand�three one thousand�� At 30 seconds, I took a deep breath and slowly descended. I reached the cave opening, and knelt down. Kenny was backing awkwardly out, as I reached to help free a fin caught on a rock, I noticed he was pointing behind me with his finger and flashlight. I looked around thinking that I had stupidly missed a bug that had eluded him and was now in open ground behind me. I looked around and didn�t see a thing. Ken�s fin was now free and I ascended to the surface.
Upon my first breath, fear entered my stomach as I noticed that Ken was still in the cave, and this time not moving. I quickly descended and came upon an image that has since been seared into my brain. Ken was still half-way in the cave, but this time he was perfectly still with his back arched in the classic shallow water blackout position. Much like a car accident, as I, seemingly in slow-motion, reached for him to pull him free, I told myself this couldn�t be happening. I forcibly ripped his body out of the mouth of the cave, and blasted up to the surface. As my head hit air, I bellowed �DOUG! DOUG! DOUG! DOUG!�. Doug, by this time, had already changed and was awaiting our return to the boat. The tone of my voice instantly signaled the urgency of the situation. I then saw Doug furiously readying the boat to get us. I then ripped off Ken�s mask and snorkel, and tried blowing air in his mouth. That didn�t work as a) there was froth spewing from his mouth and nose b) his mouthpiece was clenched in place by his teeth. It took me a couple of frantic seconds to work it out of his mouth, all the while, frenetically cursing and crying in panic and disbelief. I tried breathing into his mouth, while pounding and squeezing his chest. No response. This probably went on for 2-3 minutes, but felt like 2-3 seconds.

The next thing I know I am wide-awake being held up by Patrick on the surface. The boat is right in front of me so I shrugged Patrick off me since I had no idea why he was holding me so tightly and didn't need his help and everything was fine. So I swam the five feet to the boat and pulled myself out of the water not noticing that I am not wearing my mask and I no longer have my flashlight.  My dad was standing right at the stern arm extended as to help me and as soon as I got up they started helping me take my fins off and the rest of my gear. It still hadn't registered to me that anything was wrong even though I had seen my dad get on the boat which was anchored a fifty yards away before I had taken my last dive. I just thought that it was strange that he would have brought the boat so close to the rocks just to pick us up. I then start to look at the expressions on Patrick's and my dad's faces. They were being all fussy about me and I didn't know why. When, in complete hysterics, Patrick told me that I had blacked out under water my first response was "no I didn't" I started looking around and could see that Patrick was about to jump out of his skin because he was in such hysterics. It didn't sink in until my dad said that I had been unconchus for about four minutes. At that point I had started to cough almost uncontrollably. As I would cough I was spitting out a little water with each cough and it was obvious that there was a little blood in mixed in with the water. While I stood there, Patrick and my dad explained to me what had happened. When Patrick said that he had seen my lips turn blue I got really scared because there was no way to really know how long I had stopped breathing. It was just not sinking in that any of this had happened.

The only evidence that I had that any of this had actually happened was that I was coughing up water. Never at any point had I been drowsy, everything that I remembered I remembered as being crystal clear. When I woke up I snapped totally awake. I knew that everything they were telling me had to be true since my dad had to pull the anchor to come get us and I knew for a fact that he had still been at anchor when I had dove. It was all too hard to believe because I felt fine other than the coughing which really wasn't that bad it just kept coming. After about five minutes of straight coughing I got dressed and laid down in the bunk breathing 100% oxygen, which we always keep on board. I almost said that I didn't need the oxygen because I felt fine but I thought that might be a little stupid. Lying on the bunk I was trying not to fall asleep because the straight oxygen was putting me to sleep. I had to supplement it with some normal air in order to keep my eyes open. Patrick was standing over me yelling at me to stay awake so I don't think that I would have but I felt that I could go to sleep at any time. When I was done with the bottle I sat up and talked with Pat and my dad about what had happened. I had to convince my dad that we didn't need an ambulance to be waiting for us at the dock even though we never went under thirty knots the whole way home. That is not full throttle but it is close enough. I think that that was our fastest crossing ever. It helped that the ocean had laid down a lot. When we got back home I jumped in the car with my mom so that she could take me to the hospital so that they could check me out. She didn't react to bad since I was standing in front of her seemingly fine.

Finally, I detected some type of gurgling noise and a stuttered breath, then as Doug backed the boat to us, Ken came to. His first words were, �Hey�get off me!� Which were met by my hysterical cursing as I prodded him to the boat. Ken then proceeded to climb aboard and vomit bloody water for a good 20 minutes. Doug administered pure O2 while we jammed back to the Santa Barbar Harbor.

At the hospital the nurse took me right in and took my pulse and such. My pulse was 105 when my normal is under 60 and my blood oxygen content was down at about 90% which isn't too bad. She ordered some chest x-rays but just then two heart attacks came in so I ended up sitting in the waiting room for an hour before they took the x-rays and an hour and a half after that before I saw a doctor. While I was sitting there I had plenty of time to think about the events of the day. It was almost as though I had not experienced the entire event because everything I knew about the accident was what Patrick and my dad told me. I was thinking that I was not as shaken up about the whole thing as I should have been but at the same time it felt as though I wasn't even there. I never had the intense adrenaline rush that Patrick had. My body was telling me that everything they were saying was true especially since I had a fever while I was sitting there, but my mind was telling me that there was no way that I could have blacked out under water. Only divers that push themselves to the extreme ever black out there is no way that it could have happened to me. I know better than to push that hard. At the same time I remembered that I was not even close to feeling the burn of being out of air when I blacked out. I knew that I was smart enough not to push myself to the limit of my physical ability yet at the same time there I was sitting in the hospital shivering and sweating not being able to take in more than a shallow breath without coughing it out.

To make a long story, shorter, Ken spent the night in the hospital but is alive and well. In fact, he maybe a bit wiser than before. And this is what this account is all about. That we all learn from this incident and thereby avoid tragic and preventable accidents such as this.

I was in total disbelief of the events of the day. I knew that I should be in total shock from what had happened to me yet I could not grasp the full picture of what happened to me. I was completely unconscious underwater and had stopped breathing and yet I was sitting in that chair not really feeling all that bad. The fact that I was only a moment from being dead and that if anything at all had been different leading up to that dive I would not be here. If Patrick had not been right there with me, I would not be here right now and for that I owe him everything. The entire experience has put a lot of things in a different perspective for me. Pushing yourself just that little bit longer underwater is not really worth one more lobster when you already have half a dozen in the boat. No number of lobster or anything else for that matter is worth you life. I forgot that free diving is a very dangerous sport and when you push yourself that extra little bit you are increasing the danger exponentially. It just is not worth risking your life, we are out there to have fun and relax not to kill ourselves. There is nothing in this world that is more precious than life and I guess that it took this experience to really understand that. I was close to being another mark on the list of free divers who die from shallow water blackout and that is the scary part for me because I promised myself that I would never push myself remotely far enough to be put on that list, and now here I am.

The reason that Ken is alive today is not because I was there to save him, the reason that Ken is alive today is happy chance. Happy chance or luck should never be relied upon in anything, especially not free-diving. It is easy to forget that free-diving IS a dangerous activity. In fact, because we forget, it makes it all the more dangerous. Ken was taking a big risk going into the cave, even bigger risk considering he was going repeatedly, and it was the end of the day and he was probably a bit tired. It was plain luck that he had worked himself 80% out before I got there. Had he been all the way in the cave, it might have been a lot longer till I had noticed, and perhaps I would not have been able to remove him had he been firmly wedged in. Speaking to Ken about this, he doesn�t remember pointing behind me�why? Because what I took for pointing were probably pre-unconsciousness spasms. Again, plain luck had it that I MISUNDERSTOOD his pointing and didn�t panic, and therefore possibly hyperventilate and perhaps not be able to remove him from the cave. Lastly, when Ken and I were on the surface and I was trying to give him CPR, I sincerely doubt that any of what I was doing had any real effect on him. I believe that he came to on his own, after his body expelled the sea-water in his lungs. What does this tell us? One, I should have ditched both our weight-belts immediately as to gain additional buoyancy. Two, real-life is not like TV, (free-diving especially not so) where you can calmly do perfect CPR and every victim recovers.

There are a variety of things that could have contributed to my blacking out; the car accident, the fact that I had a cold the week before, being upside down, getting water in my mask, or even being a little frustrated at not having seen a lot of bugs that day. Maybe the fact that I wasn't catching my usual numbers had me frustrated. I also think that I could have hyperventilated a little before I dove trying to prepare for a long dive. Any and all could have contributed to the accident. The worst part of the entire experience for me is that I had no idea that blacked out. The only warning that I had was that for a split second it went completely dark when the water got in my mask. Other than that there was no warning and I know that I was no where near out of air. That means to me that this can happen at any time, I guess it just needs to be triggered by some kind of stress, or that is just what happened in my case. Through this experience I have learned a great new respect for the ocean and for my own body. I hope that all my friends who are divers and others whom I do not know learn from my experience. I know that I am extremely lucky because there are very few people who have survived shallow water black out, and I hope that I am not the last."

Ken Murray

To reiterate, it was good fortune that pulled Ken away from death. This horrible experience could have been easily avoided, had Ken not ventured into the cave. Now, one should note, Ken is not a beginning free-diver. In fact, he is very skilled, he can easily do 1-2 minute breathholds. No doubt some of you out there, dive very aggressively, no doubt most of you are 100X better than I will ever be. I consider myself a pretty poor free-diver. I can�t go deep and I don�t bring home a lot of game. But I am okay with that. Because while I love free-diving, and eating fresh seafood, life is much too fragile and important to gamble on a few lobster. It is easy to get caught up in the chase, and challenge your self to go the extra few seconds or few feet. But is it really worth it? Ken is only 20 years old, a freshman in college, he has so much live for. As we all do. Remember we don�t just live for ourselves, we live for our Moms and Dads, our brother and sisters, our husbands and wives and our sons and daughters."


Pat Vlaskovits