If you’re a certified Scuba diver, you know this scene too well; floating around beside a beautiful underwater wall abundant with vibrant coral, getting up-close and personal with a timid pygmy seahorse, or holding on and feeling the force of a strong current blasting over your face as you watch sharks and schools of barracuda in a feeding frenzy in the open waters above you. The opposite of this scene, however, which most divers won’t experience in their lifetime, is the one I’m sitting in now: under 18 metres of atmospheric pressure in a hot, humid and claustrophobic hyperbaric chamber.
The dangers of diving in Indonesia are not heard about as much as the joys are. Naturally, we try to focus on the positives rather than get bogged down with the negatives, and why worry about getting the infamous ‘Bends’ until you’ve actually got it? Unfortunately, there are dangers to diving in Indonesia, which, if all dive outfits were to practice safe management and responsibility, could be significantly avoided.
I am told through the voice on the intercom inside the chamber to take a five-minute break from the oxygen mask. This is my third, and hopefully, final day inside and when resurfaced from this dry dive, total time spent will have been 12.5 hours under pressure in an attempt to alleviate the nitrogen bubbles which have built up in my body after a dive trip to East Kalimantan. Treatment at Jakarta Navy Hospital’s Hyperbaric Centre consists of an examination by one of the Navy doctors, followed by a certain number of hours in the chamber at the relevant pressure table for your condition, combined with pure oxygen treatment for the most part of your stay.
The most common misconception of decompression sickness is that it occurs when you resurface from a deep depth too quickly. The truth is that you can actually get this painful sickness coming up from a depth of only six metres. Divers put their lives into the hands of their equipment, however my dive computer did not enter a decompression dive alert, and many other divers who ‘got deco’ can vouch for me on this.
Alejandro Septien has been diving for 20 years and has not once had any problems. He is now sitting beside me in the chamber for treatment of Type I DCI. “I don’t understand how this happened,” he tells me. “I always follow the rules!” Alejandro, a Mexican expat and new to Jakarta and Indonesia, was diving around the idyllic island of Bangka, and on this occasion had to rent all his gear from his local dive operator, including a dive computer. “I did all my safety stops, didn’t do any deep dives, and didn’t drink the night before, but a few hours after I had ascended, I started to feel a pain in my back. Initially I thought it was from the strain of carrying the scuba equipment, but after two days when the pain moved to my legs, I knew something was wrong.” In Alex’s case, the gauge of the rented equipment was off, causing him to do his safety stops deeper than planned.
Dr. Padma, the Chief Navy Dr. at the Hyperbaric Medical Centre in Benhil insists that at the first sign of decompression sickness, attention must be given immediately. “There are many factors which can lead towards decompression sickness, including not getting enough sleep, consuming alcohol or being physically tired,” she explains. “If you have any tingling sensations, pain in your body, visual disturbances, vertigo, fatigue, lethargy, or a feeling of confusion, come to our hospital for a consultation immediately.” The sooner you treat symptoms, the more chance you have of fully recovering. After treatment you are also told to rest, drink a minimum of three litres of water a day, not fly for at least 72 hours and, should you live on a high floor in an apartment, take the stairs or go up in the lift very gradually.
If you have insurance with Divers Alert Network (DAN) then your treatment will be fully covered, however for many, decompression sickness can cost thousands of dollars, and more importantly, your life. Rendra Herthiadhi, Banyu Biru Explorer founder and DAN Instructor, believes that a common misconception is that dives within a No Decompression Limit or within dive table range are 100% safe. “This is not the case,” he tells me. “Generally dives conducted within NDL should be safe, but DCS could still happen and hit an unlucky diver.” According to DAN statistics, five people’s lives were lost to diving in Indonesia in 2011, of which bodies were recovered, and at least 39 recreational divers were treated for DCS in Indonesia. “Whilst many of these were for mild cases of DCS, several were of a very serious nature, requiring urgent assistance,” Rendra adds.
In stunning East Kalimantan, our dive operator at Nabucco Island Resort were irresponsible by allowing maverick dive guides to continue to work, even when they were aware of their negligence; escorting tourists down to depths of 40 metres without mentioning this in the pre-dive brief and ascending carelessly without proper safety stops. Regrettably the owners of the dive resort were not willing to take any responsibility for their reckless guides. Although their dive outfit come across as reputable, the results were to the contrary. It is always best to do some reconnaissance work before you plan a dive trip and ask fellow divers for advice on trustworthy dive operators.
Of course we are all responsible for our own actions but naturally, when you are new to an area, you trust your local guide, putting your lives in their hands and following blindly. Adrienne Jo Salcau is a PADI certified Divemaster and guide, and one many have come to trust. “I never take divers past 30 metres unless they’re very, very experienced,” she tells me as we discuss my dives at Nabucco. “First thing is a check dive so I can assess their skills. I don’t bring unfamiliar or inexperienced divers right into current or deep dives. If I’m doing four dives in a day, 30m is the absolute max and should be done first, then each dive should be shallower and I always, always do a safety stop. Being a dive guide involves a lot of things, but the main priority is safety.”
Diving is a wonderful sport and pastime, which brings us closer to the curious wonders of the underwater world and its inhabitants, but we cannot deny the dangers involved and must remember that we are merely guests in the ocean. Allow more time between dives, do fewer dives per trip (it’s not a race), always do safety stops and come up slowly, allow a minimum of 24 hours after your last dive before you fly, and ensure every dive guide provides a proper brief, which you stick to. Don’t allow yourself to become a statistic and may you never have to sit inside this hyperbaric chamber to save your life.
Rumah Sakit TNI AL Dr. Mintohardjo (Jakarta Royal Navy Hospital)
Jl. Bendungan Hilir No. 17, Jakarta.
021 5703081 Ext. 176/326
Direct line to Hyperbaric Medical Centre: 021 5732221
First published in Indonesia Expat, March 27, 2013
Also published in Diver’s Alert Network Deeper Magazine October 2013