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Todd Russell is a man who knows only too well, the power of ocean currents in the Cook Strait. In December 2019 Todd was separated from his two other diving companions and the boat off Red Rocks, when a current caught him as he surfaced. He was found five to six nautical miles from the designated exit point after spending three hours bobbing on the surface of what many call the Cook Strait cauldron.

Todd and his dive companions had recently completed their open water dive course so they were fully prepared for their day under the water. And it is testament to their understanding of Tangaroa and mātauranga, the divers code and the procedures they followed pre-dive and throughout their dive, that saved Todd’s life.

In 2020, 12 men sadly were not as fortunate as Todd. They lost their lives doing what they enjoyed, spending a day under the water, primarily catching kai to share with whānau and friends. And such is the finality of an underwater dive gone wrong, that very few victims are hospitalisations. On an average four hospitalisations occur annually with symptoms ranging from non-fatal drowning, swallowing seawater, lacerations and fractions and medical events occurred while under the water.

Injuries resulting in an ACC claim however total 500 annually and cost millions of dollars per year. And the nature of the injuries range from ear/sinus problems, impact against rocks or boats, injuries by fauna, strains, sprains (often to the neck), injuries from own gear such as spearguns and decompression problems – including an average 20 victims of decompression sickness or ‘the bends’ requiring hyperbaric treatment annually.
2020’s preventable underwater drownings of 12 males is the worst statistic since 1995. In the previous five years, 2015 to 2019, the average is 8.2. Now is the time for all underwater divers to take stock of how, why and where they’re diving and refresh their safety procedures, check equipment, their ability and skill level and get their ‘fit to dive’ medical check.

The risks of underwater diving are aplenty. While our safety messages of never diving alone are being heeded with bystanders present among 11 of the 12 victims, it still didn’t save their lives, with five rescues and three resuscitations attempted to no avail. Alcohol was known to have been involved in just two cases, but this could have been the difference between living and dying. Remember, never go diving after a hard night on the booze or a day of beers on the beach or boat. Just don’t drink when you’re diving and know what to do when the current takes you away.

Note: The fatal and non-fatal preventable drowning statistics are sourced from WSNZ’s DrownBase™ and injuries sourced from ACC.

To view Todd Russell’s story of survival, watch Te Waiora Kohikohi Kaimoana. Te Waiora is a documentary series exploring the deep connection Māori have with water.


Know what to do when the current takes you away

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