Seas claim nine lives so far this year

Accidents cover wide range of incidents

The death of an elderly visitor on a dive Sunday brought the Cayman Islands’ total water-related deaths for 2013 to nine, an unusually high number of fatalities in six months.  

The 80-year-old tourist, identified as William Lemuel Lawson Jr. of Florida, was found floating in the waters off the Double Wall dive site north west of Cayman Brac. CPR was attempted by dive boat crews and paramedics, but Mr. Lawson succumbed to his injuries Sunday.  

The last year on record where the Cayman Islands experienced nine water-related deaths in the first half of the calendar was 2010, which included the boating deaths of five people whose craft capsized in the North Sound. The five boaters were never found and authorities have presumed them dead.  

Typically, Cayman averages between eight and 10 water-related fatalities a year, according to statistics examined by the Caymanian Compass. Between 2008 and 2011, annual water-related fatalities averaged between nine and 10.  

Even a cursory glance at the statistics shows an obvious pattern. Of the 26 recorded fatalities in diving or snorkelling incidents between 2003 and 2011, 22 of the victims were older than 50 and the 
youngest was 39. 

The numbers for 2013 are no exception.  

Eight of the nine water-related death victims in Grand Cayman or Cayman Brac so far this year have involved swimming, snorkelling or diving incidents. The youngest victim, 41-year-old Pablo Perez Lara, was an experienced swimmer with the Special Olympics team from Uruguay, who got into difficulty during an 800-metre race 
in late May.  

The remaining six victims who died while swimming or diving between February and this week were tourists between the ages of 55 and 81, most of them from the United States. Two of the victims, including Mr. Lawson, were in their 80s.  

The other two water-related deaths this year involved a 9-year-old boy drowning in a backyard swimming pool and a 21-year-old man who died in a boating accident.  


Safety first 

The precise causes of death for any of the nine water-related fatalities so far this year have not yet been determined by post-mortem exams reviewed by coroner’s juries.  

As a representative sample, the Caymanian Compass reviewed 17 autopsy reports from earlier dive and snorkel-related deaths in the Cayman Islands between 2003 and 2009 and found the cause of death in 11 cases was due to drowning and in five cases was heart failure or heart disease. Only one was due to an air embolism. In no instance was dive equipment found to be faulty.   

However, this is not the whole picture, as Dr. Denise Osterloh – a physician specialising in dive medicine – explained those numbers in a 2011 interview, “Some fatalities may present as drowning, but the underlying causes of drowning may not have been identified. A person may have suffered a cardiac arrest, which then led to panic and to accidentally swallowing water,” she said. 

This applies both to divers and snorkellers.  

Cayman’s world-champion free diver Tanya Streeter knows a bit about being safe in the water. She said she’s always surprised that the most basic rules of water safety that are generally applied to diving are often not used by snorkellers.  

“Snorkelling is probably where most of the [fatal] incidents are,” Mrs. Streeter said. “It’s important for visitors to snorkel in buddy-pairs. 

“Having someone on the beach watching you is not good enough.”  

For divers, it’s important to get recertified or to take refresher courses periodically to minimise risk.  

“It’s one of those things that you can do, as unhealthy and as out of shape as you’ve ever been,” she said. “If you’re not diving two or three times a year, you should be doing the refresher course.”  

Mrs. Streeter, who as a free diver dives to depths without the use of scuba equipment, said she’d like more safety-related literature and promotional campaigns to be aimed at Cayman Islands visitors.  

“I’ve got a very healthy respect for the ocean and sometimes that borders on fear and it keeps me safe,” she said. “[Safety is] not just for scuba diving.” 


Get a buddy: Water sports experts advise against snorkelling and scuba diving alone. – PHOTO: NORMA CONNOLLY