Navy base halts diving after two cases of the bends on the same day

A sailor assigned to an Underwater Construction Team climbs a ladder after diver-qualification training off the coast of U.S. Navy base Guantánamo on Feb. 12, 2017, in this Navy photo.
A sailor assigned to an Underwater Construction Team climbs a ladder after diver-qualification training off the coast of U.S. Navy base Guantánamo on Feb. 12, 2017, in this Navy photo. U.S. Navy

Five recreational divers required decompression treatment last year at this base — two in a single day — causing the Navy to shut down one of the most popular pastimes at this outpost better known for its war-on-terror prison.

Base spokeswoman Julie Ann Ripley would not say whether the five who got sick last year were base residents, military or civilian.

Nor would she provide details on what happened to cause the prohibition on diving that began Dec. 11 and stretched through the holiday season, a favorite time for exploring the seas around this 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba.

But documents received under the Freedom of Information Act showed that two men, each 38 years old, both got decompression sickness, known as the bends, on separate deep dives on Dec. 10 after taking unacceptable risks. The base commander, Navy Capt. Dave Culpepper, halted diving one day later and did not permit resumption until Jan. 4.

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Navy Seaman Christopher Lamonica of Hyde Park, N.Y., exits a pressure chamber on March 30, 2009, at the Dive Locker at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Brent Roberts of Cove, Ark., who supervised the mock dive, watches from left. The test checked Lamonica’s ability to clear his ears under pressure as a prerequisite to Navy SEAL training. Miami Herald file photo

One man went below his approved 60-foot depth, surfaced too fast, skipped a mandatory safety stop at a depth of 15 feet, didn’t know how to read a computerized device that warned him he had an excessive ascending rate and emerged from the water to a “tissue warning.”

On the same day, a more highly certified diver spent 46 minutes in the water at a maximum depth of 97 feet, surfaced with an extremely painful headache, and went back down 76 minutes later for a 45-minute dive at depths of up to 65 feet.

He surfaced, was nauseous and vomiting and had to be hospitalized “for impaired cognitive function, headache, nausea and generalized shakiness.” The next day he was re-compressed to 60 feet at the base hyperbaric chamber and returned to the hospital.

“All incidents ... could have been prevented by the divers involved,” according to a Dec. 16 account obtained through FOIA, an email with the names of recipients and sender blacked out. It was signed, “Merry Christmas and safe travels!”

Diving has been a particularly popular pastime for troops on the temporary prison staff, who serve nine-month or one-year tours of duty without family, and have gotten hardship and imminent danger pay bonuses. For them, the opportunity to get certified on SCUBA gear while deployed is seen as a windfall.

People on the base of about 5,500 residents, military and civilian, file “an average of 45,000 recreational dive plans” a year, Ripley said by email Thursday.

Seabees assigned to Underwater Construction Team conduct surface-supplied diving operations during diver-qualification training off the coast of U.S. Navy base Guantánamo on Feb. 12, 2017, in this Navy photo. Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Furey U.S. Navy

The episodes prompted Culpepper, an aviator who dives, to hold three onshore sessions of remedial training —including one in the new year specifically for divers among the 1,500 troops and civilians on the staff of the 41-captive detention center. At one meeting, according to the base newsletter published by Ripley, Culpepper told residents that one episode was “undoubtedly life threatening and the jury is still out whether or not there is a permanent injury.” The skipper also said that a diver would have died if a hyperbaric chamber were not five minutes away.

In 2017 five people required hyperbaric chamber treatments, a surge over the previous two years, when two people each year required treatment, according to base statistics. In that time period, the population on the base dwindled with downsizing of the detention center staff to about 1,500 troops and civilians. Seven required the treatment in 2013 and five in 2014.

At no time in the December emergency, Ripley said, was the need so urgent that the base had to put two divers in the chamber at the same time. But, she said, it was tiring for the Navy divers who operate the chamber.

The suspension permitted rest time for staff at the base Dive Locker, whose motto is, “Serving Democracy in Communist Waters.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Related documents

▪ See the Navy base documents obtained by the Miami Herald under the Freedom of Information Act, here.

▪ See the Navy regulation regarding SCUBA diving at U.S. Navy Base Guantánamo, here.