Wednesday, January 09th, 2013 | Author:


I pride myself on being prepared to deal with any issue that might present itself aboard my dive vessel Tortuga. There are a lot of things that can go wrong at sea like mechanical issues, rough sea conditions and sometimes even violent squalls. Add passengers to the mix and another layer of mishaps can occur; seasickness, falls and uncontrolled anxiety can come into play. To make things even more complicated is that people pay me to jump off the boat 30 miles offshore and descend to depths exceeding 100 feet. Once that occurs, an entirely new myriad of disastrous possibilities enters the picture, including but not limited to: Decompression sickness, drowning, heart attack, and marine animal stings and bites. Injuries can be sustained trying to climb the ladder back to the boat in rough seas with 100 pounds of dive gear strapped to them. The scariest scenario every dive Captain faces is losing someone to stiff ocean currents, as a diver floats away on the surface while the boat is tied securely to a wreck with other divers still in the water. Some days the pit never leaves your stomach as you worry about all the things that “Murphy” may throw your way, especially when some unwitting customer brought bananas aboard the boat. But that is another story. 

Last fall, I was faced with a near fatal situation that I would have never imagined could happen aboard a dive boat. 

It was a beautiful fall morning in October as we pulled away from the marina and headed south on the ICW towards Masonboro Inlet. We ran a series of trips out of Wrightsville Beach last season to the fossil ledges in search of Megalodon teeth. These prehistoric shark teeth are fossilized in the limestone ledges around Frying Pan Shoals and when storms push the wave energy to the ocean’s bottom 100 feet below the surface, the rocks break up and the teeth fall out into the sand, along with whale bones and other fossils. It is very exciting diving searching the sand for these teeth, some as big as six inches. The theory is that the ledges represent the ice age shorelines of the Cape Fear River basin and the sharks would hunt the whales in packs, pushing them up against the beach shedding their teeth with every powerful bite into the whale’s flesh. Vertebrae and other bones are almost always present where you find the teeth. 

As we motored down the waterway at idle speed, I had that uneasy feeling I sometimes get. It is always unexplained, just a hint of intuition that something was not quite right. When that happens, I tend to listen to the sound of the big John Deere diesel with more attention than normal. I strongly believe that intuition is not a cosmic phenomenon, but more that your brain takes in more information than your conscious mind realizes and returns that data back as a “feeling”. The dive shop owner and leader of my group for the weekend prided himself on the way he fed his customers. The dry box on the portside of the helm was full of fruit, bread, chips and his favorite cookies, NutterButters. 

I was trying to work through my uneasiness, making small talk with my customers. The leader was sitting on a bean bag chair near the dry box to the left of my Captain’s chair. As we passed the last marker of the “no wake” zone I reached for the throttle to power up. The motor came to life with the additional flow of diesel fuel, and the high pitched sound of the turbocharger kicked in. Some activity behind the bean bag chair caught my eye and I pulled the throttle back just as a squirrel jumped up on the console, crouched on my compass and looked me dead in the eye. He looked to the right and saw the group leader, looked back straight at me then to the left to the group of three divers to my right. For a moment we all just looked at the squirrel, and I am pretty sure the squirrel had the exact thought in his mind that we all had: “What now?” 

In a Mexican standoff on who was going to take the next action, I guess the squirrel decided he was outnumbered, not realizing that he really was in control of the situation. He made the first move, running out of the opening created by the rolled up front curtain. When he got to the center of the bow, he spun around and looked back at us, first at me and then to the left and right again. He ran to the port side and dipped his head over the gunwale and looked into the water. That prospect did not appeal to him, so he ran to the middle again and repeated the process of staring us down, no doubt trying to sum up the gravity of his dilemma. He ran to the starboard side and peered into the water, deciding the prospects were no better. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he took the only available action and ran full speed across the breadth of the bow and launched his body high in the air, legs outstretched as if he thought he could make it to the shore 50 yards away, falling short and landing with a squirrel size splash. I am not sure how far squirrels can swim, but we could see his little head bobbing as he undertook the long paddle to the shore. We can only hope he made it, but even so he had most likely lost his life of luxury at the marina. 

Arriving at the dive site around 10am, we quickly hooked into the ledge. The divers began to don their gear in preparation for their first dive of the day. It was only minutes later that I heard a screech and saw one of my divers pull off his dive bootie and shake it upside down. 

“Something just bit me on the foot!” he exclaimed as the small spider fell out of his boot.

 “Look, it is a Black Widow and there is the red dot”, another diver responded pointing to the curled up spider limp on the deck.  I went and retrieved a plastic bag and instructed that the spider be preserved. 

I quickly moved towards the bitten diver asking if he was alright, inspecting the area of the bite. Just above the ankle there was a little red area with a distinct dot or hole in his skin. “It feels like a bee sting, it hurts but not too bad.” I asked him if we needed to pull the anchor and head back to port, but he assured me that he felt alright and wanted to make his dive. Closely watching him as he finished gearing up, I allowed him to dive as long as he let me know if the sting became worse or if he started feeling any other symptoms. He assured me that he was fine and would let me know if that changed. He informed me that he had left his wet boots on the outside deck at his house in Greenville, SC and deduced that the spider may have found refuge inside. He had brought this venomous little critter on his dive trip. 

Everyone returned to the boat with a nice bag of shark’s teeth. Things seemed normal on the boat. The weather was nice and the seas calm. I inquired if the afflicted diver felt any other symptoms, and he reported some dull pain in his calf, but nothing serious and wanted to make his second dive. Again, I allowed it after further discussion and assessing the situation. Admittedly, I did not have any experience with or knowledge of the effects that a Black Widow spider could cause. It appeared that his symptoms were minimal. Everyone returned from the second dive and the crew and I went about getting unhooked from the ledge and preparing for the 25 mile boat ride back to Masonboro Inlet. I did not notice anything that would cause me concern, and the spider bite was far from my mind. 

The first indication that things were turning south started about half way home. The diver had been resting in a bean bag chair alongside the engine box to the left of my helm seat. I heard some groaning, and turned to see him grimace, his eyes shut with clinched teeth and arms crossed over his chest. I sent the mate to check on him, and he returned to say that the diver was in a lot of pain and having trouble breathing. 

“He said that when he took off his wetsuit, the pain came over him full force. He has severe abdominal pain and a terrible headache” the mate reported. I thought to myself that maybe the spider bite had been a contributing factor in a possible decompression illness event. I instructed the mate to go get the O2 bottle and a regulator. After 10 minutes on pure oxygen, he had no improvement in symptoms, they actually got worse. That was a strong indicator that this was not DCS. 

At 10 miles from the inlet, my mate came to me and suggested that we needed to have Emergency Medical Technicians and an ambulance waiting at the dock. At that point I made the decision to call the Coast Guard station at Masonboro Inlet on channel 16. We quickly changed to the working channel 22 Alpha. I must say that the Coast Guard handled the situation with the utmost professionalism. We relayed all of the information we had available and the Medical Officer evaluated our case in real time as we hurried to port. 

I was instructed to continue course and speed towards Masonboro Inlet, while they dispatched a fast boat to escort us. The patient’s blood pressure was 200/60 and his breathing became even more labored. The abdominal spasms worsened and I became genuinely concerned this could be a fatal situation.  I pushed the throttle down as the diesel engine went to 97% load moving the boat along at 18 knots. With 3 miles to go and the Coast Guard fast boat running parallel to us on the starboard side, I urged them to take our patient and run him to medical help as fast as possible. My orders remained to maintain course and speed. 

Just inside the inlet, I was escorted to the Coast Guard docks. The wind was blowing a steady 15 knots perpendicular to the dock with a 2 knot current in the same direction. Tortuga is single screw boat with a right hand wheel, meaning she only backs to starboard. The angle I was approaching put the port side to the dock, so I had to turn the wheel hard over to port and apply full power astern to get her to spin correctly to lay the starboard side to the finger pier. With fifteen Coasties, EMT’s and Wrightsville Beach police waiting for us, I had one chance to get it right. Murphy finally left the building and everything went perfectly as the boat nestled gently against the dock and the Coast Guard officers grabbed our lines. 

It took three strong young Coast Guard officers to get my injured diver off the boat and on to the dock. He was bent over with pain to a point where walking was not an option. The officers signaled the EMT’s to bring a gurney.  Off went our diver in an ambulance to get the medical attention he so desperately needed. The Coast Guard took his dive computer and gear, as well as the plastic bag with the offending arachnoid. After the extensive safety inspection conducted by the Coast Guard personnel, I signed the incident report and we were free to go. I exhaled a big sigh of relief. 

My intuition in the morning had come to reality. I was happy that the day was over. The bitten diver spent 6 days in the hospital. Apparently there is no treatment for Black Widow spiders other than pain management and allowing the effects run their course. While I was cleaning the boat, I found a little toy spider on the deck. I glued it to the console next to the “No Bananas” sticker. I was later told that the diver’s 5 year old daughter had given it to him before he left for his trip. It was Halloween week after all.  

Maybe intuition can be cosmic in nature. But my practical mind tells me that maybe I should always shake my boots before putting them on.

Safe Diving,

Captain James

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