Close to four decades before that final dive of her life, Charlene Burch was spending the last few days of the 1970s in a small village on the coast of the Honduran island of Roatan.
At night she would write letters to her parents back home in Plantation under the light of a lantern, while by day she and her future husband, Mark Weston, would ride out from the beach aboard a carved-out tree trunk, the tipsiest boat they’d ever been on, to fish and dive in the Caribbean Sea.
Her whole life was ahead of her.
Then came the dive off Jupiter on Jan. 21, 2017. She was surfacing with friends when she said she didn’t feel well.
Unbeknownst to her sister, Elaine Love-Stewart, of Plantation, Charlene had been diagnosed with a heart condition, AFib, or atrial fibrillation — essentially an irregular heartbeat that can lead to complications including heart failure and stroke. Her heart stopped multiple times after the dive. She was revived, but the resulting brain damage was significant, Love-Stewart said.
The end would come several days later in a hospital room surrounded by her family. She was 65.
Her death highlights the challenges arising in what experts say is the increasingly aging pursuit of scuba diving. These issues are especially relevant in the retiree-rich ocean playground of South Florida.
“There will be people who will say, ‘Well, if she had Afib, what was she doing diving, you know?’” said her sister Elaine Love-Stewart, of Plantation. “But this was her life. This was her love.”
By the early 1980s, the baby boomers were out of college, working decent jobs and embracing the good life. Interest in scuba diving surged, and the industry enjoyed a popularity that hasn’t been matched before or since, said Tec Clark, associate director for Aquatics and Scuba Diving at Nova Southeastern University.
“This is the generation that grew up watching Lloyd Bridges in ‘Sea Hunt,’” Clark said.
But as the 1980s wore on, those same boomers were getting married and having families and progressing in their careers. With less time for leisure, interest in scuba diving, while still there, began to drop from its peak.
Now, fast forward almost 40 years, and there’s been something of a baby boomerang. The same people behind scuba’s surge in the early to mid 1980s are once again putting their masks and fins back on. The reasons: Retirement. Empty-nest syndrome. Mid-life crises. Major life changes. Discretionary income. An improving economy.
“The downside of them returning is that now they’re returning with some baggage that they didn’t have in the 1980s when they were just getting into scuba diving,” Clark said. “Usually, that baggage is health issues.”
The number one cause of medical-related dive fatalities, Clark noted, are cardiac events.
Statistically, scuba deaths are rare. According to the Divers Alert Network, a leading research and dive-safety organization, there are about 33 million scuba dives in the United States each year, with the fatality rate somewhere around two per 1 million dives. Because there are about 3 million scuba divers in the U.S., with each diver doing about 10 dives a year, the fatality rate works out to about two deaths per 100,000 recreational divers a year.
Experts say that given the inherent risks of diving, these are incredibly encouraging figures. By and large, divers are careful and deliberate. Precautions like diving with a buddy and not panicking no matter what are so baked into the diving culture that they’re not even questioned.
But still, as with all pursuits in life, things can go wrong.
“Diving in general is thought to be an aging sport,” said Peter Buzzacott, director of injury monitoring and prevention at the Divers Alert Network. “The age of the average diving fatality each year has been steadily climbing.”
Young people also scuba dive, but not as much as older divers, experts say. People under 40 don’t have as much time. There is also the cost factor.
Between 2010 and 2013, the Divers Alert Network tallied 561 deaths pertaining to recreational scuba diving. Of those, the organization, which relies on autopsy reports and other public records, was able to investigate 334 deaths.
In 82 percent of the fatalities, the deceased were men. Seventy-eight percent of the men and 90 percent of the women were 40 years old or older. Fifty-eight percent of the male victims and 59 percent of the female fatalities were 50 years or older.
“Drowning remains the most common cause of death but falls to second place behind cardiovascular disease as the leading disabling injury,” according to the DAN Annual Diving Report 2012-2015 Edition.
The network’s most recent annual report, which covers 2014, counted 68 dive fatalities in the U.S. and Canada. Eighty-four percent of the men and 69 percent of the women were 40 years or older. While drowning was the leading known cause of death, cardiac events were the second most-common known cause.
The Villages Scuba Club
At the Jupiter Dive Center, a 40-foot burpee named Republic IV is being loaded with scuba tanks and gear. It’s a perfect February morning in South Florida, with clear-blue skies and a nice breeze.
The divers on board, members of The Villages Scuba Club, are all over 50. (The Villages is a retirement community northwest of Orlando with a population of over 150,000.)
Don Nelson, 73, one of the members on board, has been diving since 1974, when he was in his early 30s. He then had a “big gap” from 1978 until about 2005 while career and family obligations took over. He’s glad to be back and is co-president of the scuba club.
“When you go into an office and you see an aquarium, you look at it, it calms you,” Nelson said. “It’s even better if you’re in it and part of the aquarium.”
Madeline Helbock, 72, the other co-president of the scuba club, has been diving for 17 years. She said that when the club started in 2001, it had four members. Now they number about 150. On this day trip, there are 11 divers from the club.
“We all work out, we all go to the gym, we all go the doctor’s every six months to make sure that we’re OK,” Helbock said.
After the dive, when the Republic IV is back at the dock and the members of the club are loading their cars for the three-hour drive back to The Villages, the members talk about being divers in their golden years.
“I would say being retired is a big giant part of that,” said Grace Steck, 54, who dives along with husband Gary, 58, both members of the dive club. “In our working day, we wouldn’t have the time to do this, other than a vacation, but now every day is a Saturday for us.”
The Stecks said they work out regularly at the gym and fortunately don’t have any serious health concerns. “That being said, our doctors are definitely aware that we dive,” said Gary, 58.
Jim Taylor, 65, started diving in 1990. “It was just something in me,” he said, explaining how he got interested in scuba diving while living in Ohio. “The ocean spoke to me.”
Charlene Burch Weston, the diver who died off Jupiter, also heard the ocean’s call, and on a recent Saturday she would return there.
A boat stopped near a reef where she liked to dive, and Charlene’s son John poured her ashes into the water while other family members threw flowers and said their farewells, according to Love-Stewart.
For about 15 minutes, the boat circled the site slowly as Charlene Weston’s remains became one with the water she loved so much.